Falling Into Grace

IMG_1045 (1)Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is a day in which the very ordinary—a meal, can be turned into the extraordinary—a meal. It is a time to transform surviving into thriving. A time for gratitude.

But, today is much like a Thanksgiving more than a decade ago when I could not see my way clear to feel that. I could not muster up gratitude no matter how hard I tried.

So, I did a meditation where I invited gratitude in. She took me through a dark tunnel that formed after the lava from a volcanic eruption hardened into black rock. It was not comfortable making my way through through the tunnel. It was the blackest darkness I had ever experienced. But there was an end to it. It led me into a cave covered in paintings that told the stories of those who had lived eons earlier.

I placed my hand on a painting of a horse and heard a chorus of voices say, “This is what it means to be human.”

That’s how I found gratitude that year.

All over Facebook I see messages that encourage us to be thankful, assure us, or maybe demand from us, that there is always something to be thankful for. I’m not big on that. Sometimes, there is just too much in the way. And I think we have a right to feel the grief we feel and the despair that accompanies it. It is the black-dark tunnel we must walk through to find our connection to being human again.

This past year has been one of grief and despair. Some of it from an accumulation of losses that fell one after the other over two decades with no time in between to give grief its due. And then there was the election and the pall of meanness and cynicism that has descended on our country.

More than once, I had to pull myself out of my own La Brea tar pit.

So this Thanksgiving is a subdued one for me. Tom and I used to host dinners for as many as 12 people. I miss that. But, Tom and I have found a way to honor the holiday with just the 2 of us. We are grateful for each other.

I think the most difficult thing about grief is it feels like we have fallen out of grace. I don’t think we actually do, but it is certainly a loneliness of the soul that is part of being human. It’s what makes us unique and connects us to eons of being human.

I like this definition of grace: the unearned gift. It is the life spirit that allows us to thrive regardless of our surroundings.

I think my time for grieving is drawing to a close. It’s time for me to venture out into the world where grief becomes a distant memory rather than a constant companion. What I learned from my journey through this latest tunnel is my own tenderness. My natural inclination has been to be a warrior—to fight for the higher purpose. So I’m not sure what it means for me to be tender, disarmed and without armor.

But, I’m certain that the tenderness of being a warrior is as powerful as the warrior wading into battle. Both require banishing fear from my workshop.

Maybe the only thing in the way of grace is fear.

Joy and sorrow are flip sides of the same coin. We really can’t have one without the other. That’s what it means to be human. Why we must treat each other with kindness. Banish fear of each other so we can let grace through.

Fixin’ to Cast On

I love the Southern expression for PMS: Fixin’ to Start. I love that Southern expression period, Fixin’ to fill-in-the-blank.

Fixin’. It’s that time between intention and action.

Knitting has taken on a life of its own for me.

Since I wrote about my early attempt at knitting, the knitting group in Sequim, and my move to Sequim, I spent a week at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference in a workshop with Ann Hood. I signed up because I am writing Beans and Meatballs and the Pink Stuff.

I did not know anything about Ann Hood before I took the class. I just liked that her blurb said our writing had to answer the question, “So what?”.

On the first night of the Conference, I learned that eleven years ago, her five-year old daughter spiked a fever and within 36-hours had died from a virulent form of strep. It left her unable to write or read. Knitting became her path through grief, until she could write and read again.

Writing for me has been my way to stitch together senseless, random, seemingly unrelated experiences so they come to make sense to me—the sense that is an acceptance of the senseless, random, unrelated way that life unfolds. The story they tell.

After help from my friend Jennifer, who introduced me to the knitting group, I started my first knitting project—a scarf. It is perhaps, the ghost of that unfinished scarf that wanders aimlessly through the universe wondering if I’m ever going to learn to cast off.

She did the casting on for me. Slipknots are still very slippery for me; I don’t get them. Then I began knitting. I don’t know if it’s under, over, around, and through but that’s what I kept repeating as I pushed the needle through a loop, wrapped the yarn around it, and pulled it onto the other needle.

“What are you making?” Nettie asked me.

“Stitches, as far as I can tell,” I said, marveling that I was beginning to see rows of stitched together yarn.

I stuck the ends of the needles with the few rows of stitches clinging to it into the ball of yarn and went home. But, was I a knitter, I wondered.

This question kept me up one night.

“Write about what keeps you up at night,” Ann Hood had advised during the workshop.

I did, then stopped midway through my eloquence, wondering, was I just making this up? Was I really afraid that being a knitter would catapult me into my grandmother’s world?

Stuck in the middle of what I was trying to write, I decided I should try being a knitter.

I decided that knitters knit. So I pulled out the needles with the few rows of stitches clinging to it from the ball of yarn and began knitting as I watched The Daily Show, because that’s what I thought knitters did, they knit while other stuff was going on.

Under, over, around and through. Under, over, around, and through. Under, over, around and through until I had a good six or seven rows—maybe more—of yarn stitched together. I was amazed.

