The Nature of Grief: How I Learned to Pray

HELP. THANKS. WOW.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I do know.

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

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

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

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

Mystery is my only certainty.

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

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

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

I am weary.

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

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

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

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

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

Wow, Elaine

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

May Day Memory

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

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

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

Letting go.

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

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

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

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

The Circles of Life

St. Michael and All Angels Columbarium Garden

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

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

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

______________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

I arrived there this week.

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

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

And I’m seeing it for the first time.

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

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

Perhaps, this is the beginning of my exploring.

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

I chose not to linger there.

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

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

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

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

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

Shirt, Shakuhachi and Saxophone

Easter is a complicated and befuddling holiday—so many meanings, layers, beliefs, rituals and memories, but one stands out for me. Easter will always remind me of Elliot. In 2014, Easter Sunday just happened to merge with his spectacular fourth-year saxophone recital at the University of Toronto. His precise, riveting and affecting command of the instrument mesmerized and stunned his rapt audience of devote fans. I remember feeling there could not possibly be enough room in my heart to contain the flood of joy, love and pride I experienced in those remarkable moments.

On Easter, I do my best to stay steeped in the beauty of that sacred space seven years ago—which feels like both a lifetime and a heartbeat. As I honor this rare and extraordinary human, forever missed, I endeavor to embrace the grace and joy of this glorious memory—and the notion that love never dies.

So, here are two poems.

One is Elliot’s and the other is mine. I was inspired to write “Saxophone” in a recent poetry class with Megan Adler. We dissected “Shirt” by brilliant musician/poet Robert Pinsky, and I felt a flash of Elliot’s mercurial presence. I paired it with one of Elliot’s most haunting poems, “Shakuhachi,” which describes his love for another eccentric instrument. This piece evokes his unbridled passion for life’s music—and words.

SHAKUHACHI
by Elliot Wright

Someone should not-
ify the authorities—
This can’t belong to me.

I shouldn’t be
allowed to touch it when in
every Japanese

restaurant I’ve been
in they hasten to me with
a fork,

this mendicant ghost’s
pneumatic bamboo carapace,
this severed bundle

of lacquered vacuoles.
Hollowed stock, red bore tender
as a ribbon of

his throat—he who is
surely ululating to-
ward me from the Pure

Land in futile rage.
It came to me woven in
the raft of my

grandfather’s trinkets,
that gregarious poacher,
anxious collector,

lover of things and
strangers—those stop-gap measures
against that vacuum

the mind so abhors.
No wonder, then, that he should
have parted with this

chime-hammer of the
void, this attendant to the
court of nothingness—

this contradiction
given me

SAXOPHONE
by Elaine Gantz Wright

The reeds. The ligature. The body. The bell.
The saxophone’s bourbon-soaked wail lingers—
longing for another coda or infinite reprise

The keys. The mouthpiece. The bow. The crook.
Where is your rarified air, your circular breath—
that was snatched, silent in eternity’s niche?

The tenor. The alto. The soprano. The bari.
Fingers on fire made your practice perfect,
such mania that muted all but your memory

Coltane, Parker, Getz and Halladay—mentors,
brethren, your trenchant troubadours of note—
persistent signs of life and bittersweet balm

Shakuhachi and Linux. Yamaha and Proust—
virtuoso with far too many talents to be
soaring into forever on a regular Sunday

I want one more song on the saxophone,
redux to recall a melody long gone—again
to fill this abyss with your timeless refrain.

Facebook-Found Poetry

I was seduced by a Facebook meme—twice.

And I was so smitten that I posted my own version. It read—”Spell your name, but for each letter, press the first word that comes up in your predictive text.” Who knew this would lead to an enchanting journey? Thank you to Kim Due Vacco and Alex Nicole McConnell for your introductions. Something about the randomness of predictive text captured my imagination, and the string of name-associated words held its own profound, provocative mystery. In some cases, the the obtuse messages felt predictive in an almost astrological or contemporary-version-of-runes sort of way. The oracle of Facebook.

Since I have been marinating in the world of poetry lately, I decided to challenge myself to create a “found” poem. I wondered what might emerge if I compiled these cryptic communications, posted by more than 100 of my Facebook besties, into a coherent (you decide) piece. I love the collective collaboration of this—the genius of the crowd, as they say. Full disclosure though, I did not include every post. I went with my muse and plucked those that felt like they would help me with the overall creative flow. Thank you to all of my eager contributors. This was more fun than I ever fathomed, and I could almost hear Elliot’s snicker as I succumbed to Facebook’s brazen manipulations. Yet the irony is that he triggered the whole thing with my first engagement, which became the first line of my poem. Thank you, Elliot. I appreciate your mischievous ways.

