Poetry in Progress

This has been a poignant and moving week—punctuated by the power of words and the vulnerability of relief. Tears have welled spontaneously and frequently. And synchronicity has worked in mysterious ways. Last weekend, I participated in a profound and revelatory writing workshop with poetry priestess Meghan Adler. Astonishing, informative, and inspiring.

I am exceedingly grateful for every moment spent in the company of this sacred circle. Here are a couple of poems:

NOTICING ELLIOT

I notice the always ache
I notice the awful gravity of gone
I notice my breath beside a stream of sea-salt tears
I notice the volume of your absence
I notice the hallow of my emptiness
and accept it as peace.
I notice the fading jet trail against the bright azure sky—
dangling like a cotton thread from heaven.
Then, I notice your brother’s laughter in the other room.
I notice what I notice—and I wonder. Are you there?

MO MEMORIES

They say Mo-Ranch is a thin place, where the edges blur between now and then.
I say Mo is a dream, a collection, really—had, made, and missed.
Mo is a gene attached to my DNA—crafted and careening without fear down a creaky wooden slide into the cool green ripples.
Mo is a memory, bittersweet and fragile, like a scoop of Blue Bell in July. Mo is a feeling. Forever and never again—still, inhabiting my heart.
Mo was saxophones, songs, and s’mores. Can this be all that family is?
But now, Mo is a time to remember and to grieve,
held in the river’s lap by day and wrapped in glitter’s blanket by night.
We say it’s not just a place at all.
It flows through all who know Mo—by grace.

The Thing with Feathers

Grief.

It comes in many forms, and its spikey talons dig into your flesh, heart, and soul with varying degrees of force, pressure, and duration.

But there is another layer now, a cacophony of angry, bellicose voices that surround, infiltrate, and pierce us relentlessly—pinging and careening like atomic particles in a supercollider of accelerating chaos. David Brooks said in The New York Times this week, “There are dark specters running through our nation—beasts with shaggy manes and feral teeth.”  The reality is that these events in America continue to weigh on us like a mammoth psychic boulder.

And then, there’s the pandemic—manifesting universal grief, a primordial stew of sorrow,  but there is a rancid ingredient in the pot. In this brave new concoction, so many of us are stirring unresolved pain and anger into the mix, which is hindering our ability to care for each other and ourselves. We are stuck, hardened, and adversarial.

Indeed, this creates a challenging milieu for anyone who is grieving a personal loss. But grief is not a competitive sport, as they say. There are as many flavors of grief as there are types of relationships, but I must admit, losing my first-born 26-year-old son 29 months ago in a sudden and violent motorcycle accident tops my list.

And I know loss.

At this point in my life, I have lost everyone in my immediate family, except my precious 24-year-old son, Ian.

  • My marriage in 2000
  • My only cousin, Scott, at 56 in 2007 from alcoholism
  • My mother, Ann, in 2012 after two strokes and a 32-month debilitating illness
  • My father, Everett, in 2014 after shrouding a lifetime of illness and secrets
  • My only aunt, Virginia, in 2020 in isolation due to COVID
  • My only sister Melissa’s presence after Elliot’s death
  • My kitty of 14 years, Patches, in 2020
  • And my dear first-born son, Elliot, in 2018

These are my stages of grief. This is my confederacy of losses, and recently, their collective impact has been both untenable and inevitable, as I come face to face with my own mortality.

Looking back on these years of struggle, I now recognize why everything else in my life has been messy and difficult, exacerbated by that baseline of trauma and turmoil. So these days, I am learning to be gentler with myself. I’m learning to forgive. I remember being completely flummoxed by Elliot’s wisdom on the day of my father’s funeral in 2014.

He mused, “For such a small family, we certainly have expansive abysses to bridge.”

Poignantly astute. And ironically true.

It’s like living a double life sometimes—one where you have to act like everything is OK, fabulous, and sunny all the time—and one where you are constantly overwhelmed and looking for ways to fill yourself with worthiness, love, and peace. The good things always seem to evaporate—so temporal and insubstantial, like the ribbon of smoke from my mother’s cigarette.

I don’t have the answer—far from it, but writing helps me see . . .  helps me understand the truth of what I think and what I feel. Writing also has helped me recognize that finding glimpses of grace, even the faintest glimmers in the middle of the ickiest muck, is not only surprising—it’s necessary. It’s what I need to live, the way I can put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Especially now.  

I also am strengthened by savoring the moments of awe, surprise, and connection more intentionally. Grief is like walking around in quicksand, a strange kind of suspended animation or slow motion that suffocates and separates you from the rest of the world—a bittersweet state that compels you to take a beat, whether it’s in misery or in magic.

