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 connections to the cosmic unconsciousness.

Could it be true that everything really is happening at the same time—like some massive quantum ball of twine unraveling in an obscure dimension of time and space? 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 about 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.  

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“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 Woolworth’s 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 album. 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 else – distant 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 marker. 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.

The 3 Cs of Grief

The gravity of grief is exhausting. I am talking about the micro and the macro of it—the micro being the weight of my own personal confederacy of  losses, and the macro, the gestalt of the world in crisis—the pandemic, isolation, climate change, social injustice, QAnon, Texas’ incompetent leadership, gun violence, the pain of lost children at the U.S. border seeking sanctuary, and the list goes on. Lately, I feel like I have hit a wall, a saturation point that has tarnished all my silver linings.

Most days, I find this perpetual state like a heavy weighted blanket, paradoxically as agitating as it is confining. (That might be my CPTSD talking.) But let’s face it—if you are human, you are dealing with crappy stuff. It’s part of the package, and the last year, two or four, have been tough for all of us. Grief is ubiquitous. Grief is insistent. Grief is oppressive. Grief is obstinate. Grief is transformative. It changes who we are because it changes the way we rub against the world. And yet, it is also one of the most potent reminders of our inherent humanness. As so many smart people have posited, we grieve to the degree we love. So, for those of us who suffer most, grief is never going away, but it may morph. And the exact way it morphs is as individual as a snowflake.  

That’s why addressing and processing grief head-on is essential.  I feel like I have a PhD in the subject by now, but that’s why I talk about so much. It’s what I feel called to do. My meaning. David Kessler, a gentle grief guru, says so eloquently:

Grief must be witnessed. Something profound happens when others see and hear and acknowledge our grief. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. Conversely, something goes wrong when it remains unseen.

Profound and true, because the vulnerability of being witnessed authentically is what  restores your sense of wholeness and safety—even if it’s just for a nanosecond. And with a continuous queue of compassionate witnesses, we begin to truly transform and reach a place where we can carry the weight of the  grief burden—and eventually, carry on. We feel carried by the whole, and we realize we need community to heal.

Truly, acknowledging and validating grief is the most gracious gift you can give a broken heart. It opens up a space to breathe and thereby connect. It is the definition of grace, and regardless of your faith proclivities, grace is the place where we encounter the divine. There are no magic words required. You don’t even have to apologize. You really don’t need to say you are sorry for my loss or anything like that. This might be a new catchphrase or hashtag. Grief means never having to say your sorry. Just say you are present, and you cannot begin to comprehend the gravity of my loss. “There are no words. I am here.” That’s it. I consider those who can sit in silence or simply walk alongside me to be my angels on earth.

Still, grief in our culture is tricky because it’s the elephant in room—which translates into instant awkwardness. We don’t have the language for loss. We have never developed the interpersonal grief muscle, but why? Loss is universal, and being seen is the most potent balm. It’s just the closeness, context, and confluence of the loss (or losses) than can tip the scales, adding even more weight. Perhaps these are the three Cs of grief?

Closeness. This is nature or depth of the relationship. Though grief is not a competitive sport, there is particularly devastating wallop losing a child packs. It’s out of order and  life altering—even setting all other aspects aside. No matter how complicated the connection might have been, losing a child is like losing an appendage. You can technically go on living, but you have to relearn how to do everything.  In losing my spectacular and sometimes frustrating Elliot, I find the love and pain often conflate (another C). That intensifies the ache that erupts in these startling moments when I am unable to breathe or stop the sobs. Indeed, context is also a vexing conundrum. (Another C or two.)

Context. This refers to the particulars of your life at the time of the death and after. These factors are inescapable. The context has felt like a tightening vice around my experience. Elliot had found his groove. He had just scratched the surface of his potential. Tragic on so many levels. I just can’t bear it, so I  just keep moving. I try to muster empathy for myself, but it’s a challenge. I am training myself to acknowledge the tough feelings and release them. I’m kind of an emotional nomad—living on the edge and trying not to dwell in the stagnate stew underneath for any length of time. I feel so detached and untethered. Thank God, I have my moments of precious connection with friends but nothing durable. Some days, maintaining the “I’m OK” exterior is so exhausting I just mentally vamp. Tread water. Barely. Put one foot in front of the other. That’s all I can do. Yet something about this bifurcation in the isolation of my silent, compact office in front of three computer screens makes it even more debilitating.          

