Some Thoughts on Men in Passing

 

The men in my life have been leaving

this week. That’s nothing new and why

I would not for long years venture

into their territory. But I miss

them. Men are like waves. They lap

at the shore, and recede, leaving.

 

My father, for instance, left

a love for laughing,

a willful temper, eggplant parmagiana. Fear

and fascination for flying.

Ray left—but that’s too soon.

I’m still stunned by his passing.

Blue eyes like that should never die!

I saw him the other day, hovering

over the ocean like God in Dali’s Last Supper.

He was grinning.

 

Even that blind date (the quick assessment over tea

that doesn’t leave time for unfolding

starched and pressed into our desired forms

we present ourselves like clean clothes) left

a new perception. There are no second chances.

I could use some instruction—a map

of the territory might help me find

a man who is more like a rock.

 

I was reading about edge theory

—that at the intersection of two ecosystems

new life grows, emergant forms have their inception.

When a lake shrinks in a drought

(the waters’ receding an imprecise ripple)

the shore wrinkles around it,

like elephant hide. Does anything grow

there? What about awareness? Is that

a fresh form of life? And reflections?

The shore mirrors the elephant and he it.

Can we learn from that?

 

What forms are possible when life shrinks?

When one person dies, does it matter?

If the ocean diminished by the mass of one man

who would notice? How many people

does a world need? Surely,

we can spare a few. My father,

perhaps. My friend. What is one man

here or there? Then, or now?

 

I’ll tell you, when you love someone

then they are gone, you lose faith.

You may grow some back, but

it will never look the same. The sea

just got smaller. The earth

crinkled. The mind

can’t get itself around death.

And faith is a cold ocean.

But it keeps lapping at the shore.

 

 

 

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Some Thoughts on the Place of Art in Our Lives

Okay. So. Promotion is not my thing. I’ve put together this beautiful gallery show, but no one is coming in. I had hoped to take advantage of the holiday shopping season, with moderately priced art as an alternative to the usual fare. I’d reasoned that in a town like Nyack, New York, which has a long history as a home to artists in various genres—writers, painters, actors—people would be open to buying a small painting as a gift. I have bought art for friends and family as Christmas gifts on more than one occasion. The work in the show is absolutely beautiful. But, Christmas shoppers are on a mission. And art is not on their checklist. They pass by, glance in, keep going. They stand outside the window, pausing by the bench in front, to make phone calls. They wonder aloud to each other about where to head next, while standing in front of our door, and move on or call it a day.

I wonder, Are people intimidated by art? Do they just not know what to do with it, how to approach it? Is this why they just walk by? Do they think that they don’t “get it”? Or that they do not have time for it?

Years ago, I was in a small women’s group. We met for years, bi-weekly, and talked about the deep roots of women-centered religions and cultures through time, from the Sumerians to the Greeks, and how an understanding of myth in art and practice might influence us as modern women. It was a thoughtful group, a group of creative and caring women (comprised of a nurse, two psychologists, a film maker, a hypnotist, and me, a writer). The group was facilitated by one of the psychologists, but at times, we each facilitated evenings, the better to know each other and to expand and engage our creative thinking. Years before, I had taken the urgings of mythologist Joseph Campbell to “follow your bliss” to heart and reasoned that poetry was mine. So, one evening, I brought in a stack of about 25 books of poetry, those that contained some of my favorite poems, the ones I went to for solace. I wove a talk around the poems, selecting intuitively as I went. Through my readings and elucidations, the other women were discovering poetry almost for the first time. Several admitted to being intimidated, to thinking that they could not understand poetry. They had shied away. But, after my sharing, they began to know that they could read a poem, they could “understand” poetry. I had opened a door for them. Some even bought books after that evening!

The question of intimidation has arisen in the past few weeks among friends who have stopped by the gallery. They are impressed with the work and range of the artist, Beata Wehr, and with my installation of it. I have created dynamic space in which to engage the books and paintings. I have positioned tables and chairs and stools in an invitation to sit and “read” the artist’s books, which are visual narratives. But almost no one has come. No one sits.

