Love and Grief

Monday, November 30, 2020

When I recently learned that my friend Drake died by suicide, I went looking for concrete traces as if to touch him again, one last time, in physical form. I could only find a small ceramic cup we bought together at an art fair, no real comfort but an artifact to say yes he was here, I was there.

Being relatively new to the grief that follows death, and newer still to the grief that follows a suicide, I was struck by how, even in the absence of most tangible reminders of our friendship, Drake came rushing back to me. Instead of photos and letters, which I’d discarded in some fit of minimalism no doubt, I found the thousand invisible threads that connected our lives when we were both in heavy transition, Drake heading across the country from Gainesville to a new home and community in San Francisco, me across the messy relational terrain of my late twenties.

In the last several years before he died, Drake and I had drifted apart and fallen out of touch, so that I wasn’t aware he’d been through a number of psychological crises and hospitalizations prior to his death. I don’t know how someone so intent on healing others could find himself on a tall bridge beyond all imaginable repair, but I know that he had a direct hand in my own healing too, and I wish the hundreds of people who mourn him over the world could hold him and his pain as dearly as he held ours. Perhaps that’s what suicide does–disperse someone’s impossible, unbearable pain across all those who survive to grieve.

But it’s not just pain that Drake left; he also left a fierce encouragement to create, to speak, to move, to take risks, to care about and listen to and find a way to serve essence.

Our lives intersected when I needed a soul ally, someone to say, “You don’t have to betray yourself to be close to another,” and someone to listen tenderly over the phone, in letters, in poems and paintings, when I said, “I did it again.”

I sit on my couch now in a lamplit living room in a life Drake would have found far too conventional, my husband reading news on his phone, the Christmas tree twinkling, our little boy asleep upstairs (yes we have an upstairs) in his crib, and I think about how my trend towards minimalism has also led me to trash physical reminders of people I’ve loved and people I’ve been. I’ve prided myself on my lack of sentimentality, yet this loss has me wondering why I thought I needed to put people from the past out of my heart. Somewhere I learned that the way to grieve was to move on, and moving on meant boxing up the memorabilia and discarding it.

The truth is I still care about most of the people who have hurt me and most of those whom I have hurt, and the great lie I thought I needed to believe was that I didn’t care anymore and wasn’t supposed to.

I am embarrassed that it took me 40 years to begin to understand that love and grief will always live side by side, and letters between soul friends are worth the cost of whatever real estate they claim in the closet.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Well, I must really be turning 40, because this past week I’ve been debating between expensive double chin-removal surgery or a similarly-priced meditation training course. The two are probably mutually exclusive, both in values and finances, but in the end, I’ll probably just re-establish dental care, get the routine mammogram, pluck a few mole hairs, and put on lip gloss.

Rowan is walking though, so that’s cool. And the Biden/Harris signs are popping up like daisies around the neighborhood, including at the house where the hippie cops live. Besides the police cruisers, their whole flowering yard feels like so many prayer flags. Over the fence, they tell us they bake with the eggs their ducks lay, offer us some, and laugh when Rowan tries to say quack.

I guess there’s a speck of hope for these chins yet.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Listen, it’s bad out there. Likely to get worse, too.

So, what then? What now?

I dragged my easel out of the closet, put it in the nook upstairs, on the landing. Some paint tubes are dried shut, no muscle will open them. No muscle will get me back to the canvas, either, but humility might. And then, just a little, here and there. Nothing to show, really. Amateur stuff.

But I am going for the small these days. It’s enough to go at all.


Sunday, April 19, 2020

“The willingness to consider possibility requires a tolerance of uncertainty.”

― Rachel Naomi Remen

In the midst of this pandemic, I just did something wild and simple and true: I packed up all my painting supplies and put them in my studio closet.

For the last several months, my unfilled canvases and untouched brushes and paints have been looming over my shoulder, every time I sat down to think about writing a few words. “This blog is about painting,” they seemed to say, “and you aren’t painting, so what business do you have writing, either?”

I am not painting, it’s true. What’s also true is that I am mothering, and working from home, and learning how to co-exist 24/7 with my immediate people while the world as we know it slips into a chaos from which we may or may not emerge better, stronger, with more reasonable priorities and values, but from which I am personally determined to emerge a little more clear about what matters most to me and how to organize myself thusly.

