This Too Was A Gift

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)

Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.

The Uses of Sorrow – Mary Oliver

Years ago, I was younger and didn’t understand myself, or the bumpy ride of Life I was embarking upon. There was a time when I thought all fathers screamed and made their mothers cry, made their daughters scream back, lost all of their families’ money (repeatedly), and didn’t remember friends’ names. At this same time, I knew the core understanding was that no one was to know what happened in our house. It was like the sitting room in every one of my parents’ houses with its Ethan Allen sofas upholstered in blue, the mahogany coffee table, and the china cabinet, in which no one ever sat. The only time I remember sitting in that room was the day that my mother and my boyfriend Chris’ parents and I and Chris discussed how I had to get an abortion and that was our only option. (It was the best thing, don’t get me wrong, but the approach could have used some work. But then again, what the hell are you going to do when your 15-year-olds end up pregnant? Probably make a lot of mistakes and say the wrong thing.) There was a china set in my parents’ house that was purple with gold metallic rims and I always loved the dishes because purple is my favorite color, but we could never use them because they were so “expensive” then one Christmas in my 20s they were “worth more than you” and then there was a threat to break all of them (from 20 something me) and then one Christmas they were used for a guest who I informed should feel very valuable, and now, after death, are used all the time.

I used to think that all the things that happened in my parents’ house were normal until I became an adult and began to see how other peoples’ families worked. For some reason, as a child, I didn’t or couldn’t see it as clearly as I could as an adult.

My dad died in November of 2021 after a very short burst of a battle with lung cancer. As he died, my mom became extremely angry at him, at everything probably, and lashed out a lot. He died very quickly, 9 days after he was admitted to the hospital which was just a few days after being diagnosed. I had forgiven him before he died, partially as a by-product of COVID (we couldn’t see each other for almost two years) and partially as an effect of years of therapy including CBT and EMDR.

Beth died in November of 2022, the same week as my dad a year before. I can hear her laughing at me right now and rolling her eyes at me as I type about how great she was and how painful it was to lose her. Lately, I have been hearing her laughing and it’s like this twinkle in my heart-mind as if tiny gold bells are jingling together and I can see her laughing at the same time. She would not want me to be sad. It was out of my sadness at losing her that I began to find my way to understanding myself; no doubt this process has actually been cooking on the back burner for years, but the reality is that the grief I have felt and still feel for Beth has been one of my greatest gifts and one that she uniquely could give to me.

I mentioned above that I have been in therapy for years. I have had several therapists but two really are the most significant: my therapist in Ellsworth, Maine, and my therapist here in Austin, Texas. My Maine therapist was my kind of therapist: practical, insightful, focused, and pro-active. She told me when I decided to move back to Texas, to seek out a provider to do CBT next. And so, trusting her, I did. I began to work with my therapist in Austin and we first worked using CBT and then combined it with EMDR and, slowly, ideas began percolating in my heart-mind, and here we are.

This year has been incredibly stressful for me. I am a new assistant principal at a high-needs campus in a small, rural district that doesn’t seem to understand how to find adequate resources to help with serious needs in reading, teacher training, and changing student behavior. They are big fans of Joan Didion’s book “The Year of Magical Thinking”, or so it would seem: they appear to believe that if they just wait it out long enough, solutions will appear and they themselves don’t need to seek out experts or helpers or research or……anything. I have noticed this year, in moments of desperation, that my mind follows the path built for it during my CBT, and if I close my eyes for a few seconds, I go to the forest up the hill from Duck Brook, the location I chose years ago in a therapy session which, even to me, was fairly random because I haven’t even spent that much time there throughout my life, but apparently my heart-mind thinks it is the calmest place I have ever been. Visualizing Duck Brook makes the seething, buzzing stress disappear, calm down, and become manageable.

The other day I was in the bathroom washing my hands and thinking about a friend’s house who I was going to go to on Friday. I was nervous as right now I feel so stressed out that I feel a bit insane, despite knowing this is very temporary, and I wonder if it shows on my face or in my words, or will make people not want to talk to me. A voice in my head said to me, “you don’t have to be perfect all the time”. Wow! Really? And I said, wow! Really? It’s working! My messages to myself, in my heart-mind, are changing.

