A View of the Summit: A Writing Retreat’s Unexpected Narrative Arc

It felt like kismet when I received the email.

“I’m writing because we just had a cancellation on the St. Paul writing retreat, and you’re number one on the waiting list,” it said.

And there it was — the inciting incident that launched my story.

When everything seemed to fall into place, I felt confident the August retreat would provide a welcome creative escape and a nurturing 60th birthday present to myself. After all, August is the most wicked of months. Since the death of my oldest son, Elliot, in August 2018, conflated with too many profound losses in recent years, I have written to grieve — and frankly, survive. Finding my writing roadmap was my objective for the week, but the universe had its own unique take in that.

Little did I know, this retreat would become the subject of my writing, as opposed to the enabler of it.

Perhaps that’s why the impact has been so seismic. Kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I was searching for something outside myself to help heal my shattered soul. But what I encountered was the startling real-time reality that said process is — and always will be — an inside job.

I realize now this transformative experience was less about my creative path and more about my grief journey.

Though I thought I had packed light, I arrived with some extra baggage. Turns out grief behaves like a clingy companion who never checks out and never leaves — brazenly taking up residence in every cell of your body. Sometimes, I feel like my son Ian’s lizard, Carlton, except I can’t ever seem to shed my stiffening outer layer of skin.

So, for this grief-ladened former extrovert, jumping into a bubbling broth of bright, witty women — who also happen to be ten perfect strangers — was a little like diving headfirst into 35-degree plunge pool. Game on, sister. Like riding a bicycle, yes, but also a stark reminder that I have become a completely different person since Elliot’s death.

“Be gentle with yourself,” said one of the angel voices in my head.

On paper (or online), this immersive writing experience felt almost magical — the “Oz” of writing retreats but still layered with complexities. At the top of the list was the pandemic. It was my first time on a plane in a year and a half. In her follow-up email, retreat leader Jess Lourey assured me they were following “Minnesota COVID guidelines,” and they had cut the attendance in half. It still felt strange. Then, there was the Twin Cities location — packed with backstory for me, now viewed through the traumatic lens of George Floyd’s tragic murder last year.

On the plus side, there were memories from my salad days as an intern in the mid-1980s at The Guthrie Theatre, including wacky adventures with my college pal Peter, who was a Minnesota native. It was a time when anything felt possible. From Mary Tyler Moore to Prince to friends in the area, it seemed like the ideal destination after an extended period of debilitating grief and isolation. There would be yoga, meditation, healthy food, and a community of brilliant women, peppered with sassy literary insights from Jess, accomplished writer and professor.

As I approached the shadowy Summit Avenue manse on that first day, it dripped with 19th century charm in a Grey Gardens sort of way. Its cluttered elegance felt both inviting and unsettling. Shabbier than chic, the front porch was festooned with overgrown hanging plants and clusters of peeling lounge chairs with faded cushions. Dangling strands of greenery enveloped the tattered lanai like a lacy antique tablecloth draped over my long-deceased grandmother’s dining table.

My room was on the so-called “garden level,” termed euphemistically since the vine-wrapped transom windows, barely peeking above ground level, had probably not been cracked open since 1925. I tried to appreciate the quaint appeal, but I was struggling to sleep and breathe in the dank basement room with no air conditioning. And the fans they dug out of the closet did not help the sullied, stagnate air situation at all. It felt like a blast furnace at night.  

This was not my beautiful retreat, nor the 60th birthday experience I had envisioned. Once again, my yin clobbered my yang. The blessing and the curse;  bitter and sweet; excruciating and transcendent. It was overwhelming, really—a mosaic of epiphanies, fears, tears, laughs, gold nuggets, connections, wine, hugs, more tears,  sleepless nights, perspiration, Kleenex, mucus, chocolate, thick coffee, and abundant charcuterie.

Let’s just say it was complicated.

In particular, a worsening runny nose and cough came into full bloom on day two, and an IM to my doctor to check symptoms resulted in what I feared.

“Yes, Elaine, get a  COVID test,” she instructed. “The variant is causing milder breakthrough symptoms in vaccinated people.”

I shared my concern with Cindy, one of the hosts, and she said, “Oh dear. I’m sorry. We don’t have liability insurance to drive you to get a test.”  

I was stunned, but fortunately, angels on earth do exist because Lea, my retreat compatriot, came my rescue. Survival mode is my natural state, so I did what was hardest for me—asked for help. My therapist would say I was over-functioning, but I needed a ride. Lea had driven from Rochester, Minnesota, my pal Peter’s hometown, so she had a car. We had hit it off on day one. I knew Lyft would not drive me to get a test, and I had no transportation.

Though I was vaccinated, I could not rest until I knew my status. How could I run the risk of infecting the retreat bubble with COVID? What would happen then? No one was masking. After all, I had come for Texas, where hospitalizations were rising. I was feeling my anxiety ramp up. Handling this was distracting and stressful, to say the least. Shattered any Zen vibe that might have been brewing. And a COVID test was definitely in sync with a restorative retreat I imagined. 

After extensive online searching with my dear Lea’s help, we found the only test available that day at a sketchy “emergency” COVID lab located in the industrial outskirts of St. Paul. It required prepayment, but I was game. We hit the road like Lucy and Ethel trying to find William Holden at 21. It was as hysterical as it was annoying. There were even some madcap antics when we could not find the poorly marked entrance behind the thick, uncut grass. We thought it was scam.

Lord, we giggled and gasped our way across the Twin Cities, laughing through our tears. And miraculously, for a couple of hours that afternoon, I felt my crusty lizard-grief skin dissolve into a puddle of silliness. For just a brief moment or two, I felt like me again — me with a cold, that is. Thank you, Lea for that unexpected glimpse of joy and your extreme generosity.

Not surprisingly, more intrigue ensued as I had to follow up when the results did not appear as promised within an hour. Apparently, the technician had stepped out for some wild rice soup, I guess, but they eventually found him, and it was negative. Thank God.

