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
(https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/collaboration/)

Image: “A Timely Stitch,” by William Hemsley

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‘Be grateful for whatever comes’

Open Door_Henri Matisse (1896)

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Rumi, transl. Coleman Barks

Image: Open Door, by Henri Matisse (1896)

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Control
(https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/control/)

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Come On Down, or ‘All the Roots Grow Deeper When It’s Dry’

Roots (1) Mysselhoj_da_070407

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 67
(transl. Stephen Mitchell)

Just three things to teach – simplicity, patience, and compassion. Of course, there’s nothing exactly easy about any of these, even though they each sound so basic and fundamental. Like so much good teaching, the Tao Te Ching reminds us of things we already know deep down; it helps us to remember who we really are at heart and, perhaps, to live more closely in alignment with that original self.

The problem I have – that I suppose many of us have – is that sometimes it’s the simplest ideas, paradoxically, that take the most work to really integrate into our lives. If there is such a thing as fundamental nature, and if we posit that nature to be fundamentally good or whole in some sense, we still have to admit that there are practical difficulties involved in accessing, achieving, or realizing that original nature. Whether you think the problem in getting there is related to original sin, the human ego, or our clinging to some false idea of a fixed and permanent self – or something else entirely – it seems like we all have a winding road to travel to get back to the center, to the basic truth of who we are. It’s definitely a paradox. The truth is as close as our next breath, as far away as the stars in the sky.

I heard a lecture recently in which the speaker lamented the way people sometimes get excited about new spiritual teachings – or spiritual teachers – but don’t realize that, without practice and cultivation, even the best ideas can’t take root. In this way, it can be all too easy to flit from teaching to teaching, from teacher to teacher, initially excited and drawn by the spark of truth in each fresh perspective, but ultimately finding ourselves on a kind of spiritual merry-go-round of excitement followed by disenchantment, of the initial thrill of momentum followed by the gradual realization that we’re not actually getting anywhere. Then we start looking for the next fresh idea, or the next bestselling author, teacher, or guru.

I guess the argument is that, at some point, we have to be willing to sit with an idea long enough for it to develop within us from a seedling into a growing, thriving thing. And, in some sense, we have to be willing to do the hard work of sitting with ourselves in just this same way, examining our perceptions, thoughts, and experiences in a simple, patient, and compassionate way until we, too, start to take root and come to find our own bearings and particular way of being in the world.

The idea of learning to put down roots reminded me of the refrain from the David Wilcox song “All The Roots Grow Deeper When It’s Dry.”

Prosperity will have its seasons
Even when it’s here, it’s going by
And when it’s gone we pretend we know the reasons
And all the roots grow deeper when it’s dry.

Life is always going to have its ups and downs, and I can’t see as how there’s anything wrong with seeking out new information, new perspectives, and new experiences. All these things, individually and collectively, enrich our lives. But it’s also good to be able to stay put sometimes, to sit still, to grow deeper. And the “dry” times – the tough times of shadow and loss, of grief and uncertainty – are when this can often happen most profoundly.

Our root system – and our basic connectedness to everything that is – grows deeper when times are hard. But we have to be willing to stay present, stay aware, and nurture the seeds and conditions of that growth. That takes time, and it takes practice. And if it all sounds too much like “impractical nonsense,” don’t take my word for it. Why don’t you hang out for a while with things as they are, and then see for yourself? Ultimately, who knows what we may grow to be?

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Roots
(https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/roots/)

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When Death Comes

Lake Pier (2)

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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‘Not Always What They Seem’

Dolphins-and-Greek-Merchant-Boat-Painting

“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man – for precisely the same reasons.”

– Douglas Adams, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

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Champions of the Commonplace, or, “Call Your Mom and Tell Her You Love Her!”

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The champions in our lives come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re often hanging out in places we’re not looking for them – in our homes, or even in our own families.

