same as ever, but different

Months ago, I booked a solo trip to a wellness retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains. With the stress of the past few weeks, I was unsure if it would work out or not, so I’ve been in touch with the reception office to explain that my grandmother was with hospice and I might need to postpone. They were unbelievably accommodating and said I could wait until the very last minute to decide if I wanted to go now or later. I didn’t want to miss time with her.

As it turned out, we buried her on Wednesday with a service that was sweet and sincere and sad. I was dreading the funeral so much, and at the end of the day, my eyes were swollen with tears. But I was also astounded at how such a simple life can be the most beautiful. I loved her because she was mine. But so many others came to grieve with us because they loved her for who she was and the countless ways she touched the lives of everyone who met her. The one and only request she ever made about her final arrangements was to drape one of her mother’s old handmade quilts across her casket, and so we did.
We laid her to rest in the piercing June sun, and it is always such a surreal feeling when someone you loved and knew so well is lying in the ground. You feel aimless and unsteady and unsure for a while. It’s a new way of life you have to somehow figure out, how to exist without the person you were once so close to.

As life would have it, though I had no idea this would be the case, I threw my things in my car the very next day to drive across the Appalachian mountains alone. The retreat center’s directions warned against GPS leading you astray and included details like “go straight under the stone bridge,” “drive until the road turns to gravel,” and “turn left and proceed to the top of the mountain.”

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When I finally reached my destination and checked in with the reception office, I found my room on the other side of the property. It was raining a steady drizzle and something like 6pm. I opened the door to find a small room with a bathroom, a simple bed, one sheet, one blanket, no television, open windows, and the most glorious view of the North Carolina mountains. I forget that stillness has a sound, a hum you can almost hear.

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I have a total of 68 hours to spend here, and I can feel layers lifting as the hours pass. The food is light, and the others here are mostly quiet but kind. I’m in yoga & meditation classes about 5 hours a day. We rose with the sun today and began class without coffee which normally would hardly be possible, but it was brisk outside and the sun greeted me in a way I couldn’t refuse.

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We’ve been talking a lot about some foundational elements of yoga which we tend to forget, and I can’t help but hear it as life advice as well. “Work hard but don’t struggle. When you feel the struggle, ease out of it a bit.” And “go to the edge of your comfort, and then just gently push forward the tiniest bit.”

My life has been loss after loss this past eighteen months, I am so ready to work hard but tired of struggling. I can feel myself, even now when the grief feels fresh and heavy, finding my place a little more everyday. My voice is growing steadier, not louder. I am ready to work hard for the things that are important to me, but I’m also growing more confident in my own ability to know when to ease off and recognize a struggle when I feel one. If you have to force it, (whatever it is) it’s no good.

I have so much more to say later and more to think about and still time left here. As I’m writing this on the tiny bed, I can hear birds out my open window. My muscles are sore and my eyes are heavy. My grandmother’s last weeks taught me the value of surrender, and I am feeling it now in this place, even in a physical sense.

I indulged in a Shirodhara treatment this morning, an Ayurvedic therapy when you lie on a table and allow warm oil to be poured on your forehead in a continuous stream. It’s said to soothe the nervous system and awaken the “third eye” of spiritual understanding and intuition. I think it does accomplish that, but only because it makes you melt into the present moment and feel what is really there. Me, same as ever but different. Still here, still breathing.

 

sweetness and sadness

My grandmother took her final rest in the early morning hours on Sunday, before sunrise. It was peaceful and loving and perfectly fitting for a life that reflected so much grace.

My “real life” circle already knows this, but I have recorded all of my formative moments on this journal, and I know I have to write something. But words seem completely inadequate sometimes. What do you say when you lose someone who is so cherished by those of us left behind? I don’t know.

It was past 11:00 when I finally got home to my empty house last night after the funeral visitation and then family time at my grandparents’ house. Sometimes words are not enough, so we rely on rituals. This week is reserved for those rituals of mourning. Receiving visitors and food and hugs. Singing hymns and listening to prayers of comfort. Glancing at pictures from years and years of a life well-spent. And finally, on Wednesday afternoon, lowering her body in the ground.

