Thursday, March 22, 2018

What Joanna Taught Me

"Grief changes shape, but it never ends." -Keanu Reeves
"People in grief need someone to walk with them without judging them". -Gail Sheehy

It was on a sunny January afternoon last year near their home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula that my friend Joanna's parents were out cross country skiing. They were happily swooshing along through the magical winter wonderland when in an instant, Joanna's father dropped dead into the snow.

In that same instant, Joanna's life was painfully, unpredictably and irrevocably changed.

Her father was gone. Snapped away in an instant and sent straight to heaven, no doubt.

And what was left behind to fill his enormous place in her life and in her heart was grief.

I'm not talking about "Take a few days off till after the funeral and here's an extra box of tissues tut tut you know he loved you dearly" type grief.

What Joanna experienced was a kind of grief that overwhelmed her mind, shattered her heart, and seared her very soul.

Some days she wept endlessly..
Some days she experienced physical pain and exhaustion
And despite her profound passion for running her own care-giving business, some days she simply could not bring herself to get out of bed and go to work.

Joanna grieved deeply.

And this was not some two-week crying binge. As the days rolled into weeks and months, this grief settled into Joanna's life, some days allowing her to function almost normally and other days drowning her in a sea of sorrow.

To be sure, Joanna received lots of support from family and friends. Her husband and young daughter especially loved her and cared for her and accepted her intense grieving without question.  Joanna's faith was strong and she knew God loved and cared for her dad and for her too.

But the grief did not let up.

Hungry for understanding, Joanna decided to learn more about grief. Digging into the internet, she read and shared and shared and read. I eagerly pored over her posts, and the message I took from them sounded like this.

Grief is brutal.
It's okay to not be okay.
Take care of yourself.

Joanna found comfort in those ideas, and they helped her cope.

* * * * *

Now, here comes the interesting coincidence.

A few years earlier, Joanna and her staff had cared for my mother during a crucial season in my mother's battle with Lewy Body Dementia. During that time, Joanna helped me to find new insights into my mother's illness and taught me how to walk alongside her with peace and calm.

Joanna played a key role in helping me find the gifts of my mom's deterioration, and with her guidance, I found much light and love in the midst of that terrible disease. And now with her dad passing just three months after my mom, Joanna was opening my heart and mind to a new understanding of grief.

But here was my struggle.

My grief was nothing like Joanna's grief.

Rather than crashing waves of overwhelming emotion and physical pain, my grief was the tiniest of ripples on a small, still pond.

Rather than disrupting my daily work routines and dropping me into an exhausted heap of tears, my grief was a quiet hum that kept me quietly going about my business.

Rather than aching from the absence of my mom, my grief was lit with thanksgiving and relief that her long ordeal was over.

Rather than longing to take care of myself, my grief was soothed when I took care of others first.

All of this was extremely different from what I'd been learning about grief. And I could not help but think I was doing something wrong.

I worried that I was in denial about my grief.
I worried that I didn't have any grief.

So I scrolled through Joanna's posts again and again, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. In time, a subtly different message emerged:

Grief can be brutal...or it can be gentle.
It's okay to not be okay...but it's okay to be okay too.
Take care of yourself...whatever that means to you.

And now I was able to cope.

* * * * *

What I understand now is that grief is as individual as a fingerprint.

Grief can be a raging storm or a single raindrop, or anything in between.

Grief can be a howling wind that turns you upside down and inside out or a quiet whisper, or anything in between.

Grief can turn you inside yourself and slam shut all the windows and doors or it can move you out into the world with your arms open wide, or anything in between.

* * * * *

What Joanna taught me about grief is that there is no one way to grieve, there is no wrong way to grieve.

All that matters is that we open our hearts and minds to our grief and let it have its way with us, so that we can learn and grow from our loss.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Seth And Grace

"Everybody has losses - it's unavoidable in life. Sharing our pain is very healing." -Isabel Allende

"I want to take all that pain that I feel and celebrate and turn it around." -Stevie Wonder

* * * * *

Sometimes, I write stories about hope and light and joy. 