I haven’t gone into it – in part because I’m still debating how personal to make this space – but one of the main reasons I’m back on WordPress in 2017, dipping my toes again into writing online and sharing that writing with others in the form of a blog, is my mom.

My mom is a great writer – a journalist by training and profession, although she’s held many different kinds of jobs over her lifetime so far. Told during her early years at school that she “couldn’t write” by well-meaning but misguided English teachers in small rural schoolhouses, she nevertheless persisted in her love of words – both reading and writing them – and discovered, later on, that her first love as a writer was for journalism and news-style writing, a genre her early teachers hadn’t comprehended well enough when they gave her low marks on her classroom essays and composition assignments. It turned out she had a knack for the “inverted pyramid” structure of a crisp, well-written newspaper story – leading with the most important parts, then adding supporting quotes and background facts, and then letting the tail end of the piece drift away into tertiary details before coming gracefully to a close.

Of course, over the length of her writing career – professional and otherwise – she developed plenty of strength and facility with other writing styles and formats, but journalism was where she first found her voice as a writer, and it’s always been an important part of who she is as a storyteller and a communicator.

A few years ago, she left a job writing for a local newspaper in order to take on a broader role related to municipal arts management. She missed the frenetic energy of the newsroom and the thrill of chasing down a hot lead, but the hours in the new job were better – more regular, with fewer evenings and weekends – and the benefits were a vast improvement from what the paper could offer.

One downside was that, in this most recent iteration of her professional life, she was doing less actual writing, something she really missed. She and I are forever encouraging each other to find new creative outlets and ways to share this common interest of ours with others. She would ask me about the short stories, essays, or songs I was working on writing, and I would ask her about the interviews and feature stories she was doing (usually on a volunteer basis) for publication in some small local journal, paper, newsletter, or the like. But we both remained curious about the idea of writing blogs, an idea that would always come up from time to time.

And so, long story short, my mom and I, separated by half a continent but connected in our love for language and the written word, have been talking off-and-on for a while now about becoming “blogging buddies.”

Unfortunately, she’s been dealing with some relatively serious health issues these past few months that have taken a lot of her time and energy. Her life – forever busy with her job, her volunteer work, time spent with family, or just curling up with a good paperback mystery – has become, recently, a series of seemingly unending visits to doctors’ offices and being too tired, often, to even pick up a novel, much less write one. After several months on leave from her job – all the time champing at the bit to get back to work and some sense of normalcy – she recently went back to the office, only to be sidetracked a week later by another unexpected stint in the hospital.

She still hasn’t had time to keep up her end of our “bargain” and launch her own blog, but it’s not something I’d ever hold against her. Right now, she’s got more pressing matters to attend to, and I guess, in the meantime, I’m kind of blogging for both of us – even if that “inverted pyramid” news-writing style will never be my cup of tea, being much more disposed to long, rambling essays and discourses on myriad inter-related (and often unrelated!) topics.

I’m really hoping that, one day soon, my mom will be feeling well enough to open up her computer and join this lovely blogging community to tell a bit of her own story in her own words, or to share a few of her observations about life and living. I know her pretty well, but I know I’ll never be able to tell it like she could.

So, write what you know, or write what you don’t know, write what you love, or whatever you have to write, but for god’s sake write something. Do it with your words on a page, or with your actions out in the world, but do it. “Write while you have the light,” to paraphrase John 12:35, “so that the darkness may not overtake you.”

And, while you’re at it, you may as well start with a card to your mom. Or, call her up and tell her you love her. I know, I know, you’re still working on forgiving her for that insensitive and probably-too-judgmental thing she said the last time you two argued, but why not just let it go? It’s a little early for Mother’s Day, I suppose, but you never know what might happen between now and then. Only today is, only this moment.

So, this one’s for you, Mom. I love you! Feel better soon.

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Champion
(https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/champion/)

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Will Sing for Wontons

Busking_literaturepage

“I’ve made a small fortune busking in my days. A very small fortune.”

– Spotted on a musicians’ online message board

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Fortune
(https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/fortune-2/)

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