Embracing the Dark

My “brand,” for want of a better term, has been “comfort and joy,” but the truth is that I have been doing my best to load heavy on the “joy” part.  I find joy in colors – in wild, bright, nearly-neon shades of pink, orange and green.  I have teacups in every color of the rainbow.  I wear eyeglasses that are splashed with many colors.  I love color.

I’m currently listening to “Learning to walk in the Dark:  Because Sometimes God Shows up at Night“, by Barbara Brown Taylor.   The author’s soothing voice is a reminder that life isn’t always colorful.  We have spent generations filling our world with light – chasing away the darkness.  We’ve lost the ability to take comfort in dark things – dark places. Her voice came at me through several podcasts in a short time.  On an impulse, I turned in an Audible credit and downloaded the recording.  I’m so glad that I did.

I’m the first one up in the house most mornings.  I flip on every light switch I pass, filling the house with the artificial sunlight emitted from all of those high-efficiency LED light bulbs.  The author asked questions, and I pondered, “When was the last time that I truly sat in the dark?  When did I last watch the night sky and watch for the stars to appear?”

It seems that August and September each lasted about 10 minutes. Here I sit, already part way through the month of October. My beautiful summer garden has begun to turn brown around the edges.  The petunias are bearing their last blooms; the herbs are going to seed.  Winter is Coming (sorry).  With Winter comes long nights.  With my windowless office, it is far too easy to arrive at work in the dark and leave in the dark.  I must be intentional, some days, to glimpse the sunlight at all.  The vibrant orange roses I purchased a week and a half ago have finally turned brown.  I rinsed the apple-green vase and stored it away.

Emotions can be dark, too.   We can confront dark emotions without being consumed by them.  I’m amazed by the videos of dangerous creatures – night creatures – like wolves and bears and foxes that make their way into backyards and play in the pool or on the trampoline.   I find delight in watching their apparent joy.  Had those homeowners been frightened by the beasts and turned on the security light, flooding the yard with artificial sun, the animals may have scurried away into the forest.  Instead, they sat back and allowed something magical to happen, and those videos have brought happiness to thousands, like me, who will never experience the sight.

In the wake of my mother’s death last year, I pursued joy like a drug.  I purchased yarn in bright colors, hoarded away in quantities it will take many months to deplete.  I asked for (and received – thank you, darling) a room painted a yellow (called “joyful,” no less) in which I could sit and do happy things while looking out the window at happy colors.  Honestly, the room hasn’t received much use.

No, I’m not currently depressed.  I’m just coming down off of an artificial high.  I’ve never used recreational drugs, but I’m told that some so completely deplete serotin – the happiness hormone – that it’s difficult to feel happy after coming down from the high. Those same substances, administered by a professional, can be used to combat serious issues like PTSD. Like those drugs, “Joy,” I think, is best in small doses.  It’s much more special that way.  Seeking out joy is hard work.  An item is only novel a time or two, then unless it is connected to a special memory, it begins to lose its magic.  It becomes another pretty thing to sit on a shelf and dust.

Instead of running from garden to lake seeking perfect sunrises and sunsets (filled with fuschia and orange), I’m going to take a look around at all of the perfect,ordinary, taken-for-granted blessings.  There is beauty in ritual – in the mundane.

I’m not swearing off of joy – I’m just trying to find a rhythm – to get back to appreciating the ordinary.  To enjoy comfort while at the same time allowing darkness  – sadness, melancholy and longing – to creep in where I can watch them from a safe distance.

My dear aunt and uncle in Arkansas recently sent me a gift – a video of my mother and her siblings in 2009.  One sister had already taken up residence in heaven – but the rest of them sat and told stories about growing up – about Christmas and toys and the poor family who stole milk from the cows because their children were hungry.

That DVD sat on the table in the foyer for more than a week.  I was afraid of it.  I don’t know if I was afraid of seeing my mother’s face and hearing her voice.  I don’t know if I was afraid that she might say something about me and my failures as a daughter.  I can’t truly describe the nature of my fear.  I just know that I felt it.

After moving the disc from one room to another, I finally popped it into the computer, sat back with a pot of tea, and watched it end to end.  I allowed the tears to come.  I allowed the grief to come into the yard and bounce on the trampoline.  I allowed myself to laugh at the funny parts, too.

