Grief

To Want to Return

We inched slowly towards the ranger stand, waiting for our turn to be let in. After rolling down the window, we were asked if we had a reservation.

“We only want to head home on Trail Ridge Road,” Dylan explained.

The kind woman explained our options, having had missed the memo that we now needed a time slot to get into the national park thirty minutes from home.

We turned around again, driving back into the small mountain town to wait until they opened the road for the general public who forgot to reserve access.

The delay was an inconvenience, but survivable.

We drove to the nearby lodge, and passed the time on a deck overlooking a lake to the right. Behind us, whole valleys were scorched by the fires from last summer. Remnants of magnificent trees stood stabbing their charred limbs into blue skies. Pine trees turned burnt orange from heat clung to crisped aspens, bending from sheer desperation. I could imagine them gasping for air as flames licked up their homes, their friends, their communities.

I was witness to the damage we have done to the earth, even while sitting in my gas guzzling SUV. There’s something unsettling to see climate change in action. To know that the trees of my youth have burned and my someday children will come see scorched matriarchs nurturing tiny seedlings instead is heartbreaking.

Jaw dropping. Gasp worthy. We took in all that has been taken from us, from the earth, from our stories.

I’ve been in the holy space of standing on ash before. When what was crumbles and what will be remains smudged. Familiar paths now blocked, mixed with melted wires and wood wrecked and warbled from heat.

Eventually, the world calls us to stand, wipe the smears on our pants, and move on.

Our world is at an important crossroads right now. We’re getting on planes and hugging our friends and returning to offices. In other countries, the virus continues to ravage and take, burning connections and ripping up roots as it moves from host to host.

There’s a temptation to push what’s happened into the past. We’ve dealt with our smears. We’ve washed our hands of all of this. What grief has taught me, however, is no matter how far you go, your landscapes stay altered.

We can turn our attention to the saplings and new growth, and say, look at the greens poking through the char. But we must tend to the ache and say, ‘but please, please, remember all that has burned’.

I’ll come back to the park to watch it recover. I’ll stand among pines and listen to water gush and gurggle into streams. I’ll watch the elk and the deer find their sustenance in meadows another valley over. And putting a hand to my heart, I’ll remember picnics and meanders on paths, and all the places he had seen, now too, morphed by the natural cycles of loss.

To stand in a place that has been forever changed and want to return is resilience. What a beautiful thing.

A Sore Tenderness

I went to get a massage yesterday to alleviate the developing hunch in my shoulders. When I walked in the door, the first thing the therapist asked after my name was, “Are you fully vaccinated?”

How bold to put the question I’ve been wondering about others out in front – a precursor to connection, a permission to proceed.

She welcomed me in to the space and I was met with the automated sounds of waves crashing on a noise machine. I completed the paperwork and she asked me what brought me in. What I was hoping to achieve?

I responded to all of the normal questions when one goes to see a new provider.

When asked, “Do you have any traumas?” I paused.

“You want me to list them here? I thought to myself. “Um, how far back do you want me to go? Are there folks who can answer no?”

I’ve met this question before and I’ve learned to be wary of how my answers are received. What does one need to know? When are folks simply curious?

To answer, I narrowed my scope. I ticked off the bus accident I was in in high school, a chronic crunch from hot days on tennis courts, an over heavy backpack from years as an academic overachiever. I spoke of my grief experience and that I carry anxiety in my hips.

She nodded, prodding no further with words. Instead, she turned to her hands to dig in to the story only a tense body can tell.

As I lay on a table covered in cool blue sheets, my masked face fought fabric and layers of protection to breathe. Skilled hands addressed deeply what I’ve been carrying from this pandemic and beyond.

I went home feeling relief.

People keep telling me to read the book “The Body Keeps the Score.” I’m afraid to pick up the title. Afraid of what may be revealed on those pages. That trauma and its adverse affects may be living in me.

You, too, have lived through a very traumatic time in our collective history. This pandemic isn’t over yet. The death rates may be slowing, and our bodies will be learning how to carry this experience for a beyond just a bit.