Sometimes, I write about pain.

Pain is an important part of life.

It teaches us, 
It changes us, 
It turns our hearts inside out.
It makes us new.

We often to try to avoid pain, but we can't. Sooner or later, we meet it face to face and have to deal with it. 

And the best way to deal with pain is to share it. Because when we share pain with one another, we lessen its burden.

Now, this sharing must be done with thoughtfulness, with sensitivity, with tact. When I share painful stories, it is always my intent to protect those who are suffering, to tell their stories in a way that respects their struggle and raises them up.

Because when we tell them properly, our shared stories of pain can be transformed into stories of hope and light and joy. 

* * * * *

A young man lost his life last week.

That alone is enough to break my heart.

The investigators ruled it a double suicide - his girlfriend died too. We can blame their deaths on guns and depression and young minds clouded by drugs, and that is not wrong.

But the truth is that my young friend was killed by bad choices.

Now let me be clear: my friend's life wasn't a train wreck. Far from it. He was as happy and funny and kind and loving a person as you can imagine. Hardworking and outdoorsy, he loved to fix up old cars and play with his nieces and nephews. He had a deep mind and a powerful faith. He had a family who loved and looked out for him.

But all these wonderful things were not enough to save my friend from his bad choices. 

So this is the challenge that faces all who cared about this young man: we will continue to love him for the beautiful person he was, and at the same time, we must learn from the ugly reality of his bad choices. 

His younger sister brought those conflicting drives into perfect balance and clarity in her words at his  memorial.

"My name is Grace, and I am Seth's only younger sibling of two years. Seth was always cool and popular and all my friends had crushes on him, but Seth was also sensitive and kind in the way that he never made me feel left out. Being the youngest of 10, we got each other in a way that only we understood, with inside jokes or a simple glance to know what each other is thinking. It was always me laughing at his witty sense of humor and impersonations, us staying up late goofing off in our shared bedroom. It was always us two together. We experienced a lot growing up through siblings getting married and moving away and our parents getting back together. He was the ring bearer and I was the flower girl in our own parents' wedding. Seth was really smart too. I wish he was told that more often. He had a lot of potential. 

"And I want it to be made clear that Seth was so much more than the circumstances in which he ended his life. I want you to know that Seth died because of drugs. Death took Seth in a state of darkness that was not his own. Seth was full of life. He was funny and caring and genuine. And his life was cut short because of the choices he made. And I want it to be clear that each one of you has so much power in the choices you make.

"So if you are a parent, please pay attention. Give your children opportunities to flourish. Give them tools to succeed and help them to see their own potential. If you are a teacher, tell you students often that they are remarkable, especially the ones who are struggling, because they need it most. And all of us can learn to listen more intently, to be aware, and to be more intentional in preventing circumstances like this, to lessen gun violence and educate ourselves on substance abuse. 

"Seth had a lot of great qualities that made him who he was. So honor his good qualities and his true and kind-hearted character, not his choices. Don't honor Seth by wasting your life. Honor him by working hard like he was. Honor him by getting an education or a job  or new friends that build you up rather than drag you into darkness. Honor him by going home and loving your family. Honor Seth by being like him at his true self, by being kind and befriending the underdog and speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves, and honor him by making the choices he should have made. Each one of you has a purpose to live out. You all have remarkable purpose like Seth did. And you have the opportunity to live it out differently. There is a lot of power in that. 

"I'm so proud to have been Seth's sister. I love him endlessly. I'll always remember him as my big brother and I hope I can be like him someday. I love you, Seth." 

* * * * * 

It is my prayer and hope and fervent wish that we can learn from these beautiful words, 

that we can be better parents and teachers and friends,
that we can encourage each other to make better choices,
that we can help each other stay alive.