Like the wild animals playing on the swingset, though, dark emotion is a wild creature that for those of us who have found our way back from depression must be respected for the wild thing that it is.  Like the woman filming the black bears, I can watch sadness from the safety of the kitchen window, but it would be foolish to invite it into the house and give it a place at the table.

I would never go out into the yard if a bear was there, but I might brave the night to see how close I could get to a fox or a raccoon.  I would face fear of the dark for the potential experience of seeing something special up close.

If you never go out into the dark, how will you ever see the stars?

 

 

 

 

 

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All the pretty string

I’m pretty much an introvert. Don’t get me wrong – I love people.  I love to hang out with people [once I get there] and I love to talk with people and to get to know people.  I love to get up in front of a crowd and talk.  I love to go where people are and smile at them for no reason at all.  Sometimes they think they know me and stop to chat.  Despite my love of people, though, I must say that actually interacting with people exhausts me. After a day in court or a day consulting with existing or potential clients, I need some alone time to recover.

That’s where all the pretty string comes into the picture.  I didn’t have many friends when I was a little girl.  Truthfully, I’ve never learned the skill of cultivating friendships.  While my brother roamed the neighborhood playing with the other little boys, I sat in the house and got underfoot.

I think I was about 8 years old when my mother handed me a ball of yarn (hot pink!) and a crochet hook.  She taught me to make a slip knot, and then she wrapped the yarn around my left pinky and through my fingers and then held my little hands in hers and guided me through the first stitches.  Once I had the hang of “chaining,” she let go.  She told me to keep going until I got to the end of the ball of scratchy pink acrylic yarn.

Periodically the yarn would tangle between my fingers, or I would let go to scratch my nose or go to the bathroom, and I would take my chain back to Mom and ask her to wrap the yarn around my fingers again.  She did, and each time she would admire my ever-growing chain.

Honestly, I don’t remember how long it took me to finish that long, long chain, but I think it was long enough to allow her to get some housework done – or perhaps some time alone for a cup of tea.

As the summer progressed, we tore that ball of yarn apart time and time again.  She taught me single crochet, then double crochet and half-double crochet.  Before the summer was over, I had turned that same ball of hot pink fiber into a ruffled rhumba-style ball gown for my Barbie doll.  She looked fabulous.

Like many other hobbies, crochet has come and gone and come again in my life.  It was something that I had in common with Mom. Mom loved people too, but they wore her out, and so when I went for a visit, I would frequently take my latest work in progress along. She would work on her doily or her baby sweater, and I would work on my hat, scarf or shawl.  When we were stitching, we could talk, or we could be silent – bonding over our mutual love of turning thread to treasures.

I recently purchased A Stash of One’s Own:  Knitters on Loving, Loiving with, and Letting to of Yarn, by Clara Parkes.  It is a book full of essays by other people who love yarn. It’s not a long book, and I am enjoying it so much that I’ve been “rationing” it – reading just one essay at a time, then surfing Ravelry for patterns designed by the writers.

This morning I read an essay by Franklin Habit and his relationship with needlework and his mother.  His mother’s “stash” became an embodiment of her for him, and he spoke of the emotions that surfaced after her death when it came time to process her death – and her stash.

As a child, his mother’s “pretty string” was forbidden.  Later in life, their mutual love of “pretty string” brought them together in new ways.  It’s a beautiful essay, and well worth a read.

Late last year, in Mom’s final illness, she asked me to bring yarn and a hook to the nursing home where she lay all day.  Her occupational therapist encouraged the idea, and I scoured my stash for yarn that was brightly colored and very soft.  I grabbed an assortment of crochet hooks from my collection and delivered the package as proudly as a little girl clutching a handful of dandelions from the lawn on Mother’s Day.

Although Mom admired the yarn, it was clear that crocheting together was something we would not be able to do any more.  I haven’t finished a crochet project since.  The scarf I worked on at the nursing home sits unfinished in my bedroom.  Instead, I did something that Mom never really tried.  I learned to knit.

My love of pretty string leads to me knitting in public when I am waiting for an appointment or enjoying the sunshine in the park.  The yarn attracts people.  They want to watch.  They want to touch.  They want someone to teach them to use the pretty string.

My home is full of pretty balls of string.  To be perfectly honest, wrapping yarn around a pair of knitting needles and watching it turn into solid fabric or lace feels like alchemy or magic.  I can lose myself in knitting – and frequently do, surrounded by balls of pretty string, losing myself in memories, or making new ones.