Perhaps (probably more than a “perhaps” at this point), I have been naive. Creating beauty, whether in the art itself or in the presentation of it, is not sufficient to the task of engagement. How do we inspire people to engage art when there are so many things in any given day vying for our attention? I keep thinking of several lines by New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flowrer:” He writes: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

I have found so much to feed my soul and creative spirit in Beata’s work. Through an autumn and now winter teetering on the edge of pneumonia, during which I have missed many days of work and been stuck at home, the choosing of the art, the composing of the show, and during respite from illness, the mounting of it, has continually inspired and enlivened me. I want to share that inspiration.

This show was a first pass, a testing of waters. As I have said to a number of people, putting it together has been an act of “living an open question.” By that I mean that I do not know what the question I need to be asking at this point in my life is.  But I could feel the impetus to create this show, to engage the world of art and artist’s books once again. The act itself is the question. So I will continue to wait and watch. I will wait for the answer to a question I can barely form, a question about how to move forward  in my life, about where to direct my passion, about what my work should be?

Such waiting is an act of creative engagement itself. I don’t expect to have an answer, but rather to live it.

Won’t you join me? Please comment. I’d like to know your thoughts.

23 Proofs for Existence of the Past ,Unique Artist's Book by Beata Wehr. Copyright Beata Wehr.
23 Proofs for Existence of the Past ,Unique Artist’s Book by Beata Wehr. Copyright Beata Wehr.

A Few Words on Depression

—for RW

I am depressed. I have been for three days. But, it’s okay. (Don’t worry.) I know what to do. I’ve been here before. I am like the friend in the story who jumps in the hole after the priest, the rabbi, the others throw down the ladder and the shovel. I am the one who answers the question, Why did you jump in. Now we are both here? with the same answer I must give myself: Don’t worry. I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.

I am my own friend. I have been here before. I know the ways out. I have several I will try, have already begun to try. They’ve worked before. Time and patience are part of the mix. The support of trusted advisors and caregivers. Amino acids. If it gets really bad and is not breaking, I call my doctor. I have been here before, in fact, I once lived here. For years, a decade or more, I lived in this hole.

I did. I lived here.

I can still remember the point in my life when, occasionally, I would have a good day. I would get out of the hole. And then I’d be back in.

Then. There would be two or three days strung together.

Then, a week or two of living in the light.

This takes up very little space on the page. But this…
took…

        YEARS!

Now, I spend very little time in this hole. When I find myself here for a day or two, at first I panic. It is a visceral memory. I worry, I might get trapped here again. I might never get out. My life is a failure I wound up back here again I am a failure it will never work never my life is a failure….

It has been years since I’ve gotten to the point RW got to this week. The point where and when the voice is so incessant and insistent that you begin to believe it. I am lucky. There’s another voice that says,

 Get help.

It is a tiny voice.

Fortunately, I am a good listener.

Sitting Vigil

Thousands at His bidding post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

—John Milton

For the last several years, I have been an End-of-life Doula with a local Hospice. We are a team of volunteers who sit vigil round the clock with dying patients and their families in the final hours and days of life. These days, I’m not sure I want to continue in that capacity.

Initially, I felt called to this work. I had companioned my closest friend along her cancer journey for several years, attending many doctor visits as the disease progressed and her spirits flagged and providing ongoing emotional support. And comic relief—gallows humor being absolutely essential. While we continued to hold out hope, the outcome seemed certain even if the timing was not. During the last two years of a five-year illness, her oncologist forewarned her on several occasions that she probably had only two to three months to live, but her decline remained slow yet, indeed, steady. (Patients are put into Hospice Care when they have less than six months to live. Bettina was on Hospice for eighteen months.)

After three plus years, I was worn out. Other friends stepped forward to take on the primary support and care tasks. My own life was at a standstill—actually, it was in a kind of recession. I had been suffering from a (then) intractable thyroid illness that had left me chronically fatigued for several years. Chronic fatigue (note that I am not capitalizing the term; it was not the disease identified by the acronym CFIDS or Chronic Fatigue and Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is debilitating in a number of ways. It was not just that I was tired. I suffered from a level of exhaustion that affected body and brain and which no amount of rest or sleep could quell. I lived that way for years (how I healed myself is another story) and finally closed up my two-year old business and gave up the house I was renting because I could no longer carry them. I moved into a furnished room in a friend’s home after placing all of my belongings in storage.