Seeing her body somehow feels so different than it usually feels for me to attend a funeral visitation, less unsettling and less haunted. Maybe it’s because I knew her so closely or maybe it is because it was such a gradual process that I walked alongside her these past few weeks. Whatever the reason, this time it is so clear to me that it is just a shell. There’s a line from Quaker writings in the nineteenth century that says, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” This past month with my grandmother taught be innumerable lessons, but that is one of them.

I think she knew this always. It’s why everyone who met her loved her so much. She spoke to you soul-to-soul without any regard to the other stuff when the world around you only ever sees the other “stuff” as who you are.

The missing will come. The void and the absence is here already, but it still feels surreal. The missing will come later, and I know loss enough to know this. I will cry those tears at some point. But right now, the things that make my eyes sting and overflow are the details of beauty I’ve observed as she made her transition to the other side. There was so much sweetness in her passing, as hard as it is for us to let her go.

There are countless moments from this month that I will never, ever forget. Making pureed sweet potatoes like baby food for her to eat, wondering how many times she did the same for me. Watching little cousins play hide and seek last Sunday in her big hydrangea bush while she slept upstairs. Rubbing lotion on her tired hands, scarred from a life of love and work. Seeing her smile and squeeze my hand when I dripped water in her mouth from a tiny sponge. Listening to my Grandaddy sing hymns to her in her Emory hospital room when she was overwhelmed and upset, and then watching him silently hold space for her in the last 10 days that she spent at home. He never wavered, even once, from what real love is. 

I will never, in all my life, forget what I have witnessed between the two of them in these last few weeks.

As I was talking with an old friend last night at the visitation, I was saying how grateful I am to be from a family that always taught me the value of loss and sadness, always showed me the whole picture. So many people in our culture don’t “do” sadness and don’t “do” death. They pretend it’s something we can somehow avoid by holding it distant. Like if you run fast enough and smile big enough and buy enough shiny new things, loss won’t really happen to you.

I wrote my grandmother’s obituary – perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever written. How do you sum up someone’s life in something like 300 words? As I wrote, I got to that last paragraph where you state the deceased’s loved ones – the list of people who passed before them and those they left behind. I realized that perhaps the most striking line of someone’s obituary is that list of who preceded them in death. It’s just a list of names that is so easy to breeze over as you read, but to really think about it and remember what loss feels like magnifies it. I listed her parents, both of them. Her oldest brother she adored so much as a mentor and her most trusted friend. Her youngest brother who died at 36 and left behind a wife and three kids. Her son-in-law, my own father, who passed at 31 and left my sister and me, alongside my mother. She held our hand so closely in that time when I know her own heart was broken, too. As I read those details and I look back, I’m astounded at the pain she endured in her lifetime. The process we all experience, letting go of people you can’t imagine living without.

Pain transforms you if you let it. I heard a radio interview once where someone referenced “the alchemy of pain” and I love that. It can be an almost magical process of transformation if you let it burn to completion in you. You can’t selectively numb emotions. You numb the pain or sadness, and your joy is dimmed as well

 

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I’m seeing already how the well of sadness from the last month is echoing in a way that magnifies the connection I have with her. It’s like I press my ear to the sadness, and what I really hear beneath it is thank you, thank you, thank you. 

Love goes on and on and on. Always.

 

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all the hard places

I’m writing aimlessly tonight. I just see that it’s been nearly a week since I’ve written, and so much is racing by in my own head. I’m writing, writing, writing all the time by observing and thinking. But they are mostly half thoughts lately and never leave my head to find paper or screen.

She is still here, but she is close to the other side, I think. Very close. I’ve stopped in everyday, and I see her slipping. These bodies are so strange. So real and close when you are in them, yet they seem almost marginal or paper thin as you near the end. Bodies might be the way we move through the world, but they are not even half of it, are they? Just a shell to get us where we’re going.