This morning, hoping for magic, I moved through a series of stretches. Where the therapist had focused her healing left a responsive ache in my muscles. I’ve been adjusted. I’m not free from pain.

Standing in my kitchen, waiting for water to boil, I watched a shimmering spider web descend from the trees out my front window. The strand was waving in the wind, arching from a leafy branch to settle on to the patio furniture waiting to be warmed by the sun. Do the spiders sense this global shift? Or are they simply doing what they know how to do? Reaching out. Webbing a place of belonging. Creating connections to ground oneself in the spaces in between.

Healing work takes practice. Kneading of muscles admits the nature of needing others to help us realign. In the reaching lies a sore tenderness and hope that we will once again connect from here to there. What a beautiful thing.

Divine We

After a recent Facebook binge, ie. doomscrolling session, my thumbs came to a rest. Traci Blackmon, a minister at the United Church of Christ, had posted this:

“Friends. As we ponder the validity of the CDC’s most recent announcement while the US remains at a 35% immunization rate and new cases and deaths, although significantly decreased, continue. As we reflect upon the surge of mutations that has now brought India to a full stop. Might I suggest the voice of individualism will tell us to count it a victory if I am ok, while the voice of the Divine would ask: What about others? History has proven we don’t ever go far when we go alone. WE are not yet well. “💞

Deep breath words. Ones that make me nod and want to weep, to swallow down a gulp in just a brief, overpowering moment.

Perhaps what Blackmon so eloquently captures in a paragraph is what I’ve spent fifteen months grappling with. The “me” mentality overpowers the “we” so often in our culture. I swim in ‘yeah buts’ and sentiments laced with, ‘well, that doesn’t affect me.’ The air is so thick, so humid, with these ideas that to those who won’t listen, my choice to stay home is conservative at best and just plain scared at worst.

I have been scared. You haven’t?

As mask mandates end and we go back to offices, I find myself clicking over to dashboards and charts in liberal media just as I have every single day since lock down number one. Yes, numbers are falling. Yes, vaccinations are happening. And yes, still cases climb, and people are dying and sigh, I could go on and on.

“What will it take for you to feel safe, Katie?” they ask me. I don’t have an answer yet.

Maybe the Divine is whispering to me, in my wonderings of what remains to be seen? How come our desire for connection and travel and a full plate of brunch still leaves those preparing your food vulnerable behind stoves full of simmering sauces?

I’m so good at asking, What about them? What do they need? What will I sacrifice in the name of safety or in the pursuit of kindness?

In a quick moment of rest, I heard another whisper.

Don’t forget, Ms. Katie, that ‘we’ includes you.

And I asked myself, What do I need?

I needed my mom to drive me from nursery to nursery in pursuit of plant starts and floral blooms. I needed a tiny cup of foaming milk, swirling espresso, and precisely six grams of vanilla syrup. I needed to sit in the dirt, to plunge shovels into loam, and to mix rich compost in with airy soil to create a place for something to grow. I needed a tiny cupcake to remember him by.

I need you to remember, we may be able to remove our masks now, but thousands are still scared and hurting and unsafe. We’re all going to carry on with remnants of this time like sand we took home from a trip to the ocean. We’ll find the grains in pockets of jeans, and at the bottoms of backpacks and work bags we left in the closet.

Where we walk next will be led by the foot steps we took last year, pacing in circles wearing carpet thin.

I felt a sense of relief with a second jab to the arm and this weekend for three days in a row, I hugged someone not my husband. Arms. Warm bodies. Your heartbeat in a chest next to mine. Beautiful, soul filling things.

Coupon Triggers

After closing the car door this afternoon, I turned over my shoulder to place my bag in the back seat. A crumpled piece of white paper caught my eye. Tucked under the floor mat, a coupon with an April 2020 date waited, forlorn and forgotten in vehicle that spent most of the year in my driveway. In bold, black font, perched next to a spiralized ham, was an expired offer for 10% off a selection of a certain size.

Last year, with an adamance for tradition and a determined clinging to what surely couldn’t be a crisis, I ordered a pre-made Easter dinner. I thought the coupon could be a solution for creating something good out of the crumbling closures and novel uncertainty.

