Endings, Small and Large

Photo by Nicole Avagliano on Pexels.com

Ed’s birthday, falling on September 1st as it always did since 1967, marked the end of summer. I really thought his death would be the end of Ed’s role in my world, in my brain space, in—even—my heart space. True, we did divorce 18 years before his death, but we’d had two kids together and the continued parenting of those kids kept us bumping up against one another, in large and small ways.

But then, endings are always also the beginning of something else.

Today there’s a definite chill in the air in Minnesota when, just last week, it was too hot and humid to sit outside for any length of time, unless you were by water. Ed loved water. That’s what I spoke about at his memorial service when the pastor invited attendees to get up and tell memories about Ed. But no one came to the front. Minutes passed and still the pastor waited, patiently. Too patiently.

I’ve always been the kind of student who would answer a teacher’s question—even if I was wrong—just to end the silence in a classroom. That’s why, I think, I got up to speak about Ed—to end the silence.

My 27-year old daughter had already read her prepared memories about her dad; her 24-year old brother does not like public speaking—so she’d interlaced his memories with her own. Ed’s widow was too broken apart to speak. Ed’s youngest brother had already read a kindly embellished version of Ed’s obituary. The rest of Ed’s family had been mostly estranged from Ed—or he’d been estranged from them—for the better part of the prior 13 years. I don’t know that they had much to say. Did he have friends who were holding back, I wondered? He’d never had a lot of friends when I knew him best: high school, college, and the first decade of my post-college years.

So, it fell on me—I guessed, to speak on Ed’s behalf. I assumed I was his longest-known friend in attendance at his memorial service that came just three days after he unexpectedly died when his heart stopped during an endoscopy. There was more to it than this, of course; his health had been poor, his organs were—quite possibly—floundering, but none of us had expected him to die; not yet.

Up in front of that funeral home, I spoke about how Ed had loved the lake. While there are definitely more than 10,000 lakes in Minnesota, where I live (where we lived), when you speak of “the lake” in Minnesota, you’re referring to the lake that is most special to you, especially if you are fortunate enough to have a family with a lake cabin. We both had that good fortune—at the time when were together, we—along with many other family members—owned the lake (two different, but geographically close, lakes) where our grandfathers had once built cabins. By the time of the funeral, however, both cabins had consolidated ownership under aunts, uncles, or cousins, that were not a part of our immediate families. By the time of Ed’s death, neither one of us had the good fortune of having a lake anymore.

The older I get, the more I understand that life brings us a series of small endings that lead up to that one large ending, the one we’ll all reach one day.

But even without owning the lake anymore, I talked about the lake at his memorial. I told everyone how Ed was the happiest when he was fishing or swimming—at least when I knew him best. Later that evening, I would wish I’d talked about how Mozart, my parent’s springer/lab rescue dog, would dive down alongside Ed, who—with his snorkel and wetsuit on—would point out clams for Mozart to retrieve. I remember Ed laughing heartily; I remember his huge smiles on those days when Mozart retrieved a clam. It was something to see. Ed loved dogs and babies (which may explain why we had two babies before I turned 25, before I even knew I wanted babies).

While, I didn’t talk about dogs and babies at the memorial, I did tell the attendees about Ed’s smiles when he was near water. Well, maybe I did tell everyone about how much Ed loved those two babies of ours, now in their twenties. Whatever else I said about Ed, I had the definite feeling that I’d gone on too long—like I’d been leaving one of those exasperatingly long voice mail messages I used to leave Ed before we had cell phones; before he could see he’d missed a call from me and he’d know he had to call me back to see what I’d called about. He always called back—as I always called him back. Neither of us wanted to miss out on a message about one of our kids.

Ed loved those kids so much, but that love couldn’t save him from his drinking. Addiction is a disease, you know. A terrible, horrible, no good, very bad disease that sometimes takes people before their time.

So, after I’d run on too long up in front of those people, at least half of whom I didn’t know—the other half, I surely hadn’t seen in years—I abruptly wrapped up. I sat back down and, no one stood up after me. Even so, the pastor waited another uncomfortable length of time. But I couldn’t break the silence a second time. My power, if I’d had any, had been spent. And I couldn’t bring Ed back with my words, as much as I couldn’t stop his drinking.