 

The cookie story

I haven’t felt much like Christmas this year. We decided to spend Christmas Day with Mickey Mouse this year since Mom isn’t here anymore and the family seems to be heading in 12 different directions this year. The only decorating I’ve done was to pull a small tree out of a box already decorated and “fluff” it a bit along with putting a strange crèche I found up on the piano. Five minutes. Done. Boom.

While going through a box of Mom’s things, I found a binder full of family recipes. I didn’t think I was up to the task of making the butter cookie cut outs I made with Mom or the chocolate molasses cookies that she sent us boxes of for every special occasion. I decided to make something emotionally easier – my aunt’s “dunkin platters.”

I assembled all of the ingredients on the kitchen island and went off to search for my kitchen aid mixer. I stepped into the storage area and found it right outside the door – not where I expected it to be – but very handy indeed. It was filthy, but I figured it must have gotten dusty when my husband blew in insulation a couple of weeks ago.

I put the full pound of butter on the stove to melt and then I set about cleaning up the dirty mixer. I grumbled under my breath that the last kid to put it away had left something sticky on the base. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but it didn’t want to leave. The bread hook and wire whip were in the bowl, which was odd because I don’t store them together. They looked nasty, too, so I stuck the, into the dishwasher. Next, I checked the mixer bowl for any stray dog hair, since we share our home with 3 of them now. Instead of hair, I found a layer of dead bugs in a variety of shapes and sizes. I shivered a little and then tried to shake them into the trash. They weren’t leaving. It took tons of hot water, soap and elbow grease to make that bowl sparkle. I was more than a little annoyed.

The beater was attached to the stand. I wanted to clean it, too, since it may have touched the bugs. It wouldn’t come off. As I wrestled with the mechanism, more dead bugs fell out of the mixer head. I pinched myself to make sure this wasn’t just a bad dream. Ouch! It wasn’t. It was then that I realized this wasn’t my mixer (thank goodness). It was Mom’s. Those bugs had probably been there for years.

I was still a little queasy. I wasn’t sure that cookies still sounded good, but the full pound of butter was now melted. Waste not, want not..

I have to eat strictly gluten free, so baking cookies required ordering certified gluten free oats and gluten free corn flakes, along with gluten free flour. These were not cheap cookies to make, and they required planning. I was committed now. I went in search of another navy blue kitchen aid mixer. It took a while, but I found it, right where my husband told me he had put it.

I followed the recipe, heated the oven, and lovingly plopped spoonfuls on the ungreased tray. 10 minutes later I found a single 11 x 14 inch cookie instead of 18 3-inch rounds. I decided I needed a smaller spoon. I eventually worked out the right size, timing and temperature for the gluten-free version of these treats. After baking for most of the afternoon, I put two on a plate and made a cup of instant coffee, because Mom always have me a cup of instant to dunk fresh cookies into.

I haven’t cried in a day or three, but when I put that coffee-covered cookie into my mouth, the dam burst. I cried until the tears ran down my shirt, and then I cried some more. It was then that it hit me – these cookies are Christmas for me. Mom made cut outs all year long. They weren’t special. I only got these once a year – on Christmas Eve – and I would eat the dunkin platters because they were my favorite. My aunt who made them is still living, but she has memory problems. I haven’t had one of these cookies in at least 20 years. Suddenly, I was 8 years old and sneaking into a corner with a handful of my favorite cookies before someone else could eat them.

I really needed that coffee. Those cookies are sweet! I guess my adult self prefers slightly less sweet, which is a good thing because even after giving some away there remains a huge box.

I’m leaking a little again. It’s alright. The best memories, sometimes, are the ones that run down your face.

My Secret Weapon

This morning as I was preparing for a contested court hearing, I couldn’t help but miss my mom.  Mom was my “secret weapon.”  She was proud when I became a lawyer.  She always asked about my work.  I didn’t give her much detail, but I told her about the kinds of cases I was working on.  “I represent a mom in a nasty divorce,” or “I’m a guardian ad litem for 3 kids who love both of their parents.”  Sometimes it was “I have a bankruptcy hearing and my client is really scared,” or even, “the attorney on the other side yells a lot and it makes me anxious.”  Mom never asked for more details.  She just said, “that sounds like hard work, but it’s important and I know you’re making a difference.”

The night before my very first contested hearing, I called Mom and told her that I was nervous.  I didn’t really know what was going to happen.  I was afraid of looking unprepared and making a fool out of myself as well as doing a bad job for my client.