I was terrified I was to leave my house. Curbside pick-up was still new. Sitting in the parking lot, waiting for my meal, I muttered through my mask about the coupon to a sales person on the phone. I had missed something in the fine print. My ham wasn’t big enough. I couldn’t communicate what I needed to the muffled voice on the other end of line. I didn’t receive the discount.

“Good enough and good riddance,” I thought, as they placed the golden wrapped hunks of meat into my trunk.

Later, I wept watching Andrea Bocelli sing on YouTube from Italy, and we dug into a breakfast bread alone in our den. The first holiday alone felt surreal, but manageable. Surely, we wouldn’t be here for long.

This year, I watch the spring-breakers on the news and I think, “We sure didn’t learn much the first time did we?” I don’t have the energy to muster up an Easter. I don’t care about ham and I cringe at all the watercolor graphics on banners outside of the mega-churches we drive by when we venture out.

Will this weekend be another super-spreader event?

Cases are up. Yes, again. Our defenses are worn. We’re tired. And, some of us are already immune.

I’ve always loved the power of Holy Week. Death is overcome. Victory is found. Even in the darkness, crocuses peak through the dirt and Christ is resurrected. But what about the millions of people who won’t be?

This morning the Governor of Colorado announced that all Coloradoans over the age of 16 will be eligible for the vaccine starting on Friday. When I read the headline, my body swelled with a mix of relief and continued anxiety. I’m on the lists. Please give me the shots.

I’ve been asked when I’ll be comfortable to return to the office and to consider when travel feels safe. I don’t have answers to those questions. My panic at re-entry can only be calmed one day at a time.

Focusing on numbers and death and fear of illness has deadened something within me. Planning what’s next feels as foggy as the wisps of grief that linger after loss. I’ve been living in a Good Friday world for so long.

And, as the Christians will tell you this week, Sunday is coming. I put my hope here. What a beautiful thing.

I

Tremors

The tremor started as I walked up to the counter. I looked up, facing the plexi-glass separating me and the barista. Taped to the barrier were two 8.5 x 11 pieces of paper, with a message to the neighborhood. I read that this Starbucks location is closing on April 4th.

“This is tragic” I blurted to no one.

Catching myself in my ridiculous statement, I blushed under my mask.

Trying to recover, I mumbled to the young woman waiting to take my order. “I’ll survive. But, this is a bummer.”

The closing of a corporate coffee shop is not tragic. A sign on glass is small compared to very real, looming challenges unfolding around the world. This loss of place is not life threatening. We know this.

My strong reaction masked memories and feelings of comfort that bubble up when I walk into rooms with slate floors and walls covered in green and white. The smell of beans, the packages of grounds, sparkling mugs with mermaids and white; all reminders of times before.

I noticed a wave of grief move within me. Not immense sadness. Instead, indicators of change taunting me with the truth of how quickly spaces of life transform into vacancies. Empty buildings. Stacked chairs. Locked doors.

I grabbed our drinks and joined Dylan outside. We began the walk home together.

I’d brought coffee to Dad’s office for years. He’d give me a twenty when I worked there in the summer, and I’d come back with iced lattes for me, and always Pikes Place for him. When we closed his office, removing furniture and files and countless awards, we left a tall cup of black liquid in the corner to cool, closing the doors behind us.

These places become a part of us. When they close, they press into motion seismic waves of memories of what was and murmurs of what will no longer be.

I’ve kept quiet this month, waiting for four years to turn to five in the course of a day. Sometimes, the approaching of the anniversary hurts more than the day itself. Beauty is harder to witness as the clouds come in, knowingly bringing weight and mist to the air. Last weekend the mist turned to blizzard, and two feet of snow fell in my front yard. Rain turns leftover piles to slush, and tonight we’ll have ice clinking to recently broken branches.

These cycles of days turning to years, wet turning into snow, piles turning into melt reveal these patterns have purpose.

When I care for myself, I can see the storm coming, and time has taught me to prepare accordingly.

At the start of the month, I chose a word for myself. Support.

Support. Being open to it. Asking for it. Being surprised by it.

