Wednesday, July 27, 2016

#SOL16: What Remains

House in the Country (M.A. Reilly 2013)


How can he be gone when all of his stuff is still here?

I try to avoid this room, but last night I came downstairs to walk a bit on the treadmill next to Rob's desk. And though I have cleaned up many of the things Rob had left, so much still remains, more than I can shoulder, more that I want to bear, but I do. A few weeks ago, I finally folded the acorn-color cardigan with the leather-covered buttons he always wore while writing and working at his desk. The sweater is now tucked away in our closet. Before I put it away, I held it up, burying my face in its softness and I inhaled. And there was Rob--so very, very faint. For months after Rob got sick and could no longer climb down the stairs to his office, the cardigan remained wrapped around the back of his desk chair. It was as if he had just taken it off and perhaps had gone to another room to answer the phone or get a class of water or make a cup of tea. That's how fast the cancer and infections changed our lives.

There is the sharp desire to find the man I have lost, the man who was gone so quickly, to find some sense of him in what remains.


After death, there is the illusion that everything waits. My husband's teak desk waits for his return. The heat of day waits for the cool dusk to arrive. The unstructured summer days grow tired and want to give way to the comfort of routine that comes with fall. But this waiting is a story I have tried to live. The want to live is strong even when grief feels limitless.

Life presses on.  Most days I feel this press with a certain urgency. The distance between Rob alive and the present grows greater, obscuring what I can see in my mind's eye, what I can remember. The faint scent of him in the sweater was bittersweet for everything smelled like a hospital, like medicine, and death. The sweater was untainted and held a brief, slim reminder of the man.

And all of this is another form of loss. It is a loss that lends definition to this unfamiliar life I now call my own.


I must confess that at first after Rob died I wanted time to speed along. I prayed for the rapid passing of minutes, hours, days, weeks, and then months. I wanted to roll time along and feel its healing powers.  Now, I feel the slice born from such desire and want to drag my feet, to remain as still as I can be in the moment before his last breath. In that awful moment when I could at least still say Rob was alive. There is nothing but a body after that last breath. Nothing familiar. Nothing once loved. The tenderness of life is gone. But even before that last breath, he was more absent than present, deep in some sleep I could not touch.

So perhaps I want to dwell in late November when the three of us celebrated Thanksgiving and we could not see what was before us even though we knew more than we could not say aloud. Then Rob still sounded like himself and though I know now that each day the spinal compression grew worse, the cancer wrapping itself around his spine like a boa constrictor, I did not know then that he would die before winter ended.  We simply did not see that possibility.  So not then. Not when life was so quickly ending.

Better to linger back three years earlier when the tumor in the apex of his right lung was finding ground. Then, yes then. That was the time to intervene to rid his body of this awful awful disease. Then we were readying to travel to Italy and on to England.  A summer holiday, so halcyon in memory. Then we lived with no warning of what was growing in his lung.


There is no return to the past without the full knowledge of what will happen. And such knowledge is a price too large to bear.

Each day that passes distances me from Rob and so I want to hold on to what I can't actually grasp and exist in this in-between world where there is no time, there is no death.

The anchor I have always known as my husband has given way
         and I am drifting
where the current flows.

I tell you even my will has forgotten its name.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

#SOL16: When Language is Sloppy

from my art journal (M.A. Reilly, 2016)

This morning I was listening to The Brian Lehrer Show when I heard Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian, hosts of the show "The Young Turks" speaking with Brian. I was stopped when I heard Cenk say this,
"Millennials are far better educated than older listeners and viewers. And so they get their information online which means they can actually do research and they can find out policy positions. If you just watch TV you will find out almost nothing about policy of Hillary Clinton, Bernie that's why millennials were more upset. They were more correct. Their progressive position lost."
I was born towards the end of the Baby Boomers and so I am clearly not a millennial (although I have taught hundreds) and according to Cenk I am in the second group--older listeners and viewers--and by default I therefore must be less educated and a poor user of the Internet (apparently the only place one can accomplish research). Perhaps if I tell Columbia this info they will return the dollars I paid while earning a doctorate.  But I digress.

What is irksome is the faulty thinking that frames these careless words, perhaps tossed out more for effect than for substance. But perhaps not. For this well may be a belief that has become a personal truth for Cenk and perhaps for others too.  And isn't it an easy truth to repeat?

We're great. You're misinformed.

But personal truths are not universal. Easy narratives, like Cenk's are often examples of bias, of arrogance. And I felt poorly served by his words for his language was faulty. For example, it is faulty reasoning to assume millennials know more than older voters because they (and apparently only they) can access information via the net. So what? Accessing information should never be confused with reasoning. Reasoning is a rather different animal. Pointing and clicking and even passing the eyes over a brief is not the same thing as deconstructing an argument, researching contrasting points of view, juxtaposing belief alongside fact, considering the weight of bias. Research is never a point and click matter.

Reading a policy brief or as Sanders' situates these--issues, should not be confused with being well informed--in crafting a position of your own, in comparing and contrasting points of views. And though I regularly do use the net (imagine I don't need help of a 20+ to do so), I also value learning through non-electric means as well. As a teacher and professor, I have been listening to the narratives of Baby Boomers, Gen X and Y -ers, Millennials, and most important, those beautiful young minds we have yet to attach a label. Listening matters and I had hoped to hear something compelling in the exchange this morning. Mostly I felt discounted.