And the magic is definitely in the angels, those celestial messengers who just seem to show up—out of thin air. How grateful I am for them, tears welling . . . I’m not sure where I would be without these cherished friends in my life. They appear when I need them most, and they are present in ways I never could have imagined. The mysterious grace of those who just know—they see me, acknowledge my profound pain—and stay anyway. They keep me going. I am writing this because of them. I dedicate this to them.

I only hope I can give other shattered, grieving hearts the same salve, the same presence . . . and in the words of Emily Dickinson, the thing with feathers. That is my meaning. That is my hope. That is my purpose.

Time for Haikus

Last night, I caught the very last story on “60 Minutes.” It highlighted the rare and timeless rituals of Kabuki, still thriving in Japan today. Though this took me back to my days studying theatre at Northwestern, I was reminded of the Japanese word for Kabuki. It means “off-kilter.” Apropos of everything.

Instantly, I also felt Elliot’s presence in the stylized whimsy of this ancient theatrical spectacle. What bittersweet synchronicity that I happened to turn on the television at this very moment on the last dreary Sunday evening of 2020. And since then, I have felt El’s unmistakable zeitgeist all around.

Japanophile was just one of his many monikers—son, brother, nephew, grandson, friend, housemate, boyfriend, wordsmith, poet, alumnus, brilliant iconoclast, IT savant, musician, saxophonist, shakuhachi flutist, composer, music critic, artist, philosopher, pinball wizard, raconteur, Global Payments engineer, volunteer, mission tripper, teacher, journalist, book devourer, bitcoin purveyor, witty conversationalist, “whitish-hat” hacker, tilde.towner, fellow traveler, cool cat, hip nerd, aviation ace, computer game whizz, old soul, restless heart, disarming intellect, insatiable student, reluctant soccer goalie, skeptical theologian, Japanese car aficionado, Japanese motorcycle fanatic, skateboarder, origami master, loose tea connoisseur, and world citizen.

Oh, I know I’ve left out something . . . so much to so many in one wild and precious life.

“That’s OK,” my wise and spiritual friend Sue reassures me, her heart also irreparably torn apart by the loss of her adult son, “As mothers, we cannot ever possibly know the totality of our sons’ existence, the edges of the lives they led,” she muses. “And somehow, that’s strangely healing. They have and always will exist far beyond us.”

Yes, I think that notion is powerful. I take a breath.

And perhaps, it’s grace.

Right now, it’s Elliot’s Japanese thread that dances before me, so it’s no surprise to me that 2020 was my “year of the haiku.” They seemed to flow from me like a gentle mountain stream. I dedicate them now to Mr. Elliot. They greeted me as I walked, as I sat quietly in my office, and often, as I washed my hands—over and over . . .

With these words, I hold you—and all who have struggled and lost so much in this year like no other, as will I for El forever:

Heart
Make it stop—this now
sacred, unquenchable ache,
because you took flight.

Time
In a susurrus,
what is done, always will be—
dissolving the now.

Apart
Life in a bubble—
Hermetic under its veil.
Together alone.

Grave
No other reason.
A grave erratum must be—
Buried on his page.

Lament
Grief’s ambient tears,
Permeating my membranes
inside tomorrow.

Swann
Passed is my future
So now In Search of Lost Time
Still—breaking my heart.

The Only Thing I Had Time to Write

The holidays are tough; they just are, this year in particular. Even in years without global pandemics and the strife of 2020, they serve up a bittersweet concoction of complicated family dynamics, mixed with tidbits of joy, the overwhelming presence of loss—and deeply cherished memories of celebrations past. This is my third Christmas without my son Elliot.

For me, the holidays are something to endure, to get through. But for my dear son Ian’s sake, my priority is to create new traditions for us, fresh memories for him, for me and for us. Easier said than done this year, but being together will be my greatest gift.   

There are plenty of new experiences now. Last weekend, I participated in a deeply moving ritual – the 24th Annual Worldwide Candle Lighting, sponsored by Compassionate Friends, virtual this year. The event honors and remembers children gone too soon. My dear friends Patty and Ken, along with First Unitarian Church, hosted a beautiful Zoom ceremony with profound and intimate meaning for those who struggle every day to pick up the sharp fragments of their shattered hearts.

Whether two days or 20 years, the pain never goes away. It just changes, but still inextricably intertwined with every moment and every breath. What a sacred time this was for those who understand, who know without saying a word, to honor the names and memories of our precious children, sorely missed but never, ever forgotten.

