I am the cup.

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One month before he died, my husband wrote a story about a Styrofoam cup he witnessed being tossed about in traffic on the busy street in front of his office. We used it in his funeral service because we thought it had a message for us: a victim of circumstances, the cup found its resting place. We also noted that the cup could be the survivor: also a victim of circumstances, the cup persevered through trials and tribulations. Grief is chaotic, messy, and mean. If you are going through grief, maybe this story can speak to you.

styrofoamcup

A Will to Live
Charlie Rhodes, a.k.a. Winston Rand

Trudging through life, coping with the day-to-day challenges and turmoil, we sometimes need a reminder that we too can survive, even beyond all odds. Those little reminders come in various packages. Sometimes it’s a child with a serious affliction who is happy and smiling; other times, a warm, frisky puppy that has not a care in the world except to please you; and occasionally, it will be the totally unexpected. Such was the case one day last week.

I arrived back at the office in late afternoon, and something caught my eye as I walked from the car to the office entrance. It took a few seconds for it to register that I was seeing an empty Styrofoam cup in the center turn lane of the busy street out front. There was a push of air from heavy traffic in both directions, causing the little truncated cone to roll in an arc first one way, then the other. The occasional draft of a larger vehicle would move it up and down its chosen lane a few feet. Then more rolling in arcs around its new pivot point until another large draft moved it a few feet forward or backward.

Becoming quickly mesmerized, I stood for perhaps fifteen minutes watching the struggle, the close misses, the movement to and fro. At some point I realized I was cheering the little cup onward in its quest to survive against the impossible odds of the multi-ton monsters bearing down on it from every side. And then it occurred to me how much like life that is. Wishing the dancing traveler well, I went on into the office. Half an hour later after checking email, washing up, and shutting down for the evening, I emerged to find the cup still at it. It had moved about twenty or thirty feet down the turn lane and seemed to be slightly damaged, but not enough to keep it from rolling and arcing, performing its death defying dance. After watching a few more minutes, I had to leave the cup to its unique brand of madness, knowing full well that it would be flattened or completely gone come morning.

Imagine my surprise and delight to arrive back at the office the following day to find the cup, not squashed by one of the many behemoths that passed this way during the night, but intact, resting gently on the grass a few feet from the street. It had a nick, but was otherwise alive and well. I thought of placing the cup back in the middle of the turn lane for another go, but decided it may prefer the resting place it had chosen and worked so hard to reach. Then I was tempted to take it in and leave it sitting on my credenza as a reminder. But such an adventurer needs freedom and would not fare well in captivity. So I left it where it was, and carried away the memory of its struggles and the lesson of perseverance it taught.

Errrrrkkkkk-eee!

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Remember how it sounded when you scratched your fingernails down a blackboard? Remember that feeling it sent through you? It’s the same feeling I get when I hear someone tell one who has experienced recent loss, “How strong you are in your faith!”

It’s a wonderful compliment, but I’m wondering if the person saying this kind of thing: 1) has an expectation that the mourner should be a spiritual poster child for grief, or 2) is trying to remind the mourner of his faith in order to help him separate from his pain.

We all have a tendency to want to remove the pain from our grieving family and friends. We say uplifting things and apply salves in the form of verses and hymns and beautiful, strengthening words. It almost feels like sometimes we are trying to convince the mourner of his own strength and propping him up by saying, “You are strong! Stay steadfast and strong!”

I may be wrong, but I believe every grieving person needs to have the freedom to fall apart, to cry out from the bottom of his soul, to mourn fully. Actually, I think everybody does this whether we give them the freedom or not.

lonely person on beachWe don’t know how strong people are. Some people wear effective masks and feel that by their position they must appear strong. We don’t know what they do when they are home … alone … with four walls closing in on them.

Everybody knows I was no poster child for grief. I had my four walls. Sometimes that’s all there was – me and the four walls. The dog even left the room. She could feel my vibes heavy and strong. But it had to be that way for me to get through it. I had to feel the pain of loss. I had to suffer. That’s what grief is.

Grief is great suffering over loss. Grief is messy, chaotic, and mean. Grief is normal.

Shouldn’t we offer love and support … AND let our grieving friends be normal and fall apart occasionally? It doesn’t mean they are going to be this way forever. It means they need to grieve in the present “meantime” so they can get to the future and the forever.

How do you write about loss and pain and not get caught up in it all over again?