Confluence.  The pieces of me, the factors that have come together in this life now—after Elliot. As a single mom of a 24-year-old son, I must constantly remind myself to give my Ian the space he needs to forge his own path. That’s both difficult and easy.  Beautiful and desolate. Fulfilling and draining. I feel I am performing over the center ring without a net, flying the airplane without a parachute—when all I really want is a safe place to land. Emphasis on “safe.”

I know I need to find a way to be in the world. Half of me feels like it no longer operates in sync with the rest of me—the definition of yin and yang. Numb, heavy, confused and anxious. Time is sluggish and accelerating—all at the same time. Perhaps it’s the lumbering repetitiveness of COVID existence—sorrow, grief and isolation make an unappetizing cocktail.  I have lost that unconscious optimistic autopilot that helped me know I would be OK; I would figure it out one day. But now, everything is hard, feels off center and precarious in this context of fear and uncertainty  It’s hard to flex the over-functioning muscle that’s always been my default coping mechanism. I guess my grief therapist would say that’s progress, but I say it’s harrowing. Definitely accounts got the vacuousness, the feeling of perpetual flimsiness. And the futility of this awful, new normal existence.

I am constantly aware of the vast, dank abyss I teeter over. Sounds dramatic, I know, but I am a half, maybe even a third of a person now. Am I missing the part that died with Elliot? Will my heart regenerate. Will my soul? I want the comfort and connection others can bring and simultaneously want to be with alone. I have no interest in banter, but it used to be my fuel, my raison d’etre. Still, I am grateful for so much—an extraordinary son, caring friends, my writing, a new job that challenges me, and a lovely roof over my head.

I am different now.

And maybe, there are more than 3 Cs—maybe five, six of seven. They all apply at one time or another, but the most important one is not a C at all. It’s a G—grace. Cherishing those transcendent moments that remind me I am part of something much bigger than my own rumination.

I must keep clearing the space to let in the light.

Away with Words

It all started with a susurrus.

The first time I saw this whisper of a word dancing in Elliot’s prose, I required a dictionary—not an uncommon occurrence when reading anything he wrote. He used the term to describe a chorus in the program notes for his saxophone recital—as poetic as they were precise. A susurrus is a murmuring or rustling sound. Such a visceral, expressive metaphor—complete with a hint of onomatopoeia.  

This is where it gets interesting.

A couple of months ago, I noticed a new notification in my venerable yahoo.com email box. I’ve had it for ions—since the boys were young, but it’s still functioning reliably. In fact, I’m grateful for my inconsistent email hygiene over the years—as I am relishing the treasure trove of memories and conversations buried deep in its archives.

The subject line of this particular email was: “Word of the Day: Susurrus” from mail@wordgenius.com. I don’t remember signing up for this alert, but I was game. Of all the words in the world, how could they pick this “Elliot word”? My heart jumped. He was the wordsmith’s wordsmith—the inimitable “word genius.” How many people do know who received a perfect score on the verbal SAT—not missing one question?! Could this be a wink from Mr. E? After all, we were both inveterate word nerds, and the Wrights are peppered with writers. Why not? I mused as I felt a giant grin, so unfamiliar of late, stretch across my tear-stained face.

Elliot was an exquisite and erudite writer. Following his graduation from the University of Toronto, where he majored in classical saxophone, he reviewed contemporary classical recordings for a respected music publication in Toronto called The Whole Note. In Dallas, he reviewed local concerts of all genres for The Dallas Observer. And he crafted provocative think pieces for Central Track.

Yet he soon abandoned the glamorous writing life to pursue another one of his extraordinary talents as an IT savant at Global Payments. Clearly, he could write compelling stories in almost any language and any context. Here is an excerpt from his brilliant program notes from his fourth-year saxophone recital on March 31, 2015, at UofT—as captivating as the music. Elliot wrote these evocative words about a piece he played spectacularly:

Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano | Edison Vasilievich  Denisov  (1929 — 1996)

DENISOV – Though his place of birth is a full 900km deeper into Siberia than the penal colony where Dostoevsky was transformed at the end of a mocking rifle barrel, Denisov suffers from neither the anguish of mysticism (as was the case of his contemporary, Gubaidalina) nor subarctic austerity. In fact, at its core, Denisov’s music is all lyricism and ardent expression, refracted through the crystal lattice of his mathematical mind.