So thank you, Grace, for telling us exactly what we need to learn from the senseless tragedy of your sweet brother's life.

And thank you, Seth, for leading us with your light.

All photos from Seth's Facebook. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Luna Naps

"I have my favorite cat, who is my paperweight, on my desk while I am writing." -Ray Bradbury

^ I have a special place in my heart for black cats. 
And my current black cat, Luna, has a special place in his heart for algebra books.

When my cat chooses my desk as his napping spot, curling up across the pages of my textbook, and propping his head on my wrist just so, I am honored. 

I put down my pen and forget all about ellipses and binomial expansions, 
I sit quiet and still in my chair, every muscle froze in place
I wait - as patiently as I can - while my cat takes his nap.

Forty-five minutes later, he stretches luxuriantly, plops down to the floor, and strolls off to the next adventure in his mysterious little life, I flex my aching back and think how lucky I am to be loved by this furry little hedonist. 

And then I get back to work. 

Friday, March 2, 2018

Reading Mornings

The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey

True confession: I have a crush on Pete Carroll, coach of the Seattle Seahawks. To be more precise, I am obsessed with his coaching wisdom, his philosophy of training and development that allows him not only to bring the best of his players but to nurture them as human beings. When I heard that this book was fundamental in developing Coach Carroll's approach, I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed. If you're interested in helping other people reach their potential, you'll love it too. 

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

With the help of not one but three fairy godmother, nerd girl embarks on interstellar travel with her precocious baby brother and the It boy from her high school to save her father from interplanetary evil. She has a brush with death and must be nurtured back to life before completing her mission. There's a movie coming out based on this book but as usual, the book is better. Accept no substitutes. 

A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle

The second book in a series of five, this plot closely mirrors Wrinkle, complete with nerd girl, baby brother, It boy and the threat of cosmic evil. But this time, the trio is aided by a cherubim that looks like a herd of dragons and a mulish school principal as they enter the microscopic world of mitochondria to save said baby brother's life. If you loved Wrinkle, you'll enjoy Wind; if not, move on to the third book.

A Swiftly Turning Planet by Madeleine L'Engle

Years have passed. Nerd girl is now gorgeous, accomplished, and married to It boy. Baby brother has become a headstrong teen, and it's finally his turn to lead the adventure. The twist: this plot revoves around time travel. With unlikely help from It boy's sourpuss mother and some dusty old family letters, Baby bro manages to rewrite the time line and steers the planet from certain disaster. I am a huge sucker for this sort of Dr Who business and though I have read it several times before, I ate this book up with a knife and fork. 

* * * * *

Alright, I'll make a confession. I devoured quite a few books in 2017. But almost all of them were either ebooks or, more likely, audio books. 

Now there is nothing wrong with that. For my money, a book is a book is a book, and different formats have different advantages, such as being able to cook dinner while listening to the narration of bloody ax and hatchet battles of old Englaland in The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell. 

I listened to all ten books in the series last summer. And then as soon as I was finished, I listened to them all again. 

Lordy, I do love a good sword fight.

But as I've been reassessing how my digital devices impact my life, I decided to make 2018 a year of reading from exclusively from physical books.again.

Strangely for me, I've been waking up early this winter, and curling up in my bedroom chair to start the day with a few lovely chapters. Turning pages while my dog snores happily on the bed, I am enjoying these reading mornings. 

* * * * *

More tales about my reading adventures

In The Conservatory

A wintry wet day at Seattle's Volunteer Park Conservatory, as told in two parts.

Part One: The Bromeliads, Tillandsia, and Ferns

Rain patters on the roof and trickles down the windows
Wind blows the trees in gusts.

But inside all is serene and quiet, 
Steamy and green.

Save the quiet drip, drip of tiny hidden waterfalls
And the unmistakable almost-silent sound of things growing

Like characters in a fairy tale
Familiar houseplants grow to mythical proportions

They blossom in fantastical, extravagant proportion
In colors too rich to be real

But they are real
And you can walk among them

To your heart's content
For four dollars on any given afternoon.