Had I a phone at the time what I wanted to say to Cenk was that sloppy thinking does not a revolution make. A revolution requires far more thought. Sloppy thinking mostly divides us unnecessarily, creating camps when we are better served by more humble understandings of other.

You can hear the full exchange among Brian, Cenk and Ana here.  Curious what you make of it.

#SOL16: Love Sounds for My Son

Collage made from Citra Solve papers (M.A. Reilly, July 2016)
I'm pulled from bed this morning with the need to write.  I have been dreaming awake. This post that will take form here began as lines in a dream--words forming first as sound and then whole lines as I was partially awake and now they have become this print. There's a tremendous sadness I feel when I think of my son and the loss of his dad. Dev was one month past his 17th birthday when Rob died. Barely 17. And I think this morning that there will be no father's steady hand to guide him.

This morning fear pulled me from bed.

And make no mistake it is not the fear that Donald Trump spoke about last week. That fear is frankly too pretty--too full of apocalyptic con and slight of hand. The fear Trump railed about is more comic-like, less substance.

The fear that pulled me from bed was fear lodged in my throat. It was fear of what is not now. It was fear in what I imagined might be, in the many instances my son will hurt without his dad there too soothe. And yes, I know I will soothe when I am allowed when I am even knowledgeable, just as I know there already have been days when my touch, my concern, my care was not found nor invited. Some pain is private. There are days when my son's loss finds purchase and steals his breath and I must bear witness. He will fix himself if fixing is needed, but mostly he will endure and add that experience to the emotional chest he has been building since birth.

This is what I can feel. This is what I can endure. This is the taste of sorrow. This is the slash of loss. This beneath it all is love.

And here in the daylight, I wonder if he will be a stronger man as a result of this loss. Will the empathy that comes with losing love, losing a father fuel his drive, his care, his dedication to others? Will his knowledge of other shine, be a beacon of hope?  What trajectories will his life compose?

Mothers know much and nothing.

What I do believe is that love is by invitation. It cannot be forced. Love is more powerful, more constant than fear.

My love for my son is a constant note that sounds below and above the daily actions I take. It sounds even when fear lights like a fuse. Love allows me to know how temporary fear is: a bright light that blazes and then dies as it should, as it must for we are here, living.

Love sounds even when I am blinded
                  by fear and

                              I follow those notes
                         a handful
                                 of musical breadcrumbs
                                  tossed from the hands I have known and not,
                                  tossed from my own hands years earlier.

I follow that line of music
                         leaving behind a dense, imposing forest
and find myself here
              in morning light,
              the burn of fear left behind--the shroud of a dream alongside it.

Here in a clearing called morning
love has called me from sleep, from fear
and I have answered
with a handful of words.

I wrote this I realized while sitting in Rob's chair and the feel of the music in the writing sounds a lot like Rob's voice. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

#SOL16: Hope and Doubt

Bluebird (M.A. Reilly, 2012)

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” ~ Charlotte Brontë .

This was the quote for Day 11 of Oprah and Deepak's Getting Unstuck 21-Day Meditation and I found it hopeful and wanted to pass it along.  The talk that day was about developing awareness. Deepak stated, 
"Awareness opens the door to new possibilities. Therefore we must master the skill of being aware." 
He then outlined three key practices that can help us to develop our capacity to be aware: 

1. Pay attention to what is happening in the environment: self, other, environment
2. Practice holding focus--the opposite of being scattered. Key is being interested and engaged.
3. Learn the skill of stillness: Bear witness, restful alertness.

Each morning as I meditate, all three of these skills are present in that action. Mediation lodges me in the present moment, now. On the day before, the quote was from Thích Nhất Hạnh who wrote, 
“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” 
In losing Rob, I better understand that life is what we compose. We have choices in how we react, in how we understand, in the ways we frame possibility. Truths are largely what we make, not what is ordained. Deepak talks about hope and doubt explaining that hope pulls us forward into the now, while doubt pulls us backward out of the present moment. There are tensions between hope and doubt and often represent ways we approach the unknown. Doubts limit us, while hope does not. Living in the here and now is the only rational space to stand.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Hope, Chefoo Concetration Camp, and the Choices Made

I was out walking and listening to This American Life on WNYC. The show aired, Captain's Log, was from June 2015.  Act I, Cookies and Monsters, was fascinating as it was hopeful.  Here the discussion was about Girl Guides (what we call Girl Scouts here in the US). It was an old notebook found in the basement of a Girl Guide center in London that spurred Janie Hampton to begin to make sense of a particular entry:

And it said, we did skipping, and we did knots, and we did all sorts of jolly things. And then I came across this song that they'd written. And it said, "We sang our song yesterday. And it went, 'We might have been shipped to Timbuktu. We might have been shipped to Kalamazoo. It's not repatriation, nor is it yet starvation. It's simply concentration in Chefoo." And I thought, what on earth does that mean? Concentration in Chefoo?
She wondered about the song.

Mary Previte and siblings on September 10, 1945 eating a meal shortly after
being flown from Weihsien – “When the plane touched down in Sian [Xian],
the men at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) base served us
ice cream and cake and showed us a Humphrey Bogart movie. I think it
was “Casablanca.” Kathleen and I slept that night in an officer’s tent
– unaccompanied by bedbugs. The next night – 9/11 – we were home.
We hadn’t seen our parents for 5 1/2 years.” – courtesy of Weihsien-Paintings
from here
What follows is an amazing story about perspective, about 82-year-old Mary Previte who lives in New Jersey and served as a Democrat in the Assembly, and about 74-year-old Leopold Pander. He is a resident of Belgium.  What unites them?  Both were incarcerated in the Concentration Camp in Chefoo as children. Mary was 9 and Leopold was 2-years-old when he was arrested for having round eyes.

