Tuesday, July 25, 2017

#SOL17: Alone

Sunset at Cinque Terre (MA. Reilly, 2017, Vernazza, Italy)

After Rob died the world expanded, felt larger, less familiar. I thought of this when I was on holiday in Vernazza, nearly 17 months after his death; 2 years after he was first diagnosed with cancer. Upon arrival in this small, yet very crowded seaside town, the distance from the train station to the B&B seemed great. I wandered uncertain, not knowing where I was heading, pulling an overpacked suitcase behind me, listening to the unfamiliar bits of language being uttered. In less certain terrain, the sense of loneliness that wells up and recedes since Rob's death feels heightened, exaggerated. And yet by the time I was leaving--a mere 48 hours later, the distance between the B&B and the train station was now nothing greater than a brief stroll, and many of the words and phrases being bantered about were more practiced, known.  

Familiarity allows for a smaller world. Intimacy even more so. 


Alongside Rob's death I learned  I am alone regardless of the presence or absence of company. An existential truth we each must come to know. We all are alone. 

This sense of singularity is a human condition that good marriages, happy families, solid relationships hide somewhat. Having a loving partner for nearly three decades anchored me to the world by connecting me to him. Regardless of what happened, I knew with complete certainty that Rob would always stand with me, by me, for me. Love allowed me to feel connected, not alone. But it also did something that was less in sight. Rob's love helped me too develop a better version of myself. That's what good marriages inspire, ever better versions of ourselves. It is this sense of self that has grown alongside my marriage these last thirty years that allow me most days to be comfortable with myself. This is a gift. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

#SOL17: Middles

Alps (M.A. Reilly, 7.17.17, Hipstamatic App on iPhone)

                                  " ...You’re searching, Joe,
For things that don’t exist; I mean beginnings.
Ends and beginnings—there are no such things.        190
There are only middles.”

- Robert Frost, in "The Home Stretch, "1920. Mountain Intervals


The wife in Frost's "The Home Stretch," understands that life happens in the continuous middle of things. Beginnings and endings are temporary matters that we label as such. The past, present, and future are not absolutes. Einstein taught us that.  Beginnings and endings are not absolutes, even when we most want to believe them as such.So where do we stand?  What sense might we make of this?

David Whyte in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words explains that to come to ground "... is to find a home in circumstances and in the very physical body we inhabit in the midst of those circumstances and above all to face the truth, no matter how difficult that truth may be...to step into difficulty and by taking that first step, begin the movement through all difficulties..."

I have been thinking about Whyte's definitions of ground tonight after watching the sky gradually darken over Lake Como. It's an apt place to think about ground--what with the Alps rising so mightily--almost within touch.  I watched as the Alps so spectacularly striking at early dusk began to lose their definition as the blue light lifted and spread. What had been foregrounded and backgrounded become less discernible until the rise of night made it impossible to differentiate mountain from sky.  The mountains seemed to disappear. It was then that the first star appeared and I thought about the length of time it might have taken for that light to reach here and how strange it feels to know that when I look at the stars I am looking into the past.


Since Rob died I have wondered about heaven. I have wondered what happens after death. Before he died he told me to search for him among the stars.


Early tomorrow, while the sky is still dark I will rise and watch the waning crescent moon and if lucky I may also see the red star, Aldebaran (Taurus the bull's eye). The light I see from the moon will take about 1.3 seconds to arrive. In contrast, the light I see from Aldebaran will have travelled 65-million light years. When that light first started, dinosaurs roamed the earth. And tomorrow at pre-dawn, I will stand 4,000 miles from my home on a deck that overlooks one of the deepest lakes in Europe, formed ten thousand years ago by retreating Alpine glaciers, knowing that the light I see from that great red star is a moment from its past--65 million years ago. Is it any wonder that we so often feel off-kilter? That my wonders about heaven and distant stars and life after death feel so contemporary, so urgent?  Is it any wonder that we seek to give definition by naming and renaming and not always understanding that we exist in the middle?


           in the middle of things,
there is wonder,
       and the scatter of sunlight,
and a tangled sense of the past.

Does the same light that reaches me tonight,
reach you too?

Monday, July 10, 2017

#SOL17: Praise the Ordinary

Rainy Day (M.A. Reilly, 2010) 
Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences.   - David Whyte, Consolations 


It's a very rainy night in Zurich and I am eating dinner at La Zoupa, a small restaurant tucked up a side street a few blocks from the main boulevarde the rims Lake Zurich. The wide open door announces the steady fall of rain and the distant rumble of thunder. Outside a man stops, ducks under the awning to reclaim the umbrella that was blow inside-out by the wind. He quickly moves back into the rain and down the cobblestone street out of view. We are far enough away from the hotels that tourist do not make their way here--at least not during an evening downpour. I borrowed a very sturdy umbrella from the hotel clerk and wandered the mostly empty streets. It couldn't have been more perfect if I ordered the night up from God.

I enjoy cities, especially during a good downpour. Oddly, it makes sense to me--the rhythm, the pace, the anonymity. I am 4,000 miles from home, and yet Europe most always feels like home. Perhaps it's the vulnerabilities that speak most to me--the one's that arise when visiting a new place. Here the streets are less familiar, the languages spoken, less easy to the ear--and yet, beneath those difference is a familiarity that lightens the heart. Human differences are more a matter of surfaces than depths. Earlier I was reading David Whyte's Consolations and was taken by his definition of courage. He explains that courage is not doing the extraordinary, but rather living fully with the consequences of the vulnerabilities the accompany the ordinary.


