Grief

Smeared

The smears are a pretty common occurrence.

Slivers of chocolate fall from a crinkled piece of plastic holding my breakfast onto my pants. Oats and nuts crumble and the binding cocoa leaves little trails on my hands and my jeans as I drive in to work. If I move fast enough, I can lick up the evidence.

If not, like most mornings, I walk into the office with a little chocolate stain on my jacket or dark denim pants. Does breakfast count if it’s covered in chocolate? I like to think so. KIND bars probably does too.

I’ve been thinking about those smears and the lingering they represent. How a messy  bite of joy on a busy morning lingers, integrating itself into the fabric of my clothes, the upholstery in my car, and at times my husbands jacket as I reach to correct his uneven coat collar from the passenger seat.

Sure, we could look and just see a stain. A nuisance, a frustrating something I’ll have to clean again. Yet, the frequency of the marks have turned into something for me to ponder. I don’t want to live without the marks of joy for we move along to the next thing fast enough.

I woke this morning feeling sad. My gremlin arrived yesterday, hopping from granite counter top to the new ceramic backsplash my father-in-law so lovingly installed in our kitchen. With each application of gray, wet grout, the little grief monster bounced and caused me to remember, “Yes, here we go again. Making progress without him.”

Just before, we had removed the spacers placed to hold it all together. I took a metal trowel in my hand, dipping over and over again into the sludge of prepared cement and smeared the wet to fill in the intentionally designed gaps.

pawel-czerwinski-0lCqhJxu6D8-unsplash

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Every time the trowel met the wall, my little grief monster bounced, calling me to remember, “Yes, here we go again. Making progress without him.”

When my in-laws left, I sat at the kitchen table looking at our project. Taking a deep breath I mumbled to my husband across the room, “These projects sure make me miss him.”

A few tears fell, smearing day-old mascara around my tired eyes.

The pigment left dribbles on my cheeks as they fell, once again, onto my jeans. Another perceived stain on skin and fabric meant to be cleaned up. I stood and stepped up soft stairs and went about writing an ordinary grocery list.

There are smears – of joy, of sadness, of instant gratitude in the crinkling requirements of life. I’ve used my fingers to caress away, wipe, and lick at the morsels that fall. There will always be something to clean.

What if we let the smear stay a little longer and ask ourselves to move a little slower? What could happen then?

I’m thankful for the beauty of chunks of dark chocolate mixing with fruit and nuts. Beauty in tired mascara as it meets salty tears. Beauty in remembering and the smear of anticipatory emotion. Beauty in the ache of wishing he, too, could use his artisan hands to create in my house. We took cement and smeared it over the kitchen sink where he broke a wine glass the last time we had dinner together.

The smears set. They are radiating beauty. Come on over to my kitchen. I’ll show you what I’m talking about.

Don’t Go. Don’t Go.

john-towner-FD_sabE544U-unsplash.jpg

I summed up the pages of books read in 2019. A rather disappointing 10,689 pages. I wasn’t surprised. I hadn’t prioritized reading last year. While I still racked in 30 titles, I chose scrolling over page turning. There are seasons for reading and retreat and seasons for trying to re-enter the world.

I chose the later.

The first weekend of the new year, I picked titles to download on my Kindle – light books to lift the spirit.

This week, I consumed Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love and Food by Ann Hood. Her series of essays based on food and the comfort in brings in all seasons of life was a page turner and delightful, and to my surprise, was laced with grief. She lost a daughter at the age of five, went through a divorce, had to recreate and remember someone dear who never grew into size six shoes.

“Dang it,” I thought, “wasn’t this supposed to be a light read?”

On the pages were permission to use food as comfort, to create something out of nothing, and sit and chew and swallow in sad remembrance.

Turn the page and still another essay was about the simplicity of tomatoes and the multitude of ways we can use the fruit to celebrate – soak them in vodka, mash into sauce, cover meat and simmer into something else all together.

