Sunday, October 25, 2009


Photo Credit: David Hawgood
I was talking to my grown daughter on the phone the other day. I told her that one of the unhappy things about getting older is that loss becomes just part of the scenery of life. I told her that I'd spent years of my life learning not to sweat the small stuff, the losses and frustrations that don't really matter, only to arrive at a time in my life that's filled with losses that do matter.

Live long enough, and loss, real loss, is inevitable, after all. We know it, but we live in the happy illusion in our youth that it is not so, that death and disease are the aberrations. Middle age knows they are the rule, and that soon or late they come for everyone we love.

But, I told her, there's an up side, too. The older I get, the better able to weather grief I seem to become. It turns out that in this, as in so many things, practice helps. Grief is a skill that grows better with use, if we dare to trust it--to feel it, acknowledge it, and keep walking.

I'm stronger now than I was at twenty, and I know it. I told my daughter so.

"Mom," she said, "Um... that's kind of dark."

I guess maybe it is.

Here's what I know:
I lost a friend this week. My good friend Abby has died, and I can't quite piece that knowledge together in my head. I don't get it, about death. Not yet. (I guess that means I'm still young enough that it does seem like an aberration to me after all.)

I understand grief, though. And watching Abby's wife Janet walk this valley is breaking my heart. No courage, no generosity of spirit, no warmth of heart takes away the pure, high, keening pain of Janet's loss. She speaks of it sometimes, bows down and weeps from it sometimes, but mostly, she keeps walking. And it is breaking my heart to watch her.

Here's what else I know: when your life brims over with pain and sadness--the real kind that can't be fixed with an attitude adjustment--you gotta go out and grow a bigger life. In fact, all of us, all the time, should be growing our lives as wide as our hearts can hold, so that, wherever there is grief, there will be some ghost of joy and gratitude to bear it company.

Be large. Love many. Give your time, give your energy, and above all else, give your empathy and enter in to all the joys and sorrows that there are in your friends' lives. Drink deep from the cup of life, especially when it is bitter, from motives of pure self-interest. Because in times of loss, it's all you've got to keep you going.

Don't tell me about the littleness of your life. Live large. When loss comes to you, too, it will give you something to hold on to.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Red in Tooth and Claw

When Nora, Peter's grandmother, lived with us, our household was the nucleus of an active local Pagan community. Over time, dementia eroded more and more of Nora's ability to retain anything she learned about in the present, so she wound up discovering again and again that she was living in a family of Pagans.

Over and over, we would have made some reference to our Paganism, and Nora, having forgotten about it for the time being, would ask us to explain again what it was we believed. We would explain, yet again, about all of life being sacred to us, and nature being the source of our inspiration.

Each time we did this, we would reach the point in our discussion where she would protest, quoting the line from Tennyson about "Nature, red in tooth and claw." Nevertheless, we would insist that that was where we looked for the holy, and eventually, she would exclaim (just as she had the time before that): "Well, then, you're all heathens!"

When we agreed with her, she would nod with satisfaction at having figured us out, and add, "Well. That's all right then."

I'm still a "heathen." But Nora had a point. Nature is red in tooth and claw. And it certainly can be challenging to accept.

How can the world be good, and have such suffering within it? How can we believe in the presence of anything compassionate, loving, or engaged with us humans in the slightest, given the hard realities of hunger, disease, old age, and death? How can it possibly be that "love [is] Creation's final law" when so much of the world is such a mess?

One way of answering the question is simply to dismiss the world as fallen and flawed. I don't need to remind my Pagan readers that this has been the traditional approach of Christianity. If we accept that the world is not sacred, is rather broken and corrupt, then the apparent lack of love we find in its daily tragedies and deformities becomes unsurprising.

But how, as a Pagan, do I reconcile an unfallen creation with the state of the world?

Oh, I can dither for a little while, focusing on human choices to live out of balance with the natural world. But however I frame it, whether I choose to ignore the way that humans are very much a part of nature or to accept it; whether I choose to see humans as fallen or no; I ultimately have to admit that the natural world has a lot of things in it that repel, disgust, and horrify me.

HIV. Stillbirths. Heartworms and tapeworms and parasitic wasps. It ain't all fluffy bunnies and sunsets, that's for sure.

OK. I realize this a kind of grandiose way of leading up to it. But the fact is, I got bitten by a tick yesterday.

Two ticks, in fact. Despite the recent frost, despite taking all the normal precautions, I got bitten by two ticks, and one of them has absolutely left some kind of infection behind it. Hopefully not Lyme disease, because, honestly, that's all I need in my life right now.

Photo credit: Tomfy
Ticks. Ugh. (Shuddering)

I hate ticks.

For years now, I've suffered from recurrent nightmares about a variety of worms, bugs, planarians, and macroscopic amoebae colonizing my body. My nightmares are like the standard Bug Larvae Under the Skin scene in a certain type of horror movie, only better lit. My dreams not only terrify me, they make me wake up in a cold sweat, feeling like I want to take a shower inside my body as well as outside it.

