When Life Collides With Heartache

13 Feb

I wouldn’t wish heartache on anyone. At its worst, it feels like death. A missile is launched at the heart, torpedoing one’s sense of being.

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What’s funny though is that no matter how much we may feel like we’re dying when loss hits, life goes on. The sun continues to shine, birds sing, and people go about their business. Healing requires a delicate balance of surrendering to pain while observing the life force that adamantly persists.

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Last weekend, while looking after my neighbor’s cat, I pondered how life presses on despite all the pain in the world.

My heart was hurting for various reasons, yet the cat, who is still a kitten, felt nothing but curiosity and joie de vivre. While I sat in the bathtub weeping, he charged into the bath curtain, attacking it like a predator. A la Diane Keaton, I oscillated between sobbing and laughing, as I watched the cat almost fall into the water.

I found him in the refrigerator and sitting on my book shelves. He knocked over a box of pasta and snagged my best jeans while attempting to climb up my leg as if it was a tree. He licked my stuffed cat as if it were real. Then I discovered him batting my dried roses. They were flowers I had preserved in memoriam of my own cats. At first I was saddened that he was playing with them, but then thought the action fitting.

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The cat was life force in motion. Yet the cat’s cuteness didn’t solve the problem of current loss. He merely collided with it.

 

Grief Like A Tsunami

1 Feb

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The other day I was driving on the highway when the most outrageous rainbow I’d ever seen appeared in the sky. It had been raining lightly in Southern California, which in itself is rare. I was so taken by the rainbow that I turned off the highway to photograph it. Right off the exit was a Denny’s, so I pulled into the parking lot. Of course when I later posted the photos on FB, people joked about the rainbow leading to Denny’s and not a pot of gold.

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Denny’s photobombing my rainbow was classic. What better place for Glory to descend than in the middle of an ugly, Southern California highway? If Beauty can lower herself to the banality of Denny’s, perhaps Grace can appear in our darkest moments?

I was having a rough day, filled with a sense of doubt about many things. For comfort, I drove to the church my mom and I used to attend. I don’t frequent there often, but when I long to feel close to her, I visit the church.

I don’t know my mother’s exact state when she overdosed on amitriptyline. I know her death was intentional though because she left me a suicide note. In it, she wrote that she lived in “a world of utter darkness, despair and pain.” She continued, “I cannot stand life anymore. There seems to be no way out. Depression has totally overcome me.”

Whatever the causes for pain of this magnitude, no amount of cheerleader pep talk helps. This vortex of existential angst can suck us into the blackest hole. Despite not harboring destructive tendencies, I sometimes perceive this state and and know why she ended her life.

Enduring intense pain is like sweating out a fever. Emotions, like toxins, move through us, begging for release. Running a fever isn’t something to be taken lightly and sometimes needs professional care. At the very least, tender love and care. In an ideal world, another human being sits with us and holds our hand until a ray of light pierces the night and we feel less bleak.

Grief can hit like a tsunami, knocking us down with little warning. I lived in Indonesia and remember watching, years later when back in America, the news coverage of tidal destruction that hit the Indonesian archipelago in the 90’s. It was devastating to think about and witness. The path towards repair can seem futile and the anguish insurmountable. And yet like the biblical story of Noah, in which a rainbow appears after the flood finally calms, sometimes a sign appears – a vision of color cascading through the sky.

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This wasn’t just some little rainbow gracing the skies of Southern California yesterday. This was a big honking rainbow. Thank you, mother for winking at me from the sky.

 

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Life is a Gift: Use it Accordingly

26 Jan

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All of us have played the White Elephant game at holiday parties. You know the one. Everybody brings a cheap, nonsense gift. Once all the presents are opened, participants decide whether to keep the gift they were given or to steal someone else’s gift. Rarely do we want what we get. Something always looks better.

What happens when we don’t get the life we want? Can we trade it for another one or do we work to be satisfied with what we have? What happens when we try as we might to be grateful, we remain unhappy? Is this a sign of supreme entitlement or a mood state that is hard to mitigate? Or, is it time to make a shift, if we are capable?

Life is a gift. A friend’s daughter recently had a baby. To celebrate this wonder, there were actually four baby showers. You can imagine the number of “likes” the baby photos drew on Facebook. The baby’s new life is a gift. Yet time can tear away at the gift. Just this morning I read an article about an African American man held at gunpoint by police officers as he came out of the Yale library. The man is an innocent student at Yale, yet the police assumed he was a wanted criminal because of the color of his skin. This is one of a jillion examples that can wear down our sense that life is an awesome present. Life can knock you down and point the barrel of a gun at you for simply going about your business.

Injustice and despair are real and they can erode the soul’s spirit. They urinate on the precious gift leaving us enraged or weeping or numb.

