I’d like to tell you that I’ve got things figured out. The mind would love to have answers that are linear and repeatable. The heart, on the other hand, takes a more circuitous route because it lives in the forest where doers do not tread but with beings who wander, guided by seasons and the tug of the moon.
Since I’ve gotten my first vaccine, I’ve been thinking about what happens when COVID as we know it is behind us. I have a feeling that I’m going to find that joy and relief have company from their murkier cousins, anger, numbness, sadness and confusion. I think my body has some limbic residue. Over the year, I’ve feared the very air I breathe, felt the divide between people become even more hateful, hurtful and cavernous, and watched mom in her nursing home room, unable to hold her hand, die on a Zoom screen. What happens when fight, flight, freeze have nowhere to go? In gentler times when the danger abates the nervous system regulates, but these stress responses have been stuck on “on.” As a result, I know I will have to go through some stuff before my body metabolizes this last year. I come to this honestly—they’re called survival defenses for a reason. But the body keeps score to use the title of Bassel van der Kolk’s seminal book* on trauma and the body.
So, I decided to do a self-led, home-based 4-day silent retreat. I used Natalie Goldberg’s, longtime Zen practitioner and author, retreat structure, “Sit, Write, Walk,” alternating between sitting meditations, writing meditations and walking meditations. I’ve had a lot of silence this year but it’s different when you make it an intention. The retreat was not easy. Mother Teresa said, “God is silence, prayer is listening.” Well, my listening felt like trying to find a radio station while driving through the middle of Nebraska. My static had serious cravings for my go-to distractions—just a peak at the NYT, a skip around on the Internet, maybe email or Facebook, call someone, what’s on Netflix, has the refrigerator gnomes left any goodies since last time I looked? The difference was that with my intention of silence, I noticed.
There is something that shifts when we deepen our attention. It’s not like taking a Tylenol. It moves on its own time, but it moves. So, in the midst of my struggle and following a bad night’s sleep, I made my breakfast of champions—savory steel cut oats. I made them slow, nowhere to go, nothing else to do, smelling, tasting, feeling each step. Chopped onions and celery sautéed until translucent and just beginning to caramelize, added chopped garlic, cilantro and jalapeño peppers cooking until fragrant, added diced carrots and broccoli, pureed sweet potatoes, stock, and cooked steel cut oats, and then simmered until the vegetables were just tender. Finally, topped it off with a soft poached egg. I hope this sounds as good as it was!
Then I hiked to Twin Peaks. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s one of the highest points in San Francisco with a 360° view. Breathtaking on a clear day and on this day, it was gloriously glistening. I laid down a blanket and got myself into lotus position (or close enough) and began a lovingkindness meditation, sending kindness and compassion (our superpower) to myself and to those who came into my mind’s eye. At some point mom appeared but I could only see the back of her head. It seemed she had somewhere to go. Most of my grief over these last four months has been tight, broken and sharp. But on this spring day, when California poppies dotted the hillside and there was a soft breeze of fresh Pacific Ocean air, something shifted. I wanted to choose spring. No one told me it was time, but the dirt, rock and sky sent an invitation. I loved the sun and let the sun love me back. I sensed the spring flowers like promises I thought would not be kept yet they were singing. Yes, my trip around the sun included winter, fear and death but also this—new life and possibility. I told mom that I wanted to dance with the bumble bees and hummingbirds as they flew from flower to flower with their moans and urgent kisses. “Gimme some of that Kool-Aid,” I chuckled. And Mom began to float away. For that moment, I let her go with a slight smile. Something in my body released, just a bit. There would be tomorrows with other fragments of grief but on this day, two weeks after the vernal equinox, I chose spring.
* Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, (Penguin Random House, 2015)
If spring had a sound track . . .