Hood integrates her sadness into her studies with food and then uses words and morsels to comfort herself. Her exercises also brought comfort to me.

And later, on a bright Saturday afternoon, I accepted an invitation to see Little Women and walked out of the sun into a dark theater. The seat squeaked as I sat down, my feet crunching on kernels left by the guest before me.

An intended afternoon escape, the movie mixed dark and light, and creativity and giving and loss so beautifully, I started to vibrate.

As the movie danced back and forth from past to present, I knew what was coming. (Spoiler Alert) How could I have forgotten that Beth is going to die?

Jo lays on the twin mattress next to her fading sister and pleads, “Fight for us Bethie. Stay here and fight.” I heard stories of something similar although the words for us were different.

“Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.”

In the dark theater, it seemed once again that I can’t escape it. The truth of mortality, the thread of loss weaving us all together in some cluster of something. I see my stitches – what’s still unclear is the mess they are creating when I pull my own threads in line with those of others.

In stories, in movie theaters, in recipes calling us to mix salt and soda and sugar and sweet. It’s here. This grief. I can’t escape it.

I work on writing to you, dear readers, stories and experience of the beauty our world has to offer and each week I will my fingers and my spirits to speak of lighter things. I’m trying to focus my view on only the good and in doing so the dark seeps, waiting to be tickled and seen.

For awhile, I felt sorry.

For now, I feel it’s the only way I know how.

To nod to it’s being here and still search for the good God promises will follow, or perhaps has been here all along.

In the ink of Hood’s writing were woven stories of love and compassion and longing and recovery. The magic of melting cheese and butter in an omelet made by someone you love. Grandmother’s recipes and the gift of giving tiny tastes to tiny mouths.

And in Gerwig’s Little Women, I was awed by the costumes, the light, the magic of sisterly bonds and the beautiful choice of choosing ambition and creativity over love and recognizing the ache for the people we want to be with us forever.

The beauty is so mixed, I can no longer separate the good and the hurt. It’s all there. Wherever I go.

Please stay with me. Please continue to read. For this is my world, your world, ours. And in it are beautiful things to be seen.

The feel of a warm decaf latte in cold hands at tea time, the crunch of pop corn kernels drizzled in butter, the creative things people choose to put out into the world. Our connectedness. Our hurting. The mixture of love and light and darkness and our aching.

Don’t go. Don’t go. Stay here with me. What beautiful things we can find.

 

No More Braces

A few weeks ago I found my notebook from January 2016.

In black ink, I had listed the things I was hoping for in the empty pages of a new year.

I had just started a dream job. There were 363 days to fill with goals and books and friends and growth opportunities.

In March of that year, my optimistic self was whacked to the knees with loss.

My world contracted and my goals mixed with tears in a confusing, sloshing slurry.

I threw out my resolutions and sat and stared at walls. 

Recently, I sat in my dark basement reading my old words, my heart ached for my younger self. Ambitious. Hopeful. Unscathed by the flickering cold flames of loss.

I felt ashamed and embarrassed of my previous positive outlook. Foolish for hoping in a hurting world.

‘Silly girl, you didn’t know what was coming,’ the bad voices said. I knew it was bad out there – it just wasn’t bad for me. Not yet.

I can now see I did, in fact, fill 2016 with books and I learned about my friendships and I grew tremendously – just not in the ways I expected. Grief tore things, and stretched, and re-arranged my definitions of success.

As the sun set and rose on repeat, I’ve welcomed four more January 1sts. At the start of each year, I’ve made lists to direct my efforts, and set goals to move myself into new places. I carried forth optimism and an appreciation for aesthetics. Yet, even with my devotion to hope, I moved with clenched fists and braced myself for more.

For resolutions were my buffers and achievements were my shields. Chinks in armor. If I do enough, then this won’t happen again.


When I was a toddler, I had to wear braces so I could learn to walk. I don’t remember much of the plastic structures that covered my ankles and went up my tiny calves into Keds sized large to accommodate the extra support. I have one blurry memory of blue gymnastic mats and afternoon light as I put heel to toe, heel to toe, heel to toe across the room towards the voice of a physical therapist.

