poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Living with Loss

When recent storms on the coast caused waves of 25 to 50 feet, I drove north to Maverick’s to see them. The size of small mountains, water rose from the shoreline waving its wild, terrifying and gloriously beautiful arms into the sky. A few people sat on surfboards waiting for a wave with good form they could ride. The majority of us, though, were spectators who walked the cliffs above the shore or who traversed the shoreline, gazing in awe at nature’s wonder. The world’s wild beauty is a can fills us with awe, though sometimes it also carries us to the edge of danger and the possibility of loss.

When looking carefully, you can notice loss lives beside us just beneath the surface of experience. Sometimes its absence is a mountainous weight hovering nearby like a cresting wave, waiting to tumble down at the sound of wind, a child’s cry, or the distressed look from a stranger on the street. So many seemingly insignificant things could serve as the trumpet’s blow resounding from walls that previously keep a person feeling safe. The loss of family members or someone we love, loss of work we used to do, people we used to know, a change in health—these can become waves of enormous change in our lives, and the way the world once worked, along with the things that held it together can come tumbling down. This is hard ground to walk on, difficult territory to reside in. How do we keep going? How do we begin again?

The experience of loss has been with us since the beginning of the human story as we fled the safety of the Garden of innocence and inexperience, with the awareness that we needed to begin the difficult journey toward understanding who we are and how to restore our relationships. This is a difficult task as our understanding is always incomplete. When things fall apart or we experience significant change, we like to know how we’re going to get to new ground and when we will arrive at a new place in our lives. But the timing of how this will all come about usually isn’t readily apparent. The process is less like a line and more like a spiral, and the pilgrimage to that desired place of being extends over varied and challenging terrain.

A couple of months back, I read Mari Mazziotti Gillan’s book, The Silence in an Empty House, a beautiful book of poems describing experiences in her relationship with her life partner who had a terminal illness. While experiencing the territory of loss, the writing takes the reader into the heart of relationship and the many small moments and memories that build and connect one life to another in intricate interweaving. In her poem, “Watching the Bridge Collapse,” Gillan describes how life can change in ways never expected. 

We loved each other. Our children were
smart and healthy and beautiful. How could we lose?
then one day you, who could swim a hundred laps
in the town pool, who ran even in a mid-winter
snowstorm, began to move slower and slower,
your hands no longer functioning the way
they always had, your legs unwilling to obey
your brain’s command. And now, your head bent
sideways, so it nearly touches your shoulder,
your legs so weak they cannot hold you up,
your voice thin as a thread. 

The situation Gillan describes is excruciatingly difficult. We acknowledge age brings diminishment, but to witness the vitality of one you love slowly decline in so painful a manner is a loss no one hopes for. Nevertheless, the poems show Gillan confronting the loss and suffering day after day although there is no possibility for expectation that her husband’s condition will improve. This is a struggle any of us could find ourselves in. As Gillan later points out in her poem, “What is Lost,” we do not know what our future will hold. “We all believe that if we just do what we’re supposed to/ the world will remain firm beneath our feet,” she writes. But this isn’t how it is for many people, and one of the things I especially appreciate about Gillan’s poems in this volume is how she describes her losses so directly. In the poem, “My Daughter Comes Home to Take Care of Her Sick Father,” Gillan’s speaks openly about the difficulty of her situation. “I do not understand,” she writes, “how love could become so complicated./ I am ashamed that some part of me wants this to end, to just/ stop.” Her honesty about her struggle in coming to terms with what she has been given is powerful and moving because the story she tells is bigger than simply her own personal story. It’s the story of all who struggle against things that seem unbearable. She speaks the words that are nearly impossible to find when the burden of loss is so enormous it lies beyond the ability to name.