I won't say more.
The narrative from Ira Glass and the American Life folks is stunning.

Hope you find some time to listen.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

#SOL16: Death Threats, The RNC and History

I'm thinking about love and honor, about the men I know well: my dad, my two brothers, my son, my father-in-law, my husband, Rob, and a score of friends. I'm thinking about these men in light of the rhetoric of violence aimed at Hillary Clinton by some men at the RNC convention. I'm reminding myself that none of the men I know well would ever speak about a woman as Trump, his advisors and the rest of the RNC speakers have been doing.

Women, we need to be concerned, not mute.

Just take a moment to look at the convention badges and signs that populate the Republican National Convention (RNC)--badges people wear proudly. 
Media preview
This is what the RNC believes. From here.

These RNC bores takes their lead from Donald Trump who said,
“You know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass,” Mr. Trump said in a 1991 interview with Esquire magazine.

Does this seem like the language of a self-professed Christian? 

Or this offensive comment by Trump:
"Oftentimes when I was sleeping with one of the top women in the world, I would say to myself, thinking about me as a boy from Queens, "Can you believe what I am getting?"

The RNC's candidate understands women as possessions, as appendages.  So it isn't too surprising that the RNC isn't limited to misogynist-based slogans alone. 

KFC move over as some of these Republicans are doling out death.

Yes, death.

Al Baldasaro has called for the death of Hillary Clinton. Yes, her death. And he's proud to do so. Or Michael Folk, a Republican Congressmen who said Clinton should be executed. 

Such is the reckless speech and deed that is so very, very violent at this convention and among the GOP in general.  Like the stance on women, these followers also take their lead from Trump, whose penchant for spewing loose and violent discourse knows little bounds. Trump told us,

  "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters."  

5000 of these posters were distributed prior to JFKs assassination in Dallas. 
Now, add to all of this the post by Jim Wright that shows a wanted poster of JFK  distributed just days before he was murdered and the danger of such loose, amoral, and violent rhetoric cannot be mistaken for campaign fodder.  Such hate-speech invites others to also act without moral fitness, without concern for life. It begs others to to do terrible things, things that cannot be undone.

Now is the time for Republicans especially to tell their candidate that the hate speech and buttons and slogans and ridiculous chants are wrong and dangerous. It's past time for GOP voters to stop being mute and say out loud to their candidate that he won't earn their vote by embracing and threatening violence on Hillary Clinton. How can anyone who professes to love the unborn turn such a blind eye at death threats? 


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

#SOL16: An Old Chair and All We Cannot Know

Rob's chair.


It was just an old, undersized, mauve reclining wing chair. 28 years old to be more precise. My parents bought it for Rob and me and we moved that chair three times across the last few decades. Today, I gave the chair away.

Rob always hated the chair. He said it was uncomfortable and though I defended the chair for decades, the truth is no one sat in the chair very often. About two years ago, Rob bought a chair of his own to replace an oversized recliner. He kept the chair in the guest room alongside the shelves and shelves of books he had read or was reading. This past Sunday, I finally summoned the courage to reorganize the room, removing old and damaged books, office supplies, and other odds and ends that found their way there. And getting rid of the clutter allowed me to better see Rob's chair. It was exhausting work--the third room I had cleaned and it was late in the day and so I sat for a bit in the chair, I think for the first time, and realized that Rob knew comfort.  The chair fit like an old friend and it was an old friend I so needed. And though Rob died in late winter, I felt as if I was saying goodbye to my husband this past Sunday.  At one point I asked Rob to send me a sign, something, anything.

Some days grief is nothing more than raw, unprocessed pain. Just pain. Sunday was such a day.


On Sunday evening, I dragged Rob's chair to our bedroom, thinking I would swap it with the mauve recliner. Devon helped me to get the recliner out of the room and as I eyed it I noticed it was faded and no matter what I did to clean it, it still, would be uncomfortable.

Is this something you really want to keep? my son asked. 
I don't know. My mom gave it to us. 
It was never comfortable, mom. 
I laughed and said, You sound just like your dad. He too must be laughing at this, cause you know what? He was right. I never told him that, but that chair was never comfortable. 
We each stood at the top of the stairs, the chair between us as I considered what to do. Okay, let's take it downstairs.

I thought to donate the chair to the Vietnam Vets who have been to our home more times in the last few months than most, but learned they don't accept recliners. So instead, the chair sat in the hallway for another day until we hauled it outside. I then posted information about the chair on a Facebook group for my town and am hoping someone will take the chair away.


For the last two weeks I couldn't meditate. I'd sit and begin to fidget 10 minutes in. I remembered a friend saying that her brothers had specific places in their homes for meditation. That made sense to me but I found that couldn't determine such a place in my own home. After settling Rob's chair into a corner of our bedroom, I wondered if I might have found my meditation place. Early this morning, before getting involved in the world, I sat in the chair, feeling it fold around me and I easily meditated.

No fidgeting, just that powerful fall to no time, no space. As I sat in the chair, I felt surrounded by Rob's spirit.  On Monday evening, I was telling this story to a group of women and one named what I could not say, "You got your sign from Rob."