Back to our program in progress, Jess, our charming, brilliant and earthy retreat guru, was deep into her spectacular curriculum. It’s all a little foggy to tell you the truth, but I can tell from my notes that she offered a keen understanding of how to construct a narrative. It was all about finding clarity and giving yourself permission to sink into the power and value of your story. She was a font of practical knowledge, too — all the brass tacks and tricks to get ’er done. Meanwhile, Cindy, her perky and polished partner in crime, orchestrated our delicious moveable feasts and morning yogas with unflappable panache. Exhaling felt good — especially when the congestion cleared a bit.

But the heart connections among the women were the highlight. It’s ironic that words elude me to adequately describe the experience of a writing retreat, of being in the presence of these amazing soul sisters, but that’s probably because it feels as ephemeral as the tiny fuchsia morning glories that bloomed for only an hour or so in the sprawling backyard each day. Finding authentic community is rare — particularly in the brave new pandemic world. There was a little Oz in the mix.

So, in spite of the mayhem, I believe this week was a long overdue investment in my muse and myself. It taught me to go on cherishing the beauty in the tiniest glimmers of grace. I am grateful for the memories, motivation, momentum, and minor mending of my fractured heart. And I could not wait to get home to my air-conditioned bedroom.

Because there’s no place like home.

It’s All Grief to Me: 5 Things Grievers Would Like to Hear

Thankfully, I have found several groups for bereaved parents on Facebook. Yes, they are the yin to Facebook’s otherwise troubling yang, but the shattered hearts convened in them are full and present. They weave together the bitter and sweet, the dark and the light, the loss and the love. Thinking of Leonard Cohen’s wisdom, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

These sacred conclaves provide safety and warmth in the midst of grief’s pervasive miasma. They have exacting parameters, like “Loss of an Adult Children,” “Sudden Death,” “Parents Who Have Lost Sons,” and “Refuge in Grief.” And their openheartedness is as transformative as it is devastating. In fact, their kind words often keep me functioning on my worst days. It’s a level of knowing no one else possesses. 

Part of the pain of living with the death of a child is the ancillary awkwardness of engaging with other people in the world every day. The tragic reality of losing a child is a stark identity that seeps into every interaction, whether expressed on the outside or fiercely contained on the inside. Every conversation is a reminder, ladened with trenchant decisions about what to say, how to say it or whether to say it at all. It’s like having two or three people arguing inside your head all the time.

A recent question on one of these precious groups sparked a deeper dive into my own lexicon of grief. A member posted, “What do people say that helps you most?” This intrigued me, as I thought taking inventory of what resonates with this group of irreparable hearts might help other humans who stumble around those struggling with grief or who avoid them completely.

Let’s start at the top. This list is full of contractions, but then, so is grief.

  1. Nothing

Say nothing. This might seem counterintuitive, but it makes perfect sense. This is about just being present, just saying you are present. That’s all. In pre-COVID times, it meant hugging, sitting next to you on the couch or just holding a hand silently. I think this is the ultimate comfort in grief—like sitting shiva in Judaism. You don’t have to talk or offer beverages or speak. Just be. Allow the pain without fixing, evangelizing, entertaining, cajoling or minimizing. Human presence is a divine gift and a relief. In writing, it translates as “I have no words, but I am here.” Or “my heart is with you.” The grace is in the spaces between.

2. “I am here.”

“I am here” gives a voice to the above. This response ranked high. As grief guru David Kessler says, “Grief must be witnessed to be healed.” Strange but true. “I am here.” “I see you.” “I hear you.” “I am here for you.” “I am here anytime, day or night.” “I am here when you need to talk or when you don’t want to talk.” This is the power of presence.

3. Say their names, share their memories

Casual acquaintances frequently shy away from saying my son Elliot’s name, and they sometimes visibly cringe if I do. But I love it when someone asks, “Will you share a favorite memory of Elliot?” Or says, “Let’s talk about Elliot. Remember when he  . . .” or “I want to tell you a story you might not about Elliot.” Saying their names keeps their memories alive—so personally and poignantly. The invitation to share a memory somehow propels his memory into the present moment instantly. He doesn’t feel so gone. For a brief  moment, it’s more sweet than bitter.

4. “I will never comprehend your pain.”

Every grief is different—as unique as every loss. Though we may share commonalities in our stories, the essential pain is our own. Offering acknowledgement of this can be very comforting and healing—like a specially compounded ointment. “I can’t possibly begin to know your pain or how you go on.” “I have no idea what you are going through, but I am here for you in any way I can be.” I suppose this is a riff on “I am here,” adding the shared dimension of incredulity.

5. Speak from your heart

You don’t have to fix. Just feel. “My heart breaks.” “My heart hurts.” “My heart bleeds.”  “My heart is next to yours.” “My heart is with you.” There is something visceral and intimate about these statements. It’s both physical and emotional. Elliot will always live in my heart and in the hearts of all those who adored him—the agony and the joy in one place.

I am in no way suggesting we should script such things. Far from it, but I would like to see us cultivate a greater ease and openness with loss—allowing space for its enormity to expand. It is scary, but we are here on the earth to be in relationship—to be better at being human in the hard times.

But as a grief-averse culture, we simply don’t have the everyday language around life’s most painful events. I find this ironic since the pandemic has made the immediacy of grief as much a part of life as the joy of birth. And yet, the social dialogue is still tense, brittle and detached. So much so, we continue to default to the perfunctory, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” How did this happen? I’m sorry . . . for your loss? It does not even make sense. You don’t need to apologize for my loss. And “sorry” is a flimsy word, like trying to put out a fire with a Dixie cup. Just feels inadequate.

In the ebb and flow of the pandemic, we are in a both/and world—forced to learn a new way to be as we live. There is no new normal. Perhaps, a new tolerable—with the occasional glimmer of joy. I want to learn to carry the loss and the love together, the grief and the grace. Grief will always be a part of who I am down to the marrow—not just something that happened to me I have to get over. The tap dance of OK-ness is utterly exhausting. But the dark pit of despair is no place to exist, either.

So, I’m not going to list the ridiculous clichés. You’ve heard them. You may even say them. (No judgement.) But here are a few other great words worth sharing from the collection:

This totally sucks, but I’ve got you.”

“I want to know everything about Elliot—when you are ready.”

“You will get to a place where the sting of the pain softens a bit. Until then, I will be here for you every step of the way.”

“I love you. You are loved . . . always.”

“It’s OK to not be OK for as long as it takes. Allow yourself to feel and grieve at your own pace.”