The braces gave me support, structure, and a permanent bend in my big toes.

They also, eventually, got to come off.

In my grieving, my braces – preservation and structure – have looked and sounded like many things.

… isolation

… no-thank you’s to invitations

… doubts and fears and the I couldn’ts, I shouldn’ts because walking without leaves one wobbling

… I’m not ready, yets

Some were healthy. Others I’ve outgrown. As a result of the spiritual supports, I’ve got a permanent bend in me now – a wound – a wonder – a missing.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. – SemiSonic

I sat under bad lighting at an oak kitchen table in a cabin in the woods as December turned to January in one minutes time. A decade slipped from one to the other in a split second.  There was no Ryan Seacrest and my young cousins had never heard of Dick Clark. No confetti. Just falling snow and the flick of a switch and we arrived.

Scrolling with my thumbs, I missed the moment the ball dropped. Two minutes into the new year I turned to kiss my husband on his forehead.

alberto-bigoni-sOLHbKqZbaI-unsplash.jpg

Photo by Alberto Bigoni on Unsplash

This year, I’m removing my braces of fear and of worry. I’m kicking aside the lie that accomplishment protects me from all that could be coming round the corner.

There’s a voice calling me to keep at it.

I’ll be seeking the magic and believing in the good.

I won’t be ashamed to hope. I’ve just learned to carry my humanity differently.

I’m moving heel to toe, heel to toe, tentatively in the new year, with my braces kicked to the side of the room. What a beautiful thing.

 

 

 

Reach(ed)

slawek-k-nt8a3ghgsi0-unsplash.jpg

Photo by Slawek K on Unsplash

My word for 2019 was reach.

As the old dictionary says, there are many definitions and just as many applications of those five letters.

  • to make a stretch, as with the hand or arm.
  • to become outstretched, as the hand or arm.
  • to make a movement or effort as if to touch or seize something:to reach for a weapon.
  • to extend in operation or effect:power that reaches throughout the land.
  • to stretch in space; extend in direction, length, distance, etc.

This time last year I was hoping to put myself “out there” again. To stop retreating and re-enter the world in ways that would stretch me and help me touch new things, arrive in new places, and make bigger impacts.

With my word in mind, I started to live differently.

I walked into new networking meetings and said hellos.

I boarded planes to the mid-west and slept on plastic mattresses or in single hotel rooms as a solo traveler.

I led grieving individuals in workshops with words.

I asked for a desk chair.

I learned to put my own words to my needs with trembling hands.

I said yes more and swatted at my fears.

I stretched my stamina and extended my efforts and tried new things.

I had a good year.

What if, however, my reaching was instead grasping and my attempts to stretch were pushes (to press or urge to some action or course)? I was pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, pushing myself to take up space, pushing myself to live again when parts of me still feel the pins and needles of coming awake after loss makes your limbs turn to dead weight.

My kind yoga instructor often walks around her studio and places her warm palms on my shoulders, reminding me to relax the shell of protection I’ve created as my muscles inch closer to my ears. As we move our limbs into the next posture, she returns, same palms on the small of my back inching me closer to the floor in a forward fold.

Pushing would suggest success. A clear tick mark in the empty box.

You can’t push past pain to get release. You have to ease into it.

In recovery programs, people repeat “progress, not perfection.”

This year, I made space, I stretched, and I extended.

I made progress. I did not arrive.

I reached.

Our society waits at the end of that sentence and in the pause asks, “For what?”

At the end of this year, I’m still not sure.

Awakening wasn’t found in my accomplishments. Emptiness still lingers in my limbs and my ever-tight hips suggest I still have work to do. Healing isn’t found in over-extension. I’m still easing into my pain.

Deep breaths expand my life force lungs. I learned in my reaching, I’m still here.

Push, grasp, reach.

Move, hope, release.

The journey continues. What a beautiful thing.