When someone we love difficult finds themselves struggling under difficult circumstances, it’s natural to want to offer help and solutions. Yet sometimes there are no solutions. When her husband tells her of his fear of being blind in the poem, “Because You Keep Turning to Me,” Gillan writes, “I offer what comfort I can, and when I hang up, I cry/in my hotel bed because you keep turning to me/ and all I have to offer is my hands, useless and empty, and too far away to even stroke your head.” I read her words, and recognize my own emptiness in trying to meet the loss I sense in others around me who are suffering. Gillan extends her expression of the depth of our incompleteness in such circumstances in her poem, “There is No Way To Begin.” 

“There is no way to begin this poem, to say how I who have
always believed that whatever happens, things always
work out for the best, have finally been brought
to my knees, not to pray as I did in Blessed Sacrament
Church on Sixth Avenue when I was a girl, but in defeat,
unable to find the thread of joy that has always
waited for me just beyond tears.”

When we realize things aren’t going to get better for others or for ourselves where do we go? Thich Nhat Hahn in the 14 precepts of engaged Buddhism, recommends that we “Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images, and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.” Suffering being with those who suffer is necessary to the growth of our capacity for compassion and for understanding of how our lives are connected to those around us, as Maria’s poem so effectively gives voice to. What we come to realize when in the presence of suffering, is that solutions for how to cope with suffering aren’t going to be external. Like a tree that grows around a fence pole standing in its way of growth, we somehow must enlarge ourselves to be able to include or surround the loss.

When we look at others’ suffering we suffer too. The brain’s mirror neurons tell us this. One of Gillan’s poems, “Watching the Pelicans Die,” speaks directly to our interconnectedness, demonstrating so effectively how human suffering is reflected in the natural world as well. The drowning pelicans’ bodies caught in the BP oil spill are a echo of her husband’s painful effort to rise above the weight of the disease that wants to drown him. Oil covering its body, the bird in Gillan’s poem screams without sound, “a picture of torment and despair,” the silent despair Gillan recognizes her husband and family daily bear as they try to survive the calamity the disease has created–the suffering from which there seems no end. 

…On the Gulf, the earth and sea
are being destroyed, just as you were by the disease that finally
defeated you after you struggled against it for all those years.

Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat
them. If there is enough carelessness and greed in the world
even the ocean can be destroyed…

Our life is intertwined with the life and suffering of the planet. Suffering continues, and so does the brave effort to meet it. “You never gave up;” Gillan writes in her poem of the same title, “you kept doing whatever you could do,/ fell each day because you’d try to walk even though/ you no longer could.” Spelling out an alphabet of loss as time passes, moments of sudden memories of beauty, but also the months and years of loneliness and long process of letting go, letting things be what they are. “The world is too full of grief,” she writes in her poem “Planting Flowers in Iraq,” a poem about a groundskeeper planting flowers when the very same week two hundred people were killed by car bombs, and Gillan recalls a mother’s face overcome with grief as she lifted her dead child in her arms. “The world is too full of grief,” Gillan writes.

It’s true. The pulse of loss throbs inside the silence. Everywhere one looks, tears and sorrow wait beneath the surface of things. I think of the 9/11 memorial designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker where once the Twin Towers stood in New York City. An immense sense of loss envelops you as you approach the memorial, then stand to look as water pours its delicate and silvery life over the square’s edges into the firm earth, then falls again endlessly and forever into a bottomless space that cannot be fathomed, seen or known. The grief feels utterly palpable and weighted with presence, moving beyond words into a space where grief lives and doesn’t end. This is grief embodied.

How do we get to the other side of grief? How do we live beyond, into or with loss that feels too immense to bear? How do we find a way to name the grief, to hold it and still keep living? In her poem, “What if?” Gillan writes,

And what if, this moment, wrapped in the gauze shawl
of stillness, is the secret after all, to learn to look
more closely at the varied world, the veins of a leaf,
a stone, the stippled pattern of bark, and to find,
even in the shape of our hands, the curve of our nails
the ability to lift a cup and drink, the secret of loving
the transfigured world?