I held it up to admire it. One end had loops hanging down from the third and fourth row. Instead of a nice neat straight edge, it looked like it had an ebb and flow, like the lines waves leave on the beach.

I tried to talk myself into calling it a design decision—an improvisational one. It could be a symbol of the yin and yang of knitting.

But I couldn’t talk myself into it. I decided that while knitters might be able to improvise, what I had was just bad knitting. So I unraveled the yarn, wrapped it around the ball, stuck the needles into the ball of yarn, and decided that I just wasn’t a knitter.

Jennifer was having none of it.

“I’ve knit since I was sixteen,” she said. “It takes time to learn.”

In the meantime, a perfectly innocent suggestion from my beautiful, smart, talented stepdaughter that I take advantage of social media to promote my writing sent me into a tailspin. I felt like a dinosaur. One might say I became unraveled.

This kept me up one night, the night before last night’s knitting group.

I decided that I would go, but not bring my ball of yarn with the needles stuck in it. I needed a break from feeling totally incompetent about life.

As always, the food was magnificent, the company as down to earth and grounded as the meal. Eva, our hostess, took me on a tour of her art studio, showed me photographs of her pottery in which she had embedded leaves and her projects with the children she had taught. On the way out of the studio, I noticed the Green Man she had embedded in the concrete entry. The leaves that surrounded his winking face were imprints of kale and mustard greens.

Back inside Eva’s house, a work of art in itself, I sat across from one of the other Karens. She was transforming earth-toned, almost string-like linen thread from a large spool into rows and rows of stitches. She showed us the scarf she had made for a friend, stitched together from another spool of linen, this one green, the color of new growth that shoots up through the earth in spring. Instead of rows and rows of tight stitches, there were rows and rows of soft lacy loops. She had changed needle size throughout the project to create subtle changes.

I told her that I had unraveled the rows and rows of stitches I had done.

“You can learn a lot from unraveling,” she said.

I don’t know whether my grandmother ever unraveled anything she started. She probably did. But I never heard about it. I appreciate my grandmother’s commitment to knitting. She seemed to always have a pair of knitting needles with rows and rows of perfect stitches falling from them. I think that for her, perhaps as it did for Ann Hood’s grief, knitting was a way to deal with the unacceptable. But I suspect that for my grandmother, knitting was a coping mechanism for a cast-in-stone way of being, her way of containing the shameful secrets she protected: her husband was a philanderer and he and her son were child molesters.

That was the world, the world of protecting shameful secrets, that I was afraid knitting would catapult me into. As a writer, my job is to shed light on those shameful secrets—to make them human. I thought the two worlds were incompatible—that once I cast on, I would never be able to cast off.

“I just knit scarves,” Karen said. I was relieved to hear that—to see that there was tremendous creativity in knitting scarves. She said that with one project, she had figured out how to integrate a wayward loop into the final scarf. The acceptance of imperfection.

I slept well last night. And I’m back to writing. And, I suspect there is a way to integrate my desire to write enduring human stories with the fast-paced new fangled world of social media.

Tomorrow, Jennifer’s going to get me started again, helping me cast on. Perhaps the ghost of the scarf wandering the universe will find peace at last as I knit rows and rows of stitches, making my way to the moment when I learn to cast off.

Tame the Savageness of Man and Make Gentle the Life of This World

The frogs were in full symphonic mode as I walked through the arroyo on Thursday evening.

It was the first warm day this year — warm enough that we could have the windows open in the evening. A soft breeze drifted down on me as I lay in bed, descending on me like a fine mist.

This is the other side of spring — the one that heralds the coming of summer.


On Wednesday, we had dinner with Tom’s college friend, whose wife had died the week before. They had been together forty years. We hadn’t known she was ill. It all happened very quickly. Diagnosed in early February with an advanced cancer, options quickly ran out. She was ready to exit, she told him, the day before she died. He spent the last two weeks of her life by her bedside, holding her hand, providing comfort care as her life ebbed in the final days.

On Thursday, after I returned from my walk in the arroyo, Tom and I listened to Vaughn Williams’ Third Symphony as we ate dinner, the music providing a cushion for the intimacy born of the fresh awareness that one of us could be the one left behind.

Yet, we were grateful.

I remembered a Russian skater who at 28 years old collapsed and died from a congenital heart defect as he practiced with his 24-year old wife. They had been thrown together when he was 14, and she 10, fallen in love, got married, had a child, and skated together. The kind of skating that is ballet on ice.

Their names were Sergei Grinkov and Ekaterina Gordeeva. She was an Olympic champion, and  together they were four time World Champions in pair skating.

About a year after his death, the professional figure skating community paid Sergei tribute with a televised show titled, “Celebration of a Life.” She performed the routine she and Sergei had been practicing the day he died. It was beautiful, but I remembered thinking that something was missing. Perhaps, I thought, she wouldn’t be as powerful on her own – that she had spent so many years being part of a duo, that she didn’t have the chops to be a solo skater.