There are specifics I will not write about until months or years have passed. Events of my past week, things that still belong to her as part of her time here. But I will say that compassion is not soft or fluffy like we are led to believe. It is hard. It means looking suffering in the face, holding space there, carrying some of it for a while, and not running away in fear or fright. It means doing things that hurt.

Every single major religion tells its followers that compassion is the way to spiritual development, yet we leave it out when it’s uncomfortable. We change the channel or write the check and forget about it. We don’t even understand what it really is. It is never easy and always tough.

Sitting with a dying person will teach you how to live.

I spent time last week looking through some old family photos while she slept. Looking at some images I’d seen before and some I hadn’t, I was struck by how irreversible life is. You always have a choice, I suppose, of how you will react to something. But once the something is done, it is irrevocable. It’s just a big, long string that unravels and all you can do is chase it.

We can wonder what our lives would be like if something else had happened. We can wonder about the million ways it would be different, but those questions get us nowhere really. It sometimes feels like a hand pushing us through all our days with these events that propel us a certain direction, and you flail and stumble for a while until you figure it out. Then walk along as best you can until another wind blows.

I found a photo of my own dad that I’d never seen before. Driving a boat in something like 1978 without a care in the world. He had no idea that his irrevocable moment would happen when he was only 31. He didn’t know my own name or face on that sunny day, and it’s easy to look back and define it all by that moment that controlled the duration of our time together. But this week, I gazed and found myself wondering exactly what it was like in the June sunshine on that boat. What the breeze felt like. What someone said just before the camera clicked. What he was responding to when he smiled. What it was like to live in that second without knowing what was coming next.

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Photos are so good to remind us of that. Thank God there were moments when we didn’t know what was coming later.

My grandmother was so independent with her need of others. Her priority was always to give to someone else and make them feel loved and at home. I remember when dating my ex-husband, he joked that her house contained some kind of time warp because you’d walk in and insist you were staying a short while, and before you knew it, six hours and a full meal had taken place. It was true. Energy is a very real thing, isn’t it? When you love others and your true intention is to give, give, give without prioritizing your own needs, people gravitate to that.

I joked to my sister, as we tended to her a few days ago in the ways that you tend to a dying person, that I was so thankful she didn’t ever know this was the way it would go. It’s only been a month, and it pales so starkly in comparison to the things she has done for me for my entire life. But if she knew we would find ourselves in 2016 bathing her and brushing her hair and rubbing lotion on her bony arms and dripping water in her mouth from a tiny sponge, she would have laid awake every night of her life dreading the burden of it and neglecting to see the beauty.

There’s so much beauty in sacrifice. The thing about heartbreak is that it breaks your heart wide open for something else to take root. I get it now in ways I never have before, in ways that many people never do. And I am grateful for every minute that has taught me what I needed to learn.

 

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So many times in my life, I’ve heard people say they passed on the chance to see a dying loved one because “I didn’t want to remember her like that.”  That idea seems so sad and small to me now.

I will remember my grandmother so many ways. With a house full of food and company. Quiet conversations, just the two of us. Countless moments of small kindness and tiny graces that she delivered to others. A beauty that radiated in a way that only comes from joy and peace that surpasses all understanding. But I will remember these last days as well, in all their brutal reality. It’s cracked my heart wide open for whatever comes next.

Grace always lives in all the hard places.

 

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that second song

My summer is rushing by faster than I’d like. We’ve been off three weeks, but it doesn’t feel that way at all. I left a couple of cereal bowls in my sink for what I realized was three days, and I haven’t properly grocery shopped since we’ve been home from vacation. As it turns out, there is a lot to do to ready things for the end of someone’s life, a lot of choices to make and a lot of family to weigh in on those choices. I was with her all day yesterday, but I am staying home today, I think. To breathe and to clean a bit and to do a few rituals in my own quiet home to bring me back to myself.

As always, I am knee-deep in a lot of reading — bits and pieces scattered everywhere. And all of it is working to speak to me on some level. This week’s theme in my Richard Rohr contemplations is all about the contrast of the first half and the second half of life, as he calls it. Something always happens to shake us up, doesn’t it? Lots of things do that job if we are listening, but something is always the big one that comes at the right time to unfold something entirely new for you if you are listening.