In thinking about how I would honor my extraordinary Elliot, on this day I thought of his poetry. He spoke from the depth of his soul, and I felt compelled to share his inimitable words that continue to resonate and inspire me in my writing each day. I recall with gratitude when Elliot’s University of Toronto poetry professor contacted me via this very blog. Thank you, Ricardo Sternberg, for sharing your admiration for Elliot and his exquisite words, a welcome glimpse of eternity. I read this as his candle burned:

THE ONLY THING I HAD TIME TO WRITE

By Elliot Wright

This cut in my bone
is the cut in yours,
a home for bad infinity;
Cantor’s blade is teething there,
mythic sword in stump.

Time, kindling for consciousness,
julienned, burns like straw,
and pallid smoke smears memory
as sheets of stratus smear the sun.

The clock unspools a fibril
a slender invisible line
for stringing my images along
like a Chinese line of cash–

It’s hard to tell–they’re shaved so thin–
which image here is
derived from the last.

It’s hard to adequately express my gratitude for the First Unitarian community—thoughtful, caring, authentic, and present. Thank you, thank you. Sending love and light to all who suffer in this unbearable darkness. I am with you. My heart is with you.

The Green Socks

Elliot was wearing green and white socks on August 5, 2018, the day he somehow flew off his motorcycle over the side of an elevated entrance ramp—and into the arms of the angels. I could hardly bring myself to pull them out of the left black-leather boot sitting still on the floor at my feet next to the glass coffee table. Unsoiled, they were wadded up together in a haphazard ball. I imagined some harried ER nurse or technician removing them hastily before pushing the gurney holding my son’s fatally bludgeoned body down the stark white corridor to the operating room.

I was not there yet.

I found the socks after I mustered the strength to open the stuffed white plastic drawstring bag I received from the hospital with the words “E. Wright – Maj. Trauma, 08.05.18,” marked in black Sharpie on the side. They were turned inside out, but I could tell they were covered with tiny shamrocks and other little icons. I gasped but could not swallow for a moment as my eyes welled with tears like a filling bathtub. I could barely see. The smallest details always seem to have the biggest impact. What perverse and horrifying luck they wrought. I lifted the bunch of bright green fabric to my nose to catch one last whiff of his life. There was a faint, earthy odor that I immediately recognized in all its bittersweetness. 

Oh, how Elliot loved socks—an avid collector of the most eclectic colors, patterns and prints. I smiled. They hailed from Tokyo, Toronto, Lubbock, New York City and Amazon—the quirkier, the better. For his last with me Christmas, I bought Bombas for him and for his brother, Ian—thick, warm and cushy with a mission. One purchase, one donated. The Tom’s Shoes of socks. But Elliot seemed to have foot struggles all his short life. Just a couple of weeks before his death, he mentioned needing to see a podiatrist for the third or fourth time to extract tiny shards of glass he had accidentally stepped on in the middle of the night after he dropped a wine glass on his loft’s concrete floor. And how I remember several visits to the orthopedist when he was a teenager to have his painfully ingrown toenails surgically excised.

“Cut straight across,” I would recommend—but he always followed the curve.

Being a single boy-mom is not for the faint of heart.

Yet these green socks seemed to have a life of their own. A couple of days after Elliot left the earth forever, George, a Northwestern pal, thespian, and medium/psychiatrist living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, messaged me on Facebook with fierce urgency. It was surprising. We had not spoken in more than 30 years. Not even a “like.”

 “Elliot wants me to connect with you now,” he said. “He’s coming through with lots to say,” George insisted. I was flustered but responded.

“He says he’s OK.  He wants you to know he’s OK. And there’s something about green socks or lime-green shoes. Something green . . .”

There is no way George would have known this detail. Though I had posted the grim news about my loss on social media, I never made any reference to clothing—nor the socks of any color. I hadn’t found them yet. He had never met Elliot. I felt a shudder down to my marrow. It was startling and oddly comforting at the same time, but I was still in a general state of shock.

“It wasn’t karma. It wasn’t fate,” George typed in the messenger box. “That means it’s mechanical failure, user error, encounter with a vehicle or something like that. Elliot is saying, ‘Something went wrong.’”

I devoured every word.

The relentless pursuit of the details of Elliot’s demise consumes me. I am restless, distracted, and anxious most of the time. I have no way to make sense of it. I know that horrible things happen all the time. And yet, we live in a culture that runs on blame. We don’t have the tools to accept or process the unfathomable or the messy. So, I am caught, stuck, mired in this inextricable, mind-numbing place. Like trying to straighten out a Mobius strip or untangle a knot caught in the finest gold chain, I keep turning, twisting, and tugging, but the resolution is futile.

 I hear my late  mother’s voice in my head.