Commissioned by Jean-Marie Londeix in 1970, the Sonata for Alto Saxophone allows saxophonists to have their cake and eat it, too: it is at once a sophisticated serialist composition and an unbridled jazz freak-out. The first movement is a kind of shambling waltz, the left leg of the waltzer filed down by the machine-gun 32nd notes exchanged between the saxophone and piano. The second movement is a saxophone soliloquy, a lyrical murmur glinting through the Siberian ice which entombs it. All this melts seamlessly into the final movement, a dodecaphonic jazz burnout inflected with an almost hysterical irony: the big—band “shout” chorus which appears midway through the piece becomes more of a “susurrus” chorus, and of course it is just as the music approaches a full-blown pseudo‐free jazz eschaton that Denisov is most meticulous with his musical orthography. Condemned by the Soviets as a “formalist” and reared in the harshest regions of Russia, Denisov’s music expresses a wryness in the face of all the improbability of being.

I was so enchanted with the susurrus that I used it in a haiku that felt directly channeled through Elliot’s consciousness. It reflected his passion for Japanese culture, his love of poetry, and his voluminous vocabulary:

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

And it turns out that susurrus was just the overture for me. There have been other words since then from the same email that have snatched my breath away.

The next was camber, a word I did not even recognize.

As I read the definition, I gulped. It refers to the slightly convex shape of a road or other horizontal surface. Coming from Middle English, its roots track back to the Ancient Greek word “chambre” (arched room or burial chamber) and the Latin word “camurus” (curved inwards). I instantly thought of the treacherous curved ramp where Elliot apparently lost control of his motorcycle. Could this be another piece of the accident’s puzzle—something that hindered his ability maneuver safely on that hideous day in August? There are still so many unanswered questions that torment me, and I would not put it past my mischievous rascal of a son to communicate in such a perplexing and obtuse way.

Upon further research, I discovered the term “negative camber,” which specifically refers to a road condition that scuttles motorcyclists. This curve of the road’s surface requires the rider to recalibrate the angle of the lean and velocity of the turn on the fly—a factor I had not uncovered in my extensive research. But it feels plausible. I wondered . . . could this word be administering a glimpse a grace? Could this be an explanation that might help soothe my unsettled soul? These random glimmers and glimpses always seem to appear just when I need them most. But oh, the possibilities continue to swirl around in my head like an agitated hornet’s nest.

Are these questions keeping me mired in the gravity of gone? Is this why I feel so stuck in the muck—overwhelmed and anxious, enmeshed in the trauma of those fragments of the puzzle that may never be solved? It does feel like the road to nowhere.

Elliot, is it time to let go of needing to know?

Especially when there are so many potent words to ponder, like the group of Japanese words that popped up just yesterday. One was tsundoku. Quintessential Elliot, it refers to the habit of acquiring too many books to ever read and letting the pile grow indefinitely — one of his favorite words and activities.  (However, I think he actually read every one.)

Made me smile.

Another was wabi-sabi. That’s embracing the transience and imperfection of nature—and the eventual end of everything.

Still working on that one.

So, the journey continues . . . one moment and one word at a time. Keep them coming, Mr. E. I love you.

Pieces of Me

The other night, I watched a new film on Netflix called “Pieces of a Woman.” It burrowed into my soul like the vaccination needle into your arm. Yet surprisingly, the subtle and deftly poignant images packed the most potent punch.

This provocative film takes us on the horrifying journey of a home birth gone tragically wrong, but that’s just the first half of the story. (Spoiler alert.) Though the cataclysmic event is harrowing and devasting, some of the most profound and affecting moments come after it.  Perhaps, I experienced the narrative in this way, because this heartbroken mother’s journey is similar to my own. Though the particular circumstances are different, the gravity of losing a child at any age carries its own unique, untenable weight.