Support looks like many beautiful things.

Friends sent me packages and caring texts. Others delivered donuts to my door. A card from a colleague echoed my questions in ways I didn’t know were living within me, until they showed up in my mail box. Her hand written words mirrored my experience in life-giving ways. The anniversary of the day He died came and went and tears fell. Before I went to bed, big sobs eked out as I held my knees, leaning against walls, wedging my body into the corner to feel support on all sides.

I was surprised by the intensity, and the release. The anticipation of pain left my body in waves.

Coffee shops are closing. Snow is falling. Days turned to years. And the quakes, while present, are smaller. What a beautiful thing.

Does Not Have to Be

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

Reminders from Facebook and Google Photos distract me from what I ought to be doing.

With each “On this day last year” alert, I’m jolted back in time. Sometimes one year. Other times four.

My phone told me on this day last year, I was sipping strong coffee out of small cups in Cuba. Warming in the sun, our guides told me to put on sunscreen. My see-through skin (their words, not mine) needed protection.

When I returned, one week later, I packed up my desk and transformed a bedroom into an office. I haven’t left this space much since. What unraveled has frayed into the thousands of stories we all now carry from living during a pandemic. Instagram is exploding with memes comparing March 2020 to March 2021. Will they be similar? Will the month hold the same amount of uncertainty, trauma, and loss as last year? Few fail to talk publicly about the trauma we are collective digesting right now.

With each announcement of a friend or colleague getting a vaccine, I can feel adrenaline swish within me. Yes, I want to be safe and I know when the people I love get to the front of the line, I’ll weep with relief. What their proclamations fail to hold, however, is the hurt we’ve been carrying and the continued wait so many of us still face.

I want to say, “Congrats. You’re out in the world. I’m not quite there yet. And can you get my mom to the front of the line?”

Sinking back in the black office chair, I meditate myself back to March 2017. I cautiously move back through time, recalling glimpses of how I felt one year after Dad’s passing.

I was intentional about doing everything different, as if the clothes I wore, or the food I ate could prevent a chain reaction leading to another disaster. I remember I was house sitting. My family had decided to spend the day apart. Our collective pain was too much to bear. I think it was grey. I wasn’t sure how to create something new in his absence. Maybe I went for a walk?

Eventually, I ended up at my mom’s house, perched on the wicker bar stool in the kitchen.

Staring at the sink, I coached myself out of a place of hopeful desperation, “March 18th of this year does not have to be March 18th of last year. Does it?”

Anniversaries are important. Marking what you’ve been through is vital to honoring the growth you’ve endured as time passes. The phrase, “does not have to be” frees our spirits from the tethers connecting us to our past traumas.

This March, I find myself triggered as we all reflect on the anniversary of a pandemic year. Whether you mark the start of the shut downs this week, or next, we all have been absorbing the trauma of 2020 for quite some time. Memes and comedians and politicians poke at my fears. Who would ever want to relive a month like that again?

This March does not have to be like last March.

Feel sad. Feel hopeful. Feel envious of those who are vaccinated.

Do not, however, dwell in the impending doom of waiting for last year’s next shoe to drop.

You’ve grown in this darkness. I promise. Even if events unfold in ways you don’t want this March, you are not the same person as you were in March of 2020. This March will not be last March. What a beautiful thing.

A Sunday Without Them

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

One Sunday, I found him standing there in the stacks. His worn denim jeans met the back of his green and black winter coat. I knew it was him because of the cap. Wool, with ear flaps, soft brown, and a tuft of grey curls sticking out of the bottom. I walked across sticky linoleum towards him and tapped a shoulder. He turned, with arms full of books and a smile grew on his face once he realized it was me.

How unsurprising that we would both be drawn to the library on a sunny Saturday afternoon. He checked out his books, and I checked out mine, and we went out to meet the winter blue skies, saying our see-you laters. He turned right and I turned left – back to our separate houses and evening routines.

Dad believed Sunday afternoons were for libraries. Safe places full of words and comfortable couches, and shelves to get lost in. Quiet rooms filled with stories are solace for an always-thinking mind. Even as I became a self-sufficient adult, somehow, we continued to find each other there.

