Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Oh, Death!

Pen shell stamps courtesy of Fred B. Mullett

I've come to the conclusion that it isn't death that surprises us, but the grief that follows.

We're actually very used to death. We are, after all, born dying. Every day cells in our bodies die and slough off. We watch as Summer changes to Autumn and the gardens we planted wilt and join the earth from which they sprouted. We shed a tear for the elderly when they pass and comment that they lived good, long lives. We hear about death in the news every day.

We let our dreams die--whether by choice or by circumstance. We pronounce death in marriages and relationships that don't work. Inanimate things break and fall apart and we declare them dead. Even the food we eat (unless live guppies are part of your diet) is dead.

Death is no stranger to us. We see it coming from nearly every angle. Sometimes death is a good thing. We chop up dead wood and use it as fuel to warm us. We harvest tomatoes and zucchini from dying vines. We've even learned how to transplant organs from a dead person to a living one to improve chances of survival and quality of life.

I've had great fortune to have lost many people in my life to death. Oh, I'm not callous about it. I use the word fortunate because each time I've had to say goodbye forever to someone, I have learned from it. I've learned, not only how precious is this life, but about my place in it. I've learned to live from those who have gone. For that, I am thankful, and grateful and, yes, fortunate. I feel much like Celie in The Color Purple, "I'm here. Dear God, I'm still here!"

The last time I was surprised by death was when I was in my teens and my beloved cat died. Since then, I've lost (curious word to use there... as if I've simply misplaced someone) many people in my life--beloveds all--people I was attached to whether by blood or by Universal force. The deaths didn't surprise me. Granted, many of those people were sick or elderly, so the inevitable was glaringly obvious, but still... With each of them there was a moment, just before, when I thought, "Prepare yourself. It's coming." And, as much as anyone can be prepared, I was.

So, the deaths themselves didn't shock me. It was, and continues to be, the grief that surprises me. Initially, for me at least, grief is like a vast undulating sea - I always forget how exhausting it is. I always forget those first feelings of everything feeling so weighted down and hard to breathe and seemingly unending. Like treading water, there's a frantic feeling of desperately wanting to lie down on a sandy shore and sleep, but all I can do is keep waggling my feet back and forth and hoping to come out of it eventually. 

And I always do. I wake up one day and realize that it's easier to breathe and it doesn't hurt to blink. Suddenly I'm capable of making decisions again without feeling like I'm blindly throwing darts at a board and hoping I don't take out somebody's eye in the process.

Then the rogue waves* begin. Those never go away. Not ever. There's no telling what will trigger them and there's no warning. Rogue waves are the real surprise of grief.

I lost my father well over 30 years ago, and to this day, a cold, damp, smokey Fall day will make my eyes sting with tears. I lost one of my dearest friends over 20 years ago and I still can't pick up a book by Amy Tan without feeling my lip quiver, because she gave me her copy of The Joy Luck Club (which I still have) to read. My beloved mate has been gone for over 8 years and Yes's song Roundabout nearly flattens me when I hear it because we used to sing it loudly as we drove around Lake Sammamish, looking for glimpses of Mt. Rainier shining like a diamond through the clouds. "In and around the lake... mountains come out of the sky and they stand there..." The other day I had a question about my Hungarian heritage and thought, "I'll just text Mom and ask h.... damn it. Who's going to answer these questions for me now?!"

Rogue waves, man. Rogue waves. They will knock your boat sideways and leave you dazed and wondering which is the way back home. We can handle death. It's the sorrow that comes after that's the kicker. It's the sadness that springs from almost nowhere that gets us. But I've learned from that too. I've learned that when a rogue wave hits, all I can do is let it hit, let it wash on over, wring everything out, take a deep breath, and keep paddling.


*Rogue waves are large, spontaneous surface waves that occur far out in open water. They are defined in oceanography as waves whose height is more than twice the significant wave height. Rogue waves are not necessarily the biggest waves; however, they are unusually large waves for a given sea state.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Goodbye - A Eulogy


She put Mercurochrome and Band-Aids on my scraped knees and grounded me for playing where I shouldn't have been. She checked my forehead for fever with the back of her hand as she scolded me for going outside without a hat. She put Tabasco sauce on my tongue as a punishment for sassing; I returned the favor by learning to love spicy food. I never did learn not to sass.