I may or may not paint again. Maybe in a few months or years or maybe in retirement. I no longer need to paint to find myself; I know where I am.

I felt a little sad packing everything up, but now that I’m done, I feel liberated. There’s power in choosing my priorities.

Painting was, for me, always about process. Learning process through painting served me, served what I was trying to find and uncover and trust, but it was never ultimately about paint, at least not only about paint. Paint was the vehicle for lessons about process, and it carried me well.

Process is messy, involves starting over and embracing destruction and changing it up. So I honor all those years of learning process through the vehicle of painting by making a choice my paints would, I trust, understand–stop painting, and give myself to the next apprenticeship in process: living and loving well, and parenting with the full presence my little guy deserves and requires.

Who knows where this process will take me next?

No idea.

I’m glad for the empty space to wonder.

All In

Monday, February 3, 2020

Rowan has been sick with one thing or another for almost a month, and I’m starting to think, maybe I’ll never paint again, which isn’t nearly as terrifying as it should be.

This is motherhood.

He’s almost crawling. Mostly I love on him, go to work, come home, love on him more, and put him to sleep with a hum-du-jour.

Last night, Thomas and I ended our month of not watching TV with a couple episodes of Breaking Bad; we both agreed we felt dirty (not the good kind) and weren’t missing anything. So it’s books and music again this month, at least most of the time, and going to bed at 8ish because, without the flickering screen we notice ourselves, our exhaustion, and why not? Maybe not icebergs, but books and music will be there tomorrow, surely.

A fellow painter from my Gestalt Center days recently reminded me that anything can be creative; yesterday I toasted walnuts in butter and Indian spices and proved him right. We’re eating well at the Hawkins-Nash household. I’m using what little mojo I have on cooking, which feels simple and essential and true.

In a freak medical accident my beloved father, who is fine again, nearly died last weekend; I met him in the ER and we reflected. James Comey thinks the country will survive but James Nash isn’t so sure. I told my Dad we are getting back to our roots, trying where we can to pry ourselves free of the corporate mind ownership that is modern living, and he got a little teary. Maybe I went too far when I canceled my Washington Post subscription, but I’ll tell you, avoidance is a privilege best paired with tea.

My mom sent me this short poem from Maya Stein which, on the day I read it standing in the Publix line, said everything (Rowan is the cardinal), more than I could write if I was fresh, which I so rarely am anymore, but this is motherhood. This is motherhood, and I’m all in.

it’s taken all day to get here (maya stein)
and still, the kitchen feels like incriminating evidence, and there are too many canvas bags with loose paper in them, and there is some letter I mean to be perennially sending, and I keep wearing some version of the same outfit, and I haven’t learned how to keep the plants on the windowsill alive, and I am still afraid of the dark and results from routine medical tests and what happens the moments just before you die, and I carry the itch of not persisting when I could have and not letting go
when it was time and hovering in wayward, shapeless places of
indecision that won me no favors, and I have unfinished business well past its sell-by date, and any apologies I make now will sound anemic and rote, but when I saw the cardinal pause at the feeder, I was not thinking of every sorrow I would never be able to mend. I wasn’t thinking at all.

Bring the cheese

Friday, January 3, 2020

For the new year, a neighbor invited us over for some black-eyed peas and greens. As we prepared to go, it occured to me that we still had a lot of post-holiday cheese in our fridge, and some unopened boxes of crackers. So I thought, Hey, I’ll put together a little spread of cheese and crackers to bring to the gathering.

I guess it should have been that simple, but it wasn’t. Because then my internal commentary started up. This cheese isn’t organic. I don’t have a nice cheese plate. What, a regular knife? No cheese knife? How about some nuts and olives? Oh, that’s too much to carry, along with the baby and his stuff? Well, maybe I should just skip this cheese thing entirely. Maybe they’ll think my cheese is stupid. Maybe they’ll have better cheese.

It all boiled down to this: I felt ashamed of my offering.

I brought the cheese anyway, with a regular knife and some crackers, no nuts or olives, on a slightly stained wooden cutting board. Dinner was running a little late, and mine was the only appetizer. We ate the cheese. Several guests even unambiguously expressed how much they liked the cheese, with comments like, “Oh god, this cheese is so good.”

I made a mental note to revisit my negative inner dialogue with this new information. My offering was enough.