“Elaine, your best talent is your ability to untangle things. You can unravel anything,” I remember my mother saying as she took a puff from her extra-long Max cigarette. And she was right. Fixing things, figuring things out . . . or at least, trying is what I do—my modus operandi, probably since childhood. However, this clearly defies all my best solutioning skills.

When I was a girl, I learned to pull at every link of a tightly tangled necklace with the help of a fine silk needle and a magnifying glass, ultimately identifying the one strand or link that would loosen the angry snarl and let the wadded chain fall free. Oh, how I wish I had that needle now, but there is no such thing in my universe’s haystack. I must embrace the ambiguity. I wonder if I will ever know how to be in the world. The obsessive thoughts torture me day and night, awake and asleep, a haunting refrain I can’t seem to get out of my head.

Was there another driver on the ramp who caused him to swerve? Maybe going the wrong way? Was he cut off? Did one of the 911 callers who refused to provide their contact information see something or do something? Is someone covering up? Was he caught up in a manic episode? A migraine fog? Was it an accident? Did he misjudge the tight turn? Endless torture.

The minimally damaged bike was found still running, sitting peacefully on the ramp with the kickstand down. I saw it on the dash-camera video footage I requested from the city. How could this be? There are too many questions. In the Texas Health Resources records I requested,  the EMTs reported that “a motorcyclist was cut off and forced off the road on LBJ ramp.” Everything contradicts, and nothing makes sense.

“He was going too fast and lost control. That’s it, mom,” the DPD traffic officer said with a smug smirk, “It’s not the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last.”  

Don’t call me mom, I thought as I tempered my tearful response. The sanctimonious officers conducted no investigation. I was livid and still am. I cannot stand that my baby’s fate was summarily dismissed. It’s a forever knot buried in the depths of my heart, a heavy layer of everyday grief I must learn to carry. How I wish I could just let it go, let it be, and be at peace. Everyone says it takes time. If only I could find just the right thread to pull—or sign to see.

Like the green socks.  


Signs of Life

I found a dime on the garage floor beside my car door today.

My heart lurched as I said out loud—oh, a dime.  It’s Elliot. It’s a sign. Then, I smiled when I remembered that Elliot had named my 2007 SUV Doris.

A couple of months ago, a friend told me she began seeing dimes after her husband passed following a brief illness, and they gave her some peace. Then, I started seeing posts and mentions about the prevalence of this common coin greeting from those we have lost. The belief is that when you find a dime, it is an indication that someone on the other side—ancestor, spirit, guide, or deceased loved one is looking out for you. Also, in numerology, the number 10 connotes a circle, so a dime could be a sign of fulfillment, unity, or coming full circle. Interesting.

I am always looking for signs—bring ’em on. I pay attention to the birds on the creek behind my complex, the patterns the jet trails make in the sky, and every Miata within 100 feet, which seem to be driven uniformly by Mr. E’s doppelganger. I’m always looking. Always noticing. When I make a connection or think I do, there’s a sort of serotonin hit. A kind of spark.

In truth, being intentionally present and absorbing these gentle winks is my new favorite pastime, though they are often as painful as they are comforting. Nothing else really seems to matter as much anymore—as I navigate this gnarly path of unbearable loss. I am realizing more than ever—especially under the weight of the deepening pandemic, that all we have is this very moment. Right now. That’s it. And this dime, of course.

I still cannot believe my Elliot left this earth so suddenly and senselessly 28 months ago tomorrow—a lifetime and an instant. The tragic details of his shocking single-vehicle motorcycle accident remain unclear. So, as I train my psychic radar to maximize reception, I’m looking for any flash of insight regarding what actually happened on that worst of all days—or maybe just a glimpse of the enigmatic Elliot I miss so much.

Some days, the signs appear to pop like corn kernels in the pan, but on others, there is radio silence. Laura Lynne Jackson, one of my favorite grief gurus and spiritual mediums, says in her book “Signs: The Secret Language of the Universe” that we can even ask our people for specific signs, but alas, Elliot can be quite the contrarian. He’d rather surprise and tickle me by orchestrating random retro saxophone riffs on NPR—or by returning an object that had been lost for 20 years.  

The latter happened just after Thanksgiving. Elliot’s dad, Max, had misplaced the baby scrapbook I carefully crafted to document his first few years, including a cover I handstitched from the same fabric I used to make the curtains, comforter, and bumper pads for his nursery. Somehow, Max had packed it in the moving maelstrom around our divorce. Our house sold in one day two decades ago, so the separation was a turbulent affair. I had been asking him for this treasure for more than twenty years—almost to the day.

