Tag Archives: grief

Gardening For Grief

Working in a fitness/rehabilitation center in January makes our cultural and personal obsession with our bodies and looks inescapable. All day long I hear conversations about health, pain, weight loss, exercise and fitness goals and diet. There’s something inescapably seductive about the idea of making a fresh and successful start in a brand new year.

At home, in my peaceful attic where the winter light steals in, poet David Whyte suggests making ourselves big for loss; if we have a healthy interior landscape, we are better able to absorb painful experiences.

I’ve written about making ourselves big, but I was thinking of things like courage, passion, creativity and curiosity, not loss.

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Whyte’s inside-out wisdom, which has caught my attention before, provides a new frame I’ve been playing with as I live my life. It seems that everywhere I turn I find this idea of loss and how we manage it. I’ve been reading a memoir entitled “This Life is in Your Hands” by Melissa Coleman. It’s about her childhood with her family on the coast of Maine during the 70s as part of the back-to-the-land movement. It’s a fascinating story encompassing all kinds of ideas, beliefs and discoveries about what it takes to leave much of modern life and wrest a living from the land. It’s also a story about a gradually unraveling family, doing their best to create a life they believe in but ultimately defeated by their ideals and the death of a child.

Coleman writes, “There were no gardeners of grief in our community.”

What a poignant, beautiful line that is. Gardeners of grief. There it is again, I thought when I read it, the idea of making intentional space, even a large space, for a feeling we typically avoid, deny or refuse to deal with.

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I wondered yesterday, sitting on the lifeguard stand watching the pool during a water aerobics class, how it would be if we focused New Year goals and intentions on our interior landscape rather than our external appearance. Would more people be more successful in making the changes they say they want? Would support and action in addressing our interior terrain naturally lead to the kinds of external changes so many of us seek?

Loss. What can we say about it? Some loss is so long and drawn out it’s almost chronic, and we become numb to it, though it shadows our lives. Other losses are shockingly abrupt and traumatic, and others still somewhere in between. Loss is painful in itself, but our feelings about who or what is lost can add significantly to our pain, especially if we don’t manage them properly.

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I’ve had two catastrophic losses in my life, though I feel foolish revealing them. The first was the loss of a diner. It was a little ramshackle shack with a spongy floor that dipped and swayed as you walked across it, room for about seven tables with mismatched and broken chairs, and a grease-saturated kitchen. It was less than a five-minute walk from my old house in a tiny Colorado mountain town, and for years I ate breakfast and/or lunch there at least once a week. I was working at the local public school while the diner was in business, so I knew all the high schoolers who bussed, waited, washed dishes and cooked. My own sons worked there in their turn. In the decade after my boys left and I was alone, the diner became like a second home to me. I was often the first customer of the morning, waiting patiently for the door to be unlocked with my travel cup of tea steaming in my hand and a book or notebook and pen under my arm. They made my breakfast without asking, as I always had the same thing, and Amy, the owner, would sit with me, sipping a cup of coffee, while we exchanged desultory early morning talk or were just quiet together.

I always felt welcomed at the diner. I loved it, and those who worked there, and they at least tolerated me with friendliness and kindness. I felt seen. One day Amy told me, with some reluctance, that she was closing it down. The endless grind of owning and operating a restaurant had become too much, and it was getting harder and harder to avoid problems with licensing and inspection as the building deteriorated. She had dreaded telling me. We sat across from one another and wept.

Photo by Madison Grooms on Unsplash

The second loss happened just a few weeks later, when the dearest companion of my life, a crippled long-haired orange cat,  died quietly at home,

These two losses left me maimed and feeling unable to go on. I no longer recognized my life in that place, though I’d lived there for 20 years, raised children, worked, volunteered, danced and told stories. Strange, to realize the diner and Ranger as the only two pillars holding up my life. Why were these losses so much more terrible than my sons outgrowing the town, the school and me, and leaving? That was extraordinarily difficult and painful, and I thought I’d never recover or fill the hole they left in my days, but I still recognized myself and my life. I wasn’t completely undone. I knew we were all making the right choice to part ways and I would go on.

Remembering, it occurs to me my internal landscape had shriveled and withered without my noticing. Ranger and the diner had provided me with warmth, companionship, acceptance, love and belonging. In those two aspects of my life I was completely honest and authentic. When they were gone I was left with a grueling job that just barely supported me and was highly stressful, a home I loved and had worked hard to create but which was empty and desolate without Ranger, and the feeling that I was little more than a burden and a disappointment to nearly everyone in my life (including myself) and the town in general (with a couple of notable exceptions). I was nothing and had nothing that anybody wanted or needed, and my life felt like a lie.

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When I think now about intentionally building an internal landscape, a bountiful landscape with lots of space, I realize the interior wasteland I was trying to live with before. A greasy spoon hole-in-the-wall diner and a cat were the only two things that tied me firmly to life. I was not big enough to absorb their loss. I was always busy, but I wasn’t big. All my attention was on trying to please others and get loved.

Is getting a life, being in a life, creating a life about being busy and having things to do, or is it about building an interior landscape? Scientists are beginning to realize how important complexity is in living systems. Perhaps complexity is not about externals, such as how long our to-do lists are or our New Year resolutions, but about the interior ground of our lives. What if we were each able to build a complex interior terrain with not just room but welcome for all our feelings and needs, an interior system that could elegantly break down, absorb and transform loss, rage and fear? What if we nurtured several kinds of healthy relationships, contributed our experience and skills in more than one way and found a variety of creative outlets and activities to enjoy? What if we invited and allowed both loss and gain, joy and despair to dwell in our interior landscape? Would a more varied, complex and honest inner life allow us to find relief and respite from the inevitable losses and changes we experience?