Mom asked me what time my hearing was.  She told me she was going to pray that my hearing would go smoothly.  My hearing didn’t go perfectly, but it did go smoothly.  I didn’t feel anxious or nervous.  I asked the right questions.  All-in-all it was a great success.   My client ended up with a good result, and I gained confidence.

I called mom that night to tell her that the hearing had gone well.  She answered, “I knew it would.  I prayed.”  We have had many of those “night before a hearing” conversations over the past seven years.  She said a lot of prayers for people she didn’t know, and I had a lot of hearings that went smoothly, where I didn’t feel nervous and didn’t make a complete fool of myself.

I’m not claiming to have had divine intervention in my cases – but I can’t recall ever having a hearing go badly when my mom was praying.  Mom’s prayers were my “secret weapon.”  Mom believed in me, and knowing that she believed that I was “making a difference” gave me confidence.    I want to be the kind of lawyer that my mom believed I am.  Sometimes prayer changes things from the inside.

 

Ask Me Anything

I always thought I knew a lot about my mom’s life.  She told scores of stories.  I can tell you about the day that her old dog, Shep, died.  I can tell you about the day my dad proposed to her – and that she didn’t answer him right away.  I can tell you about the day that she received the phone call that there was a baby girl waiting to be adopted, and she could pick her (me) up that same day.  I thought I knew a lot.

One day, my still-sharp 88-year-old mother’s brain changed.  She couldn’t tell me the familiar stories anymore.  During her final illness, on days she couldn’t quite place who iI was in her life, she asked me questions that led me to pose my own questions about what shaped her early life  – questions that she could no longer answer.

I don’t know if my mother ever had a boyfriend before she married my dad at the age of 37.  I don’t know what she dreamed of when she was a teenager.  I don’t know a lot of things. Looking back, I don’t think that I know a single story about Mom’s life between ages 10 and 25 or so.  There are still family members alive who might be able to tell me their own stories about her during those years, but nobody can tell “her” story.

As we cleaned out her apartment last weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder why she kept certain things.  although I never saw her journaling, a part of me hoped that I would find a box of notebooks – diaries – hints at who my mom had been before she was my mom – and who she was when nobody was watching.

I wonder sometimes how much my children really know.  Once in a while Matt, my youngest, appears shocked when he learns some bit of my history – some part of my life prior to the year 2000.

I wish that my mother had written her story.  I do keep a journal most days, so my life from age 50+ is theirs for the reading if they should choose to to do some day.  The years before, however, the years who made me who I am – flaws and all – are locked away in my head except for the little glimpses I tell in my stories.

Maybe some day I will tell my children to “ask me anything,” and record those answers in writing or on video.  How I wish Mom had said to me, “ask me anything” in those months leading up to the end of her life.  There are so many things I would love to know now – not that they would change a thing – but things that would help me to understand why things were the way they were.

There were things that were hinted at but never spoken.  There were times when I asked Mom about first-hand memories that were vivid to me that, according to her, “never happened.”

I’m not certain that I have the courage to tell my children to “Ask me anything” and give them the answers while I am still living.  Perhaps, though, the revelation of that information might help them to understand me and the experiences that made me who I am.  Perhaps the joys and sorrows and traumas don’t matter to anyone else.  Perhaps, though, my daughter, or my great-granddaughter some day far in the future would hear my memories and realize that I, too, questioned my worth at times, and that I spent 50 years or so worrying too much about what others thought.

Perhaps some day I will write my own story.  Parts are interesting – other parts heartbreaking or downright boring.  What might be boring to me might explain to my daughter why I am quirky about certain things.  If she ever wishes she had asked me a certain question, perhaps she could find the answer.

So, kids, when I am gone, look for the name of the document and the password hint.  In the meantime, ask me anything, and I’ll do my best to answer now – or in the future.

 

 

Day 7 – The Keeper of Secrets

The word “secret” has so many nuanced meanings. Some secrets are precious – the “secret recipe,” for example. Then there is “The Secret,” the power of intention that some believe can make a strawberry ice cream cone appear without them lifting a finger to help themselves. Other secrets are neutral. I hold a lot of confidential information for my clients. The “secrets” aren’t necessarily dark or ominous – they simply aren’t anyone else’s business.

When Mom died a week and a half ago, her secrets died with her. At 50 years of age, I realize how little I know about my mother’s years before me. I know a few select stories, of course – the ones that she told regularly. Those are committed to memory, some word for word. There are other stories that died with her – good and bad. I now have to make peace with the things that I will never know. There are curious, half-formed memories from childhood that will now never be explained.