Since we moved back into the Pleasant Street neighborhood, several neat women who live around here also recently had babies. It’s incredible to be so close to other people going through the same thing for the first time– motherhood. I hope our kids can grow up together, and play, and build lasting friendships.

For now, though, we see each other around, coo at each other’s infants, hit each other up for advice, and occasionally take walks or have each other over for dinner. I wouldn’t call them friends, not yet, but they are certainly potential friends. My friendships grow slower these days. Maybe it’s age, or maybe it’s because at this stage of life, we already have good friends, and incorporating new ones takes time, especially with babies in tow. Sometimes I wonder if it’s partly that I no longer have alcohol to pull me out of my default introversion, but I’ll take that trade-off, regardless.

But there’s another barrier to developing new friendships, and it sounds a lot like the negative cheese voice. For example, one of the new moms invited me to take a walk with her the other day. Part of me really wanted to go, and another part hoped she would cancel at the last minute. Why? So I could sit on my couch with my bored baby for an extra hour of the day? No, so I could avoid my fear of inadequacy in the face of forging a new social connection. If she canceled, I wouldn’t have to confront my self- doubt about how uninteresting I am, how frumpy and unattractive I feel, with my sweatpants and mom arms and thinning hairline, and about how I need to be careful not to blurt out the real stuff on my mind, like, “Sooooo, how’s your sex drive? Mine’s the pits since having and nursing Rowan, and I really hope it’ll come back again. I’m worried that I’m not normal, but the internet says this is pretty common, so maybe I’m okay. Still, I’d feel a lot better if I knew real, actual women going through this, too. So yeah, how much sex are you having lately?”

Basically, when it comes to making new friends, I doubt myself the same way I doubted bringing the cheese. I’ve done enough therapy and reading and personal work that this part of me is more subtle than it used to be. But sometimes I wonder if the subtlety is the problem. It’s harder to address what we can barely decipher. So I’m writing about it to make this more explicit. Come out of the bushes and show yourself! Then I can address you for what you really are: fear and uncertainty in the face of trying something new, bringing a gift, an offering, whether that be leftover cheese or myself to a conversation, a dinner party, to those small steps toward building potential–and maybe eventually actual– friendships.

Most of my adult human interaction happens either with Thomas or with my therapy clients. With Thomas, I feel genuinely safe, so there’s not much insecurity, shame, or doubt when I’m at home with him, and that’s lovely. With my clients, I usually feel safe too, because I know my role, and the rules and bounds of the relationship, and I have implicit permission to ask those awkward, probing questions like what’s hard, and where’s the pain. But socially, with new-ish cool people who aren’t my clients, I don’t feel so comfortable (obviously). I can always revert to the counselor role, where I engage by listening and making little sounds to keep the other person talking, but this isn’t super gratifying for me. Real connection requires both people to risk something, to put something true out there.

This year, I’m going to work hard to challenge myself when I start to doubt my offering, whether that is a piece of writing, or a completed canvas, or the simple act of reaching out and trying to connect with someone.

Instructions to myself: Say hi to my colleagues in the morning. Say yes to walks and dinners. Say yes to writing the post-it note, the thank you or thinking-of-you text or card. And yes, a few flowers from the yard in a jelly jar is a perfectly adequate gesture.

Bring the cheese.


Thursday, January 2, 2020

Across the drinking world, it’s Dry January, and people are swearing off alcohol for a month. I don’t drink anymore, but in honor of the Dry January theme, Thomas and I have decided to stop watching all of our shows this month. That’s right: no TV, no movies, no shows. I know, I know. First world aspirations, right? Big whoop.

But for us, it is a big whoop. We’ve fallen into that thing, a trap perhaps, where every night after we put Rowan to bed we fire up the big screen in the living room where a hearth might otherwise be. We hunker down beneath soft blankets on our separate couches, and communicate only about the sweets we want to pause the show to procure from the kitchen, or about something absurd our characters are doing, or about whether it’s probably time for bed.

This was a wonderful ritual for surviving Rowan’s first six months. We felt like heroes by 7pm, well-deserving of our disconnecting collapse into passive entertainment. But we’ve mostly adjusted to being parents, no longer feeling frantic about how to manage a little person and the rest of our lives. And lately we’ve been feeling a little listless and empty, and our waistlines are growing, too. We don’t read. We cuddle less than we used to. We numb out.