But today, on what would have been Ed’s 53rd birthday, I feel myself wanting to speak up for him again. I want to say that Ed was often a really good person, even though some of the time he wasn’t. He had a really nice smile, a warming laugh, and he loved dogs and children—especially his own two children (our two children), the ones still shedding their grief, the ones so fervently missing him today.

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The Lies We Tell Ourselves

A few months ago, I blogged about getting hit by a car as a pedestrian in a parking lot near the end of November, injuring my left wrist, arm, and shoulder. This accident happened after I’d signed up (and paid) for mandolin lessons at the Center for Irish Music. I decided to attend the first lesson anyway. I hoped to keep moving, unlike with the other injuries in my 40s (there have been more than a few). I’ve discovered lack of movement results in other kinds of harm on top of the initial injury.

At the first lesson, I was surprised to discover I’d be learning the traditional Irish way–by ear, with no music. I’ve always told myself I can’t learn by ear. I had a difficult time even memorizing my piano recital pieces back in the day. I’ve also spent a lifetime telling myself I’m incapable of learning a stringed instrument (yes, I know a piano is technically a stringed instrument). I felt like a pre-faiulre after leaving that first lesson with a recording of an Irish polka, played by my instructor, Todd Menton (of Boiled in Lead) from which I was supposed to learn the tune. I was sure I’d be returning my lovely rented mandolin and seeking a mercy refund the following week when I showed up completely unable to play the polka.

But I tried anyway. I listened and watched Todd’s fingers on the string. I listened and played a few notes. I got those down, then I listened and played a few more. Somehow, note by note, I discovered I could learn to play by ear. I returned to my second lesson ready to play the polka.

I learned a jig in the month of December and then, started in on a reel. I think it helped that I recognized the underlying structure of these Irish tunes from all the years I’d watched my daughter train and perform as an Irish Step Dancer.

At the end of December, I fell on the ice and the tendon of my right thumb separated from the bone (or something like that); I was put in a splint for a few weeks. Fortunately, the bulk of this happened over the holiday break. In mid-January, I gradually built up the strength to pick with my right thumb and index finger again.

While my life temporarily went to pieces following the death of my ex-husband, I felt encouraged by how I’d inched my way towards healing in one small area.

In February, I learned a slip jig–my favorite of the Irish tunes and the only form original to Ireland (not imported from Poland or England or Scotland). In March, just before the craziness of Covid-19 (and just before we started figuring out lessons via Zoom), Todd sent me home with a recording of a hornpipe. I am going to put a video of me out here playing that hornpipe, not because I’ve reached anything close to perfection. I put it out here only to encourage you to challenge the lies you’ve been telling yourself all these years.

My very imperfect rendering of Little Stack of Wheat, an Irish hornpipe

Grief is More Than Sadness

The world has changed dramatically, since I last dared put down words in this journal. It takes courage, this committment to stringing together coherent words in an unstable world. When I last wrote, the novel coronavirus or, COVID-19, had already made its jump to our species; most of us, however, remained blissfully ignorant of what was coming.

Change comes, individually and collectively. change Can ripple Gently across the surface of a life in progress. It can also come with tsunami-level force, rearranging everything.

Since I last wrote, my individual life has undergone adjustment. On December 27, 2019, my ex-husband and his wife were sitting at my dining room table, eating the meal my 27-year old daughter (home for the holidays) helped me prepare, because my right hand was still in a splint from a fall on the ice. My older son (who lives locally) and his girlfriend joined us for dinner. My husband camped out with our younger son in the basement because second son (half sibling of my older two kids) had a nasty cough.

I hadn’t yet chosen my 2020 word, heal. But, already, the kind of healing I didn’t know I needed was in motion.

The day before our scheduled dinner, I’d debated canceling the invite, because of my injury or because of my younger son’s contagion. But the same nudging that prompted the invitation back in mid-December wouldn’t let me cancel. This meal, I thought, would be the first of many; this meal, I hoped, would serve as the beginning of a broader reconciliation. Instead, the meal would be the last time I’d see my ex-husband.