An answer is to learn to look, and where Gillan turns her gaze is to nature. Nature, too, has experienced enormous and unspeakable losses, especially in the past few centuries, but life is still present, available to us as a renewing source when we look deeply. Tree and stone, our own hands lifting a cup to drink. From the transfigured world we can drink and draw new life. As Gillan points out, it is when we allow ourselves to be wrapped in the “gauze shawl of stillness” that we enable ourselves to connect to the commonplace of the world in its transfigured form. This in turn allows us to see our experience as part of a greater whole. 

We heal from the inside out. Physical wounds begin healing from the inside. It could be the same with wounds of spirit and losses of the heart. We let ourselves be present with the wounds and losses, holding them in the arms of our thoughts, speaking to them tenderly, dearly, gently. More than our direct pursuit to find an external solution for what will meet our deep need, perhaps what we seek finds us as we allow ourselves to be available to what is working within us. Or perhaps it is a bit of both. 

During these winter months we inhabit the season Christian tradition names as Advent: light’s entry into the dark—into the places of our lives where we cannot see. It is a metaphor reminding us that there are times in life when we don’t know where the next step leads. Things move in complex worlds beneath the surface of what we can see or comprehend. All people experience this state of being. We don’t know when the light we feel we need will appear or how we are going to find it. It’s not a direct path. As this song written by Stephen Foster describes, our souls long for “Hard Times to Come Again No More.” Notice how in this version by Tommy Fleming, the entire audience knows the words and sings together with him. We are not alone. The whole world knows struggle. We walk together. Our inner work is to keep mind and heart open, to walk as we can, trusting that as we move, we journey toward wholeness.

Like blossoms, we wait in our own time for light to open us.

 

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A Wider Perspective

It has been a summer of work–building a framed structure with bird netting to protect the berries, laying a stone walkway, planting, cleaning, sweeping, hanging doors, moping, waxing, cutting glass for cabinets, hanging lights, organizing workers to lay tile, build a stone wall, make cabinets and more. Through it all, my husband and I have watched the grape vines at the entrance to our gate grow foot by foot, first reaching to the top of the trellis, then growing one by one down the crossbars overhead, the vibrant green leaves a symbol of the beauty and fullness of our lives here under the rich blue skies and the perfumed air of the Santa Cruz mountains. Then, last night my husband got up to get a middle of the night snack when he noticed the leaves were missing on the grape vines. He came to tell me, and I, too, got up and went outside to examine the damage. The vines were, indeed, bare. The deer, perhaps the very same beautiful deer I wrote about a couple of postings ago who mysteriously stared at us at us for so long from the edge of the forest, had indiscriminately eaten what we had watered every morning, and that had brought so much joy to our hearts.

“It’s deermagedon,” my husband explained this morning, as we further perused the damage, discovering the deer had eaten the strawberry plants, and the kale as well. “We work without rest, and then what we work so hard for is gone over night. It makes me wonder what we are doing,” he said. I thought about those who lost their loved ones in the tsunamis in Sri Lanka and in Japan, the Chinese girls who died in the recent plane crash at the San Francisco airport. We’ve all lost things precious to us, but to lose a family member in such a way would be truly tragic. Most of our losses in life aren’t as enormous or as difficult as what happens when a natural disaster strikes or a terrible accident, but still the losses must be confronted, and perhaps the way we deal with smaller losses gives us practice for how we will deal with me difficult losses when the arrive. We’re all bound to face serious losses in our lives when we lose the ones we love to death, and all will die one day. To protect our garden we had built an eight foot deer fence, not exactly the walled garden of Luso, Portugal, filled with exotic trees and hermitages, but peaceful, and precious to us, though we don’t yet have a latch on the gate. Sadly, the deer discovered our vulnerability and boldly ate our plants.

