Entries Tagged as 'loss'

The Cemetery

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

20 x 30"

“As long as the sun shall rise goes the old lovers vow.

But we are children of a scientific age & have no time for poetry.

Still, I offer a quiet prayer of thanks for the sunlight each time I see your face.”

–Brian Andreas

We were returning from a light-hearted pizza lunch when my 10-year old nephew Mason asked my sister Kristen, “Mom, when I die, do you think people will burn me or put me in a box thing in the ground?” Kristen and I exchanged a look as she calmly answered him.

“Well Mason, that depends. If you make your wishes known before you die, people generally try to honor what you want.”  

“Oh, okay,” he said, apparently satisfied.

We reached our destination. Kristen headed inside, and Mason trotted around the car to hug me.

“So which do you prefer, kiddo?” I asked, wrapping him in my arms. “Burial or cremation?”

“Hmmm,” he contemplated, “probably burial. That way, if I have kids, they’ll have a place to visit me after I die.”

“Makes sense,” I said. “I’d visit you, too, you know. I’d visit all the time. Who knows, maybe we can even be buried near each other one day.”

“Okay,” he said, “but I hope you die before me.”

“Yeah,” I said, tearing up. “So do I.”

The Return

Saturday, July 25, 2015

 Overlook

I head up for a week in the Great Smoky Mountains with my nephew Mason, who is almost 10 years old. I’ve rented a cabin that we discover, after our 12-hour drive, is country kitsch: Chock-full of bears holding up hearts inscribed with saccharine sayings.  “What’s the deal with all these bears?” Mason asks.  “I don’t know, it’s beary weird, isn’t it?” I say. He puts his arm around me, looks in my eyes and says, “Don’t worry, Aunts make things bear-able.”

During our week together, we settle into a routine. Early mornings, I have coffee and do yoga while he sleeps. Mid-mornings, we hike. In the afternoons, we swim in a cold clear river, and at dusk, we lounge in our balcony’s hot tub and watch the sun set. As it gets dark, we each take a rocking chair and quietly sketch with pastels and pens. Later, we curl up and talk about life and death. “I don’t want you or anyone I love to die,” he confides. “When I think about death, I get sad.”  “Yes,” I say, “we all die. But this is also what makes our time together very precious and beautiful.”  Mason turns his back to me in the dark and cries softly. I feel my own face wet with tears. I put my hand on his back and say, “I’m sad, too. But you know, when people really love us, we can feel their love even after they die. We get to keep their love inside.”

We drive through a dense forest. I’m thinking about our conversation about death. “You know,” I say, “some cultures and religions believe that we live many lives. We aren’t just here one time, we are born into many different bodies, including animal bodies, until we’ve learned everything we’re supposed to learn about being here. It’s called reincarnation.”

“Hmmm, I think I’ve heard of that,” he says. “What do you think, Aunt Sara? Do you believe it?”

“I don’t know what to believe,” I say. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve been here before, but mostly I just enjoy the questions. I like wondering about it, more than anything. I like the mystery of it, you know?”

“Yeah,” he says.

Later on the hike, Mason requests that I ask him questions. He likes it when I ask him, “If you could…” questions, like, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?”  His answer is, “To live forever.”

I try another question. “If you could come back as anyone, at any time in history, and live their life, who would you want to come back as?”

He gets quiet for a few minutes, thinking.  Then he says, “I bet you know who I’d pick. Take a guess.”

I don’t know. I think of the president, or wealthy people, or famous athletes, but none of these feel right. Then, it hits me. “Yourself?” I say, “you’d want to come back as you?”

“Yep!” he says cheerfully, and offers no further explanation.

I’m deeply touched.

“That’s cool,” I say, when I can find my words again. “You know what, Mason?  Me too.”

Mason is on the edge of pre-adolescence. His body is changing, and each day he speaks with more maturity, but he still retains much of his boyish innocence. Often during our hikes, he slips his smooth little hand in mine. We walk like this for awhile, sometimes miles. Teenage boys and their fathers who are definitely not holding hands cross our path, but Mason doesn’t let go. I wonder if it will ever be like this with him again, which makes our time together precious and beautiful indeed.

Mason sketching

I weave the car down a mountain road, my eyes alight with the scenery, big clouds atop bigger mountains. “Aunt Sara, you’re smiling again. You’re always smiling. Why do you smile so much?” Mason asks.

I am not aware of smiling.

“Because I’m happy,” I answer, realizing it’s true. “I know that life can be difficult, but I love being alive, Mason. I love that I get to be alive.”

We walk the same trails I walked when I was here alone last summer. As we walk, I catch glimpses of who I was last year, when I came to these woods falling deeply in love with the man I was sure I’d marry. Time passed; we parted. I loved him, and perhaps always will, but his heart never opened to reciprocate. Meanwhile, his eyes opened often towards women with bigger breasts, higher heels, shorter skirts, and far more make-up than I wore. It was necessary to let go.