It isn’t just the dramatic tragedies that can threaten our sense of passion and purpose. Day-to-day concerns and struggles can eat away at our joie de vivre as well.

Remember the little wonders of childhood? Getting excited when a mother brought in cupcakes for someone’s birthday, or watching snowfall for the first time? When I think of life’s hardships, I also think of its magic, for it is the wonder of life that is the true gift. This is why we go ga-gah over babies and puppies. New creatures are in awe of their surroundings and remind us to be. I watch my neighbor’s one-year-old child. Every time she steps outside, she points at a bird, or a flower with a huge grin on her face. Then her little voices squeaks with delight.

Life is a gift. While we can’t have a lobotomy to erase despair, we can work to repair brokenness around us. I hear the birds sing as I write this and realize it is their voices that help make us whole.

Acting on the Edge

27 Dec

In acting class there is an exercise sometimes referred to as a “frozen reading.” Two actors are given a scene they haven’t set eyes on before and are instructed NOT to read it. Instead, they are told to look at each other. Only when they are locked onto each other’s eyes, can the person with the first line look down at the script. He or she is to read the line quickly, grab the words, and then deliver them while looking right back at the partner.

It’s super weird doing the exercise because it makes me feel like I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I don’t know what is going to happen and that is precisely the point. It’s about being in the moment and about being relational. If I’m looking at my partner, I’m not thinking about how I’m going to deliver my next line. Instead I start to act on the edge, responding to what is unfolding in real time: my partner smiles, my partner twitches, we burst into a nervous giggle, a certain strange sexual chemistry unfolds, even though the script doesn’t indicate romance…. OR, the script’s words are about love, yet my partner stares coldly at me, and I in turn, deliver my line clipped….

The exercise is about letting go of preconceived notions and allowing the moment to unfold as it is meant to go down. For control freaks like me, this is the perfect metaphor for life. Can I let go and see what happens? Can I be open to new experiences? Can I love? Can I perform without a safety net? Can I invite possibility in?

Great art emerges from risking taking and generosity. It unfolds from NOT playing it safe but from acting on the edge.

Sure we all want a little security and consistency in life but what happens when those desires threaten to make us prematurely old? What happens when we abandon our childhood dreams and our heart’s desires? Children don’t think about how they might get hurt on the playground. Instead, they just dive in and play.

As we enter 2015, I want to act a little more on the edge. How about you?

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Skeletons in Our Closet

10 Dec

Lately I’ve been reflecting deeply on how personal skeletons surface in relationships. Our personal wounds can leave us in dark spaces, where we struggle to give or receive love. Years ago (as in twenty), I was drawn to a story called “Skeleton Woman”, which Clarissa Pinkola Estes features in her beautiful book, Women Who Run With The Wolves. The tale so resonated with me that I painted illustrations to go with the story. Paraphrasing, the story goes as follows:

There once was a young woman who so angered her father that he threw her over the cliffs and into the sea.

 

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She descended to the depths where fish and sea animals preyed upon her, leaving her in skeletal form.

 

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One day a fisherman was out in his boat. Something tugged on his line. The weight of it made him realize he had caught a “big one!”

 

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But he hadn’t caught a fish. When Skeleton Woman surfaced, with sea urchins in the sockets of her eyes, he coiled at the sight of her.

 

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He thought he had rid himself of her but much to his dismay, she followed him to his home.

 

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Initially, he was repulsed by her, but then he took pity and began to untangle her bones.

 

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Skeleton Woman was frightened that she might be thrown into the sea again; that her bones would plummet to the depths once more. Moved by the fisherman’s kindness, she reached out to him while he slept. A tear had escaped from his eyelid and while he slumbered, she drank from the liquid.

 

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Then she took his heart out of his chest and beat on it like a drum. As she did, she sang out, and cried for flesh and all the things that would make her whole as a woman.

 

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Then she crawled into bed with the man and united with him. The two lived together, fishing the sea, and enjoying each other’s company.

Most young women these days have never heard of Women Who Run With the Wolves, but it is a profound book. Perhaps it’s time to turn yet again to story and myth to better understand ourselves and how we heal.

 

 

Help Me! Go Away!

9 Dec

With the news of my mom’s death, my psyche shattered as if a violent shooter had pointed his assault rifle at my soul and fired endless rounds of ammunition. The psychological and physical carnage was everywhere as I sat on my bed, shaking and sobbing. Then the numbing set in, as I looked at the notes I’d written while talking with the police officer on the phone.

Two friends showed up to be with me. They were the EMTs on the scene, walking me through the basics: phone calls to family, to my work, to the church, and to the morgue. Another friend arrived with a bag of groceries and flowers.