Oh. I'm also an arachnophobe. Got some great dreams about spiders, too. So, given my fear of parasites and my fear of spiders, ticks completely freak me out.

Did I mention? I hate ticks.

Here's the thing. Though it took me a few minutes after the shuddering, flinching, ghastly process of getting the damn things pulled off me to remember it, I got those ticks in the course of an incredibly beautiful walk in our woods.

It was twilight, or even a little past it, and the woods were fading into murk, but the leaves of the hornbeams, which have all turned a brilliant, cheddar-cheese yellow, stood out like a dream against the gloom. Because the hornbeams are all saplings of about the same age, the effect was of a cloud of yellow lights, almost like paper lanterns, hovering ten feet above the forest floor. High, high up, the more mature maple trees glowed, too, in orange and pale yellow and still a bit of green, and everywhere black tree limbs and the green-black of hemlock branches framed the night.

Peter and I walked through a night that was almost silent, except for the tiny, reedy voices of night birds, and the distant sighing of traffic. We wrapped ourselves in the wonder of grey stones, brown, tea-smelling leaves underfoot, and paths now easier to see than in the hurly-burly of summer growth.

We found the chestnuts--the saplings left behind, still insistently trying to grow and overcome the lethal blight that has destroyed their kind. And I got to see for myself just what shade of yellow chestnut leaves turn in the dark night of a New England fall.

And it was totally worth it. Horrible as the mere thought of a tick makes me feel, let alone actually finding them, heads sunk into my skin, they are just the price of admission for belonging to a real, living ecosystem.

Not just the forest, but I myself am a part of this ecosystem. Ticks? Who am I kidding. I've long since been colonized by mites and viruses, bacteria and fungi of all sorts. I am myself an ecosystem, a forest, a jungle. Ticks, and the Lyme bacteria I fear they hold, are just more passengers on an already crowded vessel--my body.

We are not truly separate from one another. There are no safe, clean, reliable places in any living system.

The very cells of my body, whose metabolism allows me life, may one day mutiny against my rule, and kill me. But without that possibility, I die now, this moment. Life evolves. Life is opportunistic. Life sees a chance and it takes it, whether it means colonizing the body of a caterpillar, chasing down and eating a rabbit, or a blood meal from a human host. Life kills, and life is dying every day.

Because that's what life is.

I've always frowned on those people who claim to love kittens, but have no use for cats. The nature of a mature cat is always there, latent within the kitten. There are no kittens without cats, and if we could, somehow, freeze young cats forever at the age they are "cutest," we would not have done them honor, but destroyed something essential to who they are. We need, instead, to love them whole--kitten and cat--or not at all.

When I say I want to embrace life, I must acknowledge that that means I must embrace death. When I say I love my woods, I must own that my woods include white-footed mice, white-tailed deer, and the ticks that prey on them and on me.

None of us are our Mother's favorite children. And all of us are.

We must embrace the whole of the wheel of life, not just the parts we think we love. Because there isn't any such thing as life without death, woods without parasites, or love without loss. It's all one at the root.

Photo credit: Thompson Greg, US Fish and Wildlife Service
I still feel disgusted and horrified by the sight of a tick on my body. But I know: the tick joins me to the deer, to the forest. To the trees.

It's worth it. That's what Paganism is, I think. It's looking Nora in the eye, and saying, Yes. Red in tooth and claw.

And worth it.

I know no better world, and ask for none.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

There is Always Joy

To A. This isn't written for you. You don't need to take care of me over this one; this is written for myself, and it is how I cope. I love you forever.

I remember when I was small, not understanding why the adults around me were so serious. Everyone talked about how hard life was, and I thought that was a sign of how ridiculous adults could be.

That says a lot for how good a job the adults around me did, on the whole, caring for me as a child, and what a happy childhood I really had.

But I also remember when I learned for the first time about death.

I was about eight years old. My parents had been away for the weekend, and they'd left us overnight with our babysitter's family, which had been all right except for the fact that the sheets all smelled funny and, in the middle of the night, the world was very gray and I was very homesick.

But when they picked me and my younger brother up in the morning, about halfway home from the babysitter's, they broke the news to us. Probably my parents had spent some time carefully working out how to let us know, in the way that would produce the least trauma: our friends' Hal and Mark's father was dead.

Hal and Mark were our best friends: Hal was a year younger than I was, and Mark was three years older. They lived right across the street from us, and we were in and out of each others' houses and yards all the time. I probably knew the inside of their house better than I knew my own.

I laughed. Literally--I laughed out loud, because I knew perfectly well that my parents were lying to us.

People you know don't die. Not real people. Not real people's fathers.

Somehow, I learned he had died of a heart attack. I learned (or did I just imagine?) that he'd died in the kitchen, that he had fallen to the kitchen floor, and died.

