Category Archives: grief

Tears in my paint box.

As I walked this morning, I took pictures of beautiful things, and mused.

As I thought about Christmas season heartache, I couldn’t  remember any teary sessions last Christmas over missing my husband. I was too busy navigating airports, interacting with family, dealing with extreme temperatures low and then high, ending the season in India of all places.

But it’s true what they say, that the holidays are the hardest. And now I’m back at it, though even what is hardest gets a little easier all the time. I suppose it helps that my life has been awfully busy again this December, though with an entirely different set of challenges that consume my attention and distract me from dwelling on things I can’t have. The challenges are much less than most people I know have to deal with! They can be grouped under two categories: 1) Being a single homeowner and 2) Getting older.

It’s also true, that I am creating my new life. At first, when I read that phrase in Fr. Alexis Trader‘s series on grief, which had providentially been written in time for my initial bereavement, I questioned it from my philosophical viewpoint. We can view our existence primarily as a given, as in, each breath that we breathe is a gift from God; our DNA is what it is, the home that nurtured us was not a result of our efforts. Or we can go with the modern idea that life is what we make it, we create our own reality.

But now we’re not  talking about a philosophical stance; rather, it is each person standing with their heart before God in humility and thanksgiving. Every decision I make, at every fork in the road every moment of the day, is like choosing to dip my paintbrush in one color or another, to apply the paint in a unique way to the canvas that is my life. This imperative to choose is also a gift from God, an aspect of our humanity that can’t be avoided. The first choice to be made is whether to accept our life from God and thank Him for it.

As to the opportunities, limitations, paints allotted, it appears that some of us have only a few colors to choose from, while others seem to have thousands. And the palette changes daily. This was always true; I don’t know if something about the process changed when I became a widow, or if I have only needed to keep reminding myself of it to be assured that something creative is still going on.

Do I have legs? A home and a bank account? An idea, an urge, health, or pain? Did I sleep well, or am I suffering from foggy brain because of sleep deprivation? I can “paint” a prayer with everything, and that is the most divine creation; most days I make some kind of outward “picture” as well that is more or less satisfying. It’s not profitable to spend much time looking at the painting, but rather to keep the given tools in hand and keep working.

Walking in the fog this  morning, I was trying to get through the Lord’s Prayer without my thoughts flying off in a hundred directions. I must have started over five times and was as far as “Give us this day our daily bread,” when I was brought up sharp by a sensation, and all my thoughts vanished. I stopped and looked around, to see where the scent was coming from, and there was the juniper hedge along the sidewalk, pouring out its essence via every drop of drizzle.

Daily bread. If the sky is bread for the eyes, this intense juniper aroma, rich with memories of walks with my grandma, is certainly bread for my nose, and it goes right to my soul. I closed my eyes and stood next to the juniper long enough to take several deep breaths, and then continued on my way, and the fog continued to turn into something thicker and wetter. My flannel shirt was all fuzzy-misty, and water trickled down my face.

As I walked I kept thinking about my grandma, whose husband died when she was over 80 years old. She immediately sold the house that they had shared for 40 years, which everyone thought was hasty. The apartment she moved to was not smaller, and she still had three floors of stairs to climb, until she was over 100. But she could call the landlord about problems instead of calling the handyman directly. I’m not sure that was an improvement.

But wait — Didn’t that juniper smell get painted directly by God on to my life’s canvas? It was given as a completely whole and splendid thing; I contributed nothing.

And while I began this preachy ramble in the morning, by evening I could not understand the metaphor that seemed clear at noon, because I was feeling so achingly the absence of my husband. It was as though my tears spilled all over my paintbox and my vision was muddied. But I had planned to go to church, and I went. My spiritual father said that if I weren’t emotional during this season, he would worry that my heart had hardened to a stone. At times, my grief is the only color available.