And how right those words felt to me. My eyes grew wet immediately, stung and Yes, I wanted to say, Yes, I did get a sign, even though saying it aloud felt a bit corny. Before Rob's death I didn't pay much attention to signs, nor do I recall placing any great value on stories about signs. Before enduring Rob's illness and death, I was more a doubting Thomas wanting verification through a sense.  Give me what can be observed, what the mind determines. Watching Rob die and living the aftermath has opened me to possibilities that are not rational.  Grief mostly requires us to believe in what is beyond our experience--what is beyond our capacity to name. Grief is its own language full of starts and stops and pauses where early morning light finds a woman humbled by all she could not have known, held in the comfort of her husband's opened hands.

Monday, July 18, 2016

#SOL16: Borderless Grief and the RNC

gesso, acrylic paint, Rob's writing, (M.A. Reilly, 2016)

Grief knows no borders.

It spreads insidiously swamping your life and when fueled, flames out of control.  I know this firsthand and was reminded of the perversion of grief as I viewed the Republican National Convention (RNC). It's easy to take advantage of the grieving for anything that lessens such pain is seductive.  It's a siren call we all want to answer and being able to talk about the loved one and his or her death is a call few can resist.

We talk out loud to make sense of what confounds us still.

But setting up such fragile people to tell these stories as narratives of blame is a false balm for at best this only serves to further indenture the grieving to their pain and the past. There is no grace in blame, especially false blame.  There is no redemption in telling such stories.


I thought about this perversion as I listened to Pat Smith's brief speech at the RNC where she blamed Hillary Clinton personally for her son's death. I thought about this as the two more moms, Mary Ann Mendoza and Sabine Durden, whose sons each died in car accidents and Jamiel Shaw, whose son was killed in a gang shooting spoke blaming their children's death on our President. And as I listened what I mostly thought was Shame on the RNC for exploiting these people's grief and for thinking they could also exploit our tenderness. 

None of us want to bear witness to a parent's raw grief. But even in our most tender moment, we know it is simply an error to blame either Secretary Clinton or President Obama for these deaths. It is just wrong by the RNC to set up these four parents to tell stories that lack the necessary logic to even appear true.


After the camera was no longer trained on these parents, I wondered how they felt. After the high of talking to a national audience was gone, I wondered if there wasn't a profound sense of emptiness that settled about each of them. Filling yourself with hate will not lessen grief no matter how much such relief is sought.

I feel for these four as I imagine you do too.  For how could we not?  Resettling life after a loved one's death feels impossible. The life known exists no more. What is most desired cannot be given, cannot be had. Those in the depth of grief struggle to make sense of loss--loss that is largely irrational. The desire to blame some 'other' is common, if not expected.  And it is this natural inclination, perhaps even need, to seek a rational reason for the death that the RNC exploited.

Exploiting such vulnerability in order to create false linkages among death, Hillary Clinton, and President Obama is a truly shameful act by the RNC. We are better than this, friends.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

SOL16: Seeking Lazarus


I've been listening to Oprah and Deepak's Getting Unstuck: Creating a Limitless Life. This is a 21-day mediation experience that is happening now.  Each day Oprah and then Deepak provide some centering thoughts related to helping listeners get unstuck by connecting with untapped creativity and then providing time for meditation. Each session lasts for about 20 minutes. The purpose is to help uncover how to compose a creative life through some centering thoughts and meditation. Since, I have come home from France, I have been listening. The focus for the first week is on how to be in the present moment. In week two, the focus is on choosing expansiveness, letting go of the past, and living creatively. In week three, sharing the spirit of creative awareness with others is the focus.  

There were several things I heard during the first week that I especially wanted to remember--ideas I appreciated and yet quarreled with.  On day 3, Deepak said: 
"Stuckness keeps us from accessing our creative potential, which is our birthright. To begin a more creative way of life some basic points are important. First stop comparing today to yesterday. Look upon every day as a new world, because in truth it is. Only are stuckness makes it old."

I found the idea of not comparing today to yesterday to be a bit alarming. I can't think of a day that has gone by where I have not compared my days with Rob to the absence of him in my life now.  As I listened to Deepak speak, I thought that neither he nor Oprah could have experienced what I am experiencing and so his directive to stop comparing today to yesterday must surely be for other situations, not mine. 

The more I listened, I began to realize that often I was agreeing, but I also found that I would qualify what had been said when it might require me to live more deliberately and move on from the loss of Rob--to not hold myself in some waiting pattern as if Rob was coming home. And this idea of waiting for Rob to come home made me stop and ask, What is it I would have him do when he arrived? I had no immediate answer.  And so I told myself that the ideas professed by Oprah and Deepak were quite sound and that these ideas did not always apply to me. For example on Day 4, Oprah quoted Eckhart Tolle:

"Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you're having at the moment."

I thought, Yes, that can be true, but not for me now. Not at this timeSurely these words are not meant for someone who has suffered the loss I have. Surely this tragedy is not a help in any way. 

I conflated not comparing today with yesterday with requiring me to forget all about Rob. I also thought that some experiences, such as the death of a husband, are too tragic to ever serve as object lessons. Somehow my words began to ring a bit hollow and doubt entered. I began to question if perhaps, just perhaps, some of what Oprah and Deepak were saying might also apply to me even as I resisted the two ideas. It wasn't until I got to day 7 that I realized that living brilliantly as Rob asked me to do requires first and foremost, that I live and be responsible for my life. 

Yes, live.