When Max called to tell me out of the blue that he had uncovered it, I  was completely gobsmacked. A flood of bittersweet images tumbled across my mind’s eye as I sat stunned and overwhelmed in heart-stopping incredulity. The startling discovery was also a poignant reminder of time disrupted, of time missing.

But Elliot, my Elliot, was making an appearance for Thanksgiving—for both his mom and his dad. Max’s voice cracked with emotion as we finished the call.

“I’ll bring it by tomorrow,” he said quietly.

Though the brittle scrapbook was dusty and soiled, I was enormously grateful to finally receive this precious artifact that contained pages and memories as tattered as my heart. It was like finding an elusive piece of my brilliant son that I had been searching for.

What a sign, indeed, and a glorious glimmer of grace. I will keep looking. 

Changing Your Light

Changing Your Light

This has been a particularly exhausting week—juggling multiple layers of chaos and confusion at work, in our nation, and on my heart. But today, I received a profound gift. I spoke with dear woman named Cindy Hartner about her grief journey and our lifetime of almost-intersections. It’s amazing how many glimmers of healing and grace we can offer each other—if we just pay attention. Thank you, dear Uncle Duck, for orchestrating this sacred connection. I am looking forward to reading Cindy’s book, “You Don’t Get a Map, You Get a Compass.”

As we chatted about our experiences with overwhelming grief, she mentioned how she often makes unspoken deals with herself in her head, like “If I roll a particular number on the dice or draw a specific card, I will be OK.” Maybe it was synchronicity, but her revelation echoed some of my own recent musings . . .

I’ve done it all my life.

It’s one of those compulsive ruminations that’s stuck on auto play in my head, probably related to my need for control. I call it the “if/then game.” It goes like this: If the light stays green, and I make it through the intersection, then . . . fill in the blank. I’ll get the job I applied for, or that pain in my lower back will go away, or I’ll get sleep tonight. Or even bigger things, like Elliot, my late son, will walk through the door today and say, “Fooled you, didn’t I, Mom?” Or America will somehow awaken and heal from this algorithm-infected, dystopian nightmare. The result can be anything—large or small, but it rarely has anything to do with the “if” statement. A random association.

Some might call this magical thinking or even insanity, but still, I do it—even though I know it’s ridiculous fantasy. Maybe somewhere down deep, I hope it’s true in some woo-woo sphere of influence—that when I send a thought out into the time/space continuum, the atomic particles align in my favor, and all will be well.

“That’s silly!” my dismissive inner COO snaps.

True enough, I admit. This practice is not logical, but it aligns with my core belief in a cosmic causality we don’t quite understand—even if it’s just a desperate attempt to make sense of this quagmire of dysfunction we are drowning in. Yes, the universe is intricately intertwined in tangled threads of connection and coincidence that we do not fully comprehend, but I’m relatively certain Einstein’s interest would be minimal in this juxtaposition of events. Even if you dive into dark matter, string theory and parallel universes, you are not going to find much evidence to support the veracity of these syllogisms. I know this intellectually, but I so want to believe there is a greater meaning in all this chaos.

“And what about when that light turns red?” my inner COO chirps. “What happens then, huh?”

You stop the car; I smirk to myself.

“Ha, ha . . . Very funny. Seriously, if the light turns red, and let’s say Trump instantly concedes with humility and grace, anyway, is that the exception that proves the rule? Or maybe I just made a specious association? Hmm . . . ‘tis a conundrum.

“So,  how’s this workin’ for you?” asks that sassy COO.

Well, I’m not sure. I think I need to do a deep dive into the data. To date, it’s just an in-the-moment kind of deal—a mini-boost, a serotonin hit, similar to a “like” on my Facebook post. It’s like I’m tricking my brain into anticipating that something good might actually happen, somehow, some way, for some strange reason. So, is there any control?

Somewhere between predestination and free will, I think there’s gentle control. We find it in our own choices and in how we respond to people and events. That’s our only durable control. I guess everything else is a roll of the dice. Makes me think of the serenity prayer. It’s about knowing the difference between the things I can change and the things I can’t. There’s the rub, especially when one of those things is the eviscerating death of my beloved first-born adult son, Elliot. That’s where I struggle most and where I probably will always struggle. It’s also where my guilt, despair and fury at the universe often obscure my better angels. Indeed, knowing the difference is the hard part, but I think that is my real work in this life and ultimately, my real peace . . . but only if that light stays green.

Thanksgiving Looms

Still, I cannot escape the presence of his absence.

As Thanksgiving approaches for the third time since my precious 26-year-old son Elliot left this earth but not my heart, the pain is just as debilitating. Yet it has changed. Now, it’s more of a dull, unrelenting throb or ache—strangely different from the blinding sharpness that took my breath away in those earliest days. This also will be the Thanksgiving that marks the passing of an entire generation in my family with the death of my 96-year-old aunt Virginia in April. And I mourn the passing of Patches, my spirit cat of 15 years, as well.