How does this connect to losing Beth and having my heart squished, smashed, twisted, and transformed with grief? Last weekend two friends and I talked about how we could hear her laughing all day. It was magical and funny. Lucy and I talked about how we felt that she was becoming a part of us like her spirit is living inside our body and that’s how we can hear her and feel her all over the place. I told her that last Saturday I kept thinking I would turn around and she would be sitting next to me. I love this idea of processing loss as a process of transforming with the person, and I love the words shared with me by my coworker Mr. Moore who assured me those we love don’t want us to be sad.

I remember one trip to the coast we were in Port Lavaca, walking along its dirty in-town beaches looking for a roseate spoonbill skull or a pelican skull or both (skulls were the main focus of those trips) and we found this tiny vegetarian or vegan restaurant on one of the shore roads. It was in an old Victorian house and had a traveler-esque caravan in the front yard. We sat on a couch in front of the bay window that looked out to the ocean and found a copy of “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay in the stacks of reading material. We were waiting for our fancy teas (or smoothies? I can’t remember) to be ready and she told me the story of Louise Hay and her belief that past traumas can “live” in the body and make you sick and how she believed you could heal yourself, and how she loved her because of what she did for gay men in the 1980s who were dying of AIDS and made them feel better and that it wasn’t their fault what had happened. I knew then that Louise Hay’s ideas had made a huge impression on Beth and that they had informed a lot of what she thought in terms of keeping her cancer at bay, which she was able to do for almost 15 years.

Beth was blessed because she was a blessing and was loved by many people. Some of them helped her change her life away from how she had grown up in Oklahoma (something about her early life she fundamentally decided she had to change), brought her to Texas, and helped her feel a sense of functional, supportive family, something she had never had. She began to learn about possibility and began to repeat the teachings shared with her by that family’s father figure, Mr. Rusque.

Throughout our friendship, Beth taught me a lot about living, not be afraid of dying, and being honest and present with oneself and with others; to not judge but also not judge oneself too harshly. These lessons sank in, slowly, despite my stubbornness and fear (the fear probably will linger forever, it is in there deep), and I think she was speaking to me last weekend when I heard that message about not having to be perfect. When she was alive, I heard her say the things she said, I heard her reflect on her life and her death, I listened to her reflect on people and laugh at things that had happened and never try to force anything to happen one way or another, but just to be delightful and loving and funny and extremely beautifully dressed.

In death, in transforming my heart, in creating a space within it in which she will always live, I can hear her words, clear as tinkling golden bells, and I can begin to take them to heart. It is an amazing feeling to feel someone so deeply, to miss them so much, to have them so close. It is the best way I can honor her, to hear her speaking, to hear myself speaking, to practice what I have learned in therapy and in life, and to move forward. She liked to say during the last few months about how she was getting out before it all fell apart. Little did she know she wasn’t leaving, not really. She was giving herself to us.

There Is A Field

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
Rumi

 

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Kate Bush – This Woman’s Work

Doors open, and doors close. There is one door in my life that I seemingly have cared about over all others that occasionally peeks open, as if wedged outward upon its tight hinges and overly-secure lock. Light peeks out, love even, if only for a moment. And then, it inevitably closes, tightly, lips pursed, as if the opening never occurred. At this time in my life, it is the first time that I have felt that its closing is not my fault.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.”
Rumi

 

 

 

The Veil

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It was a pack of cards with optical illusions printed on both sides, it was a stamp of a skeleton, it was a book about a mysterious girl with a colorful cover, it was a gilded leather jewelry box. It was memories: the memories of times gone past, of another life, of being oh so much younger. Held onto for years, they were tucked in the corners of old trunks and the shelves of bookcases.

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Moving, packing, sorting, organizing: de-possessing. Communing with all of the things in this cabin in the woods: holding each item in my hand and examining where it came from, who brought it, what it meant over the passing of time and asking myself, honestly, whether it had a place in the house anymore. For most things, surprisingly, the answer was yes. Over the past few years, I have done a really good job of shedding the errata, the flotsam of life defined as possessions.