On day 7, Oprah asked,

What makes one person react to bad news with grace and dignity, while another person experiences the same news with a sense of hopelessness, resentment, or anger? Why does one person get stuck while another uses the moment to make changes and reorient   his or her way of being in the world?  Our perceptions. Our perceptions paint our personal realities...As the author of your life, you can rewrite the story by changing your perceptions. That's a key to getting unstuck...
Years ago on a classroom wall, I quoted a line from Hamlet I found pertinent. Hamlet is explaining to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the relativity of thought.  Hamlet concludes,  "...there is nothing either good or/bad, but thinking makes it so." 


Perhaps there were lessons here I needed to heed.


Saying out loud that living, brilliantly or otherwise, requires me to be present in my life is a step towards wholeness. 

A big step. 

I must be responsible for my life. I realize that I have wanted Rob to be responsible-- from the grave--for my happiness. Even as he lived, he was not responsible for my life, my happiness although I have surely placed that responsibility in his hands these last few months.

I have forgotten that happiness and contentment are not the absence of grief.  For the longest time I have been waiting for my dead husband to return and remedy my grief.  I have been waiting for my own personal Lazarus to arise and take this responsibility from my hands.

But being responsible for another person's happiness is not a definition of love. Love is far less selfish. And though Rob loved me, he was neither able nor responsible for my happiness. That rested in my own hands.  It rests there presently and no amount of wishing can diminish that truth.

Grief cannot be remedied. It is not diminished by the number of activities done, the trips made, the sacrifices accounted, the good deeds done, or the events attended. None of these make a critical difference when it comes to healing. Rather, healing is determined by the perceptions I hold regarding the relationship between Rob's death and the quality of my life.

Only I am responsible for my life. 


Collage made from pages altered by Citra Solv
(M.A. Reilly, July 2016)
Earlier today I was playing around with pages I had altered through Citra Solv and I made a collage. The main figure reminded me of Beowulf and I thought about a line by Leo Tolstoy from War and Peace when General Kutuzov says, "...there is nothing stronger than patience and time, they will do it all" (book 10, chapter 15 ). 

Patience and time. Healing requires both. Knowing I am responsible for my life is a big step. It is a big step that I will surely forget. 

Yes, forget.  

My intentions are often larger than what I can manage. A week from now, perhaps even a day and it will be as if I never wrote these words and I will need to rediscover them again.

And again.

Ahead of me are lots of rehearsals where I will remember the gift of responsibility and accept the ambiguity that accompanies it. 

I will remember and forget well before I more fully author my life.

#SOL16: Nostalgia

A Window in Arles (M.A. Reilly, 2016)


While in Arles, I saw a small portion of a film about Vincent Van Gogh in London. The film was a bit dull--a rather awkward attempt to make much about something rather inconsequential. However, at one point the narrator said, "Nostalgia is a lazy emotion." That caught me ear and I recorded it on my phone thinking I would later want to recall it for it seemed important. And I suspect there's some truth to the statement for isn't it easier at times to retreat to the past rather than face what is present?

Now that I am home from France, I feel a bit off centered, out of balance. There's no drama associated with this feeling, no spectacular happening, or even something unusual I could point to that would explain the feeling.  And isn't that at the center of balance and not? There's little explanation, save what it is. For there's just this nagging understanding that my life doesn't feel quite right. 

Years ago, Rob introduced me to Godfrey Reggio's 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance. The word, Koyaanisqatsi, is from the Hopi language and it means unbalanced life. And though the film artfully presents the imbalances among humans, the environment, and the impact of technologies--the unbalance I feel is of a more intimate nature and yet is nonetheless unsteady. Things in my life aren't smooth. Living takes more energy than I recall needing in former years. Losing Rob means shifting from understanding our life to making my life. Nostalgia is an easy place to hide, even though remembering feels as bad as it does good.


Next month marks the one year anniversary when Rob and I found out that he had cancer. The shock of that diagnosis remains with me for neither of us imagined that the pain he had was a sign he had cancer. He had just a sharp pain across his lower right chest for a few weeks. He had no weight loss, no fatigue, no weakness, no dizziness, no other pains. He was only 60 and aches and pains came along with growing a bit older.  For the most part, he was himself with the exception of the nagging pain. He thought he pulled a muscle exercising and I agreed. We even laughed about our new exercise program and getting older. Who could ever imagine that just a few months later he would no longer be able to walk and 6 weeks beyond that we would learn he was dying? Such scale defies comprehension.

Rob walking down 120th Street in Manhattan

August 20th looms before me. Now I can still look back and recall Rob before the diagnosis. I see that loopy walk of his, a Brooklyn strut when I think of my husband. I see him carrying two cups of coffee to the table where I am waiting with our newspapers open on a July morning not unlike this one. Heat rising throughout the day. I see him 15 years earlier bounding down 120th Street coming from class towards me as I lift my camera and capture the moment, Devon playing beside me. I recall our life when we had no thoughts of dying. Some days I reread our calendar from last year to remember the ordinary ways we were living. Here's an appointment for a haircut. Here's a few days blocked off for when Devon's friends planned to visit. Such ordinary happenings. I can see that there's a reminder to me to call an inn in Maine we had stayed at for close to 30 years to plan a late summer holiday.  It's a call I didn't make for we learned the same week that Rob was ill and needed attention. 