She made sure I had piano lessons and was disappointed when I played anything but classical music (in her words, "Stop that banging!"). She praised me for being wise beyond my years, but told me there were certain things I couldn't understand. I learned them and understood them anyway.

She is largely responsible for me becoming a writer. Although the constant grammatical and spelling corrections were eye-roll inducing when I was a kid, the lessons stuck and they stuck for good.

She loathed swearing and despised sarcasm. Although there was much else about me, especially in my adult life, that she didn't approve of, she never failed to tell me that she loved me and believed in me.

We were diametrically opposed in terms of religious belief, but I value the solid set of morals she instilled in me.

Because of her, I have a love and basic knowledge of classical music and opera, plus I know all the words to all those old musicals. Because of her I've had a love of reading since I first discovered words. Because of her, I have loved discovering words, their meanings, how they join together to teach us or take us down a path.

She would say it's not so, but I know my stubborn streak is from her. She was downright mulish when it came to her truths. And she was fiercely competitive when it came to playing cards... as am I.

Thanks to her, I know how to cook, put up canned goods, bake pies, cakes and cookies from scratch, and, when pressed, how to clean properly.

There were things that didn't work in our relationship, as in any relationship, but we made it good. In my adult life, we enjoyed trips together and theater, and discussions about books and travel. In healthier times, she traveled the world - Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and all over the USA. Just last Wednesday I sent her a text message as I was wandering around the Olympic Peninsula with my nephew and his family. She replied within a minute, "So happy to hear from you!! My love to all!"

Early this morning my Mom (I've never called her Mother, and, dear gods, never ever Ma!) passed away. I will remember all these things about her. All these things and more. And I will, as ever, walk with pride that I am her daughter.


In memory of Kathleen R. Black
February 12, 1928 - July 9, 2015


Friday, June 5, 2015

Kill the Competition

 

I am weary of the Who’s the Bravest in the Land Competition that‘s been at the forefront this past week or so.

The truth is, it takes a great deal of bravery for any and all of us to be exactly who we need to be. In a society that holds us to task via its own set of expectations, as well as in our individual family microcosms, standing tall and declaring, “this is me” is often something that takes courage beyond what we can fathom even as we are doing it.

I know. I know, because I've been there and I've done that. Did I expect laurels and medals and accolades? No. Did I compare, much less expect that anyone else would compare, what I did to acts of courage shown by the men and women fighting for this country’s freedom? I did not. Did I ever once allude to the notion that what I did was as difficult as battling cancer? Never. Did I declare that I was going to change and then follow through with changing my gender, thus going through countless painful surgeries, procedures, and emotional torment? No. Did I expect that people I knew and loved would make a show of moral outrage simply because what I did went against what they believed? That I did, and that much I got. Did I expect that some of the people I loved would understand and say, “good for you, Barb… good for you”? I did, and I also got that.

But I didn't go into it thinking, “Gosh. I’m feeling so brave. I think I’ll flip my life on its ass and do something radically different just for shits and giggles.” The fact is, I didn't feel brave at the time. I didn't have a vast reserve of courage (much less self-esteem or some buried taciturn resilience even). Some people, the people who championed me changing my life, cheered me on, telling me I was brave. For me, the choice was, make a move or die. Some people saw what I did and told me I was their hero; others made it known that I was communing with the devil. All I saw was that I was trying to live my life and be the best me that I could possibly be.

What did I do? Nothing plenty of other people haven’t done. I walked out on a “perfectly good” marriage. I moved across the country with 4 suitcases and $300 dollars to my name. That’s it. I was, depending on who was doing the talking, crazy, brave, ridiculous, uncaring, courageous, ballsy, morally bankrupt, intrepid, or… the adjectives were endless. I got tired of saying, “Gosh, thanks…” Or just, “But…”

It wasn't until over a decade later that I saw what I did as bravery, that I acknowledged it took a certain amount of courage even if I didn't feel it at the time. Somebody once told me, “Courage is turning and facing the dragon even if you’re trembling in your boots.”

Courage is the 16 year old kid who stands up to his father and says, “You’re destroying this family with your drinking, Dad.” Bravery is the 3 year old being wheeled off to another round of chemo, saying, “Don’t worry, Mommy.” Courage is the 22 year old woman who does her first skydive jump in training to be a paratrooper. Bravery is the 38 year old man doing his part to keep peace in a foreign city. Courage is the shaking addict standing up in front of a group of strangers, saying, “I can’t live like this any more.” Bravery is a 65 year old man weighing the balance between fear and dreams and deciding, “This is not who I am. I am going to be a woman.”

