Sojourns with Sorrow: Grief as Guide and Comforter

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When we lose someone we love, a part of us just wants to be relieved of the suffering, and we naturally think of our grief as something that must be endured or as a necessary stage to pass through or to get over. We might say we’re in a period of mourning, or talk about “getting through” the grief or “dealing with” it – as if grief were an unwelcome detour down a brambly backwoods path, or a rough adversary barring our way forward. And it certainly feels that way sometimes, like the grief has slowed us down, waylaid us, and made it difficult or impossible to get on with life. Sometimes it even makes it difficult to do the simplest of day-to-day tasks, things that would normally be second nature for us. It’s easy to feel a bit lost in it.

There’s no doubt that this is a true representation of grief and our experience of it, but I wonder if I’m not doing grief a disservice when I think of it basically as an obstacle, as something to get over or around or through so that things can get “back to normal.”

First, why should things get back to normal at all? Hasn’t the world been fundamentally changed by the loss? Our grief serves a potentially beautiful and, perhaps, underappreciated role in helping us to dwell deeply for a while with the memory of those we’ve lost, to hold them close and contemplate the love they shared and the life they lived, including whatever message their life holds for us now. What lessons did they impart to us, what wisdom to apply to our own journeying?

Is it really so wise to try and shoulder through our grief and envision the goal as getting past it so we can get “back to life” as quick as possible? Maybe this new world – irrevocably altered by the changed human landscape – will have to be reckoned with, to be understood on new terms and approached in new ways. In the absence of someone we held so dear, are we even the same person we were before? In some ways, yes; in others, maybe not so much. Do we, too, need to be transmuted by this process, by this dying, by this grief? All of it takes time and reflection, a slow turning towards a new day.

Rather than thinking of grief as an adversary, an ailment, or an obstacle barring our way to living, how would our experience of grief be transformed by thinking of it as a blessing, given to us at a time when we need to be minded perhaps a little bit more than usual? What if our grief, rather than being some fierce and frightsome thing, were in fact a companion for our journey, a benevolent guide and counselor – a Comforter, even – to accompany us as we head off, with fear and trembling, on a walk through the valley of the shadow of death? It’s a frightening road through that valley, and we need all the comfort, all the solace, and all the grace we can get to help us make it through.

So I guess what I’m wondering today is, what are we supposed to do with our grief, and what exactly can we ask of it? Is it just something to be dealt with and gotten through so we can get back to regular life and business-as-usual? Or does our grief come to us accompanied by a personalized invitation into a life that is deeper and different than the one we lived before – a life transformed by sorrow, yes, but also by an abiding joy and love, by our own willingness to be vulnerable, and by our willingness to be broken open by loss.

As Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” That’s definitely a relief, since my own personal cracks and struggles are pretty obvious to me these days, although I’m still not sure how to make the most of it, of how best to wrestle with the grief, or to what end.

For now, relieved of the need to look like I’ve got it all figured out, I make my way through the darkness, feeling out ahead for an opening, and looking for the light.

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Relieved

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Thoughts on Shedding the Self, or, ‘Who is it that carries this corpse around?’


I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my
mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so
heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth,
seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the
air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical
roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing
to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a
piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in
faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in
action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the
beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what
is this quintessence of dust? – Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

Who is it that carries this corpse around? – Zen Koan

We’re stuck, as human beings, in a sometimes-awkward place in the universe. Possessing of self-awareness and the ability to reason about and conceptualize our own existence – and to project our minds into the past and future (with all the accompanying wondrous and terrifying results), we like to think we’ve really got it going on. Our reason empowers us to perceive both ourselves and the wide world around us, to hope and dream of making that world a better or more satisfying place, and to both imagine and create the means of doing so. We can build things – and destroy them, too – on a scale that seems to be far beyond that of any of the other creatures with whom we share this world. We can make art and make love, elevating the basic necessities of our existence in beautiful and often transcendent ways. It’s no great stretch to think of ourselves as “the paragon of animals,” as Hamlet says.

And yet the end result of all this conceptualization has often been to isolate us from the world around us, from everything “else” that is. We live, most of the time, in a world of subject/object relationship, where we perceive the world – and other people – as external to us, and conceive of ourselves as entire, distinct, and separate. Even when we acknowledge the “interconnectedness” of things, we often imagine that interconnectedness as the interplay between moving parts in a complicated machine, or like the linked nature of two points on a map joined by highway or railroad. It’s easy to accept that parts in a machine “influence” each other, that they impact and affect one another. It’s a little harder to conceptualize of them as being more like parts of a biological organism, where the existence of the whole as whole is effectively indistinguishable from the existence of the various parts.

