Tuesday, October 25, 2016

#SOL16: Bone and Heart

Devon sitting on the steps (2003)


The second step from the top creaks. It seems hard to miss that step and as such it is now a familiar sound. A comforting sound. This has always been more home than house, faulty in its grace.

Only Rob, Dev and I have ever lived here. The house was new when we bought. Others that spring would outbid us and yet  Dave, the builder, sold it to us anyway. I'd like to think that he knew we were at our limit and that we would make this place he built a home. And we have.

We gave rise to that creak. We made it climbing up and down these stairs for the last 14 years. Bounding down and trudging up ladened with books and boxes and laundry and more times than I could count, the sleeping weight of a toddler. Time has loosened these stairs--caused the wooden treads to rub against the risers and stringers; to grind against the screws and nails that hold it all together.  And how odd it is that such a noise could be more solace than annoyance; more balm than pain?


Rob climbed those stairs a year ago for the last time this month. He was unsteady on his feet and the climb up those stairs became too much for him to accomplish. We each did our best to not notice his unsteady and too heavy gait. We wanted it to be something temporary. We told one another how this set back would resolve itself with treatment. To pay note would have shifted the narrative from ever so hopeful to less so. And truly that bit of hope we held on to was more gift than not--more necessary than any pseudo cure the legion of doctors would prescribe and (un)prescribe.

On that last day he climbed the stairs, I washed him, washed his hair and we laughed at my clumsy attempts that morning. And how good it felt to laugh. He needed to sit  halfway through as holding his too-sick body up was too much to bear.  He could no longer manage such things. Even shaving become a chore and though I gave it a good try, he would take the razor from my hand and redo my first attempt. We were getting ready for what would be his first chemo treatment, as he had been cleared by the infectious disease doctor after five weeks of fighting a staph infection to finally receive treatment--treatment that would only land him back in the hospital in need of emergency thoracic surgery a week later. As the chemo stripped his body's defenses, the staph resurged growing into an abscess a millimeter from the right ventricle of his heart.

Rob would never see the second floor of our home again. Never walk up our stairs to our bedroom. Never sit in his favorite chair in the guest room which was more his study than not. Imagine that just seven weeks earlier he went up and down those stairs without a care. We each did.


Late at night I listen, listen to welcome him home, as if his departed spiritual self might bear some weight when all things grow dark and the barriers between here and there grow thin. In the dark anything can happen, anything can be. Now and then I hear the tread of my now six-foot son take those stairs two at at a time well after midnight. He is in search of a glass of water, a glass of juice--and it will be the empty glass I find sitting in the sink the next morning that confirms this late night tale.

On his way up the stairs to his bedroom, I hear the creak and I think of Rob. I think how this home we made is part bone, part heart.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

#SOL16: Sublime

from my art journal, 10.22.16 (gesso, found papers, acrylic paint, Tombow markers, tissue paper, ink)


The weather has finally turned sending the too-hot and humid summer-like weather we had this past week in the Northeast US, packing.  Good riddance. The first fall-feeling day is here. Gale winds, raw cold, and buckets of rain ("Buckets of tears/Got all them buckets comin' out of my ears/Buckets of moonbeams in my hand...")

And it is absolutely glorious to walk in the fall of rain, feel the wind so strong tug at the umbrella that I must hold at an angle--less the wind with a sharp snap will turn it inside out. This afternoon I have the path to myself. No one else seems to have ventured forth and surely I can see the appeal of curling up with a good book in an oversized chair with some mint tea. I painted most of the morning, making the journal page at the top of this post and after lunch I found myself heading to that chair with some tea and a book. It was after all, raining.

So? I thought.  I transferred the hot tea to an old Starbucks cup, threw on a sweatshirt, and let myself outside after saying goodbye to Devon.  To me, nothing affirms life like a storm.


I am rounding the last mile when the audio cuts out and my phone begins to ring. The display reads, Patty. My oldest friend in the world is phoning. We have known each other since we were each 4-years-old. I answer right away--using one hand to hold the umbrella and cup of tea and the other to put the phone closer to my mouth. We haven't spoken in a few months and I am eager to catch up. Between old friends there is no settling in to the conversation. No awkward pauses. No wondering what to say. There is just talk and lots of it--as if we talked every day. And well, I guess for so many years we did.

Pat tells me that creating helps ease grief.  Her husband John retired early and has taken up writing. "He says he needs two years.  One year to write and the next to reflect on that writing."

"How wise," I tell her, "to give himself that second year."

Pat's an art therapist. She recommends movement and creating as means to ease grief. She laughs telling me it was in the low 30s this morning in Michigan and raining too and she went out for a run anyway.  After about 20 minutes of which only the last 5 were dedicated to the election (Pat says with a chuckle that in Michigan all of the millennials and she voted for Sanders), she rings off as she is heading to a client.


Later, after night has fallen and the wind has quieted a bit, I am reading an old copy of Flow Magazine.  I see there is an article about loss and begin reading. Dealing with loss says RenĂ© Diekstra,

"is the ability to create something from our pain. This can be simple, like keeping a diary, contacting a fellow-sufferer or looking at a painting. Re-forging our pain can frequently lead to something sublime. The main question we must ask ourselves is: What can I do with my pain besides suffer from it?" (from Flow Magazine,  Issue 12).