Libraries have re-opened now, but fear of germs has tampered my courage to peruse the stacks. Instead, I search using keywords behind screens and use recommendations from blogs and other reader friends to pick my next read. I call when I’m turning the corner into the parking lot, knowing a brave essential worker is pulling my titles from the shelves. Curb-side pick up extends to the library, too.

This Sunday afternoon, I gathered last week’s titles and sat in the car as Dylan drove me to our first errand. I wasn’t thinking of Dad. Instead, I was feeling the sun on my face and moving my toes in tight shoes I haven’t worn for days. As he pulled to the curb, I placed my mask behind my ears, ready to approach the familiar brick building. Fifty yards to the drop box feels safe.

As I walked up to the door, I watched a man and his daughter exit into the winter sun. He wore worn denim jeans, and a puffy winter coat, and the girl trailed behind him. There were curls of hair sticking out of a hat, but the cap was all wrong. The girl too young, the coat blue, not forest green like before. The scene not quite right. I was just witness.

Anchoring myself to the earth, I opened the metal handle, and let my books drop down, the metal basket clanking as I released. Grief clanked down in my chest, lodging like those books, in cold plastic bins, waiting to be seen by a caretaker. How I crave other souls willing to read my words and re-shelve my grief story that looks different every single Sunday afternoon.

Turning on a heel, I walked back to the car, opened the door, and removed my mask. We moved on to other items on our to-do list.

The U.S. is approaching a horrible milestone of 500,000 lives taken by COVID. I hurt and wonder about all of those people and their loved ones, having a Sunday without them. The New York Times is doing interviews and publishing quotes, capturing stories, and doing expose’s about what could have been different. Politicians are flying to Mexico and trying to escape cold nipping at our systems. Very few want to carry the weight of frozen pipes and the crash of broken hearts. Most are unsure how to be witness to the healing.

There is no solution. No action to take. Instead, an invitation to be one who sees.

I’m not broken, tonight, but I am sad. I wish, with much of my heart, that libraries would be open and I’d find my dad standing, once again in the stacks. Instead, I place books back to be discovered by others. I feel the sun on my face. And I raise my hand to an aching heart, noticing again and again, all the places he’s missing. I’m learning, the noticing, is a beautiful thing.

Moves on Zoom

I started a new program this weekend and spent three days on Zoom with strangers. On the first morning, we were given journaling prompts to help us set intentions for our year. I had written show up fully. Do not be afraid of being seen.

I’ve been dancing between wanting to be known and wanting to hide for much of the last few years. I crave acknowledgement of loss, of unsureness, of the very human desire to belong. This very longing to be witnessed led me to sign up for the program. Where can I connect with others who care about compassion, empathy and emotion with the same deep seeking within me?

The desire to hide pulls me inwards. The fear of rejection moves me instead toward words and anonymous posts where I don’t have to see other’s reactions to my experience. Interesting, yes, how for almost a year now, I’ve shrunk to a world behind screens.

The universe laughed as the tension imploded and I found this line item on the agenda:

2:00 – 2:15 – Movement and Dance

In an in-person setting, the idea of dancing with strangers for fifteen minutes is squirm-inducing.

In a virtual environment, the pressure is only alleviated slightly.

I logged back on after lunch with a slight groan and told myself, ‘oh, hell, just go for it.’

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

Adjusting my screen up, I stood and I wiggled and I mimicked the moves of my new colleagues across time and space. Sixty five new colleagues from seventeen countries moved tentatively. Some looked unafraid. Others grabbed children and swayed in the light streaming in from open windows.

I miss people so much. The feeling of warmth as we move together. The nod of a head, or a shake of a hip, or even a knowing eye roll as we lean in uncomfortably.

I have no clue if anyone was watching me. It was just fifteen minutes.

I’m getting to the point where I’m living in the ‘Oh, hell’ space. I’m trying to care less if people fear my grief. I’m practicing the hellos, the here I am’s, and trusting that this story of mine helps others.

In my little box on the internet, my smile grew, and I allowed myself to be seen.