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It’s a good question, a serious question, a wise question, and one I was asked this week by a lovely, sweet, and talented person I met at the Southern Festival of Books, one who happened to attend the same college as I and one who, like me, lost her husband. In the struggle, those of us who are bent to writing, have a need to get our hands on the keyboard or our feelings out on a sheet of paper…for many reasons. But there is that one thing that gnaws: how do you write about loss and grief and not get caught up in it and spend all your moments there, bottoming out into sadness and loneliness and depression? How do you do the writing and prevent a downward spiral of grief?

crying-womanI dealt with this while writing my book. I had to re-live each day, starting with the death experience. Then I had to re-live it all again through critiques and edits. I thought about it all and tried to come up with an honest answer.

1. There is pain. There’s going to be pain whether you write about it or not. “My bones are in agony.” To get through the pain, we have to go straight through it, feel it, deal with it. Nobody can take that pain away. It is ours to shoulder into and to handle.

2. Writing is a way to get the pain out. When I was a little girl, playing the piano was my way of getting hurts out, and my mother told me she could always tell when I was banging my problems away. As an adult, writing became that. It became a way to get strong emotions out, released from within, from leaving a harmful imprint on my body. And any grief counselor will advise writing. Keep a journal, write a letter to your loved one telling him anything you need to… However, a letter and journal entries or blog posts are short, quick writings. A book-length project requires you to be immersed in the loss and grief for longer periods of time during each writing session and for the duration of the project. This makes the question at point a valid one and means you need to consider it carefully and lay out a plan to protect yourself. 

3. In writing about it, I re-lived it. It was hard. Many times I wrote through tears and agony. After writing, I’d go for a walk, exercise, and sling my hands, slinging the pain out anew. That was another way to get the pain out — not only the pain of loss, but the pain of writing about the loss.

necklace4. As I writer, I had learned to separate. On the one side, this is the technical part of the story, this is how I need to structure it, this is how the story needs to go. On the other side, I pulled up my soul and dealt with the emotions and let the tears fall over my hands onto the keyboard. It’s called compartmentalizing. It helps you to write something extremely personal and sensitive and also be able to treat it like any other piece of writing once it’s on the page, even in a critique group with people talking about it and telling you how to do it differently or better.

5. In writing creative nonfiction, you tell the real and true story, but there’s more. You reflect. You think about it. You put it into perspective. This may happen some on the first draft, but more likely on the second. Yes, there’s a second write that you approach with the wisdom that time offers. This is where healing comes. You look at your words and put them into the perspective of life.

Signing72And so…

You enter it wisely. You plan ahead. Know that during your writing session, you will deal with the pain of loss. You will re-live it all. You will cry. So perhaps plan your writing time during the day when there is sunshine and noise and stuff is going on all around you and it is not dark and quiet and still. Plan to go out and do something after you write. Go for a walk, talk to people, go to the gym, go shopping, watch a movie and laugh, treat yourself with something! But get physically away from the writing for a time and recover. Do what you need to do for yourself to balance the intense time with some “fun” time or time of vigorous activity. At some point on your grief journey, emotional remembering turns to historical remembering, and that is a good thing; you can remember with a smile and share stories more easily and write the good memories as well as the quirky traits. Above all, go into it with the attitude that you are going to work through it and find some healing. And very important — most classical stories begin with the way life was before the “change” or inciting event. Start off writing some of those wonderful, significant memories of the relationship. The good stuff. Sweet stuff. Funny stuff. Get into it and it will lead you on. As you go, you will get stronger with it.

For me, the writing was a way to express those raw, hard feelings. The re-writing was healing. A spiritual read was healing. A kindness read was healing. It was a help to deal with my grief in an orderly way. And in all that, I tried to present it in a way that others feeling the same could identify with.

coversmall

 

He did.

Today, on what would be my 20th wedding anniversary, I make mention of the vows we wrote and shared December 31, 1994. It wasn’t a first marriage for either of us, so we’d come together bringing wisdom gained from other relationships and knowing what was important.

I open my heart to tender caring,
Giving, sharing, trusting, yielding.

I promise not to question your needs.
I promise to seek your peace.
I promise to put your happiness first.
I promise to love you with all that I have,
All that I am, all that I can and will become.
For all time.

For it is in giving that I receive. And it is in helping you awake that I awaken.