On some level, the end result of this conceptualization is the paradox that, by pursuing all these hopes and dreams, by searching after all the ways we can improve our lives, and by striving after all the things we imagine will make us happy, we often end up disappointed, frustrated in our efforts, and at a loss as to how to find peace amidst the turmoil of our lives – much less take our place as some kind of “paragon” and rise to the heights we feel destined for. Like Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play, we find ourselves seemingly imprisoned and cut off by circumstances beyond our control. Life gets messy sometimes, in all its perplexity and permutation, and the results can be dispiriting.

But what’s the alternative? Do we just “give up” and resign ourselves to whatever fate may bring – and to the accompanying despair, despondency, and resignation – rather than contend with the never-ending ups and downs of life? For most people, this approach doesn’t really work, either. We’re too well wired for survival. Life is often a struggle, but most of us, I think, are tempted to argue that the struggle is worth it, in the long run, for the pleasures and success it sometimes brings, for the hopes we cherish for the future, and even for the edifying effect of all that hard work and striving. Many of us have been taught since we were kids to think about it this way, to try to remain positive and optimistic in the face of difficulties. Depending on our upbringing and worldview we may think about the end-goal differently, but it seems like we really want to believe that things will work out eventually, and that all our trials and tribulations will have been ultimately worth it.

But there’s a counter-argument that sees both sides of the success/failure dichotomy as two sides of the same coin (a coin which, it might be argued, isn’t worth nearly so much as we think it is).

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is a dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don’t see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things.

– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 13 (transl. by Stephen Mitchell)

By this reckoning, when we grasp onto and cling to an unshakeable idea of the self as separate and distinct from everything else that is, we condemn ourselves to an unending cycle of success and failure, of hope and fear, and to the never-ending task of shoring up, buttressing, and otherwise defending that self against – to quote Hamlet once more – “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

The concept of self is, to some degree, unavoidable for us as human beings because of how we perceive, conceptualize, and interact with the world and those around us. But, as this counter-argument goes, it’s still a dangerous thing to cling to, because the self is, in some real sense, evanescent and not at all fixed. And the more we obsess over it, the more we hold on to it for dear life and defend it against all onslaughts, the less secure it becomes.

We think the self is a safe place to stand, that it’s something we can hold on to for safety when the storms of life are howling and raging. But the alternative is that maybe, just maybe, real security – and real freedom – lies in letting go of our illusions about being the center of the universe. It’s hard enough maintaining the idea that we can go it alone, and harder still to continually convince ourselves that everything in life revolves around us.

There’s an old Zen meditation question, a kind of koan, that asks, “Who is it that carries this corpse around?” I can’t pretend to have the insight to break open its full meaning and implication, but two things stand out immediately. One is the startling use of the word “corpse” – the implication that we are, in some sense, dead men walking, and that our lives, rightly measured, are just an instant in the immense vastness of time and space. But this realization, far from being terrifying or depressing, also has the power to give us the perspective we need to let go of fear and really live our lives now, in the only time we have. It makes me think of another line from chapter 33 of the Tao Te Ching that reads:

If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.
If you stay in the center
and embrace death with your whole heart,
you will endure forever.

So maybe the notion of being a blip on the radar, rather than being unsettling, can be our liberation instead. This world, this universe, is an awful lot bigger – and stranger and more wondrous – than we can possibly conceive of. It’s natural to try and wrap our heads around it it, but knowing its size and scope should take some of the pressure off of us. It’s a little like logging out of Facebook for a few days and realizing we’ve been sucked into needless comparisons with the lives and accomplishments of our friends, or like putting down your mobile phone and just looking around, realizing that there’s so much more to life than what can be represented on that tiny screen. It’s freeing, if we let it be.

The other initially important aspect of the question “Who is it that carries this corpse around?” is that it’s rhetorical, at least to some degree. After all, we imagine that we carry it ourselves, but do we really? Insofar as I dimly understand it, one of the themes and theses of Zen is that, the more we seek to know and perceive our own immutable Self, the further it recedes. The search for it may be a necessary part of the process of liberation, but it’s a search that always, ultimately, ends in exhausted frustration, as the fixed self over and over again evaporates as we near it, like a mirage in the desert or like mist in the warmth of the midday sun. It’s there, to be sure, and real at least in a conventional sense, but it’s not total and complete as it is, it’s not immutable, it’s not fixed and permanent.