We had planned to go to Portugal this past fall to celebrate our 25th anniversary. We needed to delay that trip as Rob's cancer treatment got underway and we could see it would stretch into November.  I remember saying to him, "No worries. We'll do it next year. " We thought initially that Rob would need just a month of radiation. Honestly, we were concerned, but after the shock wore off, we were not overly worried. I remember calming myself by thinking,  He's here. You can touch him. Stay in the moment. 

All of that changed within a week when Rob went in the hospital for a one-hour biopsy, and eight hours later was transported to intensive care. I remember thinking then that life as we knew it was no more. I wish I understood then that almost nothing the doctors would tell us during the next five months would be true, save the final diagnosis that Rob's cancer had progressed and the diagnosis was terminal.  On September 17 we would learn that Rob's cancer was stage 4 lung cancer--the cancer that claims the most lives each year. A week beyond that on the day he was scheduled for his first chemotherapy treatment we would learn that Rob had acquired a staph infection from surgery he underwent the week before to implant a port for treatment. From that point to his death, life was more nightmare than dream.


After Rob's death, life feels unfamiliar a good portion of the time. I still anticipate him, feel happy as I return home forgetting momentarily he won't be there. Devon and I are developing interests. Last night he grilled steaks for us and made a brandy-pepper sauce he had liked while in Paris. My son is a constant reminder of how life goes on and the list of new things he has done since Rob's death stretches the length of my arm.  

The closing line of The Great Gatsby is one I can say aloud without need of the text.  Nick, our faithful narrator tells us, 

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 
The meaning of that line has never held still--changing across the 40 years I have known this book. Now though, the mourning comes through and it is so pertinent, so much a part of my breath. Each step forward is oddly a step back into the past, where nostalgia waits. I measure each new day with eyes clouded by memory.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Field, southern France. (M.A. Reilly, 07/12/16)

We arrived home safely from France last night. From when Devon and I entered Orly Airport in Paris it took us about 5 hours to clear the various security points and for our flight to take off. We were delayed nearly 90 minutes. Throughout the airport, the presence of military was quite pronounced. When we entered the airport we ended up riding the escalator with 9 soldiers all of whom were carrying automatic weapons. And though the security checkpoint lines were very long, everyone seemed to understand the need for heightened security and acted accordingly.  Now, a day later, we hear news of a terrorist attack in Nice and the faces of the people we met while in France feel more present and thinking of their kindness and generosity helps to renew the belief that the world is populated largely with good people--people just like you, just like me. We must hang on to this understanding.  The world is filled with mostly good people. Ordinary people. People just like you.

I think about Saul Bellows's Dangling Man. Joseph, the protagonist comes to understand that goodness and community are co-specifying,  He observes,

Goodness is achieved not in a vacuum, but in the company of other men, attended by love.  - Saul Bellow

 Mediterranean Sea, southern France (July 2016). I took this
image on Monday. I 
was so excited to dip my feet into the sea.

It is in the company of other, that our own sense of goodness is heightened. So at these times when the absence of action feels frustrating, we need to find a way to help the victims of this latest terror. So what can we do?

Here's a few ideas...

  1. from LA Daily News: How can you help terror victims of the attack in Nice, France?
  2. from Reddit 
  3. #GiveForFrance
  4. Pray.
  5. Pray some more.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

SOL#16: Imagination and Murder: A Terrifying New Era Approaching

Birds Lifting (Original black and white image and citrasolved papers, M.A. Reilly, 2016)

“It is on the day that we can conceive of a different state of affairs that a new light falls on our troubles and our suffering and that we decide that these are unbearable” - Jean-Paul Sartre, 1956, pp. 434-435.


Matt de la  Peña in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech wrote about self-definition and grace. He talked about the tangle of ethnicity and race that underscores the tenuousness of belonging and not. He opened and closed his speech quoting Denis Johnson, author of Jesus' Son: Stories who ended this collection of short stories with the voice of a recovering drunk and dope addict--the narrator of "Beverly Home"--who tells us boldly, “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us" (p. 133).

I think about that line--the idea of belonging, about  being a "people like us" and its relationship to the power of the imagination. What we can imagine can be.  But how do we imagine that which we have not experienced?  That which is beyond the scope of our present selves?  Maxine Greene has so eloquently written about the need for us to become (other)wise and how engagements with literature and the arts helps us to do so. de la  Peña credits reading basketball magazines and later novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others with becoming an author. He tells us even when he was reading Basketball Digest, he was "in it for the narrative."

The narrative.

Now think about all that nonsense about text type percentages school children must read that David Coleman, the Common Core architect, foisted on United States schools.  (You remember the set of standards that were going to save the world).  For de la  Peña, like so many others,  it was narrative that resonated.  Narrative that informed and inspired, alongside later reading works by authors with whom he shared a common heritage. Seeing ourselves in the stories we read helps us to open windows and peer at lives we don't know as well. Reading literature helps us to develop our imaginations.

Narrative always matters and perhaps these days when Black men are being killed at the hands of some police and the murder of police is increasing--our need to understand, even appreciate other has never been so necessary.

Engaging with literature and the arts opens us to seeing not only what we are and presently are not, but also such engagements inspire us to more generously map what we are becoming and might become. Other stands apart until we have language to name and isn't this the role of the arts to help us name Other and to find a foothold in what might first feel unfamiliar? It was Greene who wrote, "The arts, it has been said, cannot change the world, but they may change human beings who might change the world."

Hold on to that thought for a moment.