So what did we do after “deermagedon”–how did we deal with the loss? After an hour of sleeplessness, and a bit of rest, we woke and assessed the damage in the daylight, and noted that the vine stems were still present. Also, not all the leaves had been eaten. The ones that were too high for the deer to reach, and the ones the deer had to bend to low to eat still remained. The vine wouldn’t die. The base of the strawberry plants were still there, along with some of the strawberries, and about a third of the leaves. The kale was pretty much done for, but at least we had had the opportunity to eat some of the kale the previous night. We watered the plants and sent them some words of encouragement, told the story to a few friends and family members. Then, we got back to work, though we still took notice of the plants through the day.

Does loss cause us to change direction in what we are doing? That probably depends on the severity of the loss, and though we were upset by what the deer had done and how something we treasure was lost, we knew we could recover. Rick Hanson suggests in his blog post, “Drop the Case” that when someone has wronged you, a good thing to do is get a wider perspective on the situation so that you can “drop your case” rather than letting it get its hooks in to you. The deer was just being a deer. We can make it less inviting for it to come in our yard once we get a latch made.

Loss can also be a matter of perspective. When you think about it, we’re losing something all the time as our lives change and morph. When we leave one city, one state, or one country for another, we lose things–the people we know from that locale are left behind, as are the geographic uniquenesses of that particular location–the plants, animals, landmarks, the food specialties from the area. The history of the place we move to is different. If we are choosing to move from the area, losing these things has a different feeling than if we are forced to leave, however. If our choosing to leave something, someone or some place behind, helps us to deal with loss more constructively, then perhaps a key to dealing with loss is to change our perspective.

Years ago, I read Henri Nouwen’s book, With Open Hands, where he talked about how you can’t receive anything new until you let go of what you are holding on to so tightly. “You hold fast to what is familiar, even if you aren’t proud of it. You find yourself saying: “That’s just how it is with me. I would like it to be different, but it can’t be now. That’s just the way it is and this is the way I’ll have to leave it.” Once you talk like that, you’ve already given up believing that your life might be otherwise. You’ve already let the hope for a new life float by. Since you wouldn’t dare to put a question mark after a bit of your own experience with all its attachments, you have wrapped yourself up in the destiny of facts. You feel it is safer to cling to a sorry past than to trust in a new future. So you fill your hands with small, clammy coins which you don’t want to surrender.” (beliefnet) Nouwen clearly describes the consequence of trying to hold on to what we have lost or are afraid of losing–we end up with something small and clammy, when we could be opening ourselves to a new adventure, an new way of being that is reaching out to us, ready to embrace us.

Carrie Newcomer’s lovely song, “Leaves Don’t Drop” shares a wonderful insight about trees. “Leaves don’t drop, they just let go,” Newcomer sings, illustrating an interesting paradox that in letting go–in dying, we make space for something new to grow. “To die and live is life’s refrain,” describes Newcomer. In death is life. This is an ancient truth that many religions describe. Jewish scriptures in Ecclesiastes tell us that “For everything there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die.” Christians trust the paradox found in Jesus’s death: through it life is found.” In Chinese belief, the yin yang symbol teaches us that in life is the seed of death, and in death the seed of life. They are interrelated and part of each other.

Losing the leaves off the plants in the yard was disheartening, but in the bigger picture, not so bad. I’m made aware, again, that I share my space here with deer, birds, insects, and gophers. Getting along with everyone’s needs is challenging, and yes, I could even say an adventure.

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As We Are

September has arrived. I  am still here, working on recovering the use of my hand. I probably should move on to other themes here. I know other people cope with things in life much more difficult than a broken wrist, still, I didn’t know it was going to affect so many things in my life, from the way I lift an object to the variety of things I can’t do. I guess I have much more to learn about going slowly, and the broken wrist assures I will continue to learn that lesson. This morning while slicing potatoes for breakfast, I also sliced my finger, so now there is more to continue this learning curve I’m currently on.

