Sunday, June 19, 2016

Remember When..

Our neighbours, Blanche and Emery

Today is Father's Day, and two weeks ago, it was Memorial Day, or "Race Day", as we called it in Indianapolis, when I was growing up. I always get a bit nostalgic this time of year. I miss my mom and dad so much. I miss being a part of a family, and knowing where I stood within it. I miss feeling rooted in a familiar world and life. 

Memorial Day weekend was a special time in our town. I remember fondly all of the activity around it: my dad going to put little flags on veterans' graves for his Legion chapter in the morning; my mother, seated at the kitchen table, radio tuned into the countdown to the start of the Indy 500, newspaper carefully folded with the names of all the cars and drivers and their positions on the track; the smell of new mown grass, windows and doors open, a breeze flowing through the dining room to soften the summer's heat. 

It is true that life seemed simpler, then. I don't want to be one of those people who go on and on about how much better it was in the 'old days', but today, I feel the need to do just that. My childhood was not an easy one--there was hunger and poverty and chaos fuelled by heavy drinking, among other things, involved--but there were anchors of stability that kept my sanity intact. There were extended relative visits and regular holiday reunions. There were camping trips and vacations with neighbours and friends. There was girl scouts and swimming lessons and Bible School and big gardens and fruit trees and the bookmobile that came around every two weeks, bringing me solace and adventure, all summer long. 

And there were neighbours who loved us and stood by us, like the ones in the photograph, above. 

Blanche, (or "Butch" as we called her), and Emery lived next door to us throughout my entire childhood. They still live in the same house, a house once surrounded by corn and soybean fields, that is sandwiched, now, amidst a glut of suburban sprawl.  They had a strong faith and they were devoted to our church, but they didn't blast their beliefs or force them upon others. They simply lived by the values to which they subscribed, helping those around them in quiet and unimposing ways. They visited neighbours who were sick and in hospital. They volunteered at the local firehouse (along with my dad), and taught Sunday School. 

I remember learning, at the age of five or six,  that Blanche made delicious cooked dinners every night, including home-baked desserts, and, from then on, I made it a point to come around to their house, at precisely 6 p.m., when I knew she'd be setting the table for her family. I'm sure it must have been irritating to them, this little waif from next door, begging food, but they never refused me, once. They'd answer my knock politely, and invite me in, an extra place at the table already set. 

Once, Blanche found out that I had been teaching her son, who was two years younger, the art of swearing and smoking cigarettes, and I was banned from the house, for a short while, but the banishment didn't last. I depended on them, and on the stability they offered, and something in them must have known it, because, before long, I was invited back into their family fold.  

They indulged me in my all my fundraising efforts and money making schemes, through the years, buying cards from me at Christmas, girl scout cookies and band candy in the winter, and seeds for planting in the spring. 

Blanche and Emery were there for every part of our lives, standing with us through all of our many trials and sorrows. They were there for funerals and weddings, and they supported us through incarcerations and various troubles with the police. Our wild family brought much drama to that little street, and they could have turned the entire neighbourhood against us, but they didn't. Instead, they chose to reach out their hands to help us, when they could. 

When my father died at the Veteran's Hospital, my mother and I called them, first. When my sister got sick, one of her last wishes was to visit Indianapolis, before she died, and to spend some time with them, so we brought her back to the old neighbourhood, flying her in from Florida. They invited us over for one of Blanche's delicious dinners, and, though Debra couldn't eat it, she got to sit at their table and listen to the exchange of memory between us. When my mother died, a year later, they held a gathering for all of us at their house. 

 I saw them last in November of 2014, shortly after the sudden death of my husband. Knocking on their door, walking back into that old house, I felt like I was six years old, again, and my whole body breathed a sigh of relief. They helped me weather my childhood. They brought a hint of normalcy to it. I will always treasure the gift of their presence, and the stability they brought to me.