Mary Wasn’t Ready Either

“Nine days til’ Christmas!” the radio announcer proclaimed in a voice much like a Who in the 2000 version of The Grinch.

I imagined his tiny teeth and coiffed hair proclaiming the minutes ticking by to the Big Holiday as I turned the corner on to the major highway on my way to work.

We’ve been hustling and bustling with packages and bows. Dodging Suburbans in parking lots and honking at stop lights. Just like the travels on their way to Jerusalem for the Census. Right?

Christmas is coming and I’m not ready.

I’m not ready for the waves. Waves of excitement. Waves of grief. Waves of anxiety that come with the planning for pulling people who love each other together in a room for a purpose we easily forget in a gift giving world.

As I drove and listened to celebrities sing about holy nights, I paused and thought of Mary. She wasn’t ready. She didn’t ask for this baby at all.

I didn’t ask for grief. For missing. For aching. For the need for reinvention and the embracing discomfort to push through to potential. I didn’t ask for the mystery of the “What the heck – this wasn’t quite how it was supposed to be” moments.

Mary didn’t either.

And yet, Jesus came.

alasdair-elmes-ZiCz-oW1LXA-unsplash.jpg

Hope in the form of an infant, on a cold dark night and with him came the angels and the promise of healing and restoration and wholeness. Can you imagine witnessing all that potential just laying in scratchy straw?

A woman surrounded by men in awe. Probably telling her what to do – how to swaddle, where to sit, what to consider next.

And in the confusion, I’d like to hope peace came to her that night. In some form or another as she sat and wondered, “How will God use me in this?”

I’m not ready for the mysterious of mix of hurt and hope and sparkle. I’m not ready for the shadows looming, his empty chair, the small talk at holiday parties.

I’m not ready.

And yet here we are. “How will God use me in this?”

So, I start to pray.

I’m praying for the miraculous possibly found at a home-made table surrounded by beautiful, broken, seeking, healing people. I’m praying for peace as we sit among the fallen nettles of a tree-farmed pine tree under twinkling lights.

I’m praying for toasts and witnesses and a squeeze of my hands or shoulders or a kiss on the cheek. I’m praying for the Holy to come and be with us and those who can’t or won’t be in my living room.

Nine days ’til Christmas!

Turning left, I pulled into an icy parking spot at the local King Soopers.  I rushed in to buy green pears and soft cheese. Simple offerings for the Holiday lunch at the office. After paying and slipping on wet linoleum, I started to fumble for my keys in my pit of a purse. Looking up, I caught sight of something special.

Both wearing printed pajamas and snow boots, two small children walked hand in hand with their tired- looking mother. They stomped and they hopped and they wrestled for a cart. Children in pajamas at the grocery store. Beautiful.
Whispered prayers and wondering hearts. Beautiful.

Incomplete to-do lists, anxieties, hopes and healing. Beautiful.

I’m not ready for Christmas – I’m guessing Mary wasn’t either.

What a beautiful thing.

Good enough for this year.

miroslava-mTtuQIrDZMg-unsplash.jpg

Photo by Miroslava on Unsplash

I walked in the door to grief group tonight with my arms full of bags – the worn canvas stretched as I turned to open my arms and hug the once-strangers who I now consider my friends. I bent at the waist and removed my clogs and turned and slid my mismatched socks towards the table.

Twelve courageous women laid out crackers and creamy cheese and plates of cookies to frost with store-bought frosting. We swiped crumbs off of islands and sprinkled flour on the clean counter. Relying on our resourcefulness we used a pepper grinder to roll out the dough. We cut shapes and dunked morsels in chocolate and shook green, red, and white sprinkles over pre-made cut-outs. We sat around a table and said their names and shared the multitude of complex things we feel during the holiday season.

And I stopped and thought, “Yes, this is good.”

Good enough for this year.

And earlier this week, while taking my turn at a four-way stop I apparently cut off a car coming round the blind corner. The horn shook me out of a something-thought and I proceeded to find a parking spot. I walked gingerly to the favorite kitchen store in town and met Mom to wander through familiar aisles.