“If you want to share your pain, I will catch what I can. I am here to sit or listen, and hold a space for you.”

“I can’t take your pain away, but I do have a shoulder to cry on and ears to listen.”

Megan Devine, another one of my grief gurus says, “Acknowledgement makes things better even when they cannot be made right. It’s a radical act to allow others pain and sit beside them with it.” In the end, grief is love.

Remembering Aunt Virginia and Terms of Debridement

My fearless Aunt Virginia Thompson died at age 96 on this day in June 2020 from a withering body and what I suspect were lingering complications of undiagnosed COVID she contracted in December 2019 before testing was available. I learned much from our time together in her final years on this earth, including the intensity of her faith and the ferocity of her resolve.

            In May/June of 2018, I accompanied Virginia on her weekly visits to the  Presbyterian Hospital Dallas Wound Clinic. She was treating a stubbornly angry wound she had suffered from somehow hitting the outside of her right ankle on the inside of her wheelchair wheel. It refused to heal. The folks at Presbyterian Village North, her assisted living home, had run out of options. 

            At that time, little did I know that in a matter of weeks, August 5, 2018, my mercurial first-born son, Elliot Everett Wright, would soar off his motorcycle, over the inadequate barrier on the elevated LBJ TEXpress entrance ramp and into the arms of the angels. Little did I know that this extraordinary human would take his last shallow breath on an otherwise-normal Sunday, at the very same hospital and place where he took his first breath on a Sunday, just 26 years prior. The strange confluence of these significant events still takes my breath away.

            Grief is an obtuse companion—how it ebbs and flows but also is always present. Some days, it takes effort to breathe, and others, I am able to skim along on the surface of things. But I have been thinking about the weeks leading up to the day Elliot died, after which nothing has been the same—the encounters that were, perhaps, preparing me through some strange cosmic stratagem to carry the unbearable one day. On these biweekly visits with Virginia to the wound clinic, I definitely learned something powerful about grief and the importance of pain.

            On our first visit to this chaotic clinic, I was struck by the sheer volume of patients, all seeking some sort of pain relief. There were not enough chairs for everyone. I stood. There were babies, teenagers, grandfathers, society matrons and athletes. Pain is the great leveler. I saw one disturbingly gaunt man slouched in his wheelchair with his bandaged ankle plopped in the lap of a young man with a green mohawk and an illegible tattoo on his exposed upper arm. He might have been his son. The man spoke with a gusto that filled the room. I think he must have been a teacher.

            “I believe in word economy,” he proclaimed. “I read that boy’s paper, and he used commas like he keeps them in a saltshaker.” I chuckled, but no one else in the room reacted.

            “Ms. Thompson!” the out-of-breath nurse shouted as she cracked the door.

            That was Virginia’s married name. More accurately, her “formerly married” name—the fragile identity she’d maintained for more than fifty years after Don left. I grabbed the handles on the wheelchair she usually propels with her own two feet, and we were off down the hall, meeting Dr. Moran at the door.

            “How are you doing?” asked the chestnut-maned doc as she ushered us in.

            “Just fine,” Virginia quipped.

            “This is not uncommon,” said Dr. Moran, “but it’s a bear to heal. It’s a problem of pressure. I’ll bet you sleep on your right side, don’t you? We must offload the pressure. That’s all there is to it.”

            “Offload.” Ah, there’s a lesson, I thought.

            “This is gonna hurt . . . a lot,” she warned as her nurse squirted the swollen, red ankle with lidocaine.

            “This is what we call debridement,” Dr. Moran explained. “We have to remind the body how to heal. We need to remove the dead skin that gets in the way. This sends the body’s healing properties and enzymes to the wound to liquefy the rancid eschar and slough. ”

            Virginia winced and closed her eyes tightly, but I could tell she wanted to show Dr. Moran she could take it, whatever she dished out. Then, I saw one glistening droplet run down her wrinkled cheek.

            “Are you OK?” I asked quietly. I have never seen her register pain, and she has endured much in her life. She nodded.

            “I know that hurt . . .  Uh, Ginny, more lidocaine here,” said Dr. Moran. “We need to rally all the resources we can to heal this bugger.”

            Virginia took a breath as the kind and efficient tech wrapped her puffy leg with focused precision. Moran gave us a list of instructions and pointed us to our next stop—radiology in the main hospital for an x-ray.

            I am grateful for these times with my venerable aunt. She shared so much about her life and so many of my family’s deeply hidden wounds. And this memory reminds me that sometimes the healing process requires a seismic jolt, or two or three—like removing the dead tissue multiple times, if necessary. We can’t let unattended wounds just scab over and pretend like everything is OK while the tissue underneath continues to fester in dank darkness. Ignoring pain does not relieve it. And it takes as long as it takes.

            Yet the loss of a child is a wound that will never heal completely. The tenacious scar tissue in my heart will always be there, but maybe, eventually, I can find a new way to live with the bittersweetness of the disfigurement. And maybe, talking (or writing) about my losses can help me get to that place—kind of like debridement of the spirit. It’s French – from débrider, to remove adhesions or to literally unbridle. Grief must be witnessed to help lift the weight of its bridle. Grief needs air to heal. 

            People may think talking about Elliot, Aunt Virginia, her son, or even my parents will upset me, but that’s exacting what I need. It triggers the pain, but the tears are the tonic. The pain never goes away, anyway. Not ever. But pain does play a role— signaling that something is horribly wrong, rallying the body’s resources—calling in the Navy Seals of the heart. Though the body possesses miraculous organic self-healing capabilities, sometimes the process hits a snag. It stymies, and it needs a little help to progress.

            With grief, we must do just that—debride it, as many times as required. Don’t cover it up with a bandage or pretend you are OK. We are not OK, because the pain of our grief is our barometer of love. That never dies. As complicated as our relationships might have been in life, we never stop loving—particularly those lives we brought into this world. We must revisit the pain that makes us physically wince to move through it. It’s a necessary cringe—with the caveat: Don’t build a condo there.

            We don’t always know why healing pauses, but we do know why pain exists—to tell us something is terribly wrong. Pain is a potent teacher. But senescence can happen to wounds. Senescent comes from the Latin senēscere, “to grow old.” In medicine or biology, it refers to cells that are still metabolically alive— but are no longer capable of dividing. Dormant.  Merely existing, not thriving. That’s why they need attention. Or else the virulence of unattended wounds will manifest somewhere else.