My divorce was that for me, no doubt. My life will forever be viewed in the before and after lens of that moment. It is only after that brokenness when I became full and real and whole. But I also can see so clearly how this chapter with my grandmother is working to further that work.  I see without question, when I look in my rearview, how suffering has helped me to evolve, and I am seeing it still. Rohr claims, “The transition from the first half of life to the second half often involves a stumbling stone. […] Until you can trust the downward process, the Great Mystery cannot fully overtake you. It’s largely a matter of timing. Some of us put it off until the last hour of life. But the sooner you can do it, the better. Almost all spirituality teaches you the secret of dying before you die. If you can face your mortality and let go of this small self early on, you’ll experience heaven here and now.”

I died a small death about a year and a half ago. The shell that held my identity was completely emptied and refilled. But now, it feels like I’m dying another one – which I guess is how life works… emptying and refilling, again and again. This time is showing me, even more clearly than before, how to surrender and how to swallow whatever is given to me, no matter how bitter it seems in the immediate moment. It will nurture me eventually, and I can already feel the softening that happens before I’m molded to something else. I can remember this from before: the grief, the softness, then the light.

I’m also finishing up Bird by Bird, and a passage when Lamott is talking about spending time with her terminal and cancer-stricken friend caught me enough to note it and read it again and again late last night.

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Time is never as long as we think, is it? I guess at 35, I am not quite considered mid-life yet, but I’m getting there. And the closer I get, it feels like a shedding of something, a fire that is refining my clarity in ways I haven’t seen before. I’m tired of holding my breath, as Lamott says. There are things I am meant to do and to be, and I don’t want to miss the call to do them.

In another reading from Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation, he further explains, “The first half of life is all about some kind of performance principle. And it seems that it must be this way. You have to do it wrong before you know what right might be. … In the second half of life, you start to understand that life is not only about doing; it’s about being. But this wisdom only comes later, when you’ve learned to listen to the different voices that guide you in the second half of life. These deeper voices will sound like risk, trust, surrender, uncommon sense, destiny, love. They will be the voices of an intimate stranger, a voice that’s from somewhere else, and yet it’s my deepest self at the same time.”

It is so hard to hear that voice instead of holding your breath, isn’t it? Especially in light of crisis or even the daily demands of everyday life. I’m trying to find ways here and there to still hear it.

A couple of days ago, I went to my grandparents’ house to ready a few things to bring her home, and I was there by myself for a minute and caught her blue hydrangeas in the late afternoon light. Just that perfect slant through the trees with the contrast of the blue blooms against the dark green leaves. That second, short and fleeting in the midst of such a sad time, is what it means for me to fill up, to stop holding my breath. Her flowers that she planted ages ago that bloom in the same spot year after year. And that moment that I will no doubt remember for the rest of my life as one that managed to mix beauty and fear and sweetness and sadness all into one. Sometimes the line between what is temporary and what is eternal is not as clear as we think.

I had some time alone with her yesterday, and she’s not always making sense. But she still says I love you and I’m proud of you, and even in her delirium, she is referencing past moments and rituals we’ve known together my whole life – places we’ve gone together, dishes she’s made for me. And the sound of her voice this week is one that will stay with me forever and forever. There is such a fine line between this world and the next, a sheer curtain. I felt it so certainly in the hours and days when my babies first entered the world, and I feel it now.

I ran across a poem yesterday by Annie Lightheart that resonates with me right now. I feel lately as though I am living on two planes. One that is temporary and full of all the necessities that life demands of us — bills and laundry, and dishes, and daily actions. And one that carries a thread somewhere else, that mysterious chain I’ve written so much about lately.

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“The Second Music” by Annie Lightheart

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
yet always present.

When all other things seem lively and real,
this one fades. Yet the notes of it

touch as gently as fingertips, as the sound
of the names laid over each child at birth.

I want to stay in that music without striving or cover.
If the truth of our lives is what it is playing,

the telling is so soft
that this mortal time, this irrevocable change,

becomes beautiful. I stop and stop again
to hear the second music.