There’s a saying I heard from the online recovery folks, If you sense something is missing from your life, it’s probably you. I related to that a lot when I was drinking, but I don’t feel that I am missing from my life anymore. What I feel is hunger for something that TV can’t satisfy, but gets close enough to obscuring that I can almost decide to stop looking for real satisfaction.

Or maybe I miss hunger itself. Maybe it’s that simple?

Regardless, my mantra this month is, if you have everything and still feel like something is missing, it’s time to start taking things away.

Thomas is reading in the living room. I’m off to join him.

Happy New Year.

How to be sick

Monday, December 23, 2019

We’re in the middle of our first real round of baby and grown-up sickness, just in time for the holidays! Instead of joy-to-the-world sentiments, here you go.

How to be sick

1 Do not assess your fundamental worth or value
2 Do not reflect on your life purpose or prospects
3 Do not measure your spouse’s contributions
4 Rest

Quit worrying

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The hardest thing is listening well enough to quit worrying about dying.

–Brian Andreas

As Thanksgiving approaches and Rowan becomes impossibly cuter and more lovable each day, I find myself worrying often about death. Aside from a couple of low points in my teens and early twenties, I have never wanted to die. I am, in fact, terrified of it, not death itself, but of the deterioration, of letting go, of grieving the loss of everyone and everything I love. That or dumbly departing in a flash, with only a single thought before the lights go dark: That was it?

Now that I have a child this fear is greater still. I know my husband would be okay without me–it would be hard for awhile but he’d love again; this is one of many benefits of finally partnering with someone fundamentally whole. But Rowan, he’d have to do without his Mommy. And while I know the village would step in to care for him, the thought of him growing up without a Mommy breaks my heart.

I’m not, as far as I know, any more terminal than always. But the 4 a.m. wakings and feedings give my death anxiety a particularly opportune opening. To ward off this fear I have tried all of the following since Rowan’s birth: buying fancy vitamins and supplements (and forgetting to take them regularly), replacing all of my regular food with keto and paleo food (only to start eating bread and ice cream again within a few days), getting a CSA (the veggies often go bad), buying only local meat (yet still getting some at Publix), joining a gym (and rarely attending), buying an exercise bike (I didn’t use it), buying exercise wear (worn primarily for lounging), swearing to start walking, jogging, or jog-walking regularly (nope), and buying expensive sunscreen (I don’t routinely use).

The truth is there’s no escaping death, and while I can do things like eat “right” (whatever that is), exercise (I’m still hopeful), and abstain from alcohol (thankfully I’m okay there), I can’t control when I get hit by a car or the cumulative effects of all those cigarettes and beers I used to ingest.

I don’t know if the chemical self-abuse started in response to the sexual assaults as a teenager (oh you assaulted me? I’ll show you, I’ll assault myself even harder), or because it was cool and rebellious, or because I’m just prone to chemical addictions. But I do know I imagined in that boozy and smoke-filled haze that I was making an offering to the gods of death, inviting them close but not too close, hoping this would confuse them and and they’d go find someone eating kale and wearing sunscreen.

Now I’m trying to be the person eating kale and wearing sunscreen, but even with just intermittent effort I feel sheepish and exposed, like I’m greenlighting death. Hey, over here! Yeah me with the super greens and SPF 40! I’m stupidly trying to evade you in a game of peek-a-boo where I cover my eyes and believe I disappear.

I’ve got a weird spot on my left breast that is either killer melanoma or a benign birthmark that stretched beyond the size of a pencil eraser when my milk came in; I’m waiting to schedule with the dermatologist until my life insurance policy kicks in this January. I nurse Rowan and sometimes wonder, is he drinking cancer? Then he pulls away and smiles at me, milk running into his endless linty neck, and I dive into his bright blue unknowing eyes, forgetting for a moment that I am mortal, he is mortal, the seas are rising, babies lose their mothers every day, bombs explode, cartels open fire, refugees wait without relief, cut flowers wither and die. I am not an outlier; and death is not an outrage, no more or less personal and natural than birth. Eat the pig, the turkey, compost the flowers, wear my bike helmet, enjoy the pie, buy the life insurance.

Happy Thanksgiving indeed.


Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sleep matters. Pie helps.

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