The father of my older two children died unexpectedly on January 7, 2020.

In January, I held my older two children as they grieved their father; I extended my hand toward their stepmother as she mourned. Late at night, deep inside, I grieved too. I wasn’t grieving my first marriage, long since spent. I wasn’t grieving the man I’d rarely spoken to in recent years, our days of active co-parenting having gradually faded as our children grew into capable adults. Although I was tremendously pained that my children had lost their father so young, I wasn’t sad, per se.

But, I am learning, grief is so much more than sadness.

Grief is raw, unbridled anger. Grief is claustrophobic fear. Grief is waking up at two in the morning with your heart on fire. Grief is feeling like someone shredded your epidermal layer with a cheese grater. Grief is losing your voice and not knowing if it will ever return. Grief is confronting, head on, one’s powerlessness over the uncontrollable. Grief is hammering against the well-meaning people trying to cheer you up or talk you out of your emotions. Grief is carrying a bucket of ice in your gut that can extinguish moments of hope. Grief is the mandatory path one must walk to reach the new version of your life, the one so different than the one you wanted. But grief is also your connection to the life you’ve lost.

Grief belongs to you; it is your right.

More change and grief work came for me in February, after my father was diagnosed with advanced and aggressive prostate cancer. I was still reeling from the news when I began obsessively reading reports of COVID-19, the virus making it unlikely I’ll be seeing my immune-compromised father anytime soon, the same virus now changing your world and mine.

As our shared losses mount daily, know that Our collective grief is real. I claim my word of the year for you, for me, for the world: Heal.

2020 Word, Intention, Prayer

HEAL

In November, I was hit by a delivery truck (while a pedestrian) in a parking lot. This mostly impacted my already shaky left shoulder, which has been frozen (Google “frozen shoulder” for more info.) thrice this decade.

My answer to this accident: begin Mandolin lessons, even if it hurts. Life is too short to not (at least) attempt learning my favorite instrument.

Last week, on the day after Christmas, my feet slipped out from underneath me while I was taking out our puppy (our 65-pound puppy) at 6 am. I fell and struck my upper back on the stairs leading out to our patio. I had the leash around my right wrist at the time. My fall jerked puppy June back and the leash pulled the tendon away from my right thumb. With the wind knocked out of me, I looked up at the stars on the patio (it was a warmish morning and I was in my pjs only–no jacket to insulate from the cold cement or the hard steps) and wondered what Louise Hay would say about the energy involved in these two upper back injuries, so close together. At that moment, my back hurt so much, my thumb injury hadn’t yet registered and would only be caught by the orthopedic doctor during the ensuing morning spent with my daughter at a local urgent care.

As I face towards 2020, I can hardly type and I can no longer practice my mandolin, on which I was already learning my second song and had been surprising myself with my dedication to practicing each day.

As it comes, so it goes.

No resolutions (see my December 31, 2018 entry) this year and just one intention:

HEAL.

May our wounds serve as a point of reflection, guiding us in the direction we need to go for inner and outer healing.

Writing (and Life) Advice

Writer Heidi Barr published the best little craft essay yesterday on Brevity’s Blog. Honestly, you’d be hard pressed to find better writing (and life) advice. This five-minute read is worth your time. I printed it off and am keeping a copy at my writing desk.

By the way, Barr’s new book of poetry, Cold Spring Hallelujah (which I reviewed for Harbor Review), is publishing on November 1, 2019. I am not given to hyperbole when I tell you that Barr is stepping into the void left by Mary Oliver’s death. Hallelujah!

If you are local to the Twin Cities metro area, you can catch Barr’s launch party at Gustaf’s Up North Gallery in Lindstrom, MN on November 7th, 2019 at 7 pm.

Summer ’19: Dog Days Become Book Days

Right after my son’s grade school let out for the summer, we decided the timing was right to add a puppy to our family. The following Saturday (6/15/19) we brought home a 10-week old bernedoodle. Her name: June Carter.

10-week old June

I knew it would be a summer filled with little else but puppy training and monitoring; I signed on for the job. But the reality was even more work, more chaos, and more sleep deprivation than I had anticipated. My husband has said he would not do it again. I am less sure.