Sitting here in England, this Father's Day, watching the cold rain pour outside my window, I remember them. I remember how they loved my father and delighted in his humour. I remember how they invited me in to eat with them, when my persistent presence probably drove them nuts. I remember hayrides in their fields in the autumn, ice cold Kool Aid and a freezer full of popsicle treats to stave off the relentless heat, in summer, their carefully tilled gardens, rich with fresh carrots and tomatoes and ripe strawberries to eat.

 I remember them, my good Samaritan neighbours--their kindness and generosity, their compassion and lack of judgement, and how they reached out their hands, always, to the poor and not so saintly family who lived in the house next door. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Releasing The Ties That Bind

On a recent hike in the moors

It has been almost two years since my husband fell from my grasp and I was left on my own, again. Two years since I was able to turn my key in the door and hear his voice calling me. Two years since I could awaken to the warmth of his body next to mine.

Two years.

Slowly, incrementally, I have begun to loosen the ties that bound me so tightly to my husband. I have taken his few remaining clothes from the wardrobe and folded them neatly into a suitcase. I have removed the photo of us from my facebook profile. I have stopped wearing my wedding ring.

I once said I would never quit wearing it. But it felt like the right thing to do. It’s not that I am now on the search for a new partner. I don’t see a partner in my future, ever again. It’s just that I don’t feel married anymore. The truth is that I am alone.

This separation from Stan is a necessary step in my journey through grief. I can no longer cling to my relationship with him. He’s gone. That’s the sad reality of it. And in order to grow I have to figure out who I am without him by my side.

I sit in the living room that we once shared, but it doesn’t look the same as it did when we shared it. Gone are the gadgets he loved: the big screen tv, the music system, the dvd burner and the blu ray player and the apple tv and all the other things I didn’t know how to use.    

I bought a wood burner and pulled up the carpet and had the floors sanded and stripped—all of the things I wanted for us but he said were too expensive, and not worth the effort.

I can just imagine his reaction to my new regime of juicing in the mornings. He’d tell me I spend too much money on food these days. He’d want me to buy cheap instead of organic; he’d tell me those foods are frivolous, and posh.

I go to bed early and wake up early, too. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night—he hated that—and read or write for an hour or two.  Most nights after work, I stop at the gym. He wouldn’t have liked that, either. He would have wanted me to come home to him.
I am not the person I was when we were together. I have changed. I wonder if he would approve of or appreciate the woman I have become. I wonder if, had he lived, he would have been able to make room for all of this. 

Perhaps I would not have been able to make these changes. Perhaps, had he lived, I would have acquiesced, and compromised, and lived a life that was full of love and companionship, but didn’t meet some of my needs.

Maybe that’s what relationships are about. Maybe you let go of some of the things that matter to you so that you can live with the one you love. I don’t know. I have never been very good at them. I have spent most of my life on my own.

They say that you continue a relationship with your loved ones even after they are gone. They say that your relationship with them changes once the heavy weight of your grief subsides, and you have time and space to reflect.

When Stan first died, I placed him carefully upon a pedestal where he has, until recently, remained. I could not speak or write about any aspects of him that did not place him somewhere near Saint or Buddha-hood. He was wise, brilliant, sensitive, insightful, funny, endearing, and brave. He was a great father, a loving husband, a kind friend. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, befriended the poor.

I think Stan would have loved that I saw him this way, but after awhile he would have gotten bored with the accolades heaped upon him. He would not have recognised himself in them anymore. He would have wanted us to remember the real him, with all of his wonderful traits, but with his maddening traits, too. He would have wanted us to remember all of him—the Stan that was sensitive and wise, but the Stan that could be a bit controlling, and, sometimes, a bit selfish, too. 

In the early throes of our love, (as women tend to do), I neglected my own preferences and wrapped myself around his. Had we married as youngsters, we would have negotiated the things that interested us, and grown, together, with mutual desires. But we married late in life, and there were things that were important to me that I had let lapse.  I preferred quiet nights and book festivals to music venues and jams. I wanted to eat brown rice instead of mashed potatoes for dinner. I needed time, sometimes alone, with my son.