“Elaine, why would you subject yourself to such a sad, triggering film?” one might ask, and one would be justified in posing that question.

But the answer might be just as confounding. As I walk this unbearable path, I find that connecting to others around our shared,  unrelenting pain—often through art, helps me feel less alone and even witnessed in a misery-loves-company sort of way. Being seen is a momentary salve on the gaping, unhealable wound.  And frankly, it takes the focus off me for a brief instant and gives me another way to contextualize what still feels impossible to believe.

Not every moment in “Pieces of a Woman” works, but this kind of story signifies a gradual shift in the way we are acknowledging grief in our culture. In the second half of the film, we come face-to-face with a woman’s unvarnished grief journey and emotional fallout—exposed, raw and unapologetic.  Martha’s grief takes center stage, often colliding with her husband’s incongruent mode of coping—ignited by rage and alcohol. Her pain is there for all those around her to see—in all its awkwardness and messiness.  Most people I encounter want someone who has suffered a tragic loss to get over it quickly and be “OK,” because they don’t want to face their own looming mortality. But Martha bears all.

Ellen Burstyn is brilliant and riveting as Martha’s mother—mounting a hostile resistance against her daughter’s unfathomable pain that also prevents her from providing the compassion and care her daughter aches for. In Burstyn’s mordant revulsion to her daughter’s festering sorrow, we sense her character’s own inability to process difficult feelings. This is at the same time fiercely intimate and unflinchingly universal.

 “You’ve got to fight and seek revenge,” she barks. “That’s the only way you can move on.”

The grim reality is you never move on. You don’t “get over” the love of your child. You just find a way to carry the pain.

In fact, Martha vehemently protests the concept of revenge. In one of the most searing moments in the film, Martha finds a beautiful photo her husband snapped on that bittersweet day, just after she delivered her baby. As she views image, we see Martha’s hardened heart soften like molten lava. She begins to replace some of the hard darkness with light, some of the fierce anguish with love. I felt that so deeply. She actually begins to forgive—her midwife, her husband, her mother, and perhaps, even herself.

The other gorgeous detail that brings me to tears is Martha’s meticulous collection of apple seeds, nurturing them carefully in cotton pads or tiny blankets in the refrigerator. She mentions at one point that her newborn smelled like apples, and we often see her eating apples—unconsciously drawn to them in the grocery store, as well.  But when she opens the refrigerator one day to check on them, she discovers they’ve begun to sprout and bud, and she is awestruck by the persistence of nature and the miracle of life before her eyes. This becomes its own solace, its own comfort. This stunning nuance seeped into every cell as I empathized with every tear she shed; every wail she unleashed. The sensitivity of this storytelling is breathtaking—and the performances, masterful, as devastating as it is glorious. This shattered mother is able to find a glimpse of grace and a moment of infinite connection—an uncharted path back inside her own shattered heart.

Today, I noticed a similar miracle in my own living room. The delicate orchid plant a friend gave me for my birthday about six months ago had lost all its blooms. Since the leaves remained green,  I continued to water it as my late Aunt Virginia, the orchid whisperer, had instructed. She used a turkey baster to gently inject two squeezes per week. Carefully infusing every Saturday, I have been watching the tiny green pouches with anticipation, and to my surprise, one opened this morning—a fragile, tiny orchid saying, “Hello world.” 

Like Martha when she lifted the carefully arranged cotton pouches from her refrigerator, tears welled. There is something magical and comforting about witnessing life  . . . its brazen persistence, the continuity of creation, the divine order of things. I must allow this to sink in, to feel it down to my marrow. Another day . . . another glimpse of grace.

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.

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.

Everything Happens for a Reason?

 

People say it all the time. Everything happens for a reason.

It’s supposed to be comforting and deep. It implies there is some sort of grand scheme – a kind of cosmic chessboard where all the moves, winners and losers have been predetermined in some grand design. We just don’t understand or see the big picture. Whether you believe in God, Source, or a big, black hole of nothingness, this concept is difficult to digest.

And, these days, I have little patience for vague platitudes.