Then, she performed her solo piece to the Adagietto section of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in tribute to her husband. The power of her grace and beauty was unquestionable. And I understood that what had been missing from the routine she and Sergei had been practicing, was Sergei. What a brave woman she is, I thought, out there in front of a live audience showing us what it means to lose the man she loved and with whom she had spent half her short life.

The phantom limb that is grief.

I had a conversation about God recently with a woman who had lost a child. She wept because, she said, God loves us in spite our being human. I wanted to scream at her, “No! God is in awe of our being human, of our willingness to love even though we might have to endure loss.”

Loss is the price for loving, yet we love anyway. If we’re smart, we don’t hold back.

Our friend recounted to us the first time he saw his wife. She passed by him, dressed in a blue velvet miniskirt and blouse. He turned his head to enjoy the view. Just before she left the room, she turned her head and smiled at him, letting him know that she noticed that he noticed.

Forty years later he was with her as she left the room, the visual not as enticing as the day he watched her sashay by in her miniskirt. It’s not easy to watch someone leave her body behind. And yet, love compelled him to be there with it.

Most of us at some time, and many of us many times, have to dance solo the dance we planned on dancing with another. Even if the relationship was troubled, there is the palpable sense of something missing for which we need to learn a new dance.

It’s what it is to be human.

We owe it to each other to recognize this very fundamental vulnerability of our lives. We owe it to each other to have this recognition be at the core of the debate about entitlements, so that when death does come to claim us, we can leave with dignity, and those we leave behind can find a gentle clearing in which they can endure the price of loving.

Robert Kennedy, when he delivered the news of Martin Luther Kings’ death to a mostly African American crowd in an Indianapolis ghetto, quoted Aeschylus, “In our sleep, pain which we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

He concluded with this, “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

The Mystic Chords of Memory

I’m a miserable failure at nanowrimo. By today, I should have written 8000 words. But four days into nanowrimo I have no idea how many words I have written, but it doesn’t even come close to 8000.

happy frog

Frog reacting to the number of words I have written for nanowrimo

I settled yesterday for taking Ernest Hemingway’s advice: write until you’re ready to write tomorrow. That’s where I ended up yesterday; with a character showing up in a way I didn’t expect. And now I have to listen to him to find out why he did that.

That’s what will move the story forward for me.

I have tremendous respect for anyone who can do nanowrimo. I don’t have a clue how they can.

But here’s what committing to nanowrimo did for me: it got me to commit to commit.

I haven’t blogged for a while. As those of you who have been following my blog might know, I have spent the last several months rewriting my story. Not the one that will be published, but the story that I want to live.

autumn light2I had a flurry of blogs during that time. Epiphany followed epiphany; it was easy to write. But epiphanies fall all over themselves during a time of change. Eventually, things calm down. Change happens, and daily life becomes more – well daily. That means that the change has taken effect – and it’s time to integrate it.

For me, that means start living the new story.

I heard the phrase “mystic chords of memory,” as “mystic cords of memory.” Thought that it meant the things that hold you to your past – as if they were tentacles. But chords are much different. They do not hold you to your past so much as give it texture. path autumn light

When I hear Crosby, Stills, and Nash I am transported to the place in myself that felt the music when I first heard it close to forty years ago.

When I hear Mahler’s second (I’m listening to it now), I just get transported to a timeless experience of being human, of being resurrected after a period of loss and grief.

Resurrection is a difficult time for me. To rewrite my story, I had to experience a lot of grief. Grief over loss of what I hoped would be; grief over the death of parents and friends; grief over losing family members who were not willing to be with me in my new story, even though the old one was destructive for me. We want to think that family wants the best for us, but sometimes what family wants is for things to stay the same, for everyone to keep their place, regardless of the damage it may cause the spirit.

chairSuch can be the price of change – learning that those you love, might not have a heart large enough to include you.

As painful as grief is, what is equally hard for me is being willing to step back into my life knowing that I will no doubt experience grief again. Knowing that loss is a part of life and that I have to be willing to grab hold as if life will last forever, and then let go when life shows me that its definition of forever is more subtle than mine.

And so, yesterday, when I realized that I was not going to come close to meeting the goals of nanowrimo, I had to look at what I was doing with my new story. Writing it isn’t enough. I have to live it now.

I said I was a miserable failure at nanowrimo. I actually think I’m a cheerful failure at it. I probably won’t reach the 50,000 word goal this month. But, I am using nanowrimo to focus. Focus on getting the first draft of my novel done.

And that is how I am living my new story. I’m committing to committing. I’m committing to letting go of the mystic cords of memory that tethered me to my past, and instead paying attention to the mystic chords of memory – knowing that they provide texture to my life, and that by letting go, the better angels of my nature will touch those chords – and from them will arise a chorus as life-affirming as that in Mahler’s resurrection symphony.

Note: The reference to mystic chords of memory comes from the last paragraph of Lincoln’s second inaugural address: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will, by the better angels of our nature.”

Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin – pay attention.

And for you who are up to the task – Go nanowrimoers, go!