When I came out of church, the full (solstice) moon was still rising. I drove down the road toward home and away from other lights, and the moon straight ahead of me became huge and clear and bright. It took my breath away, and as Christmas carols automatically started playing over my Bluetooth, I felt that the moon was also singing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Before I reached my house the Kingston Trio were singing, “All Through the Night,” which they had made into a Christmas carol by tweaking a couple of lines. If you’d like to hear the music, sung in the original Welsh, this is a nice rendition. One version I found online has a verse that expressed how I was feeling this evening:

Love, to thee my thoughts are turning
All through the night
All for thee my heart is yearning,
All through the night.
Though sad fate our lives may sever
Parting will not last forever,
There’s a hope that leaves me never,
All through the night.

But for the first time ever I heard the traditional two verses of the lullaby not as something to sing to my child, but as God singing to me, and though the moon had gone behind a cloud, I knew that it, too, had been painted on my canvas.

Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping,
I my loving vigil keeping
All through the night.

While the moon her watch is keeping
All through the night
While the weary world is sleeping
All through the night
O’er thy spirit gently stealing
Visions of delight revealing
Breathes a pure and holy feeling
All through the night.

I map the topography of love.

Yarrow blooming in front garden.

March is the month that my husband fell asleep in the Lord, two years ago now. My experience of bereavement is all over the map, following the topography of the seasons and the holidays and whatever physical ailments fall on me.

Most of the time I am happily swamped by a myriad of plans and activities, and tasks I’m behind on. But sometimes the absence of my husband when I lie down and when I rise up, when I go from room to room or when I come home from a walk, is like a huge and strange presence.

March always features Lent, which is a mercy, because that is an opportunity to focus on prayer, which keeps me in the present, where my husband and I are both living in the Kingdom of God. I can put our marriage in historical perspective and in the context of eternity.

This year once again I cooked for 100 people, with the help of several dear friends, an agape meal after last Sunday’s Divine Liturgy, as a memorial for my husband. I made the same menu as last year. We had so much fun cooking on Saturday that I completely forgot to take pictures.

But the night before, I had been soaking 20# of Great Northern beans to make the Greek Beans , and I took pictures of them soaked and being dried off on a tablecloth. They have to be dried off a bit so you can sauté them in olive oil before stewing them. Neither of the photos shows the whole 20#.

I also borrowed some pictures from last year that are pretty much identical to the scene from last week.

garlic and bay leaves
Preparing tarragon for cabbage salad.

Partly because of Lent, March is always very busy. Not all Orthodox churches are able to celebrate a full calendar of services, partly because many parishes have only one priest, and he might also have another job. But God has arranged for me to be where I can be nourished and helped a great deal by praying in church and receiving Communion several times a week during Lent. We have so many services that no one can attend all of them.

Yellow freesias starting to bloom in the distance.

 

March is when the garden takes off. If I didn’t have my garden, what would my life be like? Would I keep a tidier house? Pray more? Probably neither. I am always happy in the garden – and it’s a good place to pray, without a doubt. Better to have a garden that is somewhat neglected than to have no garden.

I started thinning the lamb’s ears with the help of a kneeling bench
that my cousin Renée gave me.

I used to not like Euphorbia (above),
but now that it is falling over my own garden wall I find I am quite fond of it.

lovely lithodora

The native currant bushes (ribes) aren’t very bushy,
but they are three times as tall as last year.

Bay tree (Laurus nobilis) in a pot.

The first week of Lent I started out grumpy. But Lent is a good cure for that. I have since been given wonderful gifts of thankfulness. God has let me see how all through my life He has abundantly provided for me, and He continues to do this every day. When I think of the love that has been given me in my childhood, my marriage, my children and my friends – and now the Holy Orthodox Church that is “the fullness of Him that fills all in all,” my cup runs over.

No doubt I will lapse into grumbling and self-pity before long, and have to repent again (That’s what life is for!) but the view of my widow’s world from this mountain on which I stand at the moment is quite beautiful, and it’s a Happy Spring.