            Therefore, we must tell and retell our stories—that is our task as humans. That is why we are here on the planet. Finding situations and people who will listen and support us unconditionally is essential—people who give us the space to remember our losses and foreshadow what they mean for our futures. These people are rare and cherished. Without their divine grace, we will never completely emerge from this suffocating miasma (one of Elliot’s favorite words). In fact, a friend/mentor in my grief support community says that to endure grief, we need two things: faith and community. Together, they help us expand our worlds beyond the loss and give our festering wounds the room to debride.

            Having lost Aunt Virginia, Elliot, and almost all of my family members over the past decade, my experience of grief is constantly conflating, deepening, expanding and shifting—but it is always there. Still, grief is what makes us all excruciatingly human. Let’s fiercely embrace the pain—and each other.

            Godspeed, Aunt Virginia.

The Nature of Grief: How I Learned to Pray

HELP. THANKS. WOW.

The brilliant  Anne Lamott says these are the only words you need to pray in tough times, and they are resonating with me deeply at the moment. Anne is a wordsmith of the most succinct order. Love this—especially since I have been grappling with the concepts of pray and faith for much of my life—but more so, lately.

As Anne demonstrates, prayer does not have to be complicated, but it can be tricky. I think she and I are on the same page about what it’s not—a wish list for existence or a direct line to the heavenly fulfillment department. In fact, I have intentionally discarded the practice of praying for thingsfor outcomes and events that I want or wish to prevent for myself or others.

Prayer does not work like that. At least, it never has for me. I don’t see God as a short-order cook or a divine delivery service. Wouldn’t that be nice? Order up! But if God functioned like an anthropomorphic Amazon.com, I think we’d have a very different kind of world. Grace delivered—overnight? Imagine . . .

Regardless, I’m thinking the universe’s operating system could use a reboot, as Elliot would always recommend when things got stuck in my cyberworld. Or possibly, a scalable upgrade? Doesn’t a cloud-based solution make perfect sense? Just sayin’. But I digress.

I may sound a little jaded, but I come by it honestly. I have been traveling this bumpy spiritual road for more than half a century, with my tail up over the dashboard, as my dad used to say. So instead, I now pray for alignment with divine order, that is, the radical acceptance of what is—and the strength to live with whatever happens in this world I don’t comprehend, whatever that might be.

After the death of my oldest son, Elliot, forever 26, almost three years ago in a still-unexplained motorcycle accident, I know that praying for anything specific is pretty much pointless. There is some greater agenda far above my paygrade at work. I have even tried praying in present tense: He is safe. We are whole. There are no guns. COVID is eradicated . . . the list goes on. But that’s not it, either, because the vastness of all creation is simply beyond all knowing. Period. 

I have gathered lots of empirical data on this. My conversations with God have been constant and frequent for as long as I can remember—when Elliot was riding those damn motorcycle(s), driving those Hot Wheel-sized Miata roadsters —and indulging in other more ambiguously risky behaviors, of which I have only sketchy knowledge. And when I was  navigating the terminal illnesses and dysfunctions of the rest of my dwindling family.

I think the playwright analogy feels most apropos. Could Hamlet ever ask Shakespeare for a different outcome? “Dear Will, uh, I’ve changed my mind. I really do believe in marriage. Can you forget about what I said about that nunnery thing?” Or could George and Martha prayerfully seek divine guidance and couple’s therapy to disentangle their codependent vitriol in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Nope, not going to happen—impossible. It’s not part of the construct. The two worlds will never directly intersect.

Here’s what I do know.

All we can do is hold others (and ourselves) in our hearts and minds with compassion—wrapped in the fierce energy of love and light. I believe prayer is more about recognizing and summoning God’s universal love to fill our own souls with peace and comfort. People say prayer “works,” but I’m not sure exactly what that means. Yet I do believe in the electricity of prayer—the dancing quarks of psychic energy that ricochet in our hearts and out into the quantum field. That’s the essence of God—in all of us. I have definitely felt that phenomenon—like the waves of love engulfing me on Elliot’s 29th birthday last week. Yes, prayer is real — but not in an “I’ll have fries with that” sort of way. We have no clue what’s driving this massive creation business. None. More questions than answers. A complete mystery. We love in spite of all of it—not because of it all.

I became obsessed with this prayer notion following a profound  Faith and Grief retreat I was invited to attend two weeks ago. The leaders, Mike Shaw and Fran Shelton, brought a gentle, Christian perspective, but the experience was faith agnostic, open and affirming of all spiritual paths. There were no dogmas, no rules. The space was a loving container of inclusiveness, breath and spirit. Nourishing, bittersweet grace.  

We convened to consider the wisdom of the Clifton Strengths, a business-performance coaching tool, in the context of grief. As we identified and unpacked our unique personal strengths, we also were encouraged to expose and sit with the most uncomfortable truths of grief, such as lament, guilt and anger. Feeling our emotions fully is essential to forging the strength to live with devastating loss and find a way to carry grief and gratitude simultaneously. I am deeply grateful for this loving group—and the mystery that has enfolded me through their support.

Mystery is part of grief, death and life, too. It’s ambiguous, ephemeral and vague, but at the same time, it might be the only safe place for my heart right now, still shattered and precarious. There is a sort of cosmic mooring in the acceptance of not knowing. And yet, it’s also so unsettling.

Mystery is my only certainty.

I think that’s why my fascination with nature has intensified so—like being mesmerized by a spiderweb. It’s a potent symbol of the persistence of creation, the unending circle of life, and our microscopic place in the scheme of all things—another concept that is both comforting and overwhelming. I’m reminded of an image from a late-career Eagles song, “Waiting in the Weeds”:

The ebb and dart of a small gray spider spinning in the dark,
In spite of all the times the web is torn apart.

I love these lines  so much, and I am energized by connecting dots. The exercise grounds me somehow, giving me a place in the grand mosaic of things—a sense of value, a way to be, belong and contribute. That’s probably why I am such an avid collector of information and asker of questions—to accumulate more data and fodder for connections. After all, it’s one of my Clifton Strengths—Input. But lately, there are just too many questions with inadequate answers. No answers to so many and many, too heavy to carry.