What does it mean to let it go? It is a phrase that we often utter ourselves or hear others utter in terms of life and its myriad experiences. Let it go, we say, not really knowing what that may mean to others or to ourselves. This week is the beginning of spring, although you wouldn’t know it here on the coast of Maine where snow seems firmly planted in our landscape everywhere you look, but nonetheless, Friday is the spring equinox and the beginning of the sun’s warmth beckoning the living things back out from under the ground, under the snow. Shortly, Persephone returns to us and her mother will celebrate by giving us flowers and leaves again. Shortly, the days will become much longer and we will be able to celebrate the feeling of the warm air on our shoulders.

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Let it go….let go all of the stuff that is holding growth, feeling, evolution back. That pack of cards went into the fire, that stamp went to the growing free pile, the book went to the library. Such magpies are we: holding on to shiny objects, putting them up on shelves or in drawers to be gazed upon during the dark moments. What does it mean to really glean from our lives those items that have meaning and purpose, and to slough off that which doesn’t? Does it mean we are losing or gaining ourselves? Does it mean that we are better at the growth, or worse at the remembering? Does it mean we shall find ourselves at some future date wondering where that bit or bob went? Possibly, but after all, it is just stuff. You can’t take it with you, as the other popular saying says.

Spring is a natural time of cleaning, sorting, and developing better habits for the warmer days. It is a time of reckoning with oneself and with the earth as we witness the huge shift that is happening beneath our feet and around our heads. It is an antsy time: a time of intense preparation, hesitation, and promise.

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Where are we all going on this tiny blue planet hurtling through space? What will happen to us in this new year, after the beginnings of it have been so slow and so cold and so dark? The only thing I know is that I don’t know: I feel like I know less as I learn more about this game of life we all are lucky enough to play.

Lately, I have been trying to appreciate something about the place in which I live each day: mostly I notice the mountains that I can see from my front garden: the dooryard, as it is called here. In front of me each morning is a line of graceful, arced mountains that are dotted with trees that appear black and stand out of a uniform field of white. Behind them, during the day, the sky is either white with snow or blue with sun. At sunset, the sky transforms into a pink-purple-salmon wonderland that casts the roll of those mountaintops in beautiful relief. The lake at their base is beginning to melt: the ice is going out, again, as they say here.

As we all make this grand transition, again, as our axis posits us in greater exposure to our central star, my goal is to remember something simple, something about being in the present moment, something that goes something like this:

“Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.”

Frida Kahlo

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What do I remember?

I remember searching for old bottles at the bottle graveyard in Austin on warm summer days, shaded by mountain laurel and cedar trees. For what seemed like miles lay bottles 6 feet deep, maybe more, and we trundled through them, looking for blue ones and manganese ones, for white milk glass and bottles with writing still legible upon their surfaces. Once, we found an old refrigerator, and a sign for Violet Crown Cola. Each time, we took them back to my house and set up tubs of hot, soapy water on the floor of the old kitchen, set up shop in front of the ancient double-barrel oven, and scrubbed with toothbrushes until the bottles came clean: my favorites were always the ones with rusted metal tops still attached. As I sit here typing, I am looking at many of them sitting on the tops of tables and on the piano.

I remember camping in the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico, deep in a winter’s night. Camping high above the valley floor, we could see the glowing embers of hunters’ fires that mimicked our own. Up there, we cooked beans and rice at night: oatmeal in the morning. In the dark, you could see the black forest floor below pinpricked with campfires, and up above were innumerable stars. Once, in the morning, we woke up to discover snow 6 inches deep all around our campsite and down the hunting road that we had to walk to return to the car.

I remember telling my parents that I was volunteering at the library one summer, and spending every day at the base of a giant, man-made hill, sometimes in the sun, sometimes in the shade, occasionally sneaking off to read poetry and philosophy books at the Barnes & Noble. In many ways, we fell in love in the aisle of the bookstore that held Kahlil Gibran and Rumi and Hafiz.