5-month old June

She is, after all, pretty cute. This is true even if she spends most of the day “playing” with Bilbo (the cat) and Bilbo spends most of his days executing complex mind games against June. This is true even if June’s bladder is not yet an extended-wear model.

With June the dog and my nine-year old underfoot this summer, I rarely achieved the deeper dive I need for writing; in consequence, I read more than I wrote this summer. I guess you could say June helped me remember the joy of summer reading.

I rediscovered the benefit of checking out books from the library: a firm deadline.

Six of the memoirs I read (all pictured above) involved death or debilitating (potentially mortal) injuries and/or disease. I am drawn to such memoirs and an entire shelf of my home library is devoted to the topic of death and dying. For fun, I read a historical account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s various historical dwellings in Minnesota. He lived in a surprising number of places. The Fitzgerald book has inspired a new (or, more accurately, revived) essay-in-progress.

Favorite summer reading location; a hammock in my backyard.

Two of my writer friends, Joy Riggs and Katy Yocom (Bilbo can’t stop talking about Katy’s book), published books this summer. I highly recommend both books! My final summer read was a collection of essays by Randon Billings Noble. This book flows seamlessly, from one essay to the next. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book of essays so quickly. I will link to reviews of these books (links on the authors’ names), once I have them up on Goodreads.

Perhaps you didn’t know you can support an author by reviewing their books online. It’s all about good “litizenship” (being a good literary citizen). I stole this term from Hippocampus Magazine, where I serve on their editorial staff as a reader. I am not certain if Hippocampus was the originator of the term, but I like it! I love to see my friends publishing books and, it reminds me that one day, yes one day, it could be me with my name on the cover of a book.

To that end, I am back at it–writing, revising, editing–now that my son is back in school. I have three shorter works publishing this month: an essay in an online publication, a review, and a piece in St. Paul Almanac (an annual anthology).

This Water

This water deserves our highest forms of protections:

legal, spiritual, emotional, and physical.

Rivers (photo features the St. Croix River)
Lakes (photo features the waters of Lake Superior)
Oceans (photo features the Pacific)

Water is Life

All life depends on the availability of clean water. Clean water is a finite resource.

Write (Right) Where You Are


“Don’t write for a market. Write what you need to write and work out the pesky details later.”

Jill Christman, AWP’19 Panel: Going Long: Editors & Writers of Longform Nonfiction in Conversation

I recently returned from my third AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference. As with previous conferences, I am inspired and, I am overwhelmed. I find myself, once again, swimming in the vast sea that differentiates my writing from more skilled writers, especially those seasoned essayists whose work I deeply admire. Writers who’ve written essays like:

Can you tell, I have the True Story series–a series made up of longform narratives–by Creative Nonfiction on my heart and mind today? Although I’ve been subscribing to True Story for about a year now, I covered the AWP panel, convened by Jill Christman, on longform nonfiction writing for Assay Journal. From attending that panel discussion (and listening extra hard), my interest in writing longform has only magnified.

But I know I do not yet have the layering skills of Christman, the probing reflections of James Blackwell, or the breathtaking lyrical underscoring of Gwartney. So, what does a writer do when she cannot yet bridge the distance between the kind of essays she wants to write and the kind of essays she is currently writing (or not writing, in my case)?

She brews five cups of tea, she edits photos taken out and about Portland (backdrop to this year’s AWP), she eats the dairy-free chocolate eggs intended for her nine-year old son. She also does a load of laundry and then spends long moments contemplating whether she’s finally beyond her fixation with blue bottles, contemplating whether perhaps blue bottles are now simply too blue, contemplating how she can fall so completely in and out of love.

I’ve made this observation through nearly five years of reading, studying, and writing personal essays: they are definitely written with differing degrees of skill. Some very fine essays only scrape the surface of one single subject; these seem to work best when they come from the writer’s soul. Some essays attempt to weave in a second counterpoint and implode. Better perhaps for these to have kept to one point and to have executed it well. Some amazing essays successfully layer, balance, and weave multiple points of juxtaposition. These are the kind I so admire, these are the kind I desire to write. Even when they involve the oddest subject matter, I will immerse myself in the sheer enjoyment of the skill it took for the writer to pull off such a complex weave.