I hear the children in the yard, a train, then birds.
All this is in it and will be gone. I set my ear to it as I would to a heart.

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It’s a second song playing underneath the daily noise. It’s faint sometimes. As she says, If the truth of our lives is what is playing, the telling is so soft that this mortal time, this irrevocable change, becomes beautiful. Can you hear it playing? I can.

 

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all of it

We are back home. I spent more than six hours in a car today with two kids, and I should be sleeping, but I can’t. So I am doing what I always do when I can’t sleep, and I’m writing instead.

We had a fun week. It was far from a perfect, relaxing vacation because parenting doesn’t present that scenario very often anyhow. But especially when you are the lone adult with two kids, relaxation in the typical sense doesn’t happen much.

But I stole moments here and there, and I accomplished that mostly by letting everything else go. I gave them no real rules except safety and sunscreen. We lounged and watched movies and swam and played in the sand and ate more popsicles than I care to admit. I came home exhausted from hot sun and sibling arguments, but they are high on ocean waves and sandcastles and the novelty of vacation-only Lucky Charms. (Seriously, I think that was their favorite part. I likely could have saved a lot of money and just taken a box of Lucky Charms to our neighborhood pool.) But sometimes, I think you need to hit the pause button on all of it and give yourself room to breathe with no rules and no expectations.

 

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I brought along Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to reread it. I’d set some lofty writing goals for my summer, and I thought it might help me gain focus and courage. I found myself gravitating so much to the life advice it offers though, rather than the writing advice. Early in the book, she explains, “E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”  Sometimes I feel like it is only one foot in front of me that I can see, not even two or three. But I just keep moving one step at a time.

I’m growing suspicious, to be honest, of people who plan much farther than a few steps. I’m growing suspicious of someone if they seem to have it all laid out and expect things to follow in the pattern they want. I’m learning to let things happen and try my hardest to let go of all the fear and doubt and panic. Life is in the right, always. Just do the best you can in that moment, and watch it unfold.

When I step outside of myself for a moment, I see things so differently. I see a reality that I never planned on, but one that offers moments better than anything I expected.

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I’ll undoubtedly remember this week as the vacation when I survived a road trip alone with 2 kids under 7, and then the three of us piled in one queen bed inside a condo so tiny you have to turn sideways to get past the dishwasher and reach the oven. I made spaghetti and tacos and store-bought cinnamon rolls, and we ate dinner in pajamas almost every night. I chased them all week while feeling burdened and worried about my grandmother at home, and I know that will be one of the first things that comes to mind as I recall this trip years later in my mind’s eye. But I’ll also likely remember early morning hours of reading Bird by Bird while the kids slept, and Lamott is so good to remind me that “perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting.” 

I’ll surely also remember this as the trip when Jude lost another tooth and delivered a constant lecture on the approximately 148,372 facts he learned about sea turtles in kindergarten. And Norah’s freckles grew everyday while she counted seashells aloud, one by one. Who knew this is where summer of 2016 would find me? I certainly never did. But I’m grateful for all of it.

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While we have not moved her yet, my family has decided to bring my grandmother home with hospice this week. We do not know the exact hour, but it likely won’t be long. The very best moments of my life have come from being brave, staying open, loving fiercely. But this, in many ways, is the bravest thing I’ve ever done. Bearing witness to the very end of a life that shaped my own so intensely.

I’m deeply sad in ways I really cannot even begin to describe, and I know that it will be months of grief as the words come together for me. But I also know that human life means this one thing if we are doing it right: we will lose people we cannot imagine living without.

I see people who hold these things at a distance, who put relatives in homes or avoid thinking about what we will all come to face one day – that we all die. Every single one of us. That idea is both the most crushing and the most freeing of anything at all.

And we cannot choose what happens to us and how it all will end, but we can choose what kind of people we will be in the meantime. And I’m trying my hardest to stay open and willing, brave and honest, here and now – even when it hurts. As Rumi says, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” I thought my heart had expanded enough in this season, but the universe wasn’t finished with me, I think. Here we go again. I’m holding on tight for what lies ahead – the pain and the softness. All of it.