I cherish you.
I want to endure all things with you.
I want to walk home to God with you.

***

He did.

What It Takes to Heal

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This was the title of a panel session at the Southern Festival of Books in downtown Nashville last weekend. I was one of two panelists. The room was full because people want to know what it takes to heal.

sfb2014panel1What did it take for me to heal? I tried to offer some meaningful thoughts from my experience through grief as told in my book Remember the Dragonflies. Everybody’s different. What it took for me might not be true for others. But I think it can help.

Four hours after my husband died, my sister arrived from Memphis and said, “Well, Kathy, you just have to build a whole new life.” It hit my brain like a block of ice. I could not yet grasp that I had lost my old life.

At some point life boils what’s in your crucible down to the salt of YOU. The old life is gone. Somehow you build anew out of the crystallized residue left in the vessel that is you. You unknowingly reach down and pull up what is deep inside you and stand on it…because that’s all you have left. You don’t even know what is down there until you need it. You don’t even know you are using it as you lay hold to it. But all the years of living, praying, doing life, studying, learning, faithing, believing, and becoming have put substance in you, and that is the residue left in your vessel when all the physical things fall away.

What does it take to heal? For me, in order to heal:

1. I had to hurt. Everybody wants to take the pain away. “Take a pill.” “Pray; ask God to take away the pain.” I instinctively knew I had to let myself feel my grief. I had to take hold of it and manage it and work through it. I didn’t need to rely on anything or anyone. Loss and grief were given to me. I needed to hurt the grief out.

2. I had to shoulder into it. I had to push myself, make myself keep going, pick up one foot and put it in front of the other, then do it again. Sometimes that’s all you can do. I had to do the things I did before my husband died, plus handle all the things he handled. I had to take care of business. He was a business owner. He died on a Saturday evening. Monday morning before his funeral on Tuesday I had to go to work to let his customers know and to get a backup plan for them. Over the next month I had to close his business, write a contract, merge the customers with a new company, get a job (I had worked for him), and pay the bills because the mortgage company and the electric company don’t wait for their due. Six months after Charlie died, I was sitting at my desk at my new job, looking around at my co-workers and thinking: he doesn’t know any of these people, he doesn’t know I have this job, he doesn’t know where my office is, he doesn’t know anything about my life now. I have…sort of…built a new life, as my sister had advised.

3. I had to get the pain out (even as I was shouldering into it). All the emotions — anger, fear, guilt, regret — get them out! Crying is a release. I cried until I could cry no more. I cried for a year and a half until I got mad about having to cry, so I told my deceased husband that I was done with it and I wasn’t going to cry any more, and then I cried some more. I wrote my feelings out in blog posts (that I used in my book). I cleaned out his office and threw old stuff away in the dumpster at the office complex — threw it all as hard as I could, slamming it against the metal sides, hurting something else as I was hurting. I went on walks, hard and fast walks, slung my hands, and told the grief pain to go away. “Get out! Get out of me! You can’t have me!”

4. I needed to remember and honor him because that put me in control and took me out of a “victim” mode. I set his place at the first Thanksgiving table. I put his favorite Vols cap on top of the Christmas tree. Scattering his ashes at the one-year mark was a significant healing moment. He’d always told me he wanted his ashes scattered in the Tennessee River across from the Tennessee Vols’ Neyland Stadium, so I took his urn and went to Knoxville. Not only did I fulfill his request, but I gave him more. I went inside the stadium and released some ashes behind the goal post under the scoreboard. I saw a cameo of him — laughing. He was pleased. I was, too. I had an immediate awareness of feeling lighter and better. I had done something meaningful.

Life doesn’t stop when you lose someone. It keeps going on all around you. You go to work, you go to the grocery store, you pay the monthly bills, you get the car’s oil changed, you shop for Christmas, you celebrate new grandchildren, you lose someone else. You hang on to that spinning merry-go-round. Cycles of weeks, months, seasons, and years come and come again. Birthdays and holidays roll around. The revolutions spin you, and meantime, you are not only moving around in calendar circles, you are moving forward.

I guess what I’m saying is: you can’t help but build a new life. It happens over time. It happens by default. But you can choose to hurt, to push on, to release the hurt, and to take some control over the madness and chaos and meanness of grief.

I did it.