I'm mulling all this over as I read de la Peña's speech miles away from my home. It is late in Paris and the news of two more deaths of young black men at the hands of White police officers--this time in Minnesota and Baton Rouge and the deaths of five white Dallas police officers at the hand of a single African American male shooter who we are told wanted kill white people have been splashed across the French daily newspapers. All of these deaths and aggressions have me thinking more and more about home and race and the almost mythical narrative that resurges each and every time there is a death that is labeled, race-driven. The narrative offered says, we are a nation divided as if white and black represented the totality of definitions of selves in the US and that we neatly divide by those imposed racial lines. We are far more complicated than white and black. Such thinking locks us into situating the world as a duality. Choose X and you cannot choose Y.

That is the first myth and a dangerous one for it situates Other as being something permanent. I think that's what de la Peña is getting at in his speech.  Other is malleable, changing. He tell us,
When I sat down to write the text of Last Stop on Market Street, this troubling mindset was rattling around in my brain. Nana, the wise grandma in the book, is urging CJ to see the beauty of his surroundings, yes, but she’s also steering him toward something much more fundamental. She’s teaching CJ to see himself as beautiful. To see himself as worthy. “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”
I love that language--the "steering him toward something much more fundamental" especially these days after more deaths have rocked what we may have mistaken as a foundation. We need not be built on the social constructs of race. We can be better than such narrow definitions of self and other. These divisions are fueled by fear and ignorance.  These murders show a crumbling facade. But it is not the permanency of race at odds here, but rather the shifting stance of Other that we need to understand and embrace. Some police officers, like others in the country, when confronting young Black men and women read these entanglements with 'Other' as a threat.  The lone shooter who executed five police officers read whiteness and police as threats.

History tells us that there has always been an Other and there will always be someone cast as other. How we define and attend to Other matters--as does our willingness and capacity to become (other)wise. I believe nothing is as important as this ongoing commitment to developing ourselves. I want to suggest here that engagements with literature and the arts represent a central way to understand and even embrace Other. These initial steps can help us to identify the institutionalize nature of racism that (in)forms all of these grotesque acts of violence and motivate us to take the necessary steps to reduce and end systematic racism. Privilege is so hard to recognize when it is what normal most feels like.  It hard to see privilege as a negative force when you benefit from what those privileges afford.  But let's not mistake the connections between racial privilege and racial violence. These acts of violence are rarely limited to personal matters, but rather are fueled by what is systematically learned.  If the only way Other is known is through media portrayals, racist ideologies and ignorance--then killings will continue at this alarming rate. Black children, men and women will continue to be murdered by the very people sworn to protect. Retaliation for these deaths by killing police officers will continue, if not, increase. The divisions will grow deeper, more permanent and become a truth we think is rational.

We must want for more and act--not on racial lines, but as a people invested in love.


We have new narratives to learn--narratives like the one that powered de la Peña's journey from a "[a] half-Mexican hoop head" to imagining himself an honored author.  His work as author tells us that he did imagine "that there might be a place for people like us." He imagined this and made it so. To conjure what we don't know or feel we can't have requires us to exercise individual and collective imaginations in order to reshape the stories we have been taught that are so very wrong. We must first say out loud that these stories are not our truth.

African American people are not threats.
White police officers are not murderers.

Yes, in every set there is the exception, but it is not the exception that we need to use as definition. This just keeps us isolated, not talking, not putting our hands and hearts together to solve these matters of the greatest importance. These murders cannot continue. Black men, women, and children must be able to walk about their lives without the threat of death. Police must be honored, loved even, and respected. When we step into the shoes of other, we are afforded the rare opportunity to re-see the world and this so often fuels our desire to act with love--a force far greater than hate and ignorance.


Seeing Other shifts the world and during such shifts, we may feel terror and want to abort this work of routing out racism from our institutions--from the very narratives we teach ourselves and our children. I'm reminded of an image that happens at the beginning of "Beverly Home." Johnson's main character observes,
"And sometimes a dust storm would stand off in the desert, towering so high it was like another city— a terrifying new era approaching, blurring our dreams" (pp. 137-138). 
I think about this image and how it resonates--how the terror of what is new, unnamed and unfamiliar can be unsettling and alarming. It can scare us and make us want to turn away and blindly continue to blame someone else for all that this makes us feel. I think here about the dreams we have been taught to honor and know we need new dreams. We must learn how to name Other as human, as sacred friend, as most precious being we would lay our lives down to save. We must see what privilege costs and be willing to equalize opportunity and income.  We have so much to gain.

The thing I have most learned from grieving this last year, is that grief is an equalizer par none. Rob's death has taught me the power of love in ways I know to be true. My capacity to love is without limit--just like you. It also has taught me that grief is no stranger. Grief recognizes all and does not tiptoe around others based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or income. Grief strips us bear and without our finery perhaps it is easier to recognize ourselves as kin.

We all matter.  We are lovable and deserve to be loved, respected, and safe-guarded.  I know that the grief in the ensuing months and years that these survivors of those murdered must now live with will be the most apt expression of what it means to be human. We are all frail and strong in the face of death.

But we need not experience such awful loss in order to act. To act just takes our will to rebut the crappy and dangerous narratives that are already multiplying that recast Other as evil, as wrong, as non-human.

Let's tell new stories. Let's tell them loud especially in the presence of lies.  Let's tell these stories consistently and with great care. We can do this.