What can I do? As much as there are days when I desire to stay active, I realize that I am even more partial to solitude. I enjoy writing and making art and both of these tend to be done alone. Painting all morning fueled me, allowed me to feel content and even, joyful.  It is the small acts that heal. Talking with an old friend. Walking in the rain. Watching what begins to emerge as I paint and become.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

#SOL 16: Now

Rob showing Devon how to work his first camera. We were in the Redwood Forest in late December.


When someone knows sorrow--sorrow others could well experience, feeling relieved that such loss does not have your name written on it is natural.  I was listening to Kim Snyder, the director of the documentary film, Newtown speak a few weeks ago and I remembered that guilty feeling that arose when the horror of Newtown first happened. I thanked God my then 13-year-old son was alive and not touched by such misery. I was relieved to not be any of those parents. This did not stop me from feeling for those families, wondering across these last four years about them and their slain children.


A few weeks ago, a woman anticipating a first wedding anniversary expressed sorrow about the death of my husband.  Her expression was timid and she explained how she felt uncomfortable about her joy given my recent loss. This surprised me for I so keenly believe in love. To have been loved so well by Rob makes belief in love easy. Yes, this loss is life altering and as such there are now certain closures and openings to my life that are uncharted. No map exists.  But honestly, no map ever did.

Love has a way of shaping reality, softening ambiguity, curbing disappointment, allowing us the pretense of an endless life.  For in the glory of love time functions without borders, curves and folds as we need, as we desire.


We have this moment.  Among those who know such sorrow, the value of the present is not lost.

Friday, October 21, 2016

#SOL16: Holding Their Tongues and Impossible Futures

from my art journal 10.1.16 (Gesso, marker, acrylic paint)


When I was 15,  I first read Edith Wharton's slim novel about impossible futures. By the end of Ethan Frome, tragedy has occurred.  Ethan and Mattie try for that impossible future by sledding into a big elm and neither accomplish the permanence of death. At the top of the hill, seated on a sled, the narrator comments that Ethan
"...sat still a moment, straining his eyes down the long hill, for it was the most confusing hour of the evening, the hour when the last clearness from the upper sky is merged with the rising night in a blur that disguises landmarks and falsifies distances."

And isn't this an apt description of those times we leave the present moment and try for a future that is not ours? What seems most certain in the present is obscured when we peer beyond where the soles of our feet meet earth. And yet the impulse to do so, remains strong.


Tonight I wonder what it is it about impossible futures that beckon? Why do they seem to call to us when we would rather be anywhere but the present moment. Sorrow anchors a desire for what cannot be, while being fueled by all that has been lost. The tension between is almost too much to bear. Towards the end of his life, Rob's sure-footedness here on earth slipped more and more. And I could do nothing except bear witness as the pull for life lessened. The man I married left before his last breath gave out.


The novel closes with the two residing once again under the weight of Ethan's too sad wife Zeena. The three know only sorrow and anger and pain. Mrs. Hale a fellow townsperson from Starkfield, closes the text by saying,
"And I say, if she'd ha' died, Ethan might ha' lived; and the way they are now, I don't see's there's much difference between the Fromes up at the farm and the Fromes down in the graveyard; 'cept that down there they're all quiet, and the women have got to hold their tongues."
Imagine that holding your tongue is sum difference between living and not.


I'm a photographer with hundreds of photographs of our son and now each one reminds me of Rob. Something simple like getting Devon shoes when he was just a toddler is a story. I remember how very much we loved. Each image is a story we shared. A truth we learned. A record. Some are silly, others less so. But what I know tonight is that we lived fully, unlike poor Ethan and Mattie. We did not wait for a future that would not arrive. we lived. Ethan and Mattie flirted with love and lost. We did not.


No more than an hour after Rob learned he would die, my husband's thoughts were of me and our son. As his grip on this world loosened he somehow found the grounding to tell me what I most needed to know--what I, at the time, did not know I would need so dearly.

"Live brilliantly," Rob would tell me. "Love Devon and live."

I am, Rob. I am.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

#SOL16: On Writing and Teaching Writing

Art Conversations (M.A. Reilly, 2008)


Recently I wrote in the comments section of a blog, "I like to think every letter of every word written and the spaces between these words are a record of healing." 

And I do.

For the last six years that I have kept this blog, I never imagined how much I would grow to need it--to need you--my imagined reader. Back in 2009 when I first posted, I did so out of obligation. I was taking a weekend course at Bard College and everyone enrolled had to make a blog.  So I started this blog, posted, and did not write again for another 8 months. But even as I did not write, I knew in the back of my mind that there was this space waiting for me to fill.

Since then I have written more than 1500 posts and have published 1400 of those. Since Rob's diagnosis, I have written more than 200 posts, more than 100,000 words and I recognize that each utterance and the spaces between have been healing steps. 

Who knew I would ever need this like my very breath?