In the months before his death, I was beginning to loosen the ties that bound us so closely together, and it generated some conflict between us.

When I began to assert myself,  he found it difficult. He liked having me with him, and he wanted me at his side. He didn’t want to participate in many of the things I loved. He saw my assertions as a rejection of him, and it made him angry and sad.

I am sure that, had he lived, we would have found a new way of living together. I am certain that our love for each other would have helped us to overcome these conflicts of needs.

He was making great changes, too, before he died. I like to think that we would have continued to nourish each other. I like to think that we would have made space for each other to flourish.

We just ran out of time.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

I Have Something to Say About This Big Trouble

me at age 6

The title of today's blog is the title of a book that was written many years ago. It was a compilation of essays and poems written by children who lived in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco. These children lived with their parents or relatives in squalid rooms and cheap hotels; they were children born into poverty, often victimised by abuse and neglect, children who were invisible to the eyes of the world around them. They wrote their pieces in order to have a voice. They wrote to bring words to the terrors they had witnessed. They wrote to make themselves heard. They saw big trouble, and they wanted others to see it, too. 

Recently, some people who were close to Stan have made it clear to me that they are not happy about the launch of my book. They have said that the printing of the book, and my promotion of it, has resurrected painful memories for them, and that they would have preferred that I stopped sharing my story when I finished the blog.

This reaction, I must admit, took me by surprise. The last thing I wanted was to cause more suffering.  I had to take a moment to reflect upon my intentions in printing the book, in sharing the trauma and treachery of those early days and weeks once again, in a different venue. I wondered if it must seem to them that I was simply exploiting the story of us in order to find more readers for my words. I felt ashamed that I had written and shared so openly about my journey. I wanted to close the door on it in order to protect them from more pain. 

But then, I stopped myself. I realised that I wanted nothing more from the printing of this book than to bring alive the memory of my husband. I wanted to illuminate his many qualities for those who had not had access to the blog. I wanted to share the big trouble of my grief and the terrible tragedy of my loss in order to help others who had experienced loss, too. My intentions were good, and kind, and grew out of my love for him, and a desire to help others. 

Writers who write from their hearts write words that bring discomfort. Writers write to shed light on the shadowed places that others can't acknowledge or see. Writers write from their own deep wells of pain and joy in order to bring words to the living of this troubled and complicated existence. Writers write to explore the truth, their truth, in the hope that their experience will resonate with the outside world. 

Sometimes, the outside world doesn't want to hear it, particularly if the story relates to them. Augusten Burroughs, who wrote "Running With Scissors", was sued by some of the people he portrayed in the book. Pat Conroy's mother remarked that she was afraid to talk to him, because her words might end up in some 'damn book of his'. Truman Capote lost many friends in his New York social circle after he wrote about them in his stories.  

I have always written about the big troubles I have seen and felt and experienced in my life. I have written about the trauma I experienced as a young child, and how it impacted me. I have written about the people around me, too. Most of my work has been unpublished, and sits, unfinished, in a drawer. I have hesitated to share it with the world. I have not wanted to create more pain. 

I write from my heart. My words dig deep. Sometimes they are raw and difficult to read. But people have told me that my words have helped them to know my husband and me better. They have said that my writing has helped them to open up to their own grief and loss. They have said that my words have helped them to reflect, and think, and to remember to treasure their loved ones who are still alive.

I have something to say about this big trouble. I have something to say about the terrible way my husband died, its impact on me, and on the people he loved. I have something to say about how his life and death changed me, how I went from the euphoria of marrying the man I loved to the pit of despair following his instant and tragic death. I have something to say about how the sangha and the dharma have helped me climb out of that pit, and enter into life once again. I have something to say about the man I loved, who he was, how he lived,  and how his expansive presence left an imprint on us all.

I have something to say about this big trouble. 

And, as long as I am able, I intend to keep saying it. 

the book is available at