We can see that as a threat to our existence, or we can see it as a liberation – as an invitation into a much bigger world than we could ever dream up “all by our lonesome,” a more amazing world than we could ever imagine all by ourselves.


Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Paragon

Image: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

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Note to Self: Your ‘Comfort Zone’ Is Looking Entirely Too Comfortable


“Years ago, when I first mentally mapped out what it would mean to free solo Freerider, there were half a dozen of pitches where I was like, ‘Oh that’s a scary move and that’s a really scary sequence, and that little slab, and that traverse.’ There were so many little sections where I thought ‘Ughh—cringe.’ But in the years since, I’ve pushed my comfort zone and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy eventually fell within the realm of the possible.”

Unlike Alex Honnold, most of us are probably never going to ascend a 3,000-foot wall of rock without even a safety rope to catch us if we fall, but there still may be general lessons here that anyone can learn from – in the way Honnold polished his technical skills over time, how he expanded his overall “comfort zone” till it was bigger than the obstacles he wanted to overcome, and how he learned to quiet his own fear at those times when fear isn’t particularly helpful – like halfway up a mountainside.

He’s definitely an outlier, but, at the same time, it makes me wonder where I’m holding back in my own life, keeping my “comfort zone” comfortably small when it could – just maybe – stretch all the way to the far horizon.

Or at least to the top of yonder hill.


Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Polish

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The Calm Amidst the Storm: A Note from Melville On Surviving Ourselves

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“It may seem strange that of all men sailors should be tinkering at their last wills and testaments, but there are no people in the world more fond of that diversion. This was the fourth time in my nautical life that I had done the same thing. After the ceremony was concluded upon the present occasion, I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family vault.”

– Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Survive

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Impressions of Manchester and the Songs of the Street, or, ‘Keep Calm and Busk On’

The news out of Manchester really got to me. Having dealt with loss in my personal life of late, I suppose I’m especially raw right now, but, upon reading the news yesterday morning, I found my eyes watering up and my heart breaking. Is this the world we’re making, the world we’re fighting for day in and day out? It’s all such madness sometimes, such inscrutable and unbelievable madness.

I guess that targeting civilians – and, in particular, the innocent and vulnerable – is the hallmark of terrorism. But when you come after music lovers, you’ve come after my people. Whether we rock out to the same beats or not, there is something I can always connect with in the excitement of anyone and everyone who genuinely loves and cares about music.

And so, after a day when my faith in humanity was once again very sorely tested, I just wanted to share perhaps my nicest discovery of the day, which was accidentally stumbling on a mention – in an online article – of Charlotte Campbell, who has been busking on London’s South Bank, along the bend of the river Thames, since about 2012. I spent some time discovering a few of her songs online, and her warmth, her optimism, and her lovely voice all made an impression on me.

The video linked below – a short interview with Charlotte about her life and her busking – is a couple of years old now, but it looks from her website like she’s still out there, still keeping on and singing her songs. I take it as yet another reminder to put aside the weight of my own aloneness and “ease into the conversation,” be it musical or otherwise. I take it as yet another reminder to “Keep Calm and Busk On” because it can do the world a world of good.

So, Manchester goes on, England goes on, life goes on, and the music goes on, after all.

If any of you are in London and happen to see Charlotte busking, consider dropping a pound or two in her guitar case, and, if you would, thank her personally for me. Her music gave me a bit of hope on a day when I really, really needed it.

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Impression

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Doing Our Bewildered Best: Dispatches from the Pilgrim’s Path to Notoriety

Basho on the road


There are many guises for intelligence.
One part of you is gliding in a high windstream,
while your more ordinary notions
take little steps and peck at the ground.

Conventional knowledge is death to our souls,
and it is not really ours. It is laid on.
Yet we keep saying we find ‘rest’ in these ‘beliefs’.

We must become ignorant of what we have been taught
and be instead bewildered.

Run from what is profitable and comfortable.
Distrust anyone who praises you.
Give your investment money, and the interest
on the capital, to those who are actually destitute.

Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.
I have tried prudent planning long enough.
From now on, I’ll be mad.