As I slowly improved during that hiatus, I began to prepare to return to a more normal life. But, in the words of another favorite poet, Theodore Roethke, “Great nature has another thing to do to you and me.” Instead of returning to normal, with Bettina still declining mind you, I was called to the next task of waiting and watching. My mother suffered catastrophic complications to cardiac surgery—her heart ruptured after her aortic and mitral valves were replaced, a necessary surgery. I got on a plane in California in July of 2007 and flew to New York the next day. I remained there for eight months, in hospitals daily, only returning home for brief visits, the first time to gather more clothes for the autumn and winter and the second time to attend Bettina’s memorial service.

The time with my mother was far more wrenching in its dramatic ups and downs, and it’s outcome long appeared far from inevitable. After forty days in ICU and eleven weeks in the hospital where she had had the surgery, she moved between rehab centers and short-term acute and long-term acute care hospitals, relapsing into intractable infections that finally took her life two days after returning home with Hospice to die.

I learned throughout these years of illness and companioning, how important it is for the sick and dying to have company. But it is not only the ill that gain from such company; it is the one who accompanies. To hold another’s hand, to be the shoulder to cry on, to bring laughter through the tears, to ask questions of doctors, to help sort information and make decisions, to crawl into bed and lie beside the afflicted—these fill the giver as much as the receiver. I am ever grateful for the hours I spent with both Bettina and my mother. Bettina, bless her, taught me, through her suffering, through her example, how to be with my own mother. It was Bettina’s stories of having her grown sons crawl into bed with her that inspired me to crawl into my mother’s hospital bed. The first time I did, a nurse came into the room a few minutes later to perform various ministrations. I moved out of her way and back into the chair beside the bed. A couple of minutes after she left, my mother said, “Get back in here!” I quickly complied, a smile of welcome surprise on my face.

Although over the past months I had become much more physically intimate with my mother’s body, helping to change dressings and clothing, massaging her feet, and helping her with hygiene (she had become bedridden), my mother had always been physically rather conservative. Yes, there were hugs and kisses at partings and returns, especially since I lived across the country, but even massaging her feet was nothing I would have imagined she would enjoy or allow before this period. All of her usual emotional barriers had been stormed by the illness and by the steady presence—which I know she did not expect—of her children. She opened her heart wider than I had ever known it to be open before. And I, who had the capacity and current life circumstances, reaped the most benefit, though my siblings had their opportunities as well.

After that, I crawled into bed on a regular basis. I sat tucked in beside her mere days before she died and about a week after a series of small but increasingly debilitating strokes made it difficult for her to form sentences and I asked, “Are you afraid?” She said simply, in the few words she could push out, “No. Not afraid.” That moment and the hours that I held her in her bed, both before and after she died, made an indelible mark on me. I am deeply grateful for and gratified by that time with her.

So, when I read about an End-of Life Doula program beginning through one of the local hospitals, I knew, simply, that sitting vigil was something I could do. Two years later, I became an EOL doula. I have been with three patients and their families at the times of their deaths and in the hours that followed. I stood with my hand on the shoulder of a middle-aged only son as he nervously stood by his mother, who had only been sick for two weeks but whose death was fast approaching. He did not know what to do but desperately wanted to do something. So I whispered words of encouragement to him, told him to tell his mother he loved her, appreciated her. At each brief sentence I spoke in English, he bent down and whispered into his mother’s ear in their native tongue. He was holding her hand and speaking to her in hushed tones minutes later when she passed. I walked another patient to the doorway between the worlds by my quiet presence, although my shift had ended and I had passed on his care to a fellow doula forty-five minutes before he died. I know I made a difference at these and other deaths.

Yet, after my sister died unexpectedly last year and I held her hand as she passed just a few minutes after we removed her from life support, I seem to no longer have it in me to continue. I took a six-months leave from volunteering, but I was hesitant upon my return. I still have not felt quite ready to companion the moment of dying. I have only done a couple of vigils since my return to active volunteering, but those patients, to my relief, did not die on my watch.

Although my sister and I were not “close” per se—she was developmentally disabled and I had become one of her caregivers in later years—her death seems now to have been a last straw. After her passing, though I returned to vigils, I found and find myself less emotionally available for the work. I think my decade of illness and death has worn out its stay, and it is time for me to take a sabbatical from it, until such time as it pulls me in again, perhaps when some beloved needs me to stand and wait with them.

