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.

Time for Haikus

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

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

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

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

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

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

And perhaps, it’s grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Only Thing I Had Time to Write

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

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

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

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

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

THE ONLY THING I HAD TIME TO WRITE

By Elliot Wright

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

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

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

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

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

The Green Socks

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

I was not there yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I devoured every word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like the green socks.  


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.

Living Popcorn Style in Zoomland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Only a Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Terms of Debridement: Living into Grief

“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
(Henry VI, Part III, Act II, Scene I, Line 85)

I have learned something important about grief from wound care.

Last summer, before my days shifted into darkness and just before everything I have ever been sure of in my world dissolved, I wrote an essay about the curious medical language of wound care.

In May and June of 2018, I accompanied my then 94-year-old aunt Virginia on her weekly visits to the Presbyterian Hospital Dallas wound clinic to treat the stubborn, angry wound she suffered from somehow hitting the outside of right ankle on her wheelchair. It simply 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, my precious son Elliot would soar over the miserably inadequate barrier on the LBJ TEXpress entrance ramp – while riding his beloved motorcycle.

Little did I know that my brilliant firstborn son, a truly astonishing human, would take his last shallow breath in just over a month at that same hospital – where he also took his first breath 26 years prior. It’s all too much to process and handle for this bereaved mom. To tell you the truth, it takes every ounce of my depleted energy to barely function every day – still, over a year later. Don’t know how I ever breathe at all? Some days, it takes too much effort, and in some ways, it’s getting more difficult with each passing moment.

One of the reasons is this peculiar and uncomfortable statute of limitations on grief we perpetuate in American culture. Our “get over it, because it makes me uncomfortable” vibe is like living every day with a sheet of Saran wrap on your face. And no one seems to notice you can’t breathe.

I know it’s unpleasant.

I know people mean well. But death sucks. It’s unavoidable. I know they don’t know what to say, but we all need to figure it out – and do a better job seeing each other and caring for each other emotionally. It’s not weakness. We need to stop ranting at each other about all the “big, bad -isms” – and start paying attention to ourselves as individuals with open hearts and tender souls. Being present for each other is what matters – life and death matters. The loss of a child is an emotional wound beyond measure – one you will never get over. You must learn a new way to live. My soul sister Patty says, “If the loss of child were a physical wound, we’d be in the ER.” I’m not saying we all need psychology degrees. It’s about intentional acknowledgement – recognizing the profound wounds of loss – physical and emotional – early and often.

The fact is that we need to talk about the loss to move ahead. I treasure the friends most who say Elliot’s name and ask me to talk about him. His friends Chase, Brian and Alec – they are angels on earth. Overwhelming loss is the deepest, the most insidious kind of wound.

Grief needs air to heal.

We can’t just let it scab over and ignore the tissues below. And, like my aunt’s deep, festering physical wound, an emotional wound often needs debridement. That’s one of the wound words that truly resonates. You may think talking about Elliot will upset me, but that’s exacting what I need. It triggers the pain, but the tears are a tonic. The pain never goes away, anyway. Not ever. And, pain plays a role – signaling that something is horribly wrong, rallying the body’s resources – calling in the Navy Seals of the heart!

Technically, debridement is the term for the medical procedure that deliberately aggravates the wound in order to help it heal. With grief, we must do that – revisit the pain that makes us physically wince. It’s a necessary cringe, but we must not linger there. Telling and retelling our stories – that is our task. Finding situations and people who will listen, allow and support us unconditionally is essential – people who give us the space to remember the losses in our past and foreshadow what they mean for our futures. These people are rare and cherished. Without their divine grace, we will never emerge from this murky miasma (one of Elliot’s favorite words).

With debridement, we remove the unhealthy tissue and promote the healing – exposing a new day. The body is designed to heal, but the muck is heavy. The wound can become senescent or old when the cells are still alive and metabolically active but not able to divide and thrive. They are merely surviving, not thriving . . . senescent.

We can’t let that state persist – with unattended wounds scabbing over, harboring our deepest traumas.

“And Know the Place for the First Time.”

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 of another Eliot – T.S., whose words convey a similar theme:

“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 – doing one of the things I have mastered but in a new context. I hope to shift out of the chaotic freelance writing world to work with an integrated marcom firm 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. I guess I enjoy the process as much as the product. Believe you me, getting to know oneself after a half-century on the planet is both enlightening and confounding.

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, I find myself in stunningly familiar territory. I am working in Preston 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 Woolworth’s dime store with my mom and sister when I was just 10 or 12. This was our preferred recreational activity – a precious pocket of together time. An artist, somewhat reluctant teacher and sometime socialite, my mother’s presence filled every room she entered. On Saturdays, she adored shopping and visiting her flamboyant fashionista friend Mercedes, who ran the Elizabeth Arden counter at Sanger’s. 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 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 29 years ago when I hopped into the back of shiny, white limo after my wedding reception on the top floor. However, I struggled to step into the skin of that ostensibly happy married girl. She was 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 ever attend services there regularly 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 neighbor when I was about 16, teach kindergarten Sunday School. 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 fit in there – as if I were missing that essential piece that made me worthy of the Episcopal whole.

Still, this is where my parents’ ashes are residing for all 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. 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. It was all divine order. Then, I paused in pure awe as I considered the convoluted series of events that had brought me to this place. 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 Source and 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.