I am weary.

I’m tired of my own curiosity. So many questions that lead to pain, confusion and despair. Oh, how I want the moment to be enough, free of all the baggage, but I am such a different person now. I can’t get used to it. I want to feel more like the “Possibilities Elaine,” again, more hopeful and content. Perhaps, as I continue to notice nature’s eternal cadence, my heart will feel more at ease. I will cherish my oneness with creation . . . and with the raw mystery of it.

The ironic addendum is that in the wake of questioning prayer at the Faith and Grief retreat, I wrote a prayer. As Hamlet would say, “There’s the rub.”

Source/God:
Help me accept the deep mystery of all creation—
that is beyond, all knowing, as I carry the bitter and
the sweet in peace that is beyond, all understanding
my thanks for the Divine gift of your love everlasting.

Help me harness my unique strengths and talents.
to see, serve and enrich others—enveloping
me as I find meaning in the darkest of hours and
glimmers of grace in the deepest of sorrows.

Help me embrace your infinite comfort and
wisdom in the profound acceptance of what is—
as I encounter each new moment in wonder
and gratitude for this “one wild and precious life.”

Wow, Elaine

What are your thoughts about grief and prayer? I would be honored to connect.

May Day Memory

It’s May Day, and I’m remembering my father, Everett Ellis Gantz, Jr. His human trek ended seven years ago today, not quite two years after the death of his charismatic artist-wife, Ann Cushing Gantz, my mother. After nearly 89 years on this earth, my father was full of wisdom but still an enigma—especially to me and to his only grandchildren, Elliot and Ian. Few truly knew the man behind the stoic, tacit Midwestern façade. The quintessential Greatest Generation engineer, my dad did long division in his head for fun. But he also clutched a lifetime of secrets in his shadows—some I have only recently exposed.

At the time of his gentle passing from dementia and heart failure in 2014, I was a struggling single mom of two precocious and complicated young men—smack dab in the middle of the caregiver “sandwich generation.” Though I tried to put my oxygen mask on first, my “sandwich-making” expertise in this stressful context was, well, uneven—always getting tangled up in the roughage. So, as I reflect on those difficult and devastating years, I recognize now that the vitriol and extreme stubbornness I often encountered on both sides of the figurative bun were clear indicators of a family unhinged. Adapting Bohn and Conrad, I’ll just say, ”The road to heartbreak is paved with good intentions.”

So, as another Mother’s Day approaches, along with the launch of another new normal, I have revisited and tweaked something I wrote at the time of my mom’s extended paralysis and aphasia after her stroke. I suspect it’s applicable to the full spectrum of grief—and hope.

Letting go.

No need to give to receive any-
more than her spirit shines,
without veneer,
without thoughts,
without words,
transcending—
her true essence, now real—
her soul apparent.
Awareness without will,
cognition, gone—
she looks at me
and now she sees?

Me letting go—
With her, content to be.
Helpless though,
in her wheeled prison.
Her body not knowing how
to bridge this chasm.

In fear, he clings,
together alone.
Refusing to accept—
or ever go home.
To let go
of control
when his seizures defy
the years
and the secrets—
he only knows why.

The anger.
The loss.
The stories,
hiding in the dark,
the stone walls—
deep in his heart.
Oh, let love live on,
forever in peace
and letting go
but never release.

Imitating Art: Between the Method and the Madness

“Why do you wear black all the time?” Medvedenko asks.

“I’m in mourning for my life, I’m unhappy,” replies Masha.

These familiar lines that open “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov may feel a little stiff and melodramatic out of context, but there is truth in them. This classic nineteenth century drama set on a Russian country estate explores universal themes that transcend time and place, such as love, fame and regret. So, the fact I resonate with Masha’s malaise is not surprising. I have always adored Chekhov. I remember recreating many iconic moments during my thespian days at Northwestern—cavorting through waist-high snow in the bitter sub-zero cold.

“This is just so Chekhovian!” we’d announce between the method and the madness.

It’s been decades since then, but the poignant words possess a different kind of relevance today. Mourning is draining. And most days, I am merely surviving. That said, I know that mere survival is not sustainable. It’s not living, but I think I’ve lived there most of my life. Gratefully, there have been countless glimmers of joy and grace along the way, but I think it’s time to recalibrate—to find new and durable meaning, since the worst of all nightmares has happened.

Is that what my grief is trying to tell me?

When I ask grief that question outright, the short answer is this: “Well, Elaine, this totally sucks, and you are completely screwed.” However, if I sit with it a bit and get curious, I discover some nuances and layers. Though the pain of losing my brilliant and complicated 26-year-old son Elliot Everett Wright far exceeds all other losses in my life combined,  I find it also acts as a kind of an accelerant, like a flammable substance CSI might detect in the ashes after a horrific fire. Grief is a ubiquitous, unstable chemical compound that can ignite seemingly innocuous psychological debris in a heartbeat. The spontaneous combustion of new griefs inflaming ancient wounds makes carrying the most unbearable of all losses even more painful.

And while we are pondering incendiary substances, I am reminded of the potent odor of turpentine spirits that would hang in the air and seep into every surface of our suburban house growing up. My mother, Ann Cushing Gantz, a passionate artist who was profoundly frustrated by the fickle art world, liked to repurpose B&M Baked Bean jars to soak her paint-caked brushes. The small, amber-brown containers covered every table, every shelf and ledge in her cluttered studio over the garage—messy and mesmerizing, like an overgrown garden of potted pigment. I can’t think of my mother without catching a whiff of that bittersweet aroma—stringent at times, but strangely appealing. Anything can trigger a grief pang, even years later. And every loss is its own.

Like putting out fire with gasoline, my efforts to quell grief’s urgency simply don’t work very well. And it’s hard to separate it from its grave context. At first, I thought Elliot’s loss had its own private room in my broken heart, but I think compartmentalizing it increases the internal friction. I wish I could find a way to disengage it from the rest of the root system. I don’t want to go under like someone hanging on to a bag of rocks in the middle of a pit of quicksand. 