I am reminded of the revelatory words of a new therapist I have been seeing. She is almost supernatural in her ability to discern the enormity and uniquity of my grief, all its cracks and crevasses. That is its own balm in Gilead. Though she wears one of those plexiglass face shields that makes her look like a part-time astronaut and sits six feet away from me and my crimson damask mask, there is something profoundly healing about the unseen energetic connection between two people that transcends the Brady Bunch squares of a Zoom session. I’ll call her Jackie, and I am exceedingly grateful I found her.

She sees me, the me I am right now in this moment—in all my complicated dysfunction, still struggling to figure out who I am from one moment to the next. And Jackie can definitely identify with the morphing messiness of grief, as she lost her beloved husband about two years ago.

“I think you may have discovered a thin ribbon of space in carrying this heaviness,“ she observes. ”Think of it like the thin layer of air just above the floor’s surface in fire. If you can just find that sliver of oxygen in the room, you can breathe, even if for only a moment.”

I let the profound truth of this statement sink into every pore, cell and membrane. It feels poignantly true, but also elusive and temporal, kind of like my brilliant Elliot was in life. The idea is that this space . . . where the grace happens will eventually expand.

Hmmm, a glimmer of hope, I whisper to myself.

Since that horrible day in August 2018, my life has changed irreparably. But it’s more than that. I have changed—my core being has changed. That might be the most surprising thing about grief. I am not the same person. My soul is different, marred by an opaque, murky stain that no tonic will ever remove. Even my emotional anxieties, which were front and center but healing before he died, have changed. They are much more demanding.

My relationship with everything and everyone has shifted, off kilter and flailing. I’m a Calder mobile that has lost one of its perfectly calibrated arms. I am upside down and inside out. At least, I can say his name without tearing up now. The mornings are the worst, though.  I wake up every morning thinking I am stuck in some sort of lingering nightmare. 

I also find my patience for trivialities and random histrionics is non-existent. Life is simply too short to put up with such foolishness, but at the same time, everything triggers my fear. I am anxious about walking out the front door or speaking to a neighbor who is not wearing a mask. The world has become mostly an antagonistic place—in here and out there, exacerbated by the social, political and health realities that weigh on all of us. That said, I would gladly endure 100 2020s to reverse 2018.  

My ardent quest now, my only option as I see it, is to find some sort of meaning—not in Elliot’s death but in my life. As I have painfully discovered in the last few months, the more I search for answers to the whys of Elliot’s accident, the more dead ends I encounter. No satisfaction. No relief. Just more angst, more questions and more agony.

So, purpose is my focus, and I feel called in my heart to pursue this through sharing my story, through exposing my beaten heart, raw and damaged as it is, as I strive to pick up the jagged pieces I can bear to touch to help me go on—to honor Elliot’s memory and empower his precious brother, Ian.

Until then, I will walk this dark path looking for the glimmers of light and grace—such as a lone egret landing on a fragile tree branch protruding through the creek’s serene loden-green surface like a needle puncturing smooth Asian silk. I will look for the reminders that we are part of a greater whole and the grand mosaic of creation.

There, will be a glimpse of gratitude.

Living Popcorn Style in Zoomland

Popcorn Style in ZoomlandWe are all navigating untenable times — most of us connecting in isolation and many of us struggling in silence. This COVIDian chaos is our new global zeitgeist. What is normal, anyway? We had been living in our own private Twilight Zone since the 2016 election. But now, we’re conquering a brand-new frontier called Zoomland, where the women don’t wear makeup, the men don’t wear pants — and all the cocktails are above average.

I have at least one online Zoom meeting per day for various reasons — spiritual, professional, and ad hoc/friend (aka  Zoomtails). I guess it makes sense since the phone call became an anachronism in the last decade — especially for the under-30 crowd. My brave new technical world is defined by intermittent internet buffering, waning laptop battery life, and unflattering lighting. First-world problems, but I still find this new communication imperative to be strangely draining. Maybe it’s that I lack the energy to be “on” 24/7, or maybe it reminds me of just how isolated I am.

Adding to the awkward vibe is the practice of “sharing popcorn style” in Zoom groups. I suspect the idea is to allow participants to engage as they are so moved, but I find the expectation uncomfortable in a land of only two dimensions. It triggers my performance anxiety. I always thought I was an extrovert, but living in the depths of profound grief since my son Elliot’s tragic death almost two years ago, I have morphed into an introvert with occasional extrovertish episodes. In Zoomland, I have discovered that introverts simply need more time, and extroverts should probably take more time.

