Saturday, March 23, 2019

Oh, Earth

“And Full of Sleep” (M.A. Reilly)

I opened an email and read a new comment about a post written several years ago about art, affinity groups, and brick-based learning. As I reread the post I thought about how committed I was to making art and frankly how happy I was. I don’t recall being anything but happy in those days. I wrote that I was richer than Midas.

I only noticed the date of publication after I finished rereading and realized that a year later we would celebrate Rob’s last birthday. I could almost imagine the specifics of the day when I wrote the post. More than likely we had celebrated my birthday and Rob’s the night before. Proabaly a simple supper, some presents, and surely cake. We were born a day apart. I imagine as I wrote on my laptop that he was somewhere in the house reading the latest issue of The Nation or a novel and Dev was likely on line with friends from Virginia or Europe. We probably had tea later that night and Rob may have even read the post by then. He always read what I wrote and would have offered his thoughts.

A year later he would be diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, could no longer walk, would have spent 50 days in two hospitals and had suffered through three surgeries, losing a rib in the last one. He would spend another 50 days in the hospital in January and February, and would die at home a month after Devon turned 17.

When I read the post written ten months prior to all that sickness and death, I marveled at the lightness and innocence that defined me and our home. Married to a man who I thought of as a soul mate, I had lived a charmed life. We loved our child, delighting in him in ways parents only do with one another, and for 13 years we had the best dog in the universe, our Golden Retriever, Max.

Reading about my past unsettles me. It’s like that moment in Our Town when Emily returns from the dead to witness an ordinary day in her life and she realizes that humans move through their lives barely, if at all, noticing one another.  I thought Rob and I would live with one another forever and boy did we have plans for the future. It’s not that I thought we would be immortal, but truthfully, I didn’t consider death. I was in my mid-fifties, and Rob was slightly older. We simply never dwelled in death.

The knowledge that in 14 months, the man who walked through life with such few cares would no longer be able to climb the single flight of stairs to our bedroom is chilling. Live brilliantly, he told me, just minutes after we learned the cancer was terminal. There are things I now know about life and the commitment made each day to not just breathe through it, but to live it boldly, presently, now. Ironically, the post was about the ways artist see.

Memory is part remembrance and part ache, colored by experience. The past is never just the past. We reinvent it with each new day of living.

Sunday, March 17, 2019


Once at Grand Central (M.A. Reilly)

"Hun? Could you read your section of the paper and let me read mine?" I ask Rob hoping he'll stop reading aloud.
"Ok. Ok," he answers. He takes a sip of coffee and returns his eyes to the page. A few minutes later I hear him say, "You have to hear this..."

Even though a bulk of the Sunday NewYork Times arrived along with Saturday's paper, we tended to save it all for Sunday morning. Rob would inevitably read aloud whole articles and though I would grumble some Sundays, the truth we each knew was that I loved to hear him read and he did so often. 


David Whyte in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words explains nostalgia:

Nostalgia is not indulgence. Nostalgia tells us we are in the presence of imminent revelation, about to break through the present structures held together by the way we have remembered: something we thought we understood but that we are now about to fully understand, something already lived but not fully lived, issuing not from our future but from something already experienced; something that was important, but something to which we did not grant importance enough, something now wanting to be lived again, at the depth to which it first invited us but which we originally refused. Nostalgia is not an immersion in the past, nostalgia is the first annunciation that the past as we know it is coming to an end.

I read this and pause, knowing that the writing today--this story of a Sunday morning newspaper reading is wrapped in nostalgia. It is bringing me somewhere I haven't named before and that is part pain and part gift, but they are not equal.


I realize this morning that I want grief to be a simple math problem I can solve. I write in the margin of a book I shared with Rob: 

sorrow is negated by 1 remembrance of love.  

I know this is not always a truth. I reread Whyte's words, halting a bit to reread: 

"Nostalgia is not an immersion in the past, nostalgia is the first annunciation that the past as we know it is coming to an end."