I was meant to travel and note with camera, pen, and brush what I see and sense, know and unlearn, remember and forget.  I cannot recall a time when I haven't been writing, or making images with a camera, or more recently with paint. Rob and I had planned to travel extensively when we partially-retired. Even when he faced permanent paralysis he asked me to find a van he could drive using his hands, rather than feet.

Find something I can drive with my hands, Rob told me, just one day after he had neuro-surgery to relieve metastatic spinal cord compression.
Drive with your hands? I asked.
Yes. A van perhaps.  

We did not know he was seven weeks from death.  Just hours after surgery, he could feel the pressure of my fingernail as I stroked the bottom of his right foot and we were so encouraged. During the next week as he tried to teach his body to walk again, the cancer that had been located in the apex of his right lung began to spread to his left lung, ribs, spleen, and liver.

When we talked about our future, we spoke about traveling. We imagined month-long holidays in the United States where we visited cities and towns. We wanted to document, consider, and most of all, praise the ordinary. As we thought about more permanent retirement we tried to figure out how to make Tuscany or the west of Ireland work.


Tonight I am in Zurich, far from home. As I left the restaurant I realized I did not need the umbrella and so I closed it, letting the soft mist that was falling cool my skin. As I walked, I noticed how the streets, once so deserted, were now filling with people who had ducked inside restaurants or bars to wait out the storm. It was as if the whole city exhaled.

It's a lovely evening and as the rain stopped, the light returned and though it was after 9 p.m. it was not dark. Sometimes life feels this simple, this right.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

100 Days of Faces Completed

Days 97-99

Day 100
At the beginning of April, 2017 I took on the challenge of drawing/painting/photographing 100 faces in 100 days.  I wanted to learn how to better represent the human face. Mostly I painted and although I have a long way to go, I can see that I took more risks as the project progressed, quieted the critic in my head, posted work I did not like and work I did, and lived within the constraints of time (mostly) and materials.

Below is a brief video that shows the 100 images in the order they were created.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

#SOL17: A Lifetime

They've Wandered Down the Years to Now (M.A. Reilly, 2012)


I had expected a lifetime.

I never even questioned that we would not retire or live together well into our 80s. I looked into the future and saw us together.  Rob was not a sickly person and the two times he had pneumonia, he bounced back within a week.  It wasn't until two years ago that he first complained about a sharp pain that traveled across the right side of his chest.  We sat up at 3 in the morning, cups of tea before us at the old round table and Rob calmed down as we made a plan to see the doctor.  He had googled the ailment and came up with a diagnosis--a far kinder one than what would later be confirmed as stage 4 lung cancer. By 4 am, we were back asleep.


Holidays remain difficult.  Grief does not sit itself inside me as it once did. These days when sadness announces itself loudly, firmly--it is brief and yet the initial sting is no less staggering than it was a year ago.

Fourth of July usually meant that my brothers would come for a cook out. This year was no different except of course there was no Rob. He always grilled and took such delight in it. We planned the menu, considering what I could cook on top of the stove or ready ahead of time and what he would grill--usually vegetables, meat, some kind of fish. We worked well together and always after my family left for the night, we would clean up and spend some time just talking--usually over cups of tea. Ours was a simple life.

Last night after my brothers and a friend left and Devon was tucked away in his room, I was rereading a book I had read more 20 years ago and I it caused me to remember the Cape that Rob and I had renovated in the mid-90s. That winter saw more than 100 inches of snow fall and we lived beneath the blue plastic canopy that covered the roof of our home. We were in our 30s and all things seemed possible and death did not seem like it was just two decades away. Ours was such a happy and artful home--the one where we first brought Devon.


It still cuts like a knife when I think of how brief my husband's life was. I had expected a lifetime.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

#SOL16: No Legitimate Time

Rob in Montana many years ago. We were on holiday. I think now that my husband was almost always laughing.


What I mostly know, now that 16 months have gone by since Rob's death--nearly 2 years since he first got ill, is that love does not diminish. It does not lessen with time. Grief still arrives and brings with it waves of sorrow that open into deep pockets of joy. There simply is no legitimate time for grieving. There are no periods that are more or less acceptable. Time is far too slippery here.

Feel what you feel. To deny sadness is to have it inhabit your body, like the starling that now lives inside the exhaust fan on the side of my home.  It is better to feel than to hide.  Hiding requires not being.


In A Short Course in Happiness After Loss, Maria Sirois describes the sudden whiplash of grief that happens well after the process of grieving has seemed to end:
The heart hits hard against the cage of the loss we thought we had somehow ‘resolved’ and we find ourselves on our knees, paralyzed on the blue kitchen tile, staring at the Tupperware we had taken out of the drawer to sort . . . and we can’t remember why because we can’t breathe, can’t hold our head up, can’t possibly organize anything because all we can feel is this rush of pain and the pressing crush of its sensation. As if we have been t-boned by a Hummer. Whiplash and slam.
I am writing this here so I will have a reminder, not of the ways that grief works, but rather of the ways that resiliency rises like a righteous set of wings that shadows grief. In the first months it is impossible to see this. Lately, I connect the two: grief gives way to resiliency. By naming the terror or sitting still in a sadness, grief is less the monster I have not faced and more the process I know too well.

Now and then, these waves of grief also bring stories of Rob and others. Remembering is a sweet gift.