Courage was a 36 year old woman, walking against the tide of every so-called truth she’d ever been taught, saying, “I can’t be this person. I am leaving and I am going 3000 miles away.” I may not have been part of some major battle that changed the face of the earth, or a personal battle won or lost on the whim of cells reacting to chemicals, or crawled from the wreckage of a natural disaster and helped a displaced neighbor look for their lost dog. But, who are you to compare? Who are you to judge what it took for me to do what I did? Who are you, and what is so very wrong with you that you can’t simply love a fellow human and say, “I might not agree with you, but I love that you were brave enough to be you.”

When you judge a person based upon their personal bravery and when you compare their courage to that of others, you are judging us all. Every one of us.

Because, the thing is, we are all brave. We are courageous every time we step into a slippery tub to take a shower, or crank the ignition in the car and pull out of the driveway, or strap on a pair of skis and fly down a mountainside, or put on a pair of combat boots and march into a war zone, or put ourselves under the knife for any kind of surgery, or propose to the love of our life, or face cancer, diabetes, alcoholism, heart failure, etc. We are human and for all our frailties, we gird ourselves with our hopes and dreams and desires and we move forward.

So. Can we please stop with the Who’s the Bravest in the Land Competition? It’s bullshit. We can be so much better than that.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Set it on Fire




Something has been bugging me for a couple of weeks. Usually two weeks is my limit before I know I have to write it out or implode.

I was watching the American Pickers TV show. I like it because there's a profound lack of wankiness found on so many other "reality" TV shows, plus, I like the cool stuff that they find. Anyway, Mike and Frank were picking some guy's place when Mike asked the guy, "So, what do you do?" The guy shrugged and replied, "Well. I don't really do anything, so I guess I'm just an artist."

That's when I started swearing at my TV screen. I don't remember exactly what I said, but it included "...shittastic attitude and profound lack of fucking passion... artist my ass!"

I took huge exception to his statement. According to Mister Junk-Hoarding Turd, my father housed, clothed and fed a family of seven by not "really doing anything". Mister J-H Turd couldn't be more wrong. My father may have had his issues, but he also worked his ass off. Work ethic was something I learned from both of my parents - from my "not really doing anything" father and from my "just a housewife" mother.

Yeah. Because saying an artist isn't really doing anything is right up there with calling a 24/7 hard-working woman "just a housewife". (Oh, step off. I'm well aware that the job a wife and mother does is far more essential than art work. That's not the point.) When I was a nanny, I was often given the raised eyebrow and the, "Oh, you're just a nanny... do you ever think about getting a real job?" treatment. Had there not been children present, I might've become a bit stabby.

And now, here I am, an artist. A paid artist even. I typically work seven days a week. It's rare that an entire day goes by without me doing something in my studio. When I'm really into a project it takes over the day and then some. I'm still thinking about it when I fall asleep. I dream about it. I jump out of bed in the morning, look at what I've done, and think about it some more as I scrub the sleep out of my eyes. When I'm out in public, I look at everything around me for clues into some new project, for inspiration and color and, oh, how can I capture that tiny moment of wonder. When I watch movies I ignore the characters and look at stuff in the background - what's hanging on their walls, catching the light on their dresser, and look how the sun dapples the leaves in that scene.

I'm an artist and I'm never not working. And I love it. I'm passionate about it even when you see me sitting quietly and reading a book. When someone asks me what I do, I proudly state, "I am an artist." Because people seem to find artists fascinating (even those of us who are slightly less than eccentric), they always ask, "Oh, what kind of art do you do?" That's when they get the full force of my passion. I'm passionate about what I do because I love to do it - every day of the week, of the month, of the year of the decade, world without end, Amen.

The thing is, Mister Junk-Hoarding Turd wasn't without talent. He had some cool stuff sitting around that he'd done. But he sure was without the necessary passion to carry it.

Right around the same time, I had posted a quote by Pablo Picasso. A friend made a self-deprecating comment that basically said she wasn't intelligent enough to appreciate Picasso's work. I got riled.