A year and a half ago, my precious first-born son, Elliot Everett Wright, died in a tragic, single-vehicle motorcycle accident. He was ejected off his shiny new Honda bike over the side of an elevated highway ramp, soaring 40 feet into the azure Texas sky. Elliot died on the operating table at the same Dallas hospital where he took his first breath at 5:17 p.m. on May 17, 1992. He told me he took every precaution – the fanciest Japanese helmet, safety-paneled jacket and thick, heavy boots. Except, there was always that inherent risk of riding the damn bike – a paradox that’s so difficult to rationalize.

My anguish deepens with each passing day.

What complicates my journey is the weight of accumulated losses and traumas over the past few years – my father’s death in 2014, after years of a rare form of epilepsy he kept secret, dissension regarding his care and eventual dementia; the death of my mother in 2012, after a debilitating two-year post-stroke struggle; the death of my cherished mentor and friend of 30 years last year; the intentional absence of my sister and only sibling after Elliot’s death, and the pain of a prolonged toxic relationship that I finally ended. I am a divorced mother of two brilliantly complicated boys, Elliot and Ian, and this worst-of-all-losses has throttled me.

So, when I recently saw Bill Maher opining about the cloying cliche – “everything happens for a reason” on his often-irreverent HBO show, something clicked. Granted, Bill Maher and a spiritual a-ha hardly seem compatible, but that’s why it caught my attention. He was interviewing Neil deGrasse Tyson, a crisp, witty scientific raconteur and author I enjoy watching ponder the mysteries of the universe.

Fresh from an uncharacteristic social media firestorm, he acknowledged contritely that he commented impulsively in response to one of our latest horrifying mass shooting incidents. He tweeted something glib about people dying in other ways every day. Perhaps, that faux pas did happen for a reason – to wake us up from our desensitized trance and complacent stupor around the senseless loss of human life in the name of gun ownership.

As they chatted about politics, truth and the universe, Bill declared, “One thing I hear all the time is that ‘everything happens for a reason.’ Now, that’s an absurd statement.” He went on to say it’s perpetuated by the entitled elite who revel in giving supernatural meaning to the happy accidents in their privileged lives. He observed that for those who struggle in abject poverty and pain, things don’t happen for a reason. They just happen, and they are mostly about struggle. It’s easier to recognize mystical signs of abundance when you have already reached the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Neil echoed his chagrin adding, “’Everything happens for a reason’ – is so not true. Everything is random in the universe. We create the reasons.”

Yes, I found this refreshing. A cosmic scientist was confirming what I now know down to the marrow. Horrible, unfathomable, devastating things happen. They just do. The unthinkable can occur, and it does – with swashbuckling arrogance. It’s a grim, raw reality that has drastically changed the way I view the world, life – and death. Jaded, maybe, but real.

Mindfulness practice teaches us that healing starts with the radical acceptance of what is. Thus, accepting randomness is part of that, right? And, it offers me a whisper of peace. Nothing makes sense, really. We all mourn losses, including the raging wildfires in Australia, an airplane shot down by Iran, and the random destruction wrought by ten violent tornadoes just blocks from my home in Dallas.

There is no reason.

That might be the most spiritual notion of all. These things simply are. They are part of being human. Yet, something about the death of a truly remarkable child and all his promise seismically shifts your psychic interface with life itself. When I hear “everything happens for a reason” now, it’s excruciating and hurts with the intensity of a frigid, subzero slap in the face. In fact, I feel like an alien in my own life when I encounter a well-meaning co-worker or neighbor reprise this “for-a-reason” banality or the ever-popular, “Heaven got another angel.” That does not help.

Though we strive to accept the tragedy and randomness of things, it’s still painful. There is no instant emotional anesthetic in the accepting. I guess that’s what Neil recognized on some level when he openly acknowledged that his insensitive comment made a negative emotional impact. He said:

Yes, it was true, but emotions do matter . . . People are bereaved. Facts are facts, but emotions are real, too. I should have taken some time before I typed that tweet. I should have taken a breath . . .

And, there it is – a perfect example of retrospective mindfulness. Self-aware and empathetic reflection. Here’s the lesson – let’s be more present with each other, more intentionally compassionate. And, more present in our grief. Yes, it’s awkward and uncomfortable, but that’s where the treasure is. In the end, that might be the only possible reason – for anything. The grace of vulnerability.