I sit alone in the cozy 10 ft. X 12 ft. room I call my office, staring at a Brady-Bunch array of faces stacked in perfect chessboard symmetry on the screen—  disembodied heads blankly gazing into vague, abstract space. The connection is an illusion, devoid of nonverbal cues and physical energetic exchanges —  except for that cute couple cuddling up in one box. I guess it’s better than nothing.

Should I go? Uh . . . Hello . . .  Argh, my screen froze, or was that someone else’s? Oh, I’m muted! Hello! Can you hear me now? Now? Now! Oh well, someone else started, anyway. I’ll wait. Betty always jumps into the dead air.

There we are, trying to take the edge off our baseline angst, but we are plastered across an electronic wall like a batch of newly apprehended hooligans lined up for our mug shots. This is Zoom lockdown. There also seems to be a heightened sense of self-consciousness on Zoom — ironic since no one has put on “outside” clothes since 2019, and almost everyone has given up all attempts at hair maintenance. Still, every time you speak, you are in that glaring spotlight of exposure without any immediate feedback. Everyone is looking at you  — or at least, the image of you. Or, they are checking out your room décor.

I have decided this “popcorn style” online group dynamic is an apt metaphor for broader pandemic experience. The dizzying randomness of messaging — so rapid-fire and scattershot. All news is breaking, a constant barrage of urgent nonsequiturs — as befuddling as they are horrifying. The extroverts dominate. It’s too much to process, so we don’t. We can’t possibly. Sometimes, I turn it all off to feel better but end up feeling more isolated. So-called leaders and self-proclaimed pontificators are popping their respective corn — on every channel. No plan, no strategy, no conscience. No method to their external madness — exacerbating my clandestine grief.

It’s Only a Test

Wear a mask. No, don’t wear a mask.
A mask does no good — but it might.
We have more than enough PPE. We are giving it away.
We don’t have enough PPE for the front line.
We’re “opening up” for business now. The case numbers are climbing daily.
Inject disinfectant in your lungs. It’s interesting. No, not really.
Just kidding. Are you laughing? I was being sarcastic. Can’t you tell?
No, I wasn’t.
The virus lives for three hours on most surfaces. No, ten. No, five.
We really don’t know.

Test, Test, Test.
Just disinfect everything. But you really can’t.
You may have had COVID already, or you could be asymptomatic.
Or, you probably had it in January or maybe December.
You’ll be fine — unless you are not.
You probably have immunity. If we could test you for antibodies.
But you will probably get it again. In the fall.  We all will.
The antibodies may not be enough.
When it mutates. And it will. Or, maybe it won’t. Or, it already did.

Test. Test. Test.
But we can’t test you right now. We don’t have enough.
Anyone can get a test. If they need it.
But not if they want it. Just ask. But not me.
I’m positive I’m negative.

Test, Test, Test.
But, not yet.
The tests are flawed.
They are broken. We can’t trust them.
We should not have released them. But we need more of them.
Trace all contacts. When? Now? How?
The virus lives in the vents. But it’s not airborne.
Sure, go inside. Have a seat but try not to breathe much.
Have dinner but wear that mask.
Shutdown your salon, but you have the right to open up.
Freedom has a price.

Test, Test, Test.
Sacrifice your life of the economy, silly.
Wipe down your groceries. No need to wipe down your groceries.
Wear gloves. Don’t wear gloves. Gloves don’t help. Wash your hands.
Only 25% of you can go out – go to a restaurant . . . but not to a bar.
But social distance. Just not at the same table.
You need to figure out what 25% capacity looks like. That’s up to you.
Washington doesn’t care –  much. About anything but the election.

Test, Test, Test.
But, don’t go out unless you must. To buy things. OK.
We need you to buy things, more things.
Work to feed our kids. The virus is deadly to kids.
Go to the store. Stay at home.
Don’t buy meat, but the packing plants will stay open.
Don’t buy toilet paper. The supply chains are fine.
Go to the movies. The theaters are closed.
Go outside. Don’t go to the parks.

Because—
There’s no vaccine. We are working on it though.

Popcorn style, it is — like living in a Twitter feed, asynchronous messaging and desynchronous realities. About 50% of us long for compassionate, competent leadership — demoralized by complete empathic failure, peppered with pernicious pouts. Unpredictability is the only constant.

At home, I am grateful for my shelter, but the walls are closing in. I have millions of things to do, but I do not accomplish much. Spinning my wheels. Then, suiting up to go out, decontaminating upon return, and again and again. All those Zoom meetings in between. I am busy but empty and scared —  about our world, mostly.