I can no longer remember anything else about that kitchen. But I remember the damn floor. I suppose I never looked at it the same way again.

That kitchen floor was the beginning of my learning curve.

So here I am, forty-nine, almost fifty, and I'm still learning. I no longer laugh at the lessons.

Some leave memories I cherish, though it would be hard to explain why to anyone else:

I remember getting a phone call just after I'd settled in to bed one night when I was in my thirties, mom of a young child, still living in Vermont. My closest friend and coven-mate called to tell me his mom had died, and would I please come over with his other friends and keep him company?

We played Trivial Pursuit until the small hours of the morning. Nobody really kept score; it was just a way of being there without being... too much there. It was right at the time.

I remember being with my mother when her own mother was dying in a nursing home in Maine. We slept in more wrong-smelling sheets--Peter and I in the guest bedroom, my mom in my grandmother's own bed. Shortly after I woke up from a nightmare in the deep of the night, the phone rang. My mom answered it, and I was with her when she took the call.

She and I stayed up until the sun rose, she wrapped in a quilt made by her grandmother that she'd taken from a box at the foot of the bed. She may have shared it with me at times... I have no idea what we talked about, but I vividly remember the sight of her long, slender bare foot, pink with cold, peeking out from under the blanket.

And I remember the sound of that silence--like the sound you get when you brush the rough surface of porcelain with a finger. The sound of grief in the air, potent and without words.

I am so grateful to have been with my mother that night, for the intimacy of the grief she let me see and share with her. I'm more grateful that I had that memory within me when, last year, after my mother's near-fatal accident, I sat beside her hospital bed in Maine.

I remember my father, on that nightmarish trip last November. There is something surreal and outside of time about the inside of a hospital at night anyway, even without the fear of bereavement and the terrible quiet beeps and hissings of an ICU around you.

I remember taking my father's hand, after a brief visit to my mother's room. She--my amazing, bionic, athletic and unstoppable mom, stopped by the impact of that car, surrounded by metal and machinery, her knuckles suddenly seeming impossibly large in hands suddenly much, much too thin. She sent us away at one point, to keep us from seeing her pain when they had to move her.

I'm not sure it helped my dad not to be there. He had her pain in his bones at that point, ground into him where it was cold and unchallengeable.

When I took his hand, and we walked down the hallway to the little waiting area off the ICU, I felt a very, very fine tremor, not just in his hand, but all the way into him and through him, like the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl just before the sound can register, maybe. Or like the sound crystal makes before it shatters.

I took my father's hand, and he was old. For the first time ever, more even than his cancer had made him, I saw my father old. My father, giant not just of my childhood and his grandchildren's, but of men and women he trained and led and befriended and worked with. My father has always been a large man, not just in height, but in charisma, energy, imagination.

I wish I could tell you somehow what I felt when I took his hand.

I felt the truth. He's dying. We're all dying. It's just a matter of time. And... the hurt of it is too big to hold in or to let out or to make peace with or to make war on. All we can do is tremble, like he was doing, with that very, very fine tremor.

Life kills us. And grief stays with us, etched into the heart like lines on glass, even when the terror and the fear have passed. My mom's alive. My dad is healthy and strong. But we know something we didn't want to know.

Figuring this out now, at almost-fifty, is a bit like starting to get the roof on as winter sets in. But I'm getting it, bit by bit: life hurts, the people we love get sick or go crazy or do terrifying things with terrifying consequences, and sometimes they even die on us and leave us alone to grieve, the most impossible thing of all.

Here's what I've got for comfort; here's what I've picked up, scraps to carry me when it gets bad:

Nothing is ever lost forever. I don't know if I believe in a heaven or an afterlife, but I think that, somehow, I've been blessed to look into the River of Light. It's always there, flowing through the roots of things. I came from there, and I'll go back there, and so will you. I don't know if I'll be me, or if you'll be you, but we'll be there. This I know... experientially.

There is always joy. You can't defeat death, fear, grief. The terrible things keep happening, and they really do just get harder and harder as we go along.

But there really is always joy.

The worst year I have ever had in my life was about seven years ago. Fear and anger are a terrible mixture, and I was awash in them, almost helpless against them.

And my best friend adopted a son--not an infant, but a young man of five, with the most amazing, intelligent black eyes. I met him within days of the placement, and I remember the look of hope (and maybe a bit of fear) in his eyes. And the overwhelming tenderness in the eyes of my friend and her husband.

While my life seemed to be in ruins, the next few years I held that boy's picture, and eventually the pictures of his siblings, over my heart, like a plaster holding that organ together. My friend's joy carried me through my own grief and pain, and I learned a truth: make your life large enough that, when you are in despair, you can look up and find some corner of your world where there is cause for gratitude.

In fact, that's one of the main lessons for surviving grief:

Find the gratitude.

Not for the grief. I'm not saying that--I'm never saying that. But for whatever else there is to be grateful for.
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