When I was a young girl, my questions were met with “we’ll talk about that when you are older.” As I grew into adulthood, the deflection became, “I’d rather talk about you,” or “I need to go to the store.” I didn’t press for answers because I didn’t want to upset Mom. Making Mom cry was something I tried to avoid at all costs. I love(d) my Mom.

Ready or not, I have a new position in life. I am the oldest female. I have become the reluctant matriarch, for want of a better word. Like my mom, there are things I don’t talk about – things that are a part of me and that have shaped me and thus have shaped the lives of my children.

Without living parents to think about, I have the freedom to bring “secrets” into the daylight where they can fade without worrying about hurting feelings. No, I won’t be writing a salacious “tell all.” My life hasn’t been “that” interesting.

I do believe, however, that it is time to write my own “book of secrets.” My secret recipes. My secret thoughts. My private past. Someday when I am gone, one of my children may wonder what experiences shaped me. I can only tell them my side of the story, or at least my memory of it.  My story would never be a bestseller.  Indeed, it would probably be boring to even my own children.  Still, one day they may have questions about what experiences made me into who I am.

I haven’t cleaned out Mom’s apartment yet, but I’ve been through enough of her things to know that there probably isn’t a “book of secrets” waiting to be discovered. It’s a shame, but at the same time, it is also a relief. I can live my life authentically. I can choose not to wear the title of the “keeper of secrets.” I control the narrative. I can tell my story without being a victim of anything or anyone in my past. I can choose not to die with my words still in me.

Day 2 in the Life of a Motherless Mother – Loss is Universal – Grief is Indivdual

The writer in me outlined an agenda of all of the “lessons” that life and death would teach me, in order, for the next two weeks. Having buried a husband, my father, and many others close to me, I foolishly thought that I had learned the lessons that death had to teach me. I thought that I knew how to handle grief. Confirmation bias goes out the window when you’re learning about grief all over again.

I went back to work for a few hours yesterday. I had a list of work-related goals that I wanted to accomplish but I kept it short. One, two, three. Done.  I began a blog post about bringing dull and lifeless diamonds back to life by giving them a good cleaning.  I paused the blogging to run an errand out of town.  No big deal.  I was accomplishing tasks right an left.  I got a little cocky.

I decided that my hair needed a trim. I pulled into the parking lot of a “no appointment necessary” establishment. I froze. I realized in just that instant that I couldn’t bear the small talk that a 15-minute haircut involves.  If my hairdresser asked how I was doing, I ran the risk of all of the emotion that I was holding back bubbling out through my tear ducts and making a mess of my shirt. I don’t recall if I actually shed tears in the parking lot, but I put the car into drive and headed back home.

My daughter celebrated her birthday yesterday. “How can we celebrate anything when Mom is gone?” I asked myself. Daughter wanted Mexican food. She wanted to go out – I didn’t think I could bear it, so we compromised and I made Taco Tuesday on a Wednesday. We sang the birthday song from Chi-Chi’s restaurants (how I miss them) and we enjoyed a meal together, minus the teenager who is never home these days.  We had a brief celebration and then I went to the living room to hibernate.

While I pined for Mom, I flipped mindlessly through Facebook and saw again that a high school classmate and her mother were grieving the loss of a brother and son. Another friend was mourning the loss of a beloved pet. Others were passing the anniversary of the death of a parent. I talked to my cousin who lost his father last week. Death will touch us all. Loss is Universal.

My sister-in-law reached out yesterday. We had a brief text exchange. We agreed that losing a mother is different than other losses. It stings.

I didn’t just lose my mother. I lost the person I called upon for advice. I lost the person I called to share my happiness. I’ve lost track of just how many times I have though “I should tell Mom” in just the past five days. Dad wasn’t my “go to” person for the kinds of things that Mom was.

I can honor Mom’s memory by allowing grief to wash over me as it comes. I will further honor her by not allowing myself to be swept away. I have many “lifeguards” who have offered assistance if I should find myself floundering in an ocean of tears.

As Day 2 came to a close, I realized that while my grieving process for Mom is different than any I have gone through before, I am not alone. Nearly all of us will have the experience of grieving a parent. Loss is universal. Grief is individual. No two people will grieve their mother the same way. The loss of a mother will be grieved differently than the loss of a father.  Life marches on.