I think a lot about the intersections between writing and healing. And today, I am less sure that writing instruction at school is worthy of our children's time and attention. These commercial units of study that are so popular feel so contrived. So jammed up with tasks to do that thinking, yes thinking, feels somehow left out. Completion should never be mistaken for grand conversations. When I read the prepared units I think that learning is so outlined and calendered that one might wonder where there was room to pause. To think. To talk. To err.

I grow weary just thinking about the rush to teach so many different genres each year to children of all ages. Surely in this drive to pack it all in we may be missing what is most fundamental: 


Yes, invention is at the heart of writing. William Carlos Williams admonished us years ago when he wrote, "Shame on our poets/they have caught the prevalent fever:/impressed/by the 'laboratory,'/they have forgot/the flower!/which goes beyond all/laboratories!/They have quit the job/of invention. The/imagination has fallen asleep/in a poppy-cup."

When I think of learning, not necessarily teaching, writing seems more possible, more ready to wear, less stuffy. I want the young people I work with to make meaning because they must. I want them to do it daily and to do it with intention when possible. I want them to learn the art of contradiction, the wonder that comes when the poem writes itself, the frustration that happens when the page remains empty. I want them to live wide awake lives and take notice. I want them to privilege accuracy because the words and marks they place on a page matter so, as do their readers.

I want the young people I teach to learn writing by walking/wheeling/moving/chatting. The world beyond the school house beckons and we ought to help our young people build bridges with words and intentions to it--to gather the shorelines in their fists. I imagine writing instruction has more to do with painting--with mess making--with building stuff, than with strict guidelines about any particular genre. I shudder when imagining teaching a class to write poetry at the same time. No, not that. Never that. 

I would surely fail as a writing teacher today, likely I would be dismissed. But, I would fail brilliantly. Chuck those units of study out the nearest window or better yet use them as substrates to bloom beautiful works. At best, I would hope to occasion the interest in my students to see what might be waiting around the bend. To listen to what is not said. To consider the possibilities before them and say what must be said and honor, yes honor, the silence such saying might evoke.  We could sit awhile. Perhaps take tea. There is time for this. 

John Cage knew. I have nothing to say and I am saying it--may well be the first creative act after breathing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

#SOL16: A Dead Fir Tree

the dead fir tree.

The fir tree next to the front stoop died two weeks after Rob. It did so suddenly without a hint of sickness. Green one day and then not. It's a sad looking tree now, still draped with Christmas lights--all the more pronounced now that the needles have thinned and browned. Vinca vines from potted plants have begun to curl themselves along the tree's perimeter.  A reminder perhaps that life resurges, seeks its voice in all things.

The tree's twin is on the other side of the stoop and it seems to have grown at least another foot since March. Now it is lush and green. Its strings of light rest easy, mostly hidden among the many overlapping branches. There's an odd symmetry to the front of my home. Symbolic even.

For the longest time I have intended to replace the fir, but have not done it.  I inquired about the cost last spring and it was not too dear to do.  Yet, I have hesitated as if I can't seem to bring myself to have it gone. To see the absence it makes. To replace it.

Perhaps, I have developed a newfound affinity for the dead.  I can't bear to part with even this odd reminder of the terms I now live with, the terms that define me, partially.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

#SOL16: What I Know

from my art journal 10.15.16 (Gesso, ink, watercolor, Tombow paint markers, acrylic paint, percolator app, digital remix)

...Now that the bones are gone
who lives in the final dust?

  ~Pablo Neruda, from LXII, A Book of Questions


Each works.
Both out of sync with here, now.


What I know is limited to the rhythm of my breath. Each breathed-out moment feels new fleeting, so ephemeral. After the death of a husband, life reveals the absence of long vista views.

Here there is only terra firma.

The land, so parched, like my heart--so parched that I write love notes in the dust with just the tip of a sneaker hoping you, dear Rob, can somehow decipher the marks. It's a Morse Code of sorts. Or perhaps a bridge, left to span the void between here and there.

Each day my feet eat up the hard ground and I think, surely walking and writing and painting and talking have saved me.


What I know now could fit inside the smallest of thimbles with room left for heartache new. And when the uncertainty of the very-second-beyond-right-now rises up like an old rickety carnival ride cresting a hill, I want to turn away, to not see the empty swing of ferris wheel gondolas bereft of you, of me, of who we were together.

"Don't look," I want to shout.
And I look anyway. Stare down that emptiness with bravery that catches in my throat.

How did I not know life could be so very hard and I would be so very capable?


What I know about loss murmurs so soft some evenings like prayers intoned at vespers. There are things I say in the dark and I say them so softly that sometimes I think they are more imagined than not.

After all these months, I want to offer praise for I have come some distance. I have. But I have no such song to sing. No praise song, yet--just these bits of words and phrases I have fashioned here. A start of sorts.


What I know is grief keeps it's own liturgical hours, knows its own mind. It is indifferent to pain and need and desire and the well turned pages of the calendar.
I may be more monk than not, now. You may be, too.

Hymns offered to a husband dead by a wife grieving.

It will get easier, I think.
This awful newness will get easier.