– Rumi (transl. by Coleman Barks)

I’ve found that the stream of my life recently has been bringing me back, several times, to the poet Rumi, and it’s been wonderful, like getting back in touch with an old friend who – never mind the time that’s passed – still accepts you the way you are while compassionately challenging you to dream a little bigger, live a little more boldly, and love a little more fully.

Something nice about poetry in general – and perhaps about Rumi’s poetry in particular – is the ability it has of offering a place of comfort and solace in which to dwell for a little while, even amid life’s worst storms, trials, and agitations. Prose can do this too, surely, but there’s something about the nature of poetry that allows us, even if fleetingly, to get out of our own head and, what’s more, to get out of our own way.

For most of us – and I’m including myself here – we spend so much of our lives chasing after safety and security and assurances, all the while worrying about outward appearances and what other people think of us. It’s nice to take a moment to contemplate just running away from comfort, forgetting about safety, and throwing our reputation and outwardly determined sense of self-worth to the curb.

Of course, it’s one thing to contemplate all this, and quite another to act on it. It’s easier to imagine the beauty of faraway lands than to pack our bag and set off in search of a pilgrim road – or a road less traveled – to wander down. It’s easier to sit and think about generously sharing the abundance of our lives – monetary or otherwise – with others than it is to actually go out and look for ways to do it. And, if I’m honest, I don’t know if I’m ready to give up “prudent planning” altogether, much as a part of me – deep inside – awakens with pure joy at the very notion.

But I suppose we have to start where we’re at. We can only begin here and now, and that act of beginning – and beginning again, and again – means, on some level, accepting the present moment, the present situation, as the truth of our lives.

But that doesn’t mean we have to stay where we are. That’s important to remember, too.

I hope I can cultivate today a little bit of the passionate, holy restlessness that Rumi seems to be advocating. I hope I can remember that it’s okay, sometimes, to be a bit “bewildered,” to be somewhat “notorious,” even to be a little “mad,” at least in the world’s eyes.

As Rumi writes elsewhere, “The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep!”

The road is calling. Don’t be afraid.

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Notorious

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Making the Most of the Time Together: A Mother’s Day in Remembrance

(Sewing) William_Hemsley_A_timely_stitch

“Wanderer’s Song”

The thread in the hand of a kind mother
Is the coat on the wanderer’s back.
Before he left she stitched it close
In secret fear that he would be slow to return.
Who will say that the inch of grass in his heart
Is gratitude enough for all the sunshine of spring?

-Mèng Jiaō (751-814)
(transl. by A.C. Graham)

I lost my mom last month. I wasn’t nearly ready to say goodbye to her, and I’m not at all sure how ready I am to start writing about her death at any length here, but Mother’s Day looms large, especially when the loss and the grieving is still so fresh.

My email inbox and the internet in general have been constant reminders of Mother’s Day – gifts to be purchased, celebrations to be planned, and time to be spent appreciating those who brought us into this world. I tried to steer clear of the Mother’s Day card displays at the store and to overlook online advertisements for Mother’s Day gifts, but there’s really no getting away from it. Even walking down the street or driving down the road, the reminders are here, there, and everywhere. It’s ubiquitous.

Not that I need reminding. My mom’s absence is, for now at least, unbelievably, painfully present for me, and the coming and going of an event like Mother’s Day will just be one reminder amongst many – some expected, some unexpected – that I can’t call her up to talk, that I won’t be seeing her the next time I visit home, that we’ll never get around to watching another movie together, or talking with each other about the books we’re reading and the projects we’re working on, and that all the lessons she taught me over the years are now mine to carry forward, in a way that was never so true before.

I’ve lost extended family members before, people I loved dearly, but I never realized how hard it could be to accept that someone you relied on so much – for good counsel and good humor, for love and compassion – was gone. I’m not a kid anymore, to be sure, but losing my mom has made me feel, at certain moments, awfully small, terribly alone, and completely ill-equipped to make it through all this.