What a beautiful thing.

Rising to the Surface

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

Sitting in the worn arm chair, I snapped the hard cover book closed. Finishing my fourth book of the year, I reminded myself, reading is better than scrolling. The tension found in the stories crafted by others is made up. Not so true of the drama unfolding every day in our exhausted world. Rather than the muddied truths unfolding on media, I’m choosing to pick up something other than a screen in the evenings. Drawing from history, Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach kept me engaged for days.

The story follows Anna, a woman coming of age as the remnants of great depression followed families to World War II. Her family loses status and connection. To survive, her father turns to crafty and questionable ways of earning a living. Eventually, he leaves.

In the leaving, Anna is forced to confront questions of who she is in a world where her father isn’t. Her trials and errors are mingled with wonderings of how she can contribute.

She becomes a diver in the Navy ship yards – almost unheard of during the 1940s. Drawing internal strength, she puts on the weighted suit, over 200 pounds of ancient equipment designed to help her breathe. Going under, she learns to walk the shifting floor of the bay in darkness. She has lifelines, yes, and a few tenders watching her steps. But mostly, she’s trusting her instincts to wander alone, using clutched hands to make an impact. Water continues to whoosh around her with little concern for what she’s working to accomplish.

Eventually, the knots untie, the parts are installed, and the lost items found. When her tasks are complete, she can’t rise too quickly. Pressure must release slowly as she returns to the water’s surface. A little more air, bursts at a time, bring her back to the top where the light is no longer murky. She still swims among the slimy kelp, but knows her time underneath went to a cause bigger than herself.

Today is the last day of a political administration that made me weep. In two days, I turn another year older. In eight weeks, I’ll face five years of learning how to walk in a world where my father isn’t. It’s felt muddy and murky, and some days, the pressure felt so intense I was knocked from my anchors. I had equipment and tenders, and mostly, I had myself.

I didn’t ask to go diving into darkness. We rarely ever do. But what I’ve found amongst the currents is the knowing that I, too, can do the work when the light refuses to penetrate through.

The pressure will lighten, bit by bit, as I let the air in, small sips at a time.

We’re rising to the surface today. I wonder what we will see when we climb, with heavy boots and protective gear, up the ladder.

What a beautiful thing.

Vitamin C

Did a new year turn over?

While a fresh start is tempting, it feels more like 2020 is still bleeding onto our blank slates. I’m not willing to throw in the towel just eight days in.

One of my goals for this year is to check the news less. I’ve already failed.

My twitching fingers keep clicking refresh. As texts buzz in and news alerts ping loudly, I can’t help myself.

There’s a thick, bold line between being informed and being consumed. My consumption has reached unhealthy levels. The images of rioters and men barging through spaces seem burned into my consciousness. Anger seeps through screens as we create memes and scroll through poignant personal truths on Twitter, and confusion on CNN.

January typically is full of commitments to better. To healthy lifestyles, to new and improved selves, to less butter, or caffeine. Sugar is damned.

With the hemorrhaging of 2020 continuing, I ask, “What does it mean to be healthy, now?”

We thought cases were soaring in summer. Now spikes seem like mountains. These steep slopes lead to lack of oxygen. No blue skies or crispness in the air.

Searching for beauty from the home office is limited. My surroundings remain the same.

This week, I ordered groceries online and unpacked packages crinkling in cellophane. Butter and sugar are staples for survival. Improvement takes a back seat.

As plastic bags emptied, I turned to the pile on the counter. Five round Cara cara oranges winked hello from their caged netting.

Using a blunt scissor blade, I tore through the mesh to place a globe in my palm. As I dug my thumb nail into the flesh, I was squirted with small gems of juice. Licking my wrist, I kept at the process of ripping peel from fruit. I sank my teeth into the wedges and slurped on repeat.

I can watch, with eyes wide and stomach churning, the constant flow of bad news creep into my brain. Or I can put down my phone, walk away from the screens, and sink into sustenance instead.

Beauty in flesh, in juice, in slurping. In staying away from the news.

Be safe. Be well. Eat an orange. We need the vitamin C.