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Friday, as I drove across Thompsons Station Road to Lewisburg Pike, a swarm of dragonflies buzzed toward my windshield. I laughed out loud, then choked on the laugh. My chest tightened. I saw another dragonfly in the Johnson grass next to the highway. Dragonflies come to give assurance.

I wrapped my hands tightly around the steering wheel of the red Outback, then opened them and rubbed the arc on the wheel’s left side and the right. His hands held this wheel. It was his car.

How could I do this?

I merged onto I-65, and the tears came. They poured. I couldn’t stop them. I had to quit crying…I couldn’t complete the deal like this…I couldn’t go through the paperwork and the taking and the leaving. I must be the only sentimental fool in the world to cry over trading an old car in.

When I arrived at the dealership, I lingered in the front seat and patted the steering wheel. “Good bye, old girl.” She was a good ride. She was his for the first five years. He died the month before she was paid off. I let the memories scroll.

red outbackShe first took us to my son’s college graduation in the mountains of Boone, North Carolina. What a happy weekend!

She took us on a joy ride around Nashville during her early weeks as we checked her out. We stopped for coffee and donuts. My husband never cared about anything being messy. He didn’t care if dust piled up on shelves or if the bed never got made. But he watched me eat that donut, as if daring me to drop one piece of glazed sugar. When I did, he fussed, and it was out of character for him. But it was his new car, and he loved her. Then he went on to spill coffee nearly every morning on her beige carpet.

She was a working girl. Her tag was personalized: GENISYS. She carried dozens of computers and peripherals to GENISYS customers. I left her sign in the backseat pocket: DELIVERY IN PROGRESS — GENISYS Systems Group. Charlie would put it on the windshield when he had to park at the front door of an office building to deliver something to a customer. She was rear-ended when she was still new as she raced to Green Hills the morning our publishing company customer burned to the ground, losing every single thing. Charlie was retrieving a backup tape kept off-site to restore their data and transfer it to new computers so the company could be up and running the following day. He was a hero, and so was she. She served well.

Then she was mine. She carried me and my husband’s ashes to Knoxville for disbursing. She carried mulch, rocks, flowers, and trees. She even carried my nine and a half-foot kayak. She carried the dog to vet and grooming appointments. She carried books to festivals. She carried loads of wrapped presents for eleven Christmases.

It was hard to let her go. It was hard to let her go because she was his.

But I drove away in a new white Outback. I bought my first car. Through the years and all the cars, there has always been a man’s name first. I was always the co-buyer.

This time, I’m the buyer. And she’s mine.

Memo to Self

You’ve been here before. Why are you surprised? What did you expect? Something different? Well, put on your big girl panties, honey, ’cause that ain’t gonna happen. Best to just keep stuff to yourself. Try to remember that. Don’t put yourself out there all exposed. Other than your children and your two dear friends — one who will cuss and feel it with you and one who won’t cuss but feel it with you —  don’t expect anything from anybody else.

You share news that isn’t the best, and what do you get? Other than the above-mentioned…

Utter silence.

Just don’t tell people whom you know will not respond to your hurt because then it hurts worse. It says they don’t care.

You.

You can do this.

Pull it up from down deep.

Stand. Breathe. Walk.

Do it.

To hell with the rest of ‘em.

Sedona Ring

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Vacation last week ended with a few days in Sedona, Arizona.

sedonaWe—the seven of us who travel together every summer, five of whom are family—wanted to see the array of red sandstone formations, visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross which appears to rise out of a one-thousand-foot redrock cliff, experience the famous energy vortexes, and go to Tlaquepaque. We also wanted to go to nearby Jerome, “America’s Most Vertical City.” Jerome sits up on a 5,200-foot hill, built into the side of it almost. It is on top of what was once the largest copper mine in Arizona and now it’s a bustling tourist magnet and artistic community of writers, musicians, hermits, gift shop proprietors, and artists.

The four girls in the group wanted to shop! We like to look for jewelry made out of local stones by local artists. I was determined to find a ring. I didn’t quite know what I wanted. I wanted lots of silver. I wanted a special stone. I always look for meaning and symbolism. I look for “signs.” Signs that relate to something significant and let me know I’m supposed to buy this particular item.

I walked up the incredibly steep incline of the hills of Jerome, stopping every five steps to get a breath, and looked in shop after shop. In between trolley tours and dining out, I went to every shop in Sedona along Highway 89A, some two or three times, just hoping that magic ring would somehow appear. But I couldn’t find anything really special.