 

beach week

Back in April, I booked a week in a little beach condo for the kids and me. We traveled so much together in my former life – much more exotic locations and expensive trips. But I’ve had such an expensive spring, and my budget looks very different than it did a couple of years ago. So we settled on a little spot on the Florida panhandle that is a short drive from home.

I’ve felt a lot of unease about this trip in light of my grandmother’s health struggles as she is still in a hospital bed in Atlanta. But we transferred her to the university research hospital to get more answers and better treatment for her, so I’m trying my best to exhale a bit and enjoy my time with the kids in the meantime.

I loaded the car on Sunday morning,  and we were on the road by 10am. I bought them each a blank notepad and a fresh box of crayons for the ride down, and that got us 3 hours of entertainment in the car. The rest of the trip was full of I Spy and Letter Hunt, and we finally arrived to our tiny condo in the midday heat.

It’s a studio apartment of sorts with one room that features a bed, a couch, a television, and a tiny kitchen where you have to turn sideways to squeeze by the dishwasher and reach the oven. We unloaded the car and put our things away, and then I braved the grocery store with the kids and at least a million other vacationers. Empty shelves and long check out lines and chaos. We came back to the condo, and I made a quick dinner that we ate on paper plates. We threw on bathing suits and raced to the beach, and we were just on time for the magic hour.

 

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I am so worried about so many things right now – family health struggles and my own bank account and the thousand things I need to address in this season of my life, but the ocean always makes you exhale in a deeper way and realize things will eventually be okay, right? (Asking for reassurance here.) Hardship comes and goes, and in this past few years, it feels like I’ve had more than my fair share. But tiny moments of peace also come and go. I try and squeeze every last bit of comfort I can from them.

 

I’m reminded again of that Mary Oliver line I don’t know what a prayer is, but I know what it means to pay attention. I’m paying attention this week. To freckles and sandy eyelashes, splashes and giggles, sno-cones at sunset.

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Waves roll in and out, over and over. The world keeps turning. Nothing is better than the ocean at showing us that paradox of change and impermanence in the face of eternity. It’s a big, wide world. And struggle exists for every single one of us eventually.

 

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We have three more days here before we head back home. So far, it is a vacation in the truest sense. The kids sleep late while I am up with the sun, and I read with coffee (or write as I am now) while they snooze. They wake and we lounge around with breakfast until we go to the beach mid-morning. We drag our things there, they play for hours, and then we return for lunch and a break from the heat. Late afternoon finds us at the pool, and we’ll shower before dinner and go straight to pajamas most nights. Then we indulge in mugs of ice cream and a movie and sleep to do it all again the next day.

Leisure can feel weird when you are in a season of struggle. We feel like we should be paying our dues somehow. But I’m remembering another Mary Oliver line where she asserts, You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. We are loving what we love this week, without regret or reason. I’m taking these tiny moments, bottling them up as best I can to float me on.

written by the same hand

The week has plowed on somehow. My grandmother is still in ICU, and she is recovering so well in many ways. But as it always goes with things like this, it is two steps forward and one step back sometimes. The neurologist is astounded at her progress, but she also contracted pneumonia – a common occurrence for elderly in the hospital. So while her spirit is strong in many ways, her body is still weak and recovering but showing signs of strength and promise. We are still in the space of in between, unsure what the future holds.

The human spirit is an amazing thing, isn’t it? As is the human body. I’ve spent some time with her this past week, and my kids are away for the next 6 days, so I hope to see a lot more of her in this week ahead. It is hard though. All of it. I’m seeing why people turn away from suffering. It hurts to face the truth: that all of us have limited time here, that life is completely out of control, that pain happens and you can’t run from certain truths. It all shines a bright light on where you are gripping too tightly.