Last summer, I struggled to be present in these woods. I just wanted to return to my lover’s arms and watch our life together unfold. But the path led somewhere else.

This summer, I walk comfortably in my body. I don’t have any romantic prospects or a single pair of high heels, but I’m fiercely in love with myself, these woods, and the ginger-haired boy who walks sometimes ahead of me, sometimes behind, and sometimes with his hand in mine.

The hikers

“This is my favorite part of the path,” Mason says during one of our long hikes to a waterfall. He stops me and gestures to the trees that form a low, dark tunnel over us. “It looks like a wedding,” he says.

I smile. “That’s one wedding I’d want to attend,” I say.

“Walk along, kiddo.” He does, and I take his picture in the dark tunnel of trees.

The Wedding Path

Mason springs up the path ahead of me. I watch his deft feet and wonder who he will become. Highly creative and sensitive, deeply introverted yet a hilarious entertainer, it’s impossible to know from here. Most everything is, in fact. I wonder how he’ll record this summer vacation in memory. I wonder if he’ll return to these memories for comfort, to remember a time when he was really at home in himself and loved so completely. I wonder if he’ll have to lose himself and find himself again, like I did in my painful teenage and young adult years. I think about the people who have helped me get back to myself when I’ve been lost, and wonder if I might be such a person for Mason.

Trees have always done this for me, wrapped me in their green blankets of light until I remembered myself and could open back out to the world. I wonder if I can be a kind of forest for Mason as he grows up, an earthy place he can return to, even just in memories and dreams. In this forest, whoever he is, whoever he becomes, whether he finds himself on or off his path, he can know he is loved just as he is.

These woods, too, tall and verdant with their wide arms above us–we walk and we are held, by branches and leaves, by sticks and legs and careful steps over water, in an improbable world of connections and partings, a world that, just this morning, was declared in Mason’s mom’s Facebook post to be on the edge of total climate collapse.

As we walk, Mason and I make plans to return to these woods each summer, to make it an annual tradition.

I hope we do.

But life is uncertain. Next year, will we both be alive? Will we have the resources and the time and the desire to vacation with each other? We plan to return to the woods, but perhaps what we most want to is to know we can return to a place where we are wholly ourselves, where we belong to and can participate in a sacred world, a world in which we don’t have to question if we are loved. Perhaps this is a place we can return to anytime, always, because we carry it inside.

Green sky

On the drive home to Florida, we don’t talk much. Last year, Mason called me out for making idle conversation just to feel connected to him. Since then, I’ve learned to trust the silences between us, to rest into the connection they hold.

Occasionally we listen to music–Eminem (his choice), Josh Ritter and Krishna Das (mine). We find some common ground with the band Phoenix, and jam out together. While he half-sleeps, I listen to Mickey Singer’s audio version of his new book, The Surrender Experiment. (Mason informs me he “already knows all that stuff,” and perhaps he does.) We also listen to Eleanor and Park, a tender adolescent story of love and loss that a client recommended to me for the drive.

Mostly though, we sit in silence. Time passes. We cover distances. We look at the road and we breathe.

“Ask me some spelling words,” Mason suggests to break the monotony of the drive.

“Fantastic,” I offer.

“Fantastic,” he says. “F-a-n-t-a-s-t-i-c.”

“Yes,” I say. “Fantastic.”

Path

 

LOST
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

David Wagoner

The House

Monday, January 5, 2015

The House

There is only one life
you can call your own
and a thousand others
you can call by any name you want.

David Whyte

I want to tell you about my house.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I dropped out of my PhD program. I was disillusioned with school and tired of studying. I needed space to think on my own terms, about my future, about my purpose, about whether I needed advanced education for my path. I kept a small caseload of pro bono counseling clients at the local crisis center, and in my spare time I painted, but mostly, I cleaned houses. It was honest work, and it’ll always be my Plan B.

Today I live in a house I used to clean. Back then, it was occupied by the owner’s family: An artist (Dahvi Fradkin Neelis) who painted from home, her professor husband who biked to the university, their young daughter, and Tiny Phyllis, the fat outdoor cat. I had just started painting, and I wasn’t sure if I was a “real” artist or not. Did real artists need degrees in art? Did real counselors get degrees in counseling? Did real house cleaners make art and do therapy? What was real, anyway? The dust on the baseboards, and the feeling of wiping them white again. Cleaning was great for reflection.