Maybe, things don’t happen for a reason, but, maybe, grace does.

Amid grief’s messy miasma, those tiny fragments of presence are what save us. Grace is in them – in the startling moment of compassion or the gentle word from another broken heart who carries the weight of a similar loss. Grace is in the unexpected care package that arrives from a sorority sister I have not seen in 30 years. It’s in the chance introduction to an angel boss whose compassion and wisdom make it possible for me to function at all. And, grace is in the generous soul of a dear friend I have known since first grade who makes a special trip across the country to sit with me on the first anniversary of Elliot’s death.

Grace. It’s those poignant, profound gestures and occasional synchronicities – often obscured by the heavy darkness that’s my new normal. I think this is all that matters in the end. I have to believe in the benevolence of universe – and God at work somehow. That’s the only way I can put one foot in from of the other . . . one day, one moment at a time – perchance to experience that next fleeting glimpse of grace.

Until tomorrow – and then, again.

The Power of Words: Senescence and Debridement

Words provide endless fascination for me, and I’ve encountered a couple of gems in the past month that seem to sizzle with relevance. So, here are my words of the week – and how they resonate:

Senescence and Debridement.

Both words I learned accompanying my 94-year-old Aunt Virginia to the Wound Clinic at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.  She is a warrior queen of remarkable grit and constitution, but a pesky wound on her outer ankle has refused to heal over the past few months. Since beginning our biweekly visits to see the perspicacious Dr. Moran and her choreographed coterie of clinicians, Virginia’s stubborn sore has much improved.

Debridement. It refers to the forced removal of unhealthy tissue from a wound to promote healing. Mon Dieu! It’s French – from débrider, to remove adhesions or to literally unbridle. Though the body possesses miraculous and mysterious organic self-healing capabilities, sometimes the process hits a snag. It stymies, and it needs a little help to progress. Debridement sends an urgent message to all the white blood cells and healing resources to galvanize the rescue mission – stat.  And, it hurts like hell!

Unfortunately, we don’t always know why we attract the excruciating circumstances we do or why healing pauses, but we do know why pain exists – to tell us something is terribly wrong. Pain  might be the most potent teacher. It’s just a matter of making the right connection.

Senescence. Debridement is a necessary protocol when a wound is senescent – another vocabulary word from the good doc. Senescent comes from the Latin senēscere, “to grow old.” In medicine or biology, it refers to cells that are still metabolically active – but are no longer capable of dividing.  Existing but not thriving. That’s why they need the jump-start.  Life is about living, not just surviving.

Thankfully, we have come to the right place. On our first visit to this chaotic clinic, I was overwhelmed by the number of “customers” – all seeking some sort of relief. There were not even enough chairs for everyone. There were babies, adolescents, grandfathers, society matrons and athletes. I saw one disturbingly gaunt man slouched in his wheelchair with his bandaged ankle plopped in the lap of a young man who looked like his son. He spoke with unconscious gusto. 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 salt shaker.” I chuckled, but no one else in the room reacted.

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

That’s Virginia’s married name. More accurately, her divorced name – an identity she’s maintained for more than fifty years. I grabbed the wheelchair she usually propels with her own two feet, and we were off down the hall.

“This is not uncommon,” said the chestnut-maned doc with an easy, warm smile. “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. There’s the lesson.

“This is gonna to hurt . . . a lot,” Dr. Moran 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.”

Virginia winced and closed her eyes tightly. Then, one glistening droplet ran 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.

“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 began to breathe a little easier as the efficient tech team 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 was not here by accident. In addition to providing companionship and moral support for my only living senior relative, this experience held a lesson for me.  Sometimes the process of removing the dead tissue requires a seismic jolt – maybe two!  We can’t let unattended wounds just scab over – and pretend like everything is OK while the senescent tissue underneath remains.  Ignoring pain does not resolve it. And, the Universe keeps amplifying the intensity of our lessons until we finally get the message.

After all the turmoil, displacement and trauma in recent months (and even years), I know now it’s not my job to change or fix the mess and dysfunction all around me to feel better. That’s a no-win energy suck and likely leads to spiritual senescence. It’s about staying mindful, making higher-grade choices – and getting myself unstuck – not everyone else.