I know I wrote a bit in my last post about Richard Rohr, and another passage of his caught my eye this week and resonated in a big way. He tells us, “The first step of the journey is the admission of powerlessness. It is where no one wants to go and no one will go voluntarily. We have to be led there through our own failure and experience of death. In men’s work, we call it the Great Defeat. Franciscans call it poverty. The Carmelites call it nothingness. The Buddhists call it emptiness. The Jews call it the desert. Jesus calls it the sign of Jonah. The New Testament calls it the Way of the Cross. We’re all talking about the same necessary step.” Wisdom only comes from hardship, doesn’t it? Real transformation and understanding only come from a place of absolute nothingness and uncertainty. I wish there was an easier way to get there, but there isn’t.

I have such little tolerance for bullshit right now. I wish there was a kinder way to phrase that, but there it is. I’ve written at length before about how it felt to have my former life removed piece-by-piece and as Anne Lamott says, when we lose these pieces, it is “one more thing that you don’t have to grab with your death grip, and protect from death or decay. It’s gone.” I’ve grown in immeasurable ways from this continual process over the past year or two. It’s like dragonflies or cicadas who molt as they transition from one form to another. I see so clearly what I’ve shed and left behind, and this chapter in my family’s history – wherever it may lead in the immediate future – is the same for me again.

My grandmother is in and out of understanding right now, depending on how tired she is in that given moment. But her eyes are the same. And family has been in and out all week to see her. Each of us holding her hand and helping in any small way we can and speaking gently to her worn out body like a little baby. Every time I leave the hospital, I feel both sadness and joy, worry and peace, confusion and understanding, defeat and victory.

And I want to scream so loudly that none of it even matters, none of it.

The things that fill the minds of people all day long in their cars and at their jobs and in their homes at night. How much money is in your bank account. How shiny your car is. How large your home is. The list of professional accolades that follow your name. Whose name is stamped on a handbag or what you look like. None of it matters at all, and though I thought I saw that in these months that have passed in my own life, I am seeing it even more now. I’m losing tolerance for people who just don’t get it. So many of us walk around our whole lives avoiding the real truth and leaning on these tangible signs of worthiness and never truly seeing into the life of things.

I finally picked up The Alchemist as my first summer read, and I’ve blown through 142 pages in the past couple of days. Paulo Coelho’s main character is on a journey of his own, and he finally learns that “We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it is our life or our possessions or our property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.”  I’m feeling that hand with certainty in this chapter of my life, and I know that there is more written that I haven’t seen yet. In moments of stillness, it really feels like a tugging to something ahead and almost a tangible feeling that there’s a very specific path I’ll walk that is written by that hand. A whole new place I am not aware of yet.

Any time I feel fear or doubt, I can find so much comfort by looking at my life in the rearview. Every step and every turn and everything that appeared to be a coincidence at that time wasn’t a coincidence at all. Now I see how it molded and changed me and chiseled away the pieces to reveal something I never knew could take shape before. Why would I doubt that life is still revealing piece-by-piece what lies ahead? Coelho calls it “the mysterious chain that links one thing to another.” It’s the white fire of the great mystery that I wrote about before. Some things in life cannot be understood logically or explained, but they are somehow more real than all the other mess that guides our days.

I’ve known my grandparents were loved by their family and community, but this week, that is evident beyond what I ever expected. The messages and comments are overwhelming as people check in with us or send well wishes. It’s expanded beyond the usual sentiments you hear when someone is sick or suffering to reflect the central role she played in the lives of so many people and the incredibly rare person she is. One woman who is not her daughter but paid her a visit on Mother’s Day with a small gift for someone she explained “is like a mother to me.” Childhood friends of mine who call her Grandmother like l do. People who know her well and cite the countless ways she blessed their lives in the decades they have known her.

And it is simple really – when I see what she’s spent her life doing, the way she’s become so cherished to other people. She loved. The real way. Without attention to outside signs of worthiness. She has known that someone’s worth is inherent, that it cannot be bought or earned somehow. And though it is so painful to watch the hand of time and see it this closely and personally, it fills me up in the best way to see others returning the love she delivered to the rest of us for decades. That mysterious chain that links one thing to another just stretches on and on, doesn’t it? Forever and forever.