Every day unfolds differently than I expect — but wrapped in soul-numbing sameness. My days progress popcorn style. What day is it, anyway? Perhaps, the pandemic is internal. There is no plan. Is that the lesson? Be grateful for the ambiguity, Elaine.  Breathe. Soak in nature. Be gentle with myself. Peace is an inside job. But, hey, that’s another story . . .  for which I will need plenty of popcorn.

Love in the Time of Corona

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty,” said Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers. “Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” I feel this speaks to our journey in the world today — as well as my journey through the dark persistence of grief. Today, I am grateful for even the most minuscule flecks of glitter.

Trying to make sense of this messy miasma, “love in the time of Corona,” as I’ve termed it, I had an epiphany. I realized I have been living in isolation for months — quarantining myself emotionally, spiritually and physically in a dank and dreary cave called grief. For the past year and a half, I have been hibernating, encased in a dimly lit reality not of my choosing. In fact, it’s a confederacy of losses that looms in every moment — my amazing son Elliot, both my parents, my treasured mentor, an exhausting 8-year relationship, several battles for justice, and the list goes on. Sinking under the weight of it all, I finally landed in the inertia pit.

Since Aug. 5, 2018, when Elliot left the earth so suddenly and violently,  my intersections with humanity have been infrequent, and alas, when I have engaged, it has required every ounce of energy I could muster. Still. Sad. Stymied. And yet, as much as I have resisted them, I am certain that these occasional human connections have kept me alive. A heartfelt ping from a sweet greeting card or a Facebook message from a faraway friend have rescued me from the deepest abysses of numbness. I have subsisted in a dystopian environment for months. I rearranged my life to work from home by taking a job with a company based in Atlanta. As the firm implodes into its own maelstrom of bankruptcy and confusion, my interactions there have been limited, as well. However, though I am practiced at this kind of separation, I am profoundly unsettled.

The dire predictions and mounting closures feel like a pall of doom folding into the gaps of our lives, slowly and steadily suffocating us. It’s not fear of catching the disease that troubles me most. It’s the fear of our fraying social fabric. In recent days, I have become keenly aware that my brittle inner being is now mirrored by the precariousness of the world surrounding me. There is certain terror in that. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to feel safe. Life, all of it, is so very fragile. Perhaps, that’s the essential lesson. Stability is an illusion, as much as it is manipulated, orchestrated, packaged and spun. Who can you trust? Why weren’t we better prepared? Who knew what and when? Was there biohazard release from a research lab in Wuhan? Was it on purpose or an accident? With fake news, Trump’s arrogant incompetence, the Russian agenda, data mining, Big Pharma, The Family, Fox News, CNN, and even MSNBC, where do we turn for truth?

Likewise, as I grapple with my internal grief, every effort to find answers to the questions around Elliot’s death and life delivers parallel rabbit holes and partial veracity. Why did Amazon Web Services (AWS) delete every trace of his business account when their customer service people strung me along for five months assuring me that the appropriate legal documentation would grant me access as his heir? Infuriating. Why is the Human Resources Department at Global Payments, Elliot’s employer, still giving me the administrative runaround about accessing his 401K? Why did the only witnesses to Elliot’s accident refuse to provide their contact information — and the police did not investigate? Why did the Texas Attorney General deny my private investigator’s request for photos of cars driving on that deadly ramp where Elliot lost his precious life?

Is it time to stop asking why?

Maybe.

I am just so damn tired, and it’s hard to imagine how I will ever process and internalize all of this — ever. Mostly, I feel alone. My reclusive son, Ian, Elliot’s younger brother, is here with me, but he is not truly present —  perpetually cloistered, as well, in his room and virtual computer universe. I wish I could be his rock, but I feel more like his handful of sand. My grief seems to well up in the void of isolation. It feels different now — so ubiquitous and inescapable. Social distance and virtual interaction — they have become de rigeur.

For the next couple of weeks, I have decided to just be —  no expectations, no questions. I will cherish the surprising moments, the shiny flickers of glitter dancing in the sunlight, when and if they come — paying a visit to an elderly neighbor; lingering for an hour on the phone with a friend I have not spoken with since Elliot’s death; losing myself in a particularly delightful episode of Schitt’s Creek; “Zooming” with my soul sisters, or taking in the healing wisdom of my cherished online writing group. Though these moments feel somehow incongruous within the rest of life, they are the treasures.

The times are overwhelming. There is no exit. Nothing is certain, and I struggle daily with the fundamental concepts of faith. So, I must try to make peace with uncertainty and notice every glimmer of the light . . . that’s returning.

That’s all we can do.