I don't appreciate Picasso's work either, but it's not because I lack the intelligence to appreciate it. I get what he was shooting for. I just... don't like it. The same way that I'm sure that while liver and onions are delicious to the right person, they just aren't for me. There are lots of artists whose work I love, but I couldn't really tell you why. There are works by certain artists that I love and yet other works of theirs leave me wanting.

None of it is about intelligence. None of it is about an artist's abundance or lack of talent. It's preference. Some folks like wine, some like beer. Some won't drink anything but white wine; others give you the evil eye for even suggesting anything but red. It's personal. So is art. Art is about making people feel something, so even if you feel revulsion, the artist has, on some level at least, succeeded.

But. Passion. It has to be there. Without passion it's just talent. Talent is nice and it helps pass the time (as, no doubt, Mister Junk-Hoarding Turd will attest), but it won't set your mind on fire. Me, I prefer a nice warm blaze.

Monday, May 4, 2015

To Be Alive



Eight years ago this week my life was very different from what it is now. I was sad, so very sad - a sorrow so impossible, so inconceivable, so bottomless that there is no word for it. I was saying a long, slow good bye to the love of my life as he lay, surrounded by family and his best friend, decimated on the battlefield of cancer.

In the aftermath I felt broken. No, not broken. Shattered. Shards everywhere. Little pieces of me scattered about, glinting like tears. Daylight was too bright, nighttime too dark. Everything felt out of step. An eighth of a measure behind.

Then the moment came. I remember sitting up and saying aloud to an empty room, "I did not die with him. I'm still alive, damn it!" Those words changed something. They became a paradigm.

It wasn't so much that I woke up. I was lucid enough before that. I became aware. I paid attention to what alive felt like. I noted the moments that made me feel most alive. I don't know how else to say this but that I began to be alive in my life.

I took measures to change the way I lived my life, which had always been answering to everyone but myself. I stopped worrying that the world would end if I didn't live up to some other person's expectations. I only worried that I wouldn't live up to my own. Because alive felt fantastic, and I wanted to live alive.

That makes it sound easy. It wasn't. It isn't. But it's as vital as drinking water and breathing air.

There are other people (I recognize kindred spirits) who've come to this place without losing the love of their life. Maybe they lost some other loved one, maybe divorced, maybe had a scare, maybe hit rock-bottom on a boozy trail, maybe just woke up from an epiphany of a dream and thought, "Enough of this shit. I want alive." It doesn't always take something completely catastrophic.

What it does take is willingness. Willingness to feel everything. Because to be alive is to feel, to have awareness of each moment. It takes allowing the bad moments, even when there's nothing more to learn than, "Ouch. That hurt."

I'm not one of those that believe that there is a lesson in everything, or a reason for everything. It's just what is. It's the reality of the moment, good or bad. My days of ecclesiastical excuses for what happens in life are long gone. If I thought that way, then I'd be obliged to think that John had to die so I could meet Steve - that's not reason, that's insanity and stupid and cruel and entirely unfair to all three of us.

I digress.

Alive. To live alive. To be aware and love every moment of that awareness. It is what this life is for. Some might argue that it's selfish, but it isn't at all. If we are truly alive and aware, we are exactly who we need to be and where we need to be and what we need to be.

I wouldn't change a moment. I wouldn't smother that shattered feeling any more than I would smother the moment of pure joy I felt the first time I realized that I'd finally unleashed my artistic side. It's not the sum of the parts, baby... it's being whole. Alive is absolutely whole.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Gel

Write it out; shake it off.

That's what I tend to do with a feeling that won't quite gel. That won't give me something tangible to fling at the wall (or canvas or blank page).

Here's the thing.

Himself is having a birthday today. A so-called Big One. I never thought I'd be madly in love with a 60 year old guy. Not because I'm so much younger and the notion is rather dodgy (yes, I wrote that with a British accent) - I'm only 6 1/2 years his junior after all, and at this age, 6 1/2 years is nothing.

At this age.

I think it's because of that very fact. That he's turning 60 today and nobody would look at the two of us, nod their heads and whisper, "Sugar Daddy..." or "Cradle Robber". We don't even qualify as a handsome middle-aged couple (because, really, I don't see 120 and 113 down the road). No. What we are is tip-toeing on the cusp of "what a nice older couple they are."

It isn't the old part I mind so much. At least, I don't think it is.

