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Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

grief, time, and the saving graces of poetry

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via google

Grief knows no timetable. And it’s a sneaky devil: it will creep up on you in an otherwise nice day, and lay you flat out. You won’t know what hit you. I mean it: formerly rosy days will grey, wilt around the edges, and it may take weeks before you remember…Oh! Mom’s gone.

That would be my yesterday.

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Today, despite the dreary flatness of the sky, and the lack of sunlight, I’m a little less wilted. At least I understand that grief is here for a visit, and I can’t avoid it. I just have to live through it.

At first, I thought my darkness was the result of all the bad news in the world: flood, drought, blizzard, earthquakes throughout Oklahoma. An ersatz ‘justice’ system that finds treason acceptable in whites, and legitimate protest ‘thuggery’ in people of colour. I’m sick to death of injustice. I might as well be 9 years old again, yelling It isn’t fair! at the top of my lungs…

photo via google

photo via google

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So I read poetry, which — along with music — almost always makes me feel more human. Probably that whole ‘humanities’ thing. The comfort of beauty is one that almost never fails. Especially when the poem is Matthew Olzmann’s “Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz.” Listen: You whom I could not save,/ Listen to me.

There are so many I can’t save. So many lost, starving, injured, unfairly imprisoned. And there are those whom we grieve for whose time really has come: my beloved Mom, who was one of my best inspirations, my dearest friends, my 2nd mother, for so very many years. She definitely was ready to go. And I should be better able to let her: better able to look at her many legacies, all she taught me ~ teaching, mothering, pumpkin pie, in-lawing, love & learning & how to be in the world.

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Grief colours all we do while grieving. Breathing is even harder: the chest aches from the heart’s pain. All I do ‘normally’ — when life is brighter, less tinted by the clouds of grieving — is stained w/ this insidious grey grief. Cooking becomes tasteless drudgery; writing becomes whining drivel. Visits w/ loved ones are perfunctory, and I wonder if I need a therapist.

the author's

the author’s

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Here’s what I’m doing, this bleak January day of sneaky grief: I’m phoning out for dinner (although I filled a crockpot with chicken & veggies, for tomorrow). I cleaned out a drawer filled w/ junk, which makes me feel pounds lighter. I finished boxing the last of the holiday decorations, and the window is open to the outside again. While the tree is lovely when lit & decorated, the birds & bare, raindrop-strung branches have their own sere beauty. Winter isn’t the flashy season that her 3 sisters are, but right now? It’s the best season possible: the season of quiet, the season of renewal, the season of white & grey & darkest shadow. And that’s just fine.

 

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reflections in a Christmas ornament

christmas ornaments

the author’s

There’s something incredibly poignant about packing away the Christmas tree. Pulling off the ornaments — some so very old & fragile the one I made with my mother when I was 6, the one I made w/ my younger son when he was 6. Wrapping them snugly in their tissue cocoons so they can be ready for next year. They become the past as I lay them in the storage bin.

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And wondering if all of us will be here next year…

This year we lost my oh-so-missed Mom, my beloved’s mother, but mine too, after all these years. Each Sunday, when I transfer a pebble from one bowl the future to another the past, I wonder how many pebbles I have.

So I put on my favourite music, a Spotify playlist of just riffs on Pachebel’s Canon. It’s public — if you go to Spotify & search for my name, it should come up. When I’m blue, or need comforting, or just need to remember that peace is the blue sky the clouds run across, I play it. The music is all over the place — techno, jazz, classical, harp, trumpet. No vocals, but the warm beauty of the Canon, in a hundred (well, maybe a few less) renditions.

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the author's

the author’s

And it helps. I promise. Right now, someone is jazzing the chords, and I’m looking at the juxtaposition of one of the newest ornaments — a mercury glass ball — and one of the older — a wooden warthog from our trip to Kenya, before my bearded younger son was even born. This, I tell myself, is the present.

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This year, I’m working at reflection. Not simply doing, but being fully present in the moment, whatever that means. Pain? I’ll breathe it in and do tonglen. Joy? I’ll try (hard!) to live fully in it, knowing it will pass. Anger? I’ll try to use it — like a friend says — as compost, feeding productive action.

Right now, that means noticing each ornament as I wrap it to put away. And wondering, again, where I will be in 12 months. In the future.

 

 

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leftovers, lagniappe, and a happy life

the author's

the author’s

After big family get-togethers, most of us think of dishes. Me, I think of leftovers! Even after we send the holiday ham home w/ a niece & nephew, even after to-go packages are made for a sister, there are TONS of food left.

So today? Breakfast is a doppio con wanna, homemade — two shots of espresso w/ the new machine (it’s wonderful!) and leftover whipped cream. How great a breakfast is THAT?