I remember rides on Texas highways in a 280ZX with t-tops, glazing brakes coming down a mountain in Death Valley, sitting on the rooftop of a hotel in Mexico, and a kitchen with a brick floor in Ossining, New York. I remember watching eagles fledge in my back garden, listening to the Velvet Underground in a trailer, discovering a sea lion on a beach in Washington, rearing feral kittens behind the washing machine and later, behind the couch in an old house in East Austin. I remember drinking lychee martinis in Manhattan, and trading peaches for special brownies in Oregon. I even remember a wedding, buying a home, planting gardens, raising chickens and cats. I also remember sitting on my back porch, feeling bewildered and lost when it was all dissolving: moving away from me so fast that couldn’t process what, indeed, was happening. I remember ending up in a tiny house in Hyde Park; I loved it despite the fact that it was hotter inside than out on the warmest summer days. I remember opening the door to my life too quickly to one who didn’t deserve entrance, and once he was inside, destroying what I didn’t even know at the time I had to rebuild, I found it very hard to get him to leave. Eventually, of course, I found a path to get him out the door, and lock it behind him so that neither he nor anyone else could come in without knowing the secret password and a set of very complicated keys.

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But herein lies the problem: I didn’t even understand the secret password, nor did I know to which locks each key belonged. In fact, it is more accurate to say that when I locked that door, I threw away the keys and erased the passwords so that I couldn’t let anyone in. It was an unconscious risk assessment, you see, and I deemed myself too high a risk.

Two weeks ago, it was a warm summer night and in a moment I spoke the words that rebuilt and created a new set of keys, and gave me the secret password that I hadn’t yet discovered. I said that I had realized that the state of mind I had been in for the last two years, of fight and flight, of holding my fists in front of me lest anyone try to get too close, no longer applied. I verbalized that the people in my life are good people, that I care for all of them and they me, and that it was time to shed the past and realize where I am.  In this moment was when I realized that I needed to express more gratitude to those I love, that I needed to bring my fists down and relax my hands, and that I needed to say yes much much more than no.

The Yes is fraught with panic and insecurity. The Yes comes with what if? and maybe? and I don’t know what is happening? and all of these thoughts are mechanisms of trying to control situations that are inherently organic and dynamic, in which control doesn’t really play a role. The Yes is cautious and is dependent on trust, so it involves alot of timidity and dipping ones toes in the waters of life only to pull them out again, but I will say that everyone who I have been lucky enough to surround myself with, now, after a bit of trial and error, loves me, encourages me and laughs with me at myself and allows me to grow and be here. There are hands held out to me here, and after two years, I finally trust that they are really here to catch me, and I am ready to catch them, too.

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Waiting

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder – A Winter Scene, 1562

What do I think of when I am lying there?: on my stomach, propped up on my elbows, leafing through art books on Toulouse Lautrec and Pieter Bruegel and Peter Beard; gazing upon the paintings in the collection of the Mauritshuis Museum.

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Dulle Griet by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pressed into the floor, feeling the coarse plastic fibers of commercial carpet dig into my elbows, through the fabric of my light shirt, I catch myself looking around. Behind me is a pool table, under which stand two polar bears, staring out at me. Above me are deeply pocked marks of pool cues’ chalk, all over the ceiling. To my left are giraffes and hyenas, and up above the window, the skeleton of a sea turtle, many years gone from this world. To my right is my dearest friend here, lost in his own thoughts.

Before me is an off-white enameled Jotul wood stove, with a front window already stained with soot. Through the soot shadow, one can depict the licking of bright orange flames made amber as they filter through the dirty shade. The flames grow and gather, spewing up and across the ceiling of the stove, recirculating.

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I am thinking about birds’ wings and the lips of Nepenthes plants. I am thinking about patches of snow on the surface of Little Long Pond, and of playing Pac Man on the table consoles at Pizza Hut in the ’80s. I am thinking about the tea that I am drinking, about artificial, non-dairy creamer: the stuff you can light on fire if you sprinkle it onto a candle’s flame. I am thinking about scent, about wood shavings, about ice melting, about the songs of the birds that just recently reappeared.

I am thinking about change.

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We all know that birds’ bones are hollow so that their bodies and wings are lighter than ours: this is one of the reasons that they can fly and we are glued to the Earth. Each morning I watch five crows flit around from tree to tree along my street. They break into peoples’ garbage seeking treasure. They yammer at the the doves and the blue jays yammer back at them. They swoop and dive, and turn their heads to look at each other, and to me, as I stare at them. They pretend to be scared of me, when I know better. They were here before me.