In medical terms, I guess the prescription is debridement – liquefying the icky eschar and slough. But, no more “liquefying” on my home front, please! I get the message! Thank goodness, Virginia’s choices are helping her heal, too. It’s been nice spending this time with her, too.

Let’s rally those inner resources . . . stat.

Deep in the Heart: Giving in the Wake of Disaster

“And the multitudes asked him, saying, What then must we do?”  Luke 3:10 (ASV)

Inconceivable. The destruction. The devastation. The suffering.

As a state and a nation, we are all struggling to find a reason, a context ― or some sort of meaning in the horrendous natural disaster that is Harvey.  We talk of heroic rescues, Texans pulling together under adversity and Divine order; however, the enormity of the hurricane’s wake still exceeds our capacity to comprehend. It’s almost impossible to fathom the numbers (as of Sept. 1):

  • 27 trillion gallons of rain water falling over Texas and Louisiana
  • 50 lives lost
  • 51.88 inches of rain ― the greatest amount of rainfall over land for a single storm in continental U.S. history
  • 40,000 + people forced from their homes and currently sheltered in the state of Texas in 239 facilities
  • 2,882 animals currently being sheltered in Texas
  • 1,000-year-level flood

Yesterday, I purchased a giant box of Luvs diapers and baby wipes for the first time in about 20 years and made a contribution the TrustedWorld.org, which is efficiently managing the logistics of contributed items. I attended a prayer service, but I’m still searching . . .

So, I remembered this article I wrote almost exactly 12 years ago following Hurricane Katrina. I think many of the messages still resonate today.

Reconciling the Overwhelming | Fall 2005

As we continue to grieve the devastating losses of Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath, our nation’s nonprofit sector now faces daunting challenges ― both immediate and long-term. Frontline relief organizations will continue to require sustained financial support as they scramble to manage the biggest displacement of Americans since the Civil War. Thankfully, Americans care deeply, and they are exceptionally generous.  Within two weeks following Katrina’s landfall, almost $1 billion was contributed to causes serving those stricken by the disaster. Unprecedented in American history, this pace of giving overtook historic rates in the early weeks for both the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Asian tsunami of 2004. And amazingly, this outpouring of generosity is expected to represent only one percent of the total amount Americans are likely to give to worthy causes this year.

However, we must not neglect the frontline nonprofits after the breaking news fades. Even after support spikes have subsided, these organizations must be relentless about maintaining consistent funding levels. Still, as nonprofit leaders in a post-Katrina world, we might be feeling reluctant to actively raise funds for other worthy causes ― hindered by the overwhelming needs burdening so many. Understandably so. These unprecedented tragedies require our undivided attention, and it may be hard for some of us to go about our daily activities ― haunted by the shadows of those struggling in the ongoing anguish of disaster.

But this fierce commitment to humanity and our communities must help us stay focused ― working in the true spirit of philanthropy.

Let us embrace the power of generosity by leading our organizations with a vision of abundance, as opposed to scarcity.  As Americans continue to open their hearts and wallets in inspiring ways, let’s envision an expanding philanthropic pie. In fact, historical data proves that as donors increase their giving levels, they tend not to slide back to former habits. As we build compelling cases for support, giving will increase.  And what a privilege is it is to be part of the growth of the philanthropic sector ― as giving assumes such a prominent position in the American consciousness.

Impact Beyond the Gulf Coast.

Whether you are providing food and shelter for the displaced, education for our nation’s youth, or solace for the spirit, now is it the time to communicate directly and authentically with your donors.

Honor the situation, but do not apologize or shy away from contact on behalf of the cause you represent. Let’s reassure our donors that our organizations are strong and that we are grappling with new needs and shifting priorities. If we are confident and centered, our constituencies will have confidence in us and our missions.

In the long run, dedication to our causes will inspire donors who have already made our organizations priorities in their lives. This is a time for all of us to reflect carefully on our own giving commitments and clarify the impact we hope to make.  Now more than ever, let us strengthen our support of the organizations that speak to our personal truths, knowing that we can make a difference ― across the street or around the world.