* * * * *

Part Two: Cacti


Tucked among the rocks

Foreigners from the desert.
You've traveled far to come here. 


Reaching for the sky.
The world out there isn't meant for you.

Stay inside where it's warm and dry

Charm us with your cacti ways. 

Irish Inspiration

'There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men.' -Walter Reuther
'It is only in the giving of oneself to others that we truly life.' -Ethel Percy Andrus

^ Even on the coldest, wettest days, my girl is always full of Irish charm.

Ohmigosh I thought it was a BEAR!
She's soooo cute!!

Gracie raced through the curve in the lane ahead of me and surprised three high school girls walking toward us in the rain, thus setting off a avalanche of giggles and exclamation. 

"Don't worry" I called back. "She's a friendly little red bear."

A few steps further and we met, then I properly introduced my dog. Soaking wet and wiggly, Gracie gently pressed herself into the circle of three, stretching her whole body forward to receive their attention, wagging her tail with easy affection Two of the girls pulled their hands from warm pockets and mittens to pet and praise my eager pup; the third girl, who delightedly shared that her name was also Gracie, apologized to her:

"I'm sorry. I want to pet you cuz you're soooo cute. But my hands are too freezing."

Gracie seemed to wag extra hard.

A few minutes later, the petting session came to a natural end and the girls continued on their way, calling goodbyes to us, laughing and squealing as they splashed toward home. 

Gracie and I watched them go, then we grinned at one another and continued on our way.

* * * * *

These encounters happen every day with my dog. I see people in cars smiling at her as we cross the street. I laugh with school bus drivers as my bold missy finds an open door and attempts to climb on board. I smile to myself as countless students pull an ear bud out to say to me, "Your dog is so cute."

We all want to change the world. All of us, I believe, wish we had it in our power to bring light into darkness, to ease one another's pain, to spread hope and joy and maybe just share a good laugh with our fellow man. We want our lives to matter, we want to live as fully as possible. 

I certainly do. .

And I realize, with no small measure of humility, that my dog accomplishes all of those wonderful, world-changing things, simply by being herself. 

She inspires me every day.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Gracie Lately

Gracie gets her first bowl of food at five a.m. At that time of day, my husband is already up, dressed and ready for his own breakfast. As he heads for the kitchen, he leans down to the sleeping dog and whispers, "Gracie, do you want some breakfast?" Without fail, she leaps off the bed and flies down the stairs, ready to dig in.

Similarly, Gracie knows just when to expect her second meal of the day. After our long walk, during which she has considerable freedom to run up and down the sidewalks on the end of her long rope, I put Gracie on a heel as we cross the street into our yard. We pass under the front trellis, and at the edge of the lawn, I have her sit and stay. Then I snap off the lead, and offer her release word.


Then, without fail, my wild red-headed missy sprints up the length of the lawn like Usain Bolt, wheels to a screeching halt at the front porch, and then turns to watch me saunter up her race track, imploring me to HURRY.

Because Gracie knows that I have already prepared her dinner, and the dish is waiting just inside the front door.

S L O W L Y, in a effort to draw out this ceremony to its greatest dramatic potential, I put her on a another stay, open the door, reach inside, and present the bowl to her at the usual spot on the step.

Oh, but she's not allowed to break her stay until I have seated myself with great flair on the nearby chair, and fully prepared myself for this grand ritual. My dog's eyes gaze deeply into mine, watching for the first hint of that magic word.


Once again released from her pose by the starter's pistol, Gracie springs to her feet, drops her nose into her bowl, and starts eating. She does not lift her head until every bite of kibble has been consumed, and then only shifts six inches to the water bowl. She takes a long drink, pausing once to look back in the now-empty food bowl, and then goes in again for more water.