My grief is shouting at me—but so is everything else. All the experts say I need to feel the ache of this unimaginable loss to find a way to carry it, along with the rest of the baggage I seem to have brought to this place of fresh awareness. I will never reverse the agony of losing my precious Elliot and the relationship we might have had, but one day, I may be able to soften the sharpness of his absence—if I create a space for forgiveness and empathy for myself and the other players in my drama.

“Forgive to live,” Grief says. “But never forget.”

 I guess I’m just not sure what to do next.  

“At this rate, it may combust into a blaze you  cannot extinguish,” Grief warns.

It’s an inside job, as I say so often—getting grounded in the now and establishing healthy techniques to soothe my fractured nervous system. I am no longer that frightened little girl who grew up in an atmosphere of confusion, resentment and secrets. So I need to stop trying so hard to fix things that aren’t mine to fix. It’s all bigger than I can ever imagine—a mystery beyond naming. That is where I need to live.

So now, I’m remembering a different Masha from another Chekhov play:

This Masha says, “I’ll go. . . . I’ve got the blues today, I’m feeling glum, so don’t you mind what I say [laughing through her tears]. We’ll talk some other time . . .

Perhaps, I’ll adopt the countenance of  this Masha—from Act I of “The Three Sisters.” Laughing through her tears. Acknowledging the hurt but finding a way to laugh. She might be on to something. Recently, I read an article recently in The Atlantic that said the expression of seemingly incongruent emotions can actually help moderate intense feelings—tears of joy, smiles of sadness, etc.

“Emotional homeostasis is important for people so they can be in control of their cognitive, social, and psychological functions,” asserts Yale University psychologist Oriana Aragón. “If you get into a very high or very low emotion that you’re almost to the point of being overwhelmed, you become incapacitated so you can’t function well,” 

Well, Masha, for now, I’m going with that . . . laughing through my tears, and we’ll talk some other time, my dear.

Grieving from the Inside Out

“Grief is universal, but every person’s grief is unique,”  says grief counselor David Kessler.

This duality is potent, especially in recent days. The collective grief that surrounds us now is overwhelming—the weight of mounting COVID casualties, the ongoing horror of senseless police violence, and the alarming escalation of gun massacres in this country. Along with the enormity of these disturbing realities, so many of us also carry the achingly personal losses that seem to cling to us like cobwebs in a dank, gloomy basement.

Grief is an ambient constant.

Having lost my oldest son, Elliot, and many family members over the past decade, my experience of grief is always changing, deepening, expanding, and contracting, but it is always there. It morphs and shifts into different flavors of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and despair, but gradually, I am becoming more aware of my most salient triggers. Slowly but surely, I am integrating effective self-management techniques—like grounding, breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and counseling. Still, grief is inextricably attached to my being—insistent, obnoxious and endlessly dogmatic. There is no escape, no place to hide, no satisfying its demands. Not even in sleep. There is no pill nor spirit.

Grief is relentless and narcissistic.

Grief both shrouds and accentuates the stubborn presence of loss. Grief is everywhere and in everything, like the trauma bond of an abusive relationship. You can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it. Grief changes all of your relationships—at times isolating you from your friends, family, and the community you need to heal. You are a different person in a toxic relationship and in the dance of grief. You often find yourself reassuring others you are OK—when you are not. You may even try to run away or distract yourself, but grief is persistent and undaunted. Wherever you go, there you are. And the dark truth is that part of you does not want to let go, because at least, the pain is connection.

Grief is not just something inside that you have to work through.

Grief is also on the outside, always next to you. It’s beside you, behind you, in front of you, over you, under you—hovering like a long shadow, even in the dark. Some say losing a child is like losing a limb. You can survive it, but you must relearn how to do everything. However, I think it’s also like gaining a limb you don’t want—an extra arm or leg you must constantly contend with, manage, or even hide. And it’s always in your way, awkward, and obstructive. You must relearn everything, but you still cannot escape it.

Do you acknowledge it immediately when meeting someone? Or do you pretend it’s not there, which can draw even more unspoken attention to it? How do you live with such an abnormality? There are no easy answers, and it’s a confusing question in a culture that minimizes and compartmentalizes grief to avoid its discomfort. So, how do you find meaning in life? Do mundane tasks even matter at all when the worst has already happened? But that’s where compassion is essential—individually and collectively. Things like meeting a deadline at work of separating out the recycling may not seem to matter much in a universe tainted by unbearable loss, but we must keep going.

And more important, we must be intentional about caring for each other, showing up, and creating a space for mattering. For me, regardless of how I conceptualize it, the gravity of grief informs every interaction, every experience, every conversation. Hopefully, over time, I will become more accustomed to its presence. I know I must find a way to accommodate grief if I am going to function in the world.

Yes, I am different now, and I work every day to accept this journey.

Grief will always be part of me, just as my love for my son Elliot will be. And grief will always be a layer between me and everything else. Whether a thin, hyaline veil or an imposing brick wall, at times it’s murky black and at others, sparklingly light. The light is the precious part, the awful glimmer of grief. That’s what illuminates the gold, the gleaming memories of a lifetime that will never die.

Together we can do our best to soften the fear, the anxiety, the alienation, and the pain—inside and out.

The Circles of Life

St. Michael and All Angels Columbarium Garden

Lately, I have been thinking about the events of 2018, the year my precious son Elliot died on August 5th. Though I had faced many mighty challenges in my half-century on the earth, this series of 365 days was like no other. It was a messy mélange of life, death, disruption, and grief—but looking back on it now, I’m increasingly befuddled by some of the other events that occurred in that most devastating year. I have mentioned a couple in prior posts that pondered probable connections to the cosmic unconsciousness, like “Quantum Ghosts”.

Could it be true that everything really is happening at the same time—like some quantum ball of tangled twine in another dimension of the time and space continuum? Is the concept of time (past, present, and future) really just a convenient construct? It’s overwhelming to think about too much but still intrigues me in a “Twilight Zone”/”Black Mirror” sort of way. As a side note, Elliot loved both those shows and even introduced me to “Black Mirror.” So why rule it out?

I wrote the post below on May 28, 2018—just two months before Elliot’s sudden, horrific, and unbearable motorcycle death. Like so much in my life now, rereading this essay was both profoundly disturbing and oddly comforting. There is so much we simply don’t understand—and likely never will in this tangible realm.  