Grieving is less about time passing and more about grace--about accepting how the past as I knew it, is no more. I don't think I could have known that 3 years ago.  There's a thoroughness with which I remember these days. Those bits of recalled stories, some days, lead to new understandings. 


Rob told me years ago the only way out of something is through it. The last few weeks I have been in tune with the immense loss, the life I am making now, and the changes Dev and I have been through. 

After Rob died:

We had to break. We had to break apart. We had no center to hold.We had to break and then begin to heal. 

To be whole again we needed to break. Not just ourselves, but also what was between us.

As I remember once again, I note the many triggers that bring me back to Rob just the last three days: 
a lecture I attended on Friday, the notice that Lawrence Lessig is speaking nearby soon, a quiet meal a few blocks from where Rob worked in Hell's Kitchen, the way the light slants in the weeks before spring officially arrives, the noise of birds who have return to build nests, the smell of coffee, a man reading softly to the woman next to him on the train--their heads tilted towards one another, the sound of a hearty laugh, a song we loved that comes on the radio, a couple holding hands, a father and son,most everything Dev does.


I read the paper online now--even Sunday's. 

This morning, I miss the smell of ink from the magazine section, the weight of the book review, and the sound of Rob reading aloud.  

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Some days it’s almost as if he were upstairs reading...

Rob at home a year before his death. 

Some days it’s almost as if he were upstairs reading. Perhaps, he would be sitting in the easy chair he loved that used to be in the guest room, or in our room putting away laundry—folding it as he did so perfectly.

The old familiarity developed across decades together resurfaces and I am all anticipation, and as quickly as I want, I remember too.  In that second, it’s as if all that I have felt punctuates my breath and my heart stills. I have to stop myself from calling up the stairs to him, as I remember he is not there, cannot be there. Not anymore.

Sorrow is as fluid as breathing. And though I do not dwell in sorrow, the many faces of loss surely have changed me as well. I want to tell you that this loss, this single parenting, this need to take stock of self has made me a better person. And that is no small thing in this age of me, me, me. I carry these three years of experience like an extra chromosome and am reminded that all privilege is stripped at death and how we have lived is the measure of our lives, not what we have acquired.

To say I miss Rob would be wrong, for miss, is too milky a term. There are no words I know.

Even now after three years have passed, loss is incalculable, fleeting, rooted, recalled. It is all of these things and none of these. The only constant is the inconstancy of grief and pulsation of life,  Life demands, and I find it impossible to not greet it fully. 

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Testing My New Camera

Stand of Trees  (Feb. 27, 2019, NJ)

After a decade, I decided to buy (out of necessity) a new. lighter camera. I ended up with a Nikon D3500 and an 18-200 mm lens. There's joy in being able to lift the camera without feeling it the next day. Here are a few of the first images that I made last Sunday.

3 Gulls (Feb. 24, 2019, Ringwood, NJ)
Trees in Fog  (Feb. 24, 2019, Ringwood, NJ)

Ridge (Feb. 24, 2019, Ringwood, NJ)

Sunday, November 11, 2018

#PoetryBreak: A Nation's Strength

My dad on a bike during WWII. He was stationed in England,

A Nation's Strength

                  by Walt Whitman

Not gold, but only man can make
     A people great and strong;
Men who, for truth and honor's sake,
     Stand fast and suffer long.

Brave men who work while others sleep,
     Who dare while others fly --
They build a nation's pillars deep
     And lift them to the sky.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Rose, Shabbat, and the Rabbi

Dust of Snow (M.A. Reilly, 2014)

The first time the rabbi came, Rob was in intensive care. It was a Friday evening and the rabbi slid open the door to the room and greeted Rob. He had brought with him two electric candles (oxygen was being pumped into Rob), grape juice, and challah to celebrate Shabbat with Rob. I excused myself and returned a bit later to thank the rabbi.  My husband would live just 6 weeks more and for the next three Friday’s he spent in the hospital always in a different room, the same rabbi, sometimes accompanied by his wife, sometimes with his sons, came to celebrate Shabbat with Rob. On what would be his last visit as Rob was in palliative care and would be coming home to die, the rabbi gave me his email and asked that I contact him to let him know about Rob. We will keep him and you in prayer, he told me.