At the gym this afternoon, I read Dobby Gibson’s poem, “Upon Discovering My Entire Solution to the Attainment of Immortality Erased from the Blackboard Except the Word Save” where he talks about how beauty can be lost, but even loss can be beautiful. I’ve been thinking about that in this city where I live with so many poor people on the street. I want to move into a space in my head where I see more than just the pain and, for me, horror, of how they live, and move further into a place where I can look into each person’s eyes that comes to my window begging, or that follows me on the street with maimed limbs and see the beauty in their personhood. The poem talks about winter as a “meditation on shape” and the “slowing of matter.” If we don’t slow down, we can’t see the shape of our lives, our actions, or the effect of our actions. Maybe this is why we age, so we can slow down to think about the shape of what we have done and the way we live.

Today on my way to and from the gym, I noticed the sidewalk covered with bright yellow blossoms from the tree leaning over the wall. The tree has lost its blossoms, but then there is the seed, I thought. After the blossoms are seeds, and the seeds, though not as glamorous, are necessary for more blossoms to appear. Loss is important.  Then we see the wonder, and can take delight in our action. As Gibson says, we “walk out onto the roofs/of frozen lakes/simply because we’re stunned/we really can.”

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Shifting Focus, Dealing With Loss

I have looked forward to getting  my cast off of my arm! Wearing a cast is clearly not comfortable, though if you have to wear one, you can make it a piece of wearable art as you see here, created and painted by Michael. Tatoos are popular in my hometown, but I haven’t seen anyone with a body fresco like mine, neither here or in Italy where I fractured it. While in Italy, we saw many frescos on walls. Outside of Matera,  Christians in the early church escaping the Arab migration into Turkey moved to Italy and built their homes into the earth, carving into the limestone in Matera, and creating art on cave walls just south of Matera. The area reminds me of the caves in Capadoccia, Turkey. The Madonna painted on my cast is similar to one found in a cave crypt in Matera. Since the word for tunnel in Italian is galeria, and I fell in a tunnel, the Madonna on my cast is called the Madonna de la Galeria. While the art work didn’t make the cast more comfortable or enable me to gain use of my arm, it did make it more fun. Having the cast also made me more aware of other people with handicaps, the man with one leg walking down the street with crutches, the young man in a wheel chair. Losing the cast has made me more aware of how everything we have is a gift to us–the movement of our fingers, turning our wrists. Everything. Our bodies are gifts.

My arm is free now! The skin can breathe, can bathe. I lift my arm and float it through the air in celebration. Losing the exoskeleton of the cast has enabled me to start working on doing my arm exercises four times a day so I can get rid of the stiffness and regain my strength. The doctor tells me it will be a year before I get my arm back.  It’s a lot of work to regain something I lost in an instant without even meaning to. Losing something dear affects the whole of our lives. In my case there is no bike riding, weightlifting, swimming or yoga, no digging in the garden or lifting rocks to make a patio this summer. I’m shifting my attention in different directions now, am forced to go more slowly. It’s challenging but I am working on it.

the Madonna of the Tunnel, wearable art body fresco, painted by Michael Citrino

Not all loss is a delight, however. A short time ago I received a letter from a friend who explained that recently she has been going to many funerals of friends who have died. I remember that when my parents were alive that they grew to feel more and more alone in the world as their friends passed away. Letting go of people over and over again is just plain difficult. We all eventually experience losing people we love, people who were a part of our lives that we have had to say goodbye to. Learning how to let go of people, things and places in our lives is something we do not naturally want to deal with. We can practice letting go and accepting things in a new form with the less important things in our lives, and this can help us learn more of how to deal with more difficult things. These opportunities for practicing letting go present themselves to us in situations such as when we lose an object or sleep in an uncomfortable bed while traveling. But as we grow older, time has a way of pressing us into accepting the idea that everything really does have its season. Even if you don’t want to, you will need to let go of things that have been your faithful companions for a long time, like your eye sight or your feet. One of my sisters is losing her eye sight, for example, and a brother is losing his ability to walk without pain because his arches are falling. Every day they are presented the lesson of letting go and accepting what is.