Angels Everywhere

Elliot loved angels in NYC—even
did all.
Very, I did
and now, not more—
and really even after.
Do I—angels need any?
Even love and Ian now exist.

Please have it let—my all
right year.

Get up, your soul up.
Enough.

Let’s look everything
with each lesson
Like you need.
Keep everything
very in need.
And no need can
have everyone
right your love.
And no good enough love—
and
maybe you know we eat the same.
We even need dinner, you.
Good and really you.

Just one night.
Just one a new—
Just about now—everything.
Just use like I expected
Just enough for five reasons,
everyone yesterday

But remember now:
Do everything to the end.
Remember, if they are.

But, both Bobs? And no, no Evanston?
Evansville, really I can’t!

Sorry how and really—if
sorry used sorry
about not sorry
about me.

Very excited, really,
of new I know about—
kids are really early now
Remember, if they are.

So happy about new now — one night,
please enjoy the early read.
Please read it carefully everyday,
but even early right
left you . . .

Peace of life
Love ya’ll

Quantum Ghosts

I watched another incisive and provocative film as the snow fluttered into my courtyard this weekend — “A Ghost Story.” It’s a beguiling yet disconcerting film about a woman’s loss of her husband, a musician, in a tragic car wreck close to their home. Aside from its unflinching and brazen gaze at the enormity of grief after a sudden loss, the film explores the concept of the cyclicality of time. It’s the notion that time is not linear — and the past, present, and future are infinitely entangled and concurrently unraveling in the universe’s quantum ball of string.

Shrouded in a bedsheet with eyeholes haphazardly snipped like a trick-or-treater, Casey Affleck appears as the deceased husband trapped in some sort of cosmic purgatory, eerily looming in his wife’s space as he watches over her achingly authentic attempts to grapple with grief. Given its lingering pace, excruciating at times, and perplexing narrative arc, I almost expected to see Rod Serling lurking in the corner, too. I’m not sure if it was the macabre whimsy of the strange, costume-cloaked figure — or the shy, poignant presence of his spirit, but it felt like filmmaker David Lowery peered into my soul for a brief instant.

The real twist comes when the bereaved wife moves out of the house they shared, and the bedraggled ghost remains. He is stuck there for decades, seeing residents come and go, but he also finds himself thrust back into the past — until the spiral of time circles back around again to the couples’ most recent time in the house. In one particularly potent scene, we see the mischievous specter make the very same loud bang on the piano that had awoken the couple at the beginning of the film — when they searched to the living room and were not able to find the source of the noise.

The glimpses of overlapping time and space are both unsettling and comforting somehow. On one hand, they reinforce the omnipresence of those we lose and love, but they also remind me of the peculiar events I experienced around my 26-year-old son Elliot’s death. Two days before his mysterious motorcycle accident, I was at home in the afternoon and heard a crash in my office at home. I ran up the stairs, walked in, and saw my treasured porcelain doll on the floor, shattered.

She was the first doll I ever acquired for my small but precious childhood doll collection. I loved her. We had reunited when I found her in an old, tattered box cleaning out my parents’ house after their deaths in 2014. She had been perched on a shelf of books Elliot had left behind after he moved into his own place. The entire bookcase was filled with his scholarly volumes, always reminding me this was his room, as well as my office — another example of his tsunkoku. It shook me to the core at the time —though I was not sure why. I even mentioned it to Ian, Elliot’s brother who was home from the summer from college. There was no reason she should have fallen that day — no vents nearby and the cat was asleep on the couch downstairs.

I will admit that I do tend to look for connections in unusual places. As I have reviewed the events of that devastating year, 2018, and the months following, I have noticed so many unexplainable synchronicities, events and signs. Though I am confident I will never decode all of them while occupying this earthly plane, noticing them has taught me our knowledge of creation, divine wisdom, time, space and the universe is miniscule.

In fact, last year when I was rummaging around on the internet for answers, I discovered the concept of nonlocality, a quantum theory in which two or more particles exist in interrelated or entangled states remain undetermined until a measurement is made of one of them. When the measurement is made, the state of the other article is instantly fixed, no matter where it is. “In space–time as a whole, it is a continuous interaction extending between past and future events,” said Avshalom Elitzur of the Weizmann Institute of Science So, explaining the unexplainable just got even harder in the non-linear context of time and space.

Boggling.

But this I do know — time might be an illusion, but love is not.

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.

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.

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.