The visits from the rabbi and celebrating Shabbat each Friday night brought Rob peace—peace that wrapped around him when he was home and no longer could hold on to days, or places, or names. During those last days of his life, Rob would now and then tell me about all the fanciful things he was seeing as he edged from this life to the next.

When I heard about the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I thought about the rabbi who spent Friday nights with Rob celebrating Shabbat and how he brought both faith and kindness during each visit.  Ceremonies, especially ones tied to faith, connect or reconnect us to something larger than ourselves. In many ways that is the definition of grace—that reconnection to other.

One of the murdered, Rose Mallinger, was a Holocaust survivor. Each of the eleven murdered have families whose grief will rise after the awful shock that something heinous happened lessens. I’d like to think that connections among us remain even when our bodies are no longer present. As I wrote this I had a powerful feeling that Rob was there in heaven to welcome Rose and the others.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Reading George Yancy's Backlash: How To Be a White Anti-Racist Racist

Image result for backlash yancy
Dr. Yancy
The book group I belong to read Dr. George Yancy's Backlash: What Happens When we Talk Honestly about Racism in America this past month--an important book about the challenges and needs for white people in America to understand that their whiteness overtly and covertly privileges them as it undermines African-Americans and other people of color. The book, Yancy says is intended as a gift.  I found it to be a tough, yet necessary, gift to receive. 

Yancy articulates clearly, to be white is to be racist.  To accept that definition of self is to accept the gift Yancy offers.  He states:

"Imagine the impact that the acceptance of this gift might have on you, white reader, and the world; imagine Anderson Cooper telling the world that, 'I, too, am racist. And while not part of the KKK, I, too, perpetuate white supremacy because I benefit from a white racist systemic structure to which I’m embedded and in terms of which Black people and people of color suffer.' That is the scary work to be done. That is what Dear White America asked of white readers" (p. 13). 
Yancy gift is to help us be (other)wise.

There are nine women in my book group and the majority of us have been meeting monthly to discuss books for the last 19 months. Last night, all of us were present, save one member. We represent multiple races and religions and we cross several decades in age. The majority of us are white, including me. All of us, save one, would describe ourselves as liberal or progressive.

Yancy asks, "How does one speak truth when what you have to say is in some sense not even hearable"(p.7)?  This question feels pivotal. Juergen Habermas in his communication theory said that hegemony prevails when there is no metalanguage.  How do we begin to understand without a metalanguage that allows us to see and critique our own privilege and the cost of that privilege?  I best learn in relationship to other.  For me, my Korean child, Devon has helped me to better understand the privilege I wield simply because I am perceived and known as white. It is one thing to understand matters of race and racism intellectually and it is quite another matter to grasp how my own racial privilege causes other people, such as my son, both pain and harm. 

Matters of race, since Devon, have been highly personal. At six-years-of age--the first year Devon went to public school he returned home in early September when the weather was still summer-warm and asked for his red winter coat.
"Why do you want that?" I asked.
"I'm going to wear it on the bus and zip it way up so that the big boys stop calling me, Chink."
In the space of a few days on an ordinary school bus in the North East of the United States, my son had learned that he needed to disappear, to literally hide his face in an attempt to quiet those mean white boys.

One of the myths in America is that we are less racist in the New York City area. I learned this was not true each and every year Devon spent at school. I shared the story of the red coat with the other white moms who walked their children to the bus stop as I did each morning. They had no experience to hear what I was saying. Their whiteness dismissed the story of the red coat immediately. Their whiteness said, 'boys will be boys. Teasing is normal.' They offered up stories that were not parallel, yet they thought them to be. Finally, one said in an attempt to unruffle the feathers I had ruffled for we were all white and connected, "but he's so light-skinned. It's like he's almost white."