Cindy, who was now married to the man who had once been my mom’s second husband, urged me to stay the night with she and Chuck. I said I would be fine. At three in the morning, I wasn’t fine. I’d been clinging to my cats, Rumi and Hafiz, who loved me as fiercely as children their mother. But even their sweet affectionate hearts couldn’t soothe the pain I felt. I called my friend, Mike, who also urged me to come over, yet somehow I couldn’t get in the car. I had been in a prison of isolation for so long, I didn’t know how to walk into the salvation of someone’s loving arms, platonic or otherwise. I could take a bite of nourishment, but a meal was too much to take in.

In college, my heart and legs had still been willing and open to receive. I jumped into the laps and beds of many who reached out to me, temporarily drinking in what felt like love, but didn’t always stick.

My mother had built a shrine to the institution of love, marriage, and romance. She put flowers, food, and trinkets on this alter, despite that my dad cheated on her very early in their marriage. She had grown up thinking that a knight in shining armor would rescue her from a life of banality in the Midwest. Enter my father, who whisked her away from Wisconsin to California, but instead of sitting pretty as a lawyer’s wife, she was left to fend for herself in the world, and to raise her child alone. This was not how they told her life was supposed to be. Reality ruined her fantasies, yet she clung to the theology in which she’d been indoctrinated: Women were nothing if they were alone. This is what drove her to drink. After my dad left her, she never felt she was enough.

I would be different. I wouldn’t need a man. Hell. I wouldn’t need anyone.

Yet I did need. During her first incarceration, when I was twenty-four, the prison social worker had called me, expressing concern that my mom would attempt suicide upon her release, which was scheduled for two days after Christmas. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, so I went to the movies. I saw the romantic comedy, Sabrina, a remake of an older film. This version starred Harrison Ford as a wealthy playboy. Initially blind to the daughter of his chauffeur, he suddenly sees her in a new light. The daughter, a much younger woman played by Julia Ormond, has blossomed from an Ugly Duckling into a swan that catches the billionaire’s attention. As in most rom-coms, the lovely, humble girl eventually gets her due: a gorgeous, filthy rich man who will cherish, adore, and take care of her for the rest of her life.

That Christmas evening, I went to the family of an ex-boyfriend’s. They were hosting a little dinner party. When George opened the door and hugged me, I remembered the feel of his body pressed against mine. I was a fraction of his height, so in his arms, I felt protected. He was so pretty he didn’t seem real. Curls flopped in his eyes, which were framed by lashes thick and long enough to be a girl’s. Would he be my Harrison Ford, there to save the day?

We’d met in a graduate seminar. I was the pipsqueak undergraduate, who’d been invited to join. That spring quarter played out like a montage from a tender movie. George and I spent time at the beach. We swam, and held hands, and made out, while we talked about our dreams and aspirations. We shared about writing and books and life. He cared about me, and I, about him, but he had a long-term girlfriend who was finishing up at Harvard. When summer came our relationship transitioned to friends.

It wasn’t the first time since our break up that we’d seen each other. There’d been some sort of party, where after a few beers, our clothes came off. I shook away the thought like a pesky mosquito disturbing me. As an orphan, I was grateful for a place to go. If George hadn’t invited me for Christmas, I would have spent the holiday alone. I was aware that I was like a dog that never got enough to eat. I was scrounging for scraps. I staved off starvation, yet never felt satiated.

My eyes followed George all night. I laughed at people’s jokes, smiled, and knew I looked lovely. Yet George had no intention of sleeping with me. I drove home, over the Golden Gate Bridge, wondering what it felt like to be loved. It never dawned on me that his invitation to join his family might have been a higher form of love than sex.

The day after hearing of my mom’s death, there was little time to grieve. After sitting with me while I made cremation arrangements, ordered copies of death certificates, and made an appointment to view my mother’s body, Chuck and Cindy insisted that I stay with them that night. They were not going to let me sleep alone. When I protested that I wanted to be with the cats, they pressed me to engage my neighbor, who always happily fed my cats for me. I reluctantly packed an overnight bag.

The night before I’d cried so hard I was developing a stye on the lid of eye. Exhausted, I found myself dozing off despite my jumbled mind. In the soft, plush guest bed at Chuck and Cindy’s, I found some temporary peace. Around 4:00 a.m., my eyes opened. I’m not certain if I cried myself awake, or if in the first thirty seconds of consciousness, I remembered that my mom was dead and suddenly started wailing.

She was found dead on the street, in front of the stores, from an acute overdose of amitriptyline.

I had killed my mother. I let my mother die on the streets alone. I was a horrible, horrible person. I had killed my mother.