James Taylor and Yo-Yo Ma "Here Comes the Sun"
Mildred (Milly) Marie Fredrickson
April 24, 1924--November 19, 2020
I don’t want to
This pen feels heavy and this thumb and forefinger are attempting a sit-down protest. To write it, is to make real that which wants to remain a dream. When asked, “How are you?” dad used to reply, “I think I’m OK, and I hope I’m not lying.” Dad, I think I understand. I don’t want to lie but the ground keeps changing as my heart keeps breaking. Words are clumsy tools when trying to give names to the liminal space between love and sorrow.
Mom died last month
It still gets stuck in my throat. I refuse to swallow and then I do. The body’s reflex to make room for another breath wins. My siblings and I had been calling her every night since the early days of COVID—a conference call that often included all four of us but always some of us and often went on for more than an hour. We read her letters, remembered stories, told her of our lives, witnessed her loneliness and unease and celebrated her life and love which is to say her grace and resilience. The calls were like long, slow family dinners, garden-raised, home-cooked meals of our childhood, talking at the same time, silence, laughter, loneliness in togetherness, and winces of pain. And then in late September she fell and broke her hip. The fracture was so severe that the only way to manage the pain was surgery. Remarkably at 96½-years-old she made it through surgery and was making a remarkable recovery. However, when she returned to the nursing home, they had a devastating COVID outbreak and mom became positive. Even though she made it through the infection period, it was all too much, and she died several days after her quarantine.
Bone of my bones
Flesh of my flesh
A dream without the dreamer
Death never lands easy but during the isolation and restrictions of COVID . . . well, we did the best we could. We sat vigil with her on Zoom for several days before her death. There were awful moments of suffering where she was lost in her pain, but she knew we were present. We sang, prayed, read, talked, cried, and sat . . . and sat . . . and witnessed. Thankfully, her last hours were peaceful. We were with her on a tablet screen as she took her last breath. It was unbearable and unbearably tender.
Exhale without an inhale
Birth in reverse
Just one more
Grief is not one thing but in fact it is a dizzy constellation of sensations and feelings during freefall. All losses are different so you can’t pull out the map from the last death and find your way. This one, Milly, mom, feels kaleidoscopic. The terrain and colors are almost too much to behold so I hold them with warm and fleshy hands, hands made for holding the small, delicate hands of a motherless child.
There is no sugar-coating loss. I don’t yet want to be fixed with heavenly promises and angel choirs. I am heart broken. As Sharon Salzburg says, “Sometimes it just hurts.” I trust grief. It is the medicine for loss—terrible, bitter, tender and sweet. There’s a wisdom I can’t claim but somehow know. Grief is a practice. I show up with as much kindness and compassion as I can. Pull back the covering and see what’s here. Mom is here in the broken places. It is here that I rediscover my blessing which isn’t bone or flesh or breath but is love. I was born in love. I am broken because I was loved so well. I love in return. In brokenness my heart mysteriously blooms, not in my time, but in grief’s good time.
Let me lay
In the fertile holy soil
With the rotting oak leaves
And the still sheathed acorn
Waiting for rain
Waiting for sun
Waiting for mom
P.S. Please know that I am OK, even when I’m not OK. This time of COVID sequester without life's usual busyness has given this walk with grief more texture and truth. I feel the unexpected miracle of gratitude—eyes that are capable of seeing connection and goodness regardless of condition or circumstance. I have been held and continue to be held in the spiritual arms, both divine and those who wear skin, of boundless compassion. For those of you who knew of mom’s death and those who are hearing this for the first time, thank you for your care and love. One of mom’s favorite stories was of a visiting missionary who told her that we were so rich. She thought it was a strange comment since we were a family of seven living on a small-town preacher’s salary. But he then added, “This family!” As I consider my given and chosen family, I too, feel so rich.
“The capacity of delight is the gift of paying attention.”
Daily Bites and Blessings
Welcome to "Daily Bites and Blessings." Pull up a chair. I’ve set a place for you at the table. These edibles are sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and often they are both. This is a come as you are party. I invite you to bring your compassion, courage, and curiosity as we dine together on life's bounty. May our time together give us more light and more love.