My mother used to tell me, “This, too, shall pass,” when difficult things came my way in life. This is true not only for the difficult things in life, however, but for the wonderful things as well. One of the qualities that makes many experiences so wonderful, in fact, like spending an afternoon with a friend, or watching leaves turn gold in Autumn,  eating delicious ricotta cheese ice cream, or going to see live theater, is their ephemeral quality. When I am in India during the school year, I call that home. When I am traveling, I call “home” wherever I happen to be staying that night. Finding or making home wherever you are, whatever state of existence you are in is one way of dealing with loss. But this is not an easy task. Some places aren’t always places that you want to make home if you have other choices.

A friend tells me that she deals with loss in her life by shifting her energy and attention to other people and activities. Though challenging, this seems like a wise way of dealing with change and loss because whatever we focus our mind on generally has a way of expanding. As the Psalmist says, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” Those things that bring life into our lives are those things that enable us to continue expanding, so it is good to find a way to let losses become areas that enable us to expand. Our job is to find a way to let whatever the loss is that we are experiencing become a place of growth. New Delhi has bad air pollution and I highly value clean air. It also has an enormous population, making it very difficult to get out of the city to walk in nature, and being able to be in a place of natural beauty I value and need. I have to deal with these losses by using air filters in my home and by going out riding with the Delhi Chain Breakers bicycling group in the cooler months of the year. Though it takes hours to get out of town, the cleaner air and riding through rural areas feeds me in a way that looking at the beautiful manicured gardens of the campus where I work do not satisfy. Both the air filters in the house and the periodic rides out of town are a way of meeting a need and dealing with loss.

Is a ride out into the rural back roads of Rajasthan once a month enough? Is breathing the filtered air of my apartment enough to satisfy my lungs? The honest answer is no. It’s not. But it is something, and the lack of what I feel I need has made me more aware of beauty wherever it is found. When living in India, I shift my focus to nurture other forms of beauty. I make it a point to attend musical performances often. I carve out time to write poetry on the weekends, and am learning how to make objects out of clay. When I do get to go somewhere filled with natural beauty and clean air, like my home county with its redwood forests and the ocean stretching out in vast plains of blue, I feel deeply aware of the immense gifts these are to my life. Not having something you long for can make you look more deeply at what you do have and gives you the opportunity to develop compassion for all those in the world who do not have their needs met.

Learning to let go can also be purposeful. Every time I have moved to a different country, I have gone through a period of grief, even if it has been a move I was really looking forward to. Moving involves a loss of a way of life. You lose your your routines, and while you don’t exactly lose your friends, as you can still communicate with them through e-mail, you are no longer participating with them in a common cultural or community context, and this alters the relationship. Eventually, however, as you keep feeding the new relationships, activities and way of living in your new location, you become more at home with your new life without your dear friends in your old location. By focusing on the positive and interesting qualities and activities of the new location, gradually you grow toward wholeness again.

Eventually, time alters everything, though, including our relationship with our own  bodies. A few years ago, I was meeting up with the Citrino family members to go for a walk at Point Reyes in Marin County, CA. When we got out of the car to begin our walk,  the 70 something year old friend that my husband Michael’s sister, Ginny, goes jogging with came running up the path toward us. Her face was wrinkled, the skin on her legs was sagging, and her eyes and voice sparkled with life. There is my future running toward me, I realized. I may not lose my eye sight, I may not have a hip joint that bothers me, or cataracts, but there will eventually be something. How will I keep the sparkle in my eye? As time goes by, I realize more my incompleteness. Nevertheless, what I want to practice every day with the choices I make and the way I respond to life–what I want to learn is how to live so that I will have that spark of life up to my dying day.