Loving arms suddenly engulfed me. My cries had awakened Cindy who had crawled in bed with me. Folding me into the spoon position, she stroked my hair while I sobbed for the mother who had not been able to soothe me in this way.

Selfish Bitch of a Daughter

5 Dec

When my mom was released from prison after that particular incarceration, she asked me to pick her up from the bus station. She needed her purse, money, her driver’s license, and to be driven to a hotel because she no longer had her apartment or many of her belongings. She was going to have to start all over from scratch. Getting a job with a felony was a mountain to scale but at least this time, they hadn’t revoked her license. My mom was no more a criminal than Bambi. Instead she suffered from alcohol dependence and had gotten behind the wheel while intoxicated. She had served prison sentences a number of times for this offense yet had never been court ordered for rehab. If she had had more money and a better attorney, she might have escaped her jailbird fate.

Her car had been parked near my house so I could keep an eye on it. The first thing she wanted to do was get her hair colored because apparently, it looked terrible. Grey roots were showing.

I couldn’t do it. When I thought about picking her up from the downtown Greyhound bus station, making small chitchat after she’d been gone from me for a year, fear hit me like a tsunami. I was a terrible daughter. I was letting her down. I was abandoning my mother, but if I went, I was going to abandon myself. I wouldn’t have a self anymore.

My friend, Lori volunteered to meet my mom at the station. She would give my mother her belongings. Lori also cut me a check for $200.00. “I know money is tight right now, but you need extra therapy support. Take it. It’s my pleasure.”

By not meeting her at the bus and offering her any support, was I leaving her an orphan, lost and alone in the world? Would blood be on my hands? The first time my mom was released from prison, she’d jumped from her apartment balcony, puncturing a lung and breaking a few ribs. I was a selfish bitch of a daughter.

Somehow my mom figured it out. She established herself in an apartment and found a job as a home health aid. She picked up the pieces of her shattered life and put them together again. I owed it to her to see her. That was all she wanted: to see me, her daughter. Thanksgiving was only a few weeks away. I knew that too was on her agenda. What were we going to do for the holiday? I hated the fucking holidays!

I was in the middle of moving apartments, I’d just started a new job, and my father had died only a year prior. I was a selfish bitch of a daughter, but my sanity was as fragile as my mother’s.

I decided that we should meet at Whole Foods and eat at their take out bar. It was quick, it was simple, and I felt safe amongst their gourmet cheese and flower displays. It was civilized and serene. We’d be spared the ordeal of cooking and awkward silences while waiting for a meal in a restaurant.

I stood outside the familiar building and saw her little White Hyundai pull into the parking lot. Because it was almost Thanksgiving, and Whole Foods catered, huge storehouses occupied space in the parking lot. It was difficult to find a spot. My mom had to circle a bit.

Whatever I feared would happen, didn’t. On the contrary, my heart opened when she got out of the car. This was my mother, the woman who had taken me to Girl Scouts and to Halloween carnivals. She was the woman who I had matching mother/daughter outfits with. Oh, how I loved my pink, green, and white plaid bell bottoms with the matching pink top. I’d beg her to wear hers so we’d be identical.

As she came forward to hug me, she kissed the air instead of my cheek. Whenever I hugged her, her body would collapse in and away from me. Direct, bear hug contact made her uncomfortable, no matter who was hugging her. With authority, I led us to the hot bar area of the store and gave her an overview of our selections. She picked out roast beef and macaroni and cheese. As a habit, my mom barely ate. She consisted on diet-coke and vodka, but when she occasionally would have a meal, she was still a meat and potatoes girl from Wisconsin. She didn’t like fruits, whole grains, or vegetables. She maintained a stellar figure for years, until starving herself finally messed up her natural metabolism. She affectionately called me, “Little Piggy,” which infuriated me. I was far from “piggy.” I was actually quite slender, but she didn’t understand where the food I ate went. I would lecture her that dieting was the worst thing one could do for one’s health and figure.

She insisted on paying for our food. I knew money was tight for her, but it would have insulted her if I had made the gesture.

It wasn’t awful. She asked me about my new job and how I liked it. I asked her about her new apartment. Even though I was working as a psychotherapist in a program that supported ex-felons in a their re-entry into society, I couldn’t ask my own mom about her experiences in jail. We both had an unspoken rule that it was off limits for discussion. Despite it all, I was proud of her. She had more spunk and strength than I’d given her credit for. Time in a state prison would have destroyed me; shattered my soul.

Every holiday season, when I see those storehouses, or generators, or whatever that thing is that takes up a number of spaces in the Whole Foods parking lot, I think of that encounter with my mother.

Incarceration is like a death in the family. The person leaves and then suddenly resurrects upon release. I went through this process with my mother five times, until she actually died for real.

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