As it is, I will sit vigil tonight with a dying woman and her family. I will be there in the wee hours, from 10 p.m. till 2 a.m. We overnight doula team members seem to be present at more deaths than our daylight and early evening counterparts as souls tend to slip out in that stillness more often. My patient may pass with me, and tonight I am prepared for that. And then, I will see. Maybe this will be a new beginning. Maybe I will reconnect to my calling. Or maybe life has other things to do with me…

Fantasia in Monochrome

Fantasia in Monochrome

The landscape is stark, the trees, bare
not unlike the Cartier-Bresson
poster which hung in successive
apartments for twenty years. Longing
and its affiliations. Hope after, in spite
and because of depletion, the resplendent
season returned as seed
to unknowable ground
that last clinging
leaf among leaves
silence. Intent
which we call color
releases its hold—
a single breath—
a grey curtain—
proscenium stillness.

photo © Frank LoBuono

Image

A Biography of Grief: Chapter One

A Biography of Grief

Chapter One: On Being Told

      This is the hour of lead…

Suddenly you find yourself standing in the kitchen and realize that gulping

cry in your ears is you. You are loud. You don’t know how long

you have been screaming, so you make yourself stop. In the quivering

aftermath of that sound, you are surrounded by others who have suffered

the same loss, who seek to console and contain. You have

been screaming. Their bodies are close. The seconds come slowly,

each next moment building indelible memory. You are holding

your book bag clutched to your chest and you think, This

is when in movies the heroine drops the tray. Your eyes

are closed. You see a silver tray and, in the silence, hear it

clatter. You don’t know what to do, so you do something

you saw once. You let the book bag (it is what you have, and there is no reason

to be holding it anymore) slide to the floor. It thumps down. It is

a studied action. You are trying to respond to the impossible

by enacting a scene. It’s the best you can do. Then, you push

out from that knot of arms. You want that moment over.

(It will never be over). You kick off your school shoes

in the middle of the floor. You let someone else pick them up

and place them by the door. You walk three steps and lean

against the counter. You are utterly aware of these increments

of decision, but not what drives them, not then. Years later,

you will recognize these actions as an adolescent cover

for having lost control. But at that moment, you are grasping

at shards, staring at the floor, not even seeing the ugly

green linoleum—when you look up, remembering to ask,

What about the pilot? And someone says, He died too.

Anniversaries

On Tuesday, March 25, 1975, my father died. On Tuesday, March 25, 2008, we buried my mother with him, in the same grave. We did not realize till later that day, that we were in the cemetery not only thirty-three years to the day, but to the very hour that he had died. They were the loves of each other’s lives. Even in death, there is symmetry and connection. As John Donne wrote in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”:

Our two souls, therefore, which are one

      Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

      Like gold to airy thinness beat.

It is possible to be present to the pain of loss, to find meaning, symmetry, connection in the loss and to expand out of the contraction. That is what enables me to do the hospice work I do. So, on this day, four and thirty-seven years after their deaths and with Jill’s death still fresh, I remember them all, knowing I am expanding…

Following is a poem I wrote some years back that recalls the moments after I was told that my father had died. I was fourteen and had just walked in the back door after school. Events are etched in memory by trauma…

~

A Biography of Grief

   Chapter One: On Being Told

Suddenly you find yourself standing in the kitchen and realize that gulping

cry in your ears is you. You are loud. You don’t know how long

you have been screaming, so you make yourself stop. In the quivering

aftermath of that sound, you are surrounded by others who have suffered

the same loss, who seek to console and contain. You have

been screaming. Their bodies are close. The seconds come slowly,

each next moment building indelible memory. You are holding

your book bag clutched to your chest and you think, This

is when in movies the heroine drops the tray. Your eyes

are closed. You see a silver tray and, in the silence, hear it

clatter. You don’t know what to do, so you do something

you saw once. You let the book bag (it is what you have, and there is no reason

to be holding it anymore) slide to the floor. It thumps down. It is

a studied action. You are trying to respond to the impossible

by enacting a scene. It’s the best you can do. Then, you push

out from that knot of arms. You want that moment over.

(It will never be over). You kick off your school shoes

in the middle of the floor. You let someone else pick them up

and place them by the door. You walk three steps and lean

against the counter. You are utterly aware of these increments

of decision, but not what drives them, not then. Years later,

you will recognize these actions as an adolescent cover

for having lost control. But at that moment, you are grasping

at shards, staring at the floor, not even seeing the ugly

green linoleum—when you look up, remembering to ask,

What about the pilot? And someone says, He died too.