I began this post yesterday, and then went out to pull weeds and deadhead flowers. I was kneeling in the mulch by the yarrow when the florist delivery girl walked up with an elegant vase for “Gretchen.” Lilies, roses, carnations, blue flowers, sweet smells… Before I could get it into the house I started weeping, not being able to guess who would do this – it could be anyone, in God’s world that is full of miracles, and seemingly brimming with people who care about me. But it was my children and their spouses, with an early remembrance of their parents’ wedding anniversary:

“Mama, these are sent in celebration of you and Papa, and with love for you,
from your children.”  See what I mean about that landscape?

Prayer to the choreographer.

I think it was blogger Albert who recently introduced me to the American Life in Poetry site. I found a poem by Dana Gioia posted there:  “This beautiful poem remembers his first son, Michael Jasper, whom Gioia and his wife Mary lost in infancy.”

In images that describe familiar things of our embodied life the poet conveys the mystery of God — and the mixed emotions we have about the things He does. For example,

Keeper of the small gate, choreographer
of entrances and exits, midnight
whisper traveling the wires.

You can read the whole poem on the ALP site; it’s easy to find there if you put the title in the search box at the top right of the page. The title is Prayer. And if you’d like to hear composer Morten Lauridsen’s musical setting, this site posts both the poem and a link to a YouTube video of a choir singing it.

86697-webwsalvias10-2012

I dream, and wake to good things.

Recently I was laboring to find and write words to convey the empty feeling that persists deep in the bones of my psyche, a kind of panic at being a stranger in my own life. I had stepped back from that project, because this feeling is typical of emotions and imaginations in that it lacks substance. It is natural for someone in my situation, but not evidence of true emptiness.

I have an even deeper perception, in my spirit, of how God is “satisfying my desires with good things, and renewing my youth like the eagles’.” (Psalm 103) He has me all figured out and He knows who and where I am, even if I myself am sometimes confused. But while I was realizing that I didn’t want to spend time chasing nightmarish ephemera, I came across a poem that perfectly captures in a few words what it is like to have this “dream.”

Reading it brought on a healthy cascade of fresh grief, but now that I’ve revisited that I want to be awake again to today’s good things — which include the poem itself. It takes my experience and makes it into a cathartic story in which every word adds to the growing picture of a woman whose person and setting are more solid and convincing than my mind’s vague imaginations. I feel as though the writer has put the poem into my waiting hands, because I needed her to do with her skill what I couldn’t do for myself. I am so thankful for poets who give joy to the world the way musicians do, playing their instruments for love.

I had to look up “eelgrass,” and found that it is an ocean plant with ribbonlike leaves.

WIDOW’S WALK

When he visited Nantucket, Crevecoeur noted, “A singular custom prevails here among the women… They have adopted these many years the Asiatic custom of taking a dose of opium every morning, and so deeply rooted is it, that they would be at a loss how to live without this indulgence.”

Walter Teller,
Cape Cod and the Offshore Islands

Captain: the weathervane’s rusted.
Iron-red, its coxcomb leans into the easterly wind
as I do every afternoon swinging
a blind eye out to sea. The light
fails, day closes around me, a vast oceanic whirlpool…
I can still see your eyes, those monotonic palettes,
smell your whiskeyed kisses!
Still feel the eelgrass of embrace —
the ocean pounds outside the heart’s door.
Dearest, the lamps are going on. I’m caught
in the smell of whales burning! Vaporous and drowsy,
I spiral down the staircase in my wrapper,
a shadow among many shadows in Nantucket Town.
Out in the yard, the chinaberry tree
turns amber. A hymn spreads through the deepening air —
the church steeple’s praying for the people. Last night
I dreamed you waved farewell.
I stood upon the pier, the buoys tolling
a warning knell. Trussed in my whalebone,
I grew away from you, fluttering in the twilight,
a cutout, a fancy French silhouette.

-Elizabeth Spires