After the second, even longer drink of water, Gracie turns her attention a third time to the food bowl, and licks out every square inch with gusto. She does not miss a single crumb.

And then, after one more long and luxurious drink, she is ready to go inside. 

^ In the golden glow of late afternoon. 

On the home stretch of our daily route, Gracie and I pass along a 10-15 foot perimeter of overgrown bushes and trees. Bounded on one side the the side walk and the other side by a six-foot tall cedar fence, this scruffy strip of loosely landscaped greenery is full of lovely undergrowth and mysterious shadows that make for ideal sniffing and foraging for a dog on the hunt. 

As I stroll contentedly on, up ahead of me on her long leash, Gracie wades in and out of the brush, often up to her shoulders in brambles or even disappearing from sight as she investigates the territory.

Recently, on a still sunny afternoon, as we went through this familiar dance, I suddenly heard frantic rustling noises, a scratching of claws on cedar fencing, and then a series of crashing noises that could only mean my dog was running wildly through the brush.

I glanced up to see a cat running along the top of the fence. Ohhh, yes. That would explain everything.

But then I looked again at what was surely the biggest, ugliest cat I had ever seen.

And that's when I noticed it was actually a raccoon.

Now we have plenty of raccoons in our neighborhood and often see them prowling around in the dark and near-dark hours of the day. But to see one marching around in broad daylight is an unsettling development and I held my breath, expecting this critter to reach around and take a swipe at my crazy dog bounding along at its side. 

But no. The raccoon continued its sprint toward the deeper cover of trees up ahead and Gracie came when I called to her, exhilarated and flushed by the thrill of the hunt.

I praised her for coming, settled her back on the sidewalk, and we shortly arrived home victorious. 

^ "I am ready for my walk. Look how good I'm being!!!"

In our extra-deep kitchen sink, I keep a large, lidded plastic bin for food scraps. During the day, bits of garbage slowly accumulate, and then we empty the bin in the evening after dinner. The lid operates on a hinge, so we simply flip it open to make a deposit, then set the lid back in place without latching it shut. 

Several times this week, we've come home to find the bin and its contents strewn across the floor. 

Now granted, these incursions have happened in the mornings so there has not been much of a mess. And honestly, I could hardly believe my dog had actually figured how how to lift that even-heavy-when-empty container out of the sink using nothing but her sturdy little teeth. 

Denial is a powerful force, and I was sure that if I simply pushed the container to the far side of the sink, my dog certainly would not repeat this fluke performance.

Well. On Wednesday, I was out for a few hours, and when I came back, my home-alone dog met me at the garage door with her usual enthusiastic greeting. But what's this? I wondered as I petted her. Little sticky bits of what appeared to be white rice ringed her head like a crown. How can that be?

Two steps into the family room and a quick flashback to my early morning refrigerator clean-out of old leftovers answered all my questions. 

Gracie had indeed hefted the almost-full container from the sink, dragged it carefully into the family room, opened it up and feasted on the contents.

Two baked potatoes. 
A bit of vanilla pudding.
The last of a beef stew
Some sliced apples.
Half a tuna sandwich.
Baby carrots and ranch dressing. 

And yes, A cup of white rice.

In an apparent effort to demonstrate her self-control, Gracie had left behind two pairs of eggshells, a crumpled paper napkin, and a popsicle stick. 

I was not impressed.

So now when I go out, the compost container goes into the fridge. 

^ These four furry red legs make me smile every morning. 

Today, Gracie has been a perfect angel. 

While I dug in the gardens, she waited patiently, lying among the day lilies and watching passersby. We went for our walk much earlier than usual, and she was rewarded by a half-dozen high school girls who cooed over her sweet behavior and petted her silky coat. Just now, she woke up from a long nap on the nearby couch, and fetched her latest rawhide bone, which she has begun to chew. 

Even the quiet days are an adventure with my girl, Gracie, and I can't wait to see what she will do next.