That's a small glimpse of the America Yancy is writing about. Yancy might describe the reactions of my white neighbors as being sutured. Specifically he defines this as "the process whereby white people engage in forms of closure, forms of protection from various challenges to the ways in which whiteness is seen as the norm, its unremarkable everydayness, its value assumptions, and the many ways in which it’s guilty about producing distorted knowledge about itself...Moreover, to be sutured within the context of white identity is indicative of 'the narrative authority' of the white self that seals itself off from 'otherness'" (p. 105). 

When I confront my own normative behavior my first reaction is often to deny what I am seeing, hearing. I think, "It couldn't be that..." Being sutured--parsing together protective language so that I do not need to confront my own racist ideologies is what keeps whiteness as the norm. 

I work daily, sometimes minute-by-minute, to name and respond to the white privilege that informs my perspectives, beliefs, and actions. For example, I am learning patience. My son and I were in Europe a few years ago and he said to me quite angrily, "I'm so embarrassed by you. You're so impatient with people.You spoke to the waitress as if she wouldn't understand you, as if she was a child."

My whiteness has taught me to expect to go first, to be immediately understood, to expect to not be kept waiting. These beliefs are of course irrational and yet I have been frontlined in so many ways throughout my life that being first and privileged feels normal. Being better than others feels normal and those not speaking English I understood as being inferior (by the way the waitress more than likely spoke several languages as opposed to my one language). Now, when I grow impatient and my sense of self is aggrandized, I halt so that I might better recognize the underlying narrative I have been telling myself and I stop it. I recognize that my going first, my assumed superiority has always meant that someone else would need to wait, be assumed to be known and in doing all of this, be harmed by me. 

No more.

I felt such shame when Devon confronted me. At first I was just surprised. Then I concocted a number of sutured stories to rewrite the narrative so that he would be merely mistaken. None of this sat well.  Lessons I also learned as a child, alongside my whiteness, left me uncomfortable.  And so, then I got quiet and began the process of owning and then changing my behavior. 

I think this work of being a white anti-racist racist requires time to dwell in self awareness and hear the narratives I tell myself so that I might better unearth the inherent racism in those narratives. How do I do this? How do I un-suture the normative sense of a white self I have? Engagement with other helps me to hear these sutured narratives better.  Books like Yancy's allow me to have a secondary discourse to use as I interrogate my own assumptions and false-truths. 

Some un-suturing I have been doing includes: 

  1. My whiteness does not mean I am a soothsayer. I don't know the bigness of you.
  2. My whiteness distorts my understanding of you. The stories about you I have learned are always incomplete, are often wrong, and are told sometimes to falsely protect me from my own incompleteness. 
  3. My whiteness does not give me permission to impose my will on anyone. 
  4. My whiteness leaves me partially blind. What is it that I am not seeing?
  5. My whiteness leaves me without an adequate language to hear the lies I retell myself. What language from you might I borrow?
  6. My whiteness leaves me impatient.
  7. My whiteness affords me privileges I can no longer bear as I know each privilege afforded to me harms, maims, and cuts you.
  8. My whiteness does not allow me to be quiet in the face of overt and subtle racism from other white people. To be quiet is not being polite even though it feels that way. It is being complicit.
  9. My whiteness does not make me exceptional, regardless of what I have learned.
  10. My whiteness comes with assumptions that are often false, especially about other.
  11. My whiteness (in)forms the stories I tell myself as truths. These are stories. Not truths.
  12. My whiteness often keeps me from feeling.
  13. My whiteness often keeps me from wonder.
  14. My whiteness and the narratives that accompany being white need to be troubled, un-sutured, exposed.

To become (other)wise is a way of being in the world. I seek to live in the middle of things and not rely on prescribed beginnings and endings to tidy the messiness of this lived life. Some longings that have emerged as I un-suture my whiteness include:

  1. I long to be honest.
  2. I long to be whole.
  3. I long to know wonder.
  4. I long to love and be loved.
  5. I long to be graced by other, (in)formed by other.
  6. I long to break through the narratives of whiteness and merely be. 
  7. I long to be humble.
  8. I long to not know and unknow.
  9. I long to be vulnerable.
  10. I long to be (other)wise.