The odd thing was, I felt sheepish at the house. I wasn’t sheepish at my other jobs, but unlike the suburban monoliths I cleaned, this was a simple, even frugal house, a house of art, ideas, and love. I could faintly imagine living in the house, painting in it, working from it. I imagined these scenes like I imagined becoming a teacher or a “real” artist. These visions seemed beyond reach, and I tried to dismiss them.

Several months into house cleaning, I was at a monolith when I splashed a proportional amount of toilet water in my face. As I wiped it off, I wondered, is finishing my education really untenable? If I can do toilet water, maybe I can do statistics. Eventually, I returned to school. I kept cleaning houses until I didn’t have the time. I started teaching, which I loved. I bought an easel.

***

The artist called. Her husband had gotten a position in Germany and they were moving away. After that, they were relocating to Canada. She asked for my help repainting the house for the new tenants, and doing a last-time, move-out cleaning. I’d retired my mop but I said yes; I liked her energy, and I liked the house. Together we painted the walls and cleaned and laughed. When we finished, she gave me stacks of unused canvases, fifty or more. As I suffered through statistics, practiced therapy, and complained about quals, I filled them all up.

***

I was almost 32 when I graduated. In the end, I researched and wrote my dissertation on the same issues that led me to drop out. It was a triumph of sorts, but also humbling. Towards the conclusion of school, a friend called and invited me to apply for a crisis-related faculty position at the university. I was working full-time at a community college counseling center, struggling to make ends meet, living in a small apartment, painting as much as I could, and schlepping my laundry to my mom’s. I couldn’t believe I was graduating; it didn’t feel real. I took comfort in the words of a counseling mentor, who at 60 and very successful, told me he sometimes still felt like a big lost kid.

***

I got the position. My salary doubled. My apartment lease came up for renewal. I wanted a washing machine. On a whim, I emailed the artist to ask if the house was for rent. She said she’d just heard from the tenants; they were leaving. One week before I walked across a stadium stage as “doctor,” I moved into the house. The first thing I did was clean it.

***

The house’s owners live in Canada, and they are ready to sell it. I love the house, but I’m not ready to buy one. Like others who have sheltered here, it’s not my permanent place. While I don’t have to vacate for several months, I’m already grieving. In a life marked by change and uncertainty, this house has seen me through a kind of arrival, a kind of recognition. This house was on the other side of a wide and frightening frontier I finally crossed, of childhood, of college, of graduate school, of many mistakes and of risking myself again and again at art, at love, at life, at a path. It knew me before I knew myself, and it waited for me.

I can rent another house. But place, the unmistakable sense of belonging, is a far deeper thing. I am 34. Every morning and evening, I pet and feed Tiny Phyllis, the fat outdoor cat. I ride my bike to the university, where I teach and do counseling. On the weekends, I paint in my studio at the house. When the house gets dirty, I clean it. We know each other’s grit and grime; we are friends like that.

On most days, I like who I am and who I’m becoming. But sometimes, I feel like a big lost kid, and this house, well, it found me. For awhile, it was home.

Loss and Life

Monday, August 18, 2014

Loss and Life

Yesterday I took a long, solitary hike to a waterfall, where I saw, among other brilliant trees, this towering specimen. The rugged beauty of this bare old-growth pine silhouetted in grayish light moved me to a silent stupor.

This time last year, I painted a similar tree from memory after hiking in the Appalachian mountains and returning home to heartbreak. The painting was about the prickly quality of loss, that utterly naked yet defensive state where we want to draw inward and lash out, where we want run away and give up, yet by some sardonic miracle, we’re still standing, stripped to bone, left to begin again.

As a person and a therapist, I find the starkness of nature reassuring. Even dead trees contain myriad life; the barest branches hold the birds.

The Survivors

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Survivors

The Survivors, 36″ x 60″

“We must admit there will be music despite everything.”
(from A Brief for the Defense, by Jack Gilbert)

I was considering painting sunflowers when I checked the news late one Saturday night. A passenger jet was shot down over the sunflower fields of the Ukraine. Hundreds of civilians; no survivors.

I could not get the images from my mind, and that night I dreamt of smoke, bodies, families, friends, relief workers, soldiers, and politicians who were now inextricably part of the same tragic story.

And the flowers, waving over it all with an insolent, indecent joy. By morning, I did not want to paint sunflowers anymore.

As I followed the headlines throughout the week, the violence escalated in the Middle East. More innocents dead. And bleary-eyed young people were coming into my office talking about these events, people with family and friends overseas, people who woke each day to the body count and then managed to show up for a physics final.

I work with survivors, with people who have endured unspeakable traumas. They somehow speak anyway, and then, remarkably, go on living. In therapy, they show me their own ravaged fields, where I walk in awe. Amidst so much pain, loss, and injustice, they have survived. Often, there are flowers.

When my energy returned, I painted this for the survivors who touch me with their courage not only to live but, against all odds, to blossom.

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