Looking up from the shortbread display I grabbed my mom and I hissed, “Pause here.”

Around another blind corner, old acquaintances stood eyeing their own gifts and goodies. We pivoted, avoiding the unnecessary moment of awkward eye contact. Running into “before people” in stores on holidays earns you a pity tilt of the head and a sympathy sigh. If they are really unsure, you may get a pat on the hand as well. We turned towards the tea pots and moved through aisles to make our purchases on the other side of the store.

We had planned to spend hours together shopping, just like we used to, and instead we spent three hours talking at a new taco shop in town. At a small table in the back, next to the kitchen, we wept and we wondered how we can let go of the old and create something new.

New traditions. New expectations. New hopes and new chances to shape togetherness because the old holiday traditions will never be the same.

And as we paid the bill and walked into the winter sun, I stopped and thought, “Yes. This is good.”

Good enough for this year.

As I held my mom’s hand and looked her in the eye she said to me, “You know, we never started baking gingerbread snowflakes with the intent of that being tradition. We tried them. They were good, so we did it again.”

I’m borrowing loosely from holiday expectations this year. Different formats for making cookies. Different time spent shopping on Amazon rather than in stores. Different routines and expressions of grief and making space for the sadness our culture demands we package away in pretty red bows.  Maybe we’ll do them again. Maybe we won’t.

I spent year one through three trying, pushing, forcing the holly and the jolly and it was horrible.

This year I’m stopping and thinking, “Yes, this is good.”

Good enough for this year.

What a beautiful thing.

 

Chim Chim Cher-ee

“Winds in the east, theres a mist comin’ in
Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin.
Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,
But I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”
– Bert – Mary Poppins

It was 60 today. They are saying snow on Tuesday.

It was August just yesterday.  Thanksgiving is on Thursday.

bert.jpeg

Here I am, tonight, writing in the now, while and temperatures drop and Christmas lights go up, and lists get written down to prepare for the holiday season. Movement.

I’ve moved out of our safe-zone and into the holidays and I’m thinking of Bert and his cautionary storytelling.

Awhile back, I shared how my grief safe-zone was from the day AFTER Father’s Day to the week before Thanksgiving. As Thanksgiving is a week late this year, I promptly walked out of the safe-zone and into the field of grief triggers last Thursday. Was it 8 am or 3 pm?I couldn’t tell you. But I noticed.

The wind’s blowin’ in.

Mom’s making turkey hats, I’m writing Christmas lists, and I ordered my holiday cards. I bought a wreath hook and gingerbread cookie mix (blasphemy … sorry Mom) and started the joy-filled planning tasks while honoring the Dad-size bubbles of mash sitting on the back burner for the last few months.

The grief, still warm, starts steaming and stewing and mingling with pine and plans and memories of tree trunks and his strong love of going around the table and sharing our thanks for the miracles God provides.

Later this week I’ll share my 52 Thankfuls for this year with you.

Tonight, I’m getting out my wind-breaker to brace for the back and forth blowing all of us humans feel while crafting Hallmark holidays in a broken world.

As my grief moves, I drove through the Target parking lot and stared at the pretty trees glowing yellow with magical space in between bare branches. I stole a taster from the cookie store. I ate brunch with my family and drank a latte with another who gets the scratchy feeling our frayed heart holes have when rubbing up against the Christmas sweaters of others. Beautiful, beautiful things.

Celebrate, yes, and witness the beautiful things around you. Tend your hearts with toasty socks and mugs of something warm, and twinkly lights on boughs of delicious smelling trees.

And bring a friend some tissues, or invite your co-worker to lunch, or take an extra long bath because, while wondrous, magical, and sparkly, this time of year tends to rub on our healing wounds like the scratchy wool socks waiting for your cold toes in the back of your drawer.

Year four. Worn. Familiar. Something that’s happened before. “Can’t put me finger on what lies in store.”