______________________________________________________

“And Know the Place for the First Time” l May 28, 2018

Memories of those we have lost are often complicated—a morphing mosaic of longing, loneliness, anger, pain, guilt, sadness, gratitude, forgiveness, love and eventually, peace.

This Memorial Day I have come full circle in many ways. When my oldest son, Elliot, watched the “The Lion King” as a toddler, he called it “the circle guh-life.” Turns out that “guh” is profound because the circle is rarely a smooth curve. There are bumps and turns—which reminds me of the words of another Elliot – T.S., with one L:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

I arrived there this week.

I began a new assignment writing copy but in a new context. I hope to shift out of the chaotic freelance writing world to work with an integrated marcom agency in Dallas for a while. Every change is an adjustment, every new adventure a realignment. Every experience, your teacher. I missed the energy of a creative cadre—a tribe of brilliant minds collaborating and concepting in real time. A place to belong. I guess I enjoy the process as much as the product.

The Universe works in mysterious ways—most of them unconscious. Life coach Mary Morrissey teaches, “First, notice what you are noticing. It’s the first step to self-awareness.” So, here’s what I have noticed – though I am starting over once again, I find myself in stunningly familiar territory. I am working in Preston Center, a shopping center just a few miles from where I grew up. It is like returning to the place “where I started”—probably holding more hidden nostalgia than any other place of my childhood.

And I’m seeing it for the first time.

I have been flooded with memories of shopping at Sanger Harris and the Woolworths dime store with my mom and sister when I was just 10 or 11. This was our primary recreational activity—a pocket of together time. An artist, reluctant teacher, and sometime socialite, my mother’s presence filled every room she entered in the outside world. On Saturdays, she adored shopping and visiting her flamboyant fashionista friend Mercedes, who ran the Elizabeth Arden counter at Sanger’s with great panache. They would chat and banter as Melissa and I “played” in the makeup, but her mission was to purchase her signature lipstick shade, Fuchsia Shock. It suited my mom’s mega-watt style, and it was the same shade she sported on her thick, one-inch nails.

Over the past few days, I have wandered the sidewalks of Sherry Lane and Westchester during my lunch breaks. A hip, trendy free-range hamburger boutique has replaced the greasy soda fountain at the Woolworth’s. And Wyatt’s cafeteria, with its wickedly sumptuous chocolate-icebox pie, is long gone—as it the dusty, cramped little store where I purchased my very first record. It was the debut album by The Partridge Family. Though I have lived in Dallas for most of my life, I have never experienced the emotional impact of this place before—not like this. Until now, these glimpses of my past have felt like they belonged to someone—and disconnected.

Perhaps, this is the beginning of my exploring.

On Wednesday, I left my 18th-floor office at noon, pausing for a startlingly raw moment. I noticed the high-rise across the street and recalled that faithful day more than three decades ago when I hopped into the back of shiny, white limo after my wedding reception on the top floor. I struggled to step into the skin of that ostensibly happy married girl. She felt like a character in a movie—unrelated and detached. I saw her in a crisp, purple size-10 linen suit she could wear only after losing 30 pounds on Weight Watchers. She was waving to the smiling people on sidewalk who were tossing fuchsia tissue-paper petals into the air.

I chose not to linger there.

Yet I could not avoid more of the strangely familiar. Not sure why, but I turned right at the corner—away from the shopping center and toward St. Michael’s and All Angels Church. This destination held its own mixed, messy bag of memories, but it lured me with a gravitas I could not explain. The last time I was there was 2014 for my father’s funeral and before that, 2012, for my mother’s memorial following her protracted illness. I also was married there in the sanctuary and attended elementary school at St. Michael’s School, where I always dreaded that excruciating President’s Physical Fitness Test. Though my parents did not attend services there or address spiritual matters much at all, it was our “church of record.”

How I remembered trying to find a way to belong there. I offered to help Mrs. Dienes, our perfectly pressed neighbor, teach kindergarten Sunday School when I was about 16. I borrowed my parents’ powder-blue Mercury Monarch with the white interior to get there by 9:00 a.m. I sang in the choir for Paul Thomas, who always scared me a little, and I attended the youth group led by Kyle Rote, Jr., the super-cute soccer star on the Dallas Tornado. Alas, despite all my valiant attempts, I never felt like I really fit in—as if I were missing that essential component that made me worthy of the Episcopal whole.

Still, this is where my parents’ ashes are residing for eternity. My stomach tumbled as I realized I was about to see them again. Serendipity—but no coincidence. I had not been back since my father’s interment. At once, I felt the weight of generations of secrets and shame enveloped in a warm wave of comfort. I stepped closer to the austere, yet elegant, monument. There they were, together for always and forever. So present and peaceful behind the pristine limestone plaque. I stared at the inscriptions and was suddenly overwhelmed. I grieved not for what we lost but what we never had. And in that moment, I made peace somehow. Then, I paused in pure awe as I considered the convoluted series of events that had brought me to this place at this moment. There I was—steeped in memories and standing with my parents once again as I prepared for a new future. Almost too much to process.

I closed my eyes and thanked the Universe for this miraculous journey and others to come. These are the moments that amplify our being beyond all comprehension.

Then, I thought of sipping a cool, creamy root beer float at Woolworth’s . . . and I smiled.

I Am

A week or so before snowmageddon stymied Texas, my dear friend and writing pal Sue recommended a book called “When Women Were Birds,” by Terry Tempest Williams. I’m endlessly grateful, as it provided a warm and poignant embrace during the powerless hours. If Anne Lamott says it’s “brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder,” you can bet it’s a winner. As I sat on my big purple couch in the frigid darkness, swaddled in three blankets with a flashlight precariously perched on one knee, I devoured Williams’ evocative, lyrical prose and was instantly inspired to scribble this poem — just before the electricity sizzled back on for another brief round:

I Am

I am worn out.
I am scared.
I am alone.
I am freezing.
I can almost see my breath.

I am a balloon that is slowly deflating.
I am an opaque mosaic of dusty shards
that don’t quite fit.
I am the map of another country.
I am overwhelmed.
I am underemployed.
I am seeking.
I am hiding.
I am not knowing . . .
I am fried.