Yesterday I went skating, maybe for the last time, and played an age-old game on ice skates. Pretending that the patches of snow were obstacles, were pools of lava, my friend and I skated round and round them, ever tightening our circles in between and through them, forming curly-cues and slashes and ellipses and circles in skate marks between the snow patches. The snow patches, large and small, close together and far apart, became deadly territory that would turn you into a ghost if you touched them, and provided fodder for chasing each other, not too quickly, between them in a game of ghost tag. Ghost tag, so much like Pac Man, making me think of the way the crust crunched at Pizza Hut when I was a child: how greasy it was, and how all the windows were made of diamond shaped stained glass in clear and red. How we sat at booths together but snuck off to play video games at those strangely stalwart video game tables.

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These are the thoughts that cross my mind in mid-winter, in February, as the ice and snow melt outside, again. I learned my lesson last week, when a short February thaw had me convinced I’d be in sundresses in no time, only to be blasted by a fierce winter storm once more.

After the snow came roaring through, again, a few days ago, my friend and I drove down to Jordan Pond to assess the likelihood of skating. As we clambered over a snowbank, carrying skates down the path to the water, we crossed another, larger snowbank and were hit, full force, full frontal with 55 mph gusts of blowing snow. Wind so fierce that it blew ice crystals into your eyes. Wind so strong you couldn’t even look into it. Wind so loud it howled around and through your ears. Wind so tough that we both laughed and walked back to the truck; recognizing when to go home is a skill one learns during winter in Maine.

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Winter is drawing to a close: you can feel it in the air. There is a lightness to the sky, as if the sun is coming back. The birds are calling. The days are full of sunshine, when for so long, they have been so dark. There is a sadness in this: a loss. The darker times when all that is before you is you and your work, you and the tiny world that surrounds you, when the sun sets before 4 and all you can think to do is create; well that time is shifting and going away. The light is returning, flooding us with the recognition that soon, buds will burst open on tree limbs, grass will grow, crocus will appear in front of our eyes. Soon, the light will return and the sunsets will change, the water colour will, too, and people will return to this place that has been so quiet and lovely for so long. Flowers will grow, shoulders will be bared, times will change. People will change.

People already are changing: a nervousness is invading every cell of every person, causing each of us angst and anxiety, expressed in unique ways. Peoples’ eyes flit back and forth, as if they are watching for something. Some people draw back, into themselves, away from those that they have held dear during the darker months. Some people are planning, some people are counting down the days, some people are thankful for the retreat of the ice and snow.

Some people are waiting; listening for the ice to crack.

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Si Tu Me Olvidas

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Si Tu Me Olvidas

Quiero que sepas
una cosa.

Tú sabes cómo es esto:
si miro
la luna de cristal, la rama roja
del lento otoño en mi ventana,
si toco
junto al fuego
la impalpable ceniza
o el arrugado cuerpo de la leña,
todo me lleva a ti,
como si todo lo que existe:
aromas, luz, metales,
fueran pequeños barcos que navegan
hacia las islas tuyas que me aguardan.

Ahora bien,
si poco a poco dejas de quererme
dejaré de quererte poco a poco.

Si de pronto
me olvidas
no me busques,
que ya te habré olvidado.

Si consideras largo y loco
el viento de banderas
que pasa por mi vida
y te decides
a dejarme a la orilla
del corazón en que tengo raíces,
piensa
que en esa día,
a esa hora
levantaré los brazos
y saldrán mis raíces
a buscar otra tierra.

Pero
si cada día,
cada hora,
sientes que a mí estás destinada
con dulzura implacable,
si cada día sube
una flor a tus labios a buscarme,
ay amor mío, ay mía,
en mí todo ese fuego se repite,
en mí nada se apaga ni se olvida,
mi amor se nutre de tu amor, amada,
y mientras vivas estará en tus brazos
sin salir de los míos.

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If You Forget Me

I want you to know
one thing.

You know how this is:
if I look
at the crystal moon, at the red branch
of the slow autumn at my window,
if I touch
near the fire
the impalpable ash
or the wrinkled body of the log,
everything carries me to you,
as if everything that exists:
aromas, light, metals,
were little boats that sail
toward those isles of yours that wait for me.

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loveing me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.

If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
remember
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

But
if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.

Pablo Neruda

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