And then. In The Humiovi, which carries jewelry, kachinas, and pottery by Native American artists, I browsed Dry Creek turquoise, White Buffalo turquoise, and Boulder turquoise. Nothing struck me. Until Jodi, one of the shop’s salespersons, picked up a ring and put it in front of me. “Try this one. I have one like it. We can have friendship rings.”

Sedona RingI slid it on my finger. It fit.

“The carving on the side is ‘the journey’—the journey we take to get to where we need to get. The circle of life.”

Well, that did it.

“I just wrote a book about a journey,” I said.

“What’s the name of it?”

“Remember the Dragonflies.”

“Why did you write about dragonflies? They’re messengers from heaven, you know.”

I knew. I told her I wrote about my five-year journey of loss and grief and healing after my husband died.

I bought the ring. She bought two of my books.

The ring features Sleeping Beauty turquoise. The mine, now closed, is seven miles outside Globe, Arizona. The stone is a favorite of Zuni Pueblo lapidaries and silversmiths for the purity in color—a solid light blue. Other stones in the ring are lapis, spiny oyster shell, red apple coral, green turquoise, and magenta turquoise.

The lapis stone is a royal blue, much like my sapphire birthstone. It is believed to offer protection. It is also for self-expression, writing, creativity, and dream insight. Spiny oyster carries the meaning of peace of mind and patience. Red coral is for confidence, courage, and vitality. Native Americans believe green turquoise is sacred; it is used in ceremonies and grants good fortune. Magenta turquoise provides a nurturing vibration which allows for the screening out of hostility, anger, and fear.

Any way you look at it, I think I’m set.

Thank you, Jodi! And thank you, Sedona!

June Came In Softly

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June came in softly this year. Four days in, it came to me that the calendar had turned a page.

The previous five Junes came in with a cloud, dark, roiling, impenetrable—a cloud that hung over all thirty days. It was June six years ago when Charlie died.

I haven’t been able to make much sense of things since then, but one thing that speaks strongly to me is that the sun goes down and the sun comes up again.

Cycles. It’s the cycles in life that I find comfort in. Especially the short-term cycles—day and night, the seasons, the leaves that fall off the trees, the leaves that grow back.

fogThis morning it is foggy. On my seven o’clock walk, I studied the haze hanging in front of the tree line behind the houses on the street that runs perpendicular to mine. The distant trees were gray. Those closer to me were gray-green with clearer definition. Up in the sky I could see a ball of light behind the fog.

Life after loss is that way. The faraway future is unclear. Fog blankets everything. Things closer in, you can see faintly. The sun is behind the gray.

You know it’s there. It’s stronger than the clouds. In time, as the morning goes by, it burns the fog away and stands against the heavens, leaving wisps of memories.

On Writing the Hard Stuff

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I knew how I wanted to write my memoir from the start. I wanted the reader to know on the first page that I was okay and that I made it through, so I started four years after the death of my loved one when I was planting flowers in the yard of my brand new house; then I went back and told of my loss. I took all the suspense away and perhaps I broke a writing rule, but – too bad – that’s what I felt I needed to do for the sake of the reader.

Why? Because when I was in the pit of grief and needed a book on how to get better, I picked up one memoir and started reading about  the author’s loss and how she existed in a fetal position for a year and how she couldn’t do anything to move forward. I couldn’t finish the book. And to top it off, I discovered later she had remarried during the time the book was written.

I read other books. I was frustrated and angry at what was being published for widows. I couldn’t hitch a trailer to my car and galavant about the country baking pies in order to heal, nor could I run off and hike a wilderness trail for months on end, nor did I feel like going out dancing with other widows on Saturday nights, nor did I find it practical to sit in my easy chair and read the Bible and pray all day.

irisI lived in a real world. I inherited a business I couldn’t do, and I needed an income. I had to stay put, go to work, and manage life. And I needed help doing it. I needed to read about someone else who had to keep on going where she was.

I wanted my book to show the real stuff. And I knew my book would need to convey one thing: You can’t get to the top unless you go to the bottom.

You cannot show someone that you are better, that you have healed as much as is practical, unless you show them how much you suffered. You’ve got to show the hurt, the pain, the extent of the grief—that nobody understands unless they have been there—before the reader can appreciate where you’ve been and how far you’ve come.

My book was meant to tell a story that takes place in the flow of real life.

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