It's the speed with which we seem to be getting there. Yes. This feeling is only compounded by the fact that the eldest of the two boys for whom I was a nanny turns 35 today. (I always find it somewhat portentous when two people on my A-list share a birthday.) Thirty five. He wasn't quite 7 when I met him. Where the hell did those decades go?! I blinked and *poof*...

And I still can't pinpoint the feeling. There's no gel to this yet.

Keep writing. Keep shaking.

I don't care that I'm older and aging still. Given the alternative, I'm pretty damned happy with that.

I mind everyone else getting older.

I am not at all daunted by my own mortality.

I just don't want mortality sneaking up on people I love.

That's it. There's the gel. Nothing I can do about it. That oozy stuff will get us all soon enough.

Writing done. Shaking off commencing.

I am... rather... I get to be head-over-heels, crazy in love with a 60 year old, 6'2" strappin' sexy beast of a guy. One who doesn't give a flying monkey's ass about wrinkles or flab. One who brings me joy and laughter every day. One who loves me and supports the things I love doing. Ain't nothin' wrong with lovin' that man. Nothin' at all.

Happy Birthday, Steve!

I am proud of the 35 year old man who was once the 6 year old kid who held my hand to cross the street. That I've been privileged to watch him grow and evolve and become this magnificent human being - friend, husband, father - that he is today? What a gift. What an absolute treasure.

Happy Birthday, Jonathan!

I know it won't be long at all before I'll blink again. Decades will have disappeared and an entire generation will be gone with a new one dotting the horizon. I will be much grayer, more wrinkled... as I sit and dig through the amazing richness of the human connections I've made in my life.

Ah, yes. There it is. The tear of amazement that I'm allowed this wealth of love. That I'm allowed it at all.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Good in Goodbye

Yesterday I quietly celebrated what would have been my 25th wedding anniversary. Would have been, but wasn't. Yes, celebrated. You'll see.

It would have been my 25th wedding anniversary had I not chosen to end my marriage after 8 years. There you have it - I was the one who did the leaving. It wasn't a decision I came to or made lightly. Five years into the marriage I realized that it wasn't working. At first I worked hard to ignore that sad little fact. Then I worked hard to fix it. Then I worked hard at being angry that nothing was working. Then I started working on myself and came to the realization that it just couldn't exist.

That's all there was to it, really. There was no affair, no deception, no violent fight, no real nastiness of any kind between us. Together we were going nowhere. Separately, perhaps, we could. I kissed him on the cheek and wished him all the very best the day I moved out. I had no idea what was in front of me; my only scope was what lay behind.

I read something a couple of months back that has been rattling around in my brain. The idea is that there are three basic ways that people deal with being lost. One is to immediately try to find a way out -- to find a way back to the safe, known zone. Another is to make a place -- to turn the lost place into something known, thereby rendering oneself no longer lost. The third is to venture deeper into the unknown -- to turn it into adventure and discovery.

If I had been as honest with myself back then as I am now, I would have known that what I was feeling through most of my marriage was lost. I was wandering in a not entirely uncomfortable fog. So, for a time, I made it a place that was known. When I thought about getting out, my first thought was of going back to Michigan where I grew up. But if there is anything I've consistently adhered to it's to not go backward. That left me with venturing deeper, discovering what else was in the fog and what might be beyond the fog.

I'm so glad I did, and that's why I was quietly celebrating. I'm not one of those who ever says, "I just should never have married him." It's sad and painful that it didn't work, but it also brought something to both of  us that we needed at the time. I needed that fog. For a while. I needed a safe, quiet place to land. And let's be honest here, even the best, most pristine moment is tinged with regret of some sort. It's what makes those moments so sweet.

Sometimes the thing we're trying so hard to fix isn't what's broken. Sometimes there's not even anything broken. You can't teach a goldfish to ride a bicycle. You can have fun watching the fish swim around. You can have fun riding the bicycle. But to try to amalgamate the two into something beautiful and productive... it doesn't work. Even so, it doesn't mean you stop appreciating either one.

Twenty-five years does a lot for a person. Forget what they tell you; you never stop growing up. You never stop learning about the world you live in, about yourself, about other people, about love, about forgiveness, about joy. Have I exited the fog? I'd like to think so. Has the adventure stopped? Nope. If you're awake and paying attention, every moment is a surprise. Every moment deserves its own celebration. Even if it's a quiet celebration.