I am filled with emptiness.
I am hollow with grief.
I am here but not present.
I am shallow but deep.

I am aching to be seen, but I don’t want to be noticed.
I am yearning to connect but no energy to speak.
I am salt in the wound.
I am salve on the sore.
I am dented but still running.
Where is the door?

I am shadow.
I am moonlight.
I am desire.
I am disdain.
I am letting go.
I am holding on.
I am selfish.
I am shame.

I am kind.
I am cold.
I am love.
I am lost.

I am waiting in the wings.
I am milling in the mezzanine.
I am loitering in the lobby.
Where is the stage?
I am scripts unwritten.
I am books unread.
I am the Rock of Gibraltar.
I am the tools in the shed.
I am a frothy, white jet trail.
I am blood-orange sunshine.
I am Purple Rain.
I am Auld Lang Syne

I am select soccer and team tennis.
I am saxophone lessons and art classes.
I am ear infections and root canals.
I am a pair of new dark glasses.
I am fistfights in the kitchen.
I am boxes in the hall.
I am lullabies in the nursery.
I am drawings on the wall.

I am sighing
I am sobbing
I am wailing
I am praying
I am allowing
I am inviting
I am chuckling
I am fraying

I am a sutra unraveled, but
I am whole.

I am a cotton shirt, not pressed.
I am a pair of jeans, too tight.
I am a child without a mother.
I am a mother full of fright.
I am the tears in a handkerchief.
I am the words on the page.
I am a candle in the window.
I am a flashlight in the dark.
I am a sip of black tea.
I am a broken heart.

I am an imposter and an expert —
respected and dismayed.
I am confident and confused —
anxious and praised.

I am stardust.
I am golden.
I am taking.
I am giving.
I am releasing
Now
Forever
And for you, I am living.

Grieving Power: Finding Your Way in the Dark

Life is precarious.

Texas and the universe demonstrated this truth with debilitating intensity last week. Indeed, we are living in a time of radical transformation, a period without predictability or security. Socioeconomic upheaval, geopolitical unrest, erupting racial tensions, escalating cybersecurity threats, and climate change are all coming to a head. And oh, and this is all happening in the midst of a global pandemic.

I will admit I am hypersensitive as I navigate the agony of my own grief, but the world is becoming increasingly fragile and complicated. Control is an illusion. Sure, we can decide whether we turn on a flashlight or light a candle in a blackout, but how do we manage our lives with any kind of certainty? So many directions, but nowhere to go.

When most all the infrastructure services that are designed to support and protect us in arctic temperatures fail catastrophically, our trust evaporates. And we panic. Plus, we’re back to ground zero on Maslow’s famed hierarchy of needs. Forget self-actualization — I’ll settle for flushing my toilet.

And amplifying the precariousness is the capriciousness of it all. Some people are still without any power in Texas; some are boiling every sip of water they drink; others are recovering from extended rolling blackouts (like us), and others had no disruption at all. Then, there are the food supply-chain disruptions happening now and broken pipes everywhere you turn.

Yet through all the chaos, I have been grateful. I have appreciated my 24-year-old son Ian’s calm, grounded presence, as well as the kind texts from friends across the country who checked on us — though I could not always read them in real-time, because our cell service was toast, too. I was grateful for the vigilance of our building management and our dedicated maintenance team. They worked tirelessly to repair broken pipes, open locked-down security doors, and silence errant fire alarms. I may say everything reminds me of “The Twilight Zone,” but the building seemed to have a will of its own at times — like it was mischievously misbehaving.

As the days oozed into nights without power, heat, internet, or cell service, I also remembered the “Twilight Zone” episode called “Midnight Sun.” Lois Nettleton played an artist who was suffering in stifling summer heat, painting abstract canvasses dripping with pigment. Alas, the earth had fallen out of its orbit and was moving closer to its central star. The obligatory twist occurs (spoiler alert) when the opposite is true. In actuality, artist Lois has been nursing a raging fever. When it breaks, we discover the earth has been plunged into sub-zero temps as it is jettisoned from the sun’s orbit. A potent metaphor.

“Twilight Zone” or not, I was scared.

I still am, but I’m aware my fear is exacerbated by the trauma and shock associated with losing my precious 26-year-old son Elliot in a flash of indifferent tragedy 30 months ago. His untimely, out-of-order death continues to rattle me to the core, each and every day — so sudden, senseless and shocking. C.S. Lewis said, “Grief is like fear, but you are not afraid.”  Well, in this case, you are. It’s apropos of everything these days — this feeling of utter, urgent precariousness and instability. The kind of complicated grief traps you like a hostage in a boundless fog of disconnection and anguish. I am always balancing on a precipice – looking for a way to hold on and live in a world that is forever changed.

Dr. Todd Miller, our wise and wonderful eye doctor, had a rare simpatico with Elliot. They would banter incessantly about music and technology. Dr. Miller also was enamored with motorcycles in his youth. I deeply appreciate his perspective and that he allows me to talk of Elliot and my grief whenever I see him.

“The appeal of riding is like finding the ‘sweet spot’ between pleasure and fear,” Dr. Miller said. “It’s a balance, a kind of calculated risk.”  But what kind of formula do you use to calculate such a risk?

I cannot dwell on these questions, though they continue to haunt me. Still, I have come to realize that fear is a common part of grief. And precariousness is woven into the fabric of our existence — more salient now than ever. Life is ephemeral. Fleeting. Then, gone. Combine that with the ambient grief we share for a confederacy of losses in the pandemic, summarily splashed across social media. It feels like we are slogging through some kind of mind-bending Truman Show.

I am coming to accept that all life is precarious — a temporary gift we must respect and nurture as best we can. Our souls are all on different journeys, and that includes our children.  A spiritual medium once said to me, “Our children are not ours. They just come through us.”  

As the snowmageddon crisis in Texas has taught us, we are not in control — even when we think we are and even when are just sitting on the couch.

Turns out, we are just along for the ride.

My Precarious Boy

I need to find a crack to breathe in
this stolid suspended chasm.
Empty moments dissolve into heavy hours —
to make bearable being awake.
Persistent memory.
Present absence.
Precarious life
now that
saline tears debride the unhealable
wound forever —
a faint shadow,
cast in the light of his darkness.
So raw and exposed but not seen.