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Somewhere, in the many writings of the Dalai Lama, is a phrase I’ve taken to heart: Why would you disavow your happy life? I’ve written about it before, adding that the Dalai Lama tells us that the purpose of life is happiness. A side note: the Dalai Lama adds that material happiness is only one form of happiness, and certainly not the most enduring!

But as I do the dishes (piles!) after a wonderful evening with sisters, nephews, nieces, and a GRANDniece, celebrating the New Year, I wonder if leftovers aren’t a kind of material afterglow. Yes — I had authentic conversations w/ my youngest niece, with her mother, my youngest sister. And yes, I’m so very glad that my youngest nephew is comfortable enough to go in to the other room & take a nap when he needs one. Not to mention how proud of their cooking abilities I am, or the (much more important!) wonderful people they’ve each become.

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the author's

the author’s

So whipped cream is just that: a tiny lagniappe, something totally bonus. It’s the equivalent of icing on the best of cakes. Like afternoon tea, in an odd way — icing the lemon chess pie I made instead of the usual pumpkin. My (many!) material blessings are so very wonderful, but they pale against healthy sons, a perfect DIL, a grandson who (at 2 1/2!) tries to play his tiny guitar as he sings the ABCs. They take their tertiary (quaternary?) place behind my adorable beloved, my amazing sisters, my beautiful & talented nieces & nephews. Even my über cool cat!

Today, I wish you the afterglow of leftovers — the dollop of whipped cream that is your material life, next to all your most important priorities. I wish you afternoon tea in the warm winter sunlight. And the wisdom not to disavow your happy life.

 

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after Christmas (time, research, and priorities)

the author's

the author’s

In the aftermath of Christmas, I have time to appreciate. The hectic nature of a blended family Christmas —  two family dinners, juggling move-ins & move-outs, coordinating presents for the shared grandson,  not to mention travel & the ubiquitous winter viruses — means that Christmas is almost a blur.  Certainly there are moments my grandson climbing into a bag to reach for a present, but for the most part I have to work consciously (& conscientiously!) to take it all in. To process.

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Today, however, I had time to enjoy the pies I made yesterday. Time to watch my grandson build ‘green bobots’ to whack w/ his light sabre. Time to sleep in, even! And best of all, time w/ just him, as my DIL spent time w/ her family, and my sons went to a movie w/ my beloved.

via businessinsider.com

via businessinsider.com

So my grandson & I read a book. At least we started out reading a book. But very quickly Trin had questions about eggs, and whether only chickens came from eggs (his contention). Since one of his favourite lullabies is ‘Mockingbird,’ we got out the trusty iPad and looked up mockingbirds. We identified mommy mockingbirds, daddy mockingbirds (notable for their fierce sharp claws, to fend off ‘bad birds’ from the baby mockingbirds), fledglings, eggs, & a nest. Then on to crows.

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Crows fascinate Trin. They’re quite common in his neighbourhood, and I often call back to them as they fly over, talking among themselves. I adore them, and we spent almost an hour cruising the ‘net, looking up bird facts. Yesterday this would have been impossible.

via google

via google

But today? The sands of time ran a bit more slowly, thankfully. And I’m coming to realise more & more that time lies at the tangled heart-knot of most dilemmas.  There isn’t ‘time to listen,’ I hear. Or ‘time to discuss all this.’ Or ‘time to research the issues.’ Because we don’t make it. Or take it.

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Time isn’t something in nearly as short supply as we pretend, a fact that eluded me while I was working. And yes: I understand that it seems facile for me to say I’ve shifted priorities when in fact I actually have more time. But my priorities have shifted. Whereas before I felt I had to devote my out-of-work time to becoming a better worker, now my time is spent trying to become a better person. They aren’t necessarily interchangeable, although they often overlap.

These days, I am gentler with myself, recognizing that if I can’t forgive myself I’m not going to do very well forgiving folks I don’t like nearly as well. 😉

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I also volunteer several hours a week — working in the arts & humanities, areas I  am profoundly committed to. I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like to, but I have spent a great deal more time w/ family, my number one priority. And of course there have been the usual out-of-left-field tragedies, emergencies, and ‘situations.’ Each of which has called for time, something I could not have given 3+ years ago.

So as the year winds down, I’m grateful for the time to look up bird eggs, and trace a path from mockingbirds to crows to robins to bluebirds. From Richard Scarry to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. From years spent teaching ‘authentic research’ to doing it. With a 2 1/2-year-old on my lap.

I’m grateful for the time to enjoy what I work at, and the time to make better choices for my present. Most of all? I’m grateful for the reminder, today, of what’s important. And it has far more to do w/ crows and mockingbirds than even making pies.

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