Do essayists begin writing these complex weaves? Do pianists begin with Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor? Unlikely, although some might arrive at the destination sooner.

So what does a writer do when she cannot bridge the gap in her own ability? For me, the answer is probably not sit around, drinking endless cups of tea while dreaming of the kind of essays I would like to be writing. Instead, I need to work on my scales; instead, I need to begin (again) where I am today. While I may never write essays like “Spinning” or “Lethe,” I will surely progress, I will surely improve my craft, if only I dare dive into the mediocrity of right now. If only I dare to write what I need to write.

What Speaks to the Joy Inside?

At the end of a very long Minnesota winter, I spent four days at a cottage on the North Shore of Lake Superior. I tend to wake early when my soul is near Lake Superior; she is my muse. On the third day of our stay, I rose at 4:45 a.m. with this phrase in my mind:

I do it to speak to the joy inside of me.

While brewing a cup of green jasmine tea, I watched a faint pinkish glow spread across the eastern horizon of the dark frozen lake.

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Settled in with my tea, sitting in the quiet, I turned my rising mantra into a question:

What do I do that speaks to the joy inside of me?

Here are the answers that came to me that morning:

  • I willingly rise at pre-dawn, when I am called awake;
  • I brew my favorite green jasmine tea (repeat often);

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  • I show up to places ripe with the energy of creation, whether it is to a pre-sunrise morning over a lake or showing up to my computer and/or notepad regularly to spin a story from my dreams, from reality, or (ideally) both;

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  • I forgive myself when I fail, over and over to show up to the energy of creation. This business of showing up is simple, but not easy. I must continually forgive myself and begin again;
  • I listen, I pay attention, I notice where the flow is in my life. Even when my entire life seems stagnate and frozen like the lake, flow is always present somewhere, deep down;

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  • I dress in warm clothing at dawn and brave the extreme cold to take photos;
  • Even on an 11-degree day, even when the frozen lake seems silent, seagulls still sing at dawn. So too, I listen for the songs rising in me, the ones on the surface and those residing in my deeper currents;

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  • When taking a photo, I consciously determine what to keep inside the frame of the photo and what to keep out. Thoughts are like this too, thoughts come with choices; if we are paying attention, if we are being mindful, we can direct the flow of our thoughts;
  • When the rising sun becomes too powerful to continue watching across the lake, I turn 90 degrees and watch its light glint off frozen boulders of lake ice or turn 180 degrees and watch its light dancing against the cottage wall. So too in life, I’ve learned to turn, to turn 350 degrees if I need to. By shifting my perspective, I will undoubtedly find beauty even when I can’t walk forward or backward; and,

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  • I allow the dishes to wait when my soul and spirit have things to say; I offer up my mind and full attention to taking my soul’s dictation. Taking time to really notice and observe the creation in front of (and inside) me will provide fuel for my days necessary “to do” list.

*Video from a December visit to the Great Lake, Superior, when she was not yet frozen.

Back home now, I embrace this list, this invocation to joyful living; I embrace this list with the awareness that it is by know means the definitive guide. I will revisit it often. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about what things and/or actions speak to the joy in you.

 

Historic Women’s Reading Club

Today I had the privilege of speaking to the Woman’s Reading Club in Stillwater, Minnesota. I learned that this group started in 1886. It was an honor to be a small piece of the history of this group of women, who carry on the tradition of monthly gatherings to celebrate community and literature.

I talked to the group about my long road to publishing a book (one that is still ongoing). Initially, I was reluctant to keep this speaking engagement. When I first agreed to speak to the group, I thought I might have a completed book by now. I pondered handing off this invite to a friend of mine who recently published a book.

In the end, I decided to stay on the roster today. At this point, I am close enough to know my book will publish, one way or another, and it is time for me to begin talking about it out in the world.

I am glad to know current members of this group continue to carry on the tradition of gathering together to discuss books and culture in Stillwater, Minnesota (a truly magical and historic destination), almost 133 years after the group began.

 

View of the St. Croix River and its historic lift bridge, from the bluffs of Stillwater, Minnesota.