Friday, July 8, 2016

#SOL16: Shadow Play

Today I viewed/experienced La Boîte de Pandore Une photography exhibit curated by Jan Dibbets at Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris.  The exhibit features photographs spanning 200 years and juxtaposes old and new in some interesting ways, including some very contemporary works by Seth Price, Wade Guyton, Kelley Walker, and Spiros Hadjidjanos that push against a common understanding of photography and the photograph. I am often puzzled by Seth Price's work and enjoy that puzzlement. He makes me think about what I believe photography is and isn't.  I was reading an interview he gave and was stopped when he was talking about a printer and said, "You just can’t get away from how amazing mistakes look."

"You just can’t get away from how amazing mistakes look" ought to be a tagline for every school of education, for life.

self portrait 
So it was in that spirit of experimentation that I decided to buck the trend and not snap photos with my phone of art work on display at the museum (the day before Dev and I went to the Lourve [ugh, don't ask] and watched as hundreds of people lined up in front of the Mona Lisa snapping pictures with their phones. I wondered then as I do now, what's that about? What compels us to this? Is it as simple as in the face of beauty we are moved to capture it in some way?  Or is there something else, something unsettling about all of that snapping?) Anyway, at the close of the photography exhibit there was a brief filmed interview with the curator. As I watched I began to notice that the hot spotlights in the room allowed for some very interesting shadows to form. Earlier in the exhibit I noticed a shadow of myself that formed against a smooth wall and made a quick image.

So it wasn't too surprising that I drifted from watching the interview and began paying attention to shadows. For two or more months, I have belonged to a Facebook group of photographers who focus on making images of human shadows and to date, I have contributed one image. I have viewed a lot though and surely this influenced me. As I sat in the small room, I unlaced my sneakers pushed them into the light and made an image. I edged my foot into the dark and light and made another image. (Mind you I had this exhibit largely to myself. Everyone else was at the Lourve making snapshots of the art. Okay that was a bit snarky.) I raised my hand, spread fingers and played the piano and so on.

My Right Foot
Player Piano
This interest followed me back into the daylight as I made my way back to the hotel stopping now and then to make an image of a shadow.

Here are a few of the images I made while walking in Paris:

self portrait

self portrait
Man in a Fedora

Self portrait


Towards the end of the exhibit, the curator placed a quote from Towards a Philosophy of Photography by Vilém Flusser (1983).  Flusser writes:

The imagination of the camera is greater than that of every single photographer and that of all photographers put together: This is precisely the challenge to the photographer. Likewise, there are parts of the camera's program that are already well explored. It is true that one can still take new images, but they would be redundant, non-informative images, similar to those one has seen before. As stated elsewhere, redundant photographs are not of interest in this study; photographers in the sense intended here are in pursuit of possibilities that are still unexplored in the camera's program, in pursuit of informative, improbable images that have not been seen before" (pp. 36-37, from here).

Oh to be in pursuit of possibilities--unexplored possibilities.

Some days a phone is just a phone and the camera within is merely a means to reproduce the familiar. It's like a friend you never tire from being with. Some days a phone camera, like any tool, can be used to make something unexpected. Today, was a day of playing and after so many months where grief has more than dogged my step, it was a simple joy that transform the weight of grief into nothing more than shadows.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

#SOL16: Here and Then Gone

Somewhere Over the Atlantic (M.A. Reilly, 2016)

38,000 feet below thick clouds that have severely roughened the air flight, the ocean is concealed. I imagine it nonetheless--the strong Atlantic moving, waves rising, cresting, and falling like a wild sea serpent plunging down and then resurfacing again and again. In the ocean, everything flows along currents to find beaches I cannot see, cannot name. There's an order to be appreciated.

Here lost among clouds that stretch like ghostly fingers across a coming dawn, I watch as if the shift in clouds might reveal you. I tell you twelve years of Catholic school taught me that heaven was largely a skyward business and I wonder if this is where you have come to rest, come to be.

And so I look for you among the ephemeral bits of fluff, but instead I see the head of a cow, perhaps a moo cow coming down the road for we may well be over Ireland and these clouds give way to a gnarly old man who seems befuddled, hunched over a cane. And then there is nothing.  Just like the clouds Berndnaut Smilde captures with his camera.

Here and then gone.

Here and then gone.


Cloud interpretation is largely a geometry of faith--a language I cannot decipher. But even so, there is a simple joy that fills me as I stare out the window of this mostly silent airplane, winging east to Paris. We are less than 2 hours from landing.

I'm reminded that 17 years ago we tried to come here, somewhat keen on imbibing that old cliche of love. Paris in April. But instead we took those dollars and some more and paid for Devon's adoption--a surprise after so many months of waiting. We never made it to Paris, saying we would come here one day, just the two of us. We thought we had such time for who would know that a month after our son turned 17 you would be dead?


Death is thick in Paris. I had forgotten how in Europe everywhere most everyone seems to be smoking. This is true for Paris as well. Young and old.  I look  and want to say, "Save your lives." I look at the young ones and recall you telling the oncologist that you smoked from when you were a teen until you turned 27. I look at the three young girls all puffing away until I must turn away and as I do I notice another group of three at a table nearby--all of whom are men and heavy smokers--all much older than you and I wonder how much of lung cancer is an unfortunate matter of genes. Your father died from lung cancer too.


Dev and I are here in Paris, Rob and there's a certain solace I find present talking to you tonight knowing somehow that this digital impulse will find its way to you.  Someone and I am sorry to say I have forgotten who said that there would come a time when I would be able to not only bare talking with you again, but revel in it.

Yes, revel.

3600 miles through roughened air I have come to learn a truth.