At the same time, over the last month or so, I’ve been surprised how many people have said something to me along the lines of, “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through.” I know everyone’s grief is, in some sense, their own affair, and maybe it isn’t possible to fully understand what another person is going through at a time like this. But, if I’m honest, this phrase, along with its several variants, feels like a bit of a dodge. After all, there are few things in life more definite than life’s own finitude. Our time here is precious, to be sure, but always precarious as well. There’s a brink to be considered, a shadow around the edges, a boundary path that leads, in the end, to parts unknown, to “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

This world – this life – is beautiful, but, barring some extraordinary intervention, none of us are getting out of here alive, and no person’s world can remain untouched by loss forever. It’s true that my mom wasn’t yet elderly, that she was still working, still actively engaged in the world and with her family and her community – and she planned to stay that way a while longer. Despite her health struggles, she still had a lot of living left in her. But it’s also true that she was subject to the same mortality we all share, the same ultimate human frailty as everyone else. Sooner or later, each one of us approaches that threshold, that liminal space between what’s here-and-now and whatever lies out beyond our ken, in the place beyond our knowing.

I wonder whether, when people say to me, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” it isn’t – in part at least – a way to hold another’s painful experience at arm’s length, to dissociate oneself from a difficult part of this shared human existence. I’m not judging anyone for this kind of response – and I’ve said similar things myself to others in the past – but I do wonder whether it’s that we can’t imagine or that we won’t imagine – that we’d rather not contemplate this fundamental and unavoidable aspect of reality because the thought of it hurts too much, because it hits too close to our own brokenness, or because to do so might force us, as Thoreau writes, to “consider the way in which we spend our lives.” That’s good work, that is, but it’s tough work, too, and it can be pretty harrowing. The examined life is, as often as not, no picnic.

A reflection I once heard in a lecture on Buddhism went, “Since death is certain, and the time of death uncertain, how then shall we live our lives?” Or, as Jesus put it, “Walk while you have the light.” And, for good measure, we also have Tolkien on the subject: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” That phrasing perhaps makes the task sound simpler than it is. Redeeming the time is the work of a lifetime just as much as it is the work of the present moment, and it’s not easy.

As for my own present moment, I know a month isn’t much time in the dark realms of grief, and I know the process will be ongoing for some time, maybe a very long time. I’m working right now on just getting through the day-to-day, and I’m still far from figuring out the next steps on my own journey and what to do with these next precious moments in the time I’ve been given. For whatever good it’s been to me, it’s in my nature to be always reflecting on life and how to live it well, and I can already tell that losing my mom is going to add more fuel to that inner fire, that unceasing desire to make the most of the time.

For now, I’m trying to keep loved ones and friends close, to be more regularly in touch over the telephone or text messages or email. I’m trying to write some of my thoughts down, though it isn’t always easy. And I’m trying to stay present, as well as I can, to let the feelings, and the tears, come when they come and go when they go, and not to shut out the loneliness and the loss, the hurt and the sadness, but to treat each guest (even these) honorably. I can’t say yet what fruit this time of sorrow will bear, or what sort of changes I might undergo as I pass through it, but I’m trying to stay open to finding out.

I’m glad her suffering is over, but I really miss my mom, and it’s hard to say goodbye.

Mother’s Day was tough this year, and a bit on the bitter side for me personally. But, even so, I found that a part of me could still say “Happy Mother’s Day.” It’s now a day of remembrance as much as a day of celebration. For my part, I’ve found myself reflecting on happy memories and on the person my mother was – because she really was incredible – and I’ve got an awful lot to be grateful for in having had her in my life all these years – even if I would still have wished for many, many more.

It’s a lovely thing, to be born, despite life’s many challenges, and to live is indeed a gift – even if it takes some of us a long time and a lot of work to figure out what to do with that gift. For now, for today, I suspect it’s enough just to live, just to be alive, just to see the sky above our heads and feel the earth beneath our feet and to know that we’re still here – for the time being at least – still learning and loving and growing in whatever ways we can, still taking the world into our arms.

For the time being, I’ll try to keep moving forward in faith and looking back in thankfulness.

I guess, in addition to making the most of the time that is given, we also, at some point, have to be willing to make the most of the time that is past – the lessons that have been learned, the stories that have been shared, all the happiness and tears and life and laughter that have come and gone. My mom wasn’t here to share Mother’s Day with us this year, but she is here, nonetheless, in a thousand different ways. Her work is over, in a sense, but it also carries on in all of us who remember her, in everyone whose life she touched. And her love will, in some mysterious way, always be a part of everything I do, of every story I write and every song I sing. I’ll be trying to keep that in mind, and to be grateful for the chance I had to share so many memories and moments with her over the years.

“Who will say that the inch of grass in his heart
Is gratitude enough for all the sunshine of spring?”

Time will tell. Time will tell.


Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Collaboration

Image: “A Timely Stitch,” by William Hemsley

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