Photo by Ivan Jevtic on Unsplash

It seems to me the answer can only be yes.

Furthermore, if we choose to successfully build and maintain a complex interior landscape, will all the outward things we worry so much about either seem less important or more easily managed? If we’re more physically active and heal our relationship with food because we’re cleaning up and creating our interior landscape rather than because we want to lose weight, will the re-focus of our intention mean less resistance and failure?

All my life I’ve tried to hold back my feelings because I’m afraid of being overwhelmed by them, or of what others will say or think of me. The problem is that I can’t pick and choose which feelings to allow and which to exclude. If I’m going to love wholeheartedly, I’m also wide open to the pain of loss. The idea of creating an internal landscape spacious enough to allow every feeling and experience unlimited depth and width is an interesting contrast to my impulse to recoil, withdraw and barricade myself into a small stone cave for the rest of my life.

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

Now and then I need that internal cave, certainly. A bolt hole is essential to me. But surely there’s a whole interior world I can build outside the cave when I’m ready to step out of it again, a world with gardens and orchards of feelings and possibility, a world of connections and people to love and learn from, a complex inner terrain in which to get lost and find myself again. Best of all, my interior landscape is solely my own creation. In it, I can be utterly naked and free from concern about what others think of me. I can be fully authentic and honest without fear or shame. I can feel what I feel and have what I need.

Gardening for loss, for fear and for pain. Landscaping for joy, confidence and healing. Welcoming complexity and delving beneath the surface of life and of myself. Making myself big for the hard stuff.

My daily crime.

Photo by Matthew Kosloski on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2019
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Descansos

Clarissa Pinkola Estes introduced me, years ago, to the idea of descansos in Women Who Run With the Wolves, one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Descansos is a Spanish word meaning resting places. A descanso might be a grave in an ordinary graveyard, but Estes suggests creating descansos as a spiritual practice; a method for letting go and/or acknowledging a loss; a place to put rage, fear and other feelings or destructive thoughts to rest so we don’t walk forward burdened by unresolved pain and experience.

We know grief has its own timetable. The Celts set aside a year and a day for the proper discharge of grief. Many other cultures have formal mourning periods and practices, during which people are not expected to fully participate in social responsibilities and activities. Many of us try to move away from the anguish of grief as quickly as possible, but there is no shortcut for the grieving process. Sooner or later, we must feel it and walk through it if we are to heal.

Photo by Madison Grooms on Unsplash

Loss is not just about the death of a loved one. As we journey through life we encounter many losses, including the loss of our innocence, which might take many forms; the loss of dreams; the loss of health; the loss of a job, a home, a relationship or some piece of identity that was integral to our lives. For all of these, we might make a descanso, a place where we have knelt and prayed, wept, planted flowers or a tree and marked with a cairn, a stone, a cross, or some other symbol that has meaning for us. A descanso is a quiet, private place apart from the rest of our lives, a place we can visit when autumn leaves begin to fall and the cooling air crisps with the scent of windfall apples, damp leaves and browning ferns. We pay homage to what has been, to that which we’ve blessed, released and laid to rest. We invite memory and take time to empty our cup of rage, pain or tears again.

I recently wrote about identity. This fall, it occurs to me to spread out all the pieces of my identity, past and present, try them on, one at a time, and notice how they feel. I will make descansos for those aspects of identity that no longer fit me or serve my intention going forward. I want an identity update; to replace the old versions with an identity compatible with my present life and experience, much like going through a clothes closet and culling.

In fact, that is a task I’m undertaking right now as well; going through my clothes. Perhaps that’s why I feel nostalgic and am thinking about descansos. Autumn awakens in me the desire to clean out and lighten up, literally and metaphorically. I discover my difficulty in letting go of clothing I haven’t worn in years and which no longer fits is about the memories of who I was and what I was doing while wearing it rather than the clothing itself.

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Memories can be a heavy burden. Some are precious and we never want to lose them. Other memories haunt us and keep our wounds fresh and bleeding. The remedy for all those imprisoning beliefs, pieces of negative identity, unresolved feelings and painful memories is the practice of descansos, which is to say the practice of grieving and then moving on. That order is essential. We must grieve fully and willingly, and then move on. A graveyard is not a place to pitch a tent and live the rest of our lives. It’s a place to create, visit, honor, care for and meet ourselves when old parts and pieces of our lives enter our dreams and tug at our hearts.

Making descansos is a gentle practice. It is not denial, avoidance or rejection, but rather an open-armed welcome to all our experience, followed by honest assessment and choice-making. Like clothing, identity and memories wear out, no longer fit or become too uncomfortable and outdated to be useful. Making a resting place is an intentional practice, without violence, frenzy or horror. We are not tearing ourselves apart with self-hatred, but allowing change and growth, the same way the trees are beginning to let go of their leaves and a snake sheds its skin. The practice of descansos allows us to clean up, clean out, and create space for new growth and experience. It’s an opportunity to create a place of sacred memory so we do not have to stagger under a jumbled-up load of the past.

Creating descansos is uniquely individual. Some might draw a map of their life’s journey, marking descansos along the way. Artists might paint, make music, write, create, sculpt or dance. Others might seek out a sacred place in nature for ritual, prayer and making a grave or graves.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

When I make descansos, I think of putting a baby to bed in a dim nursery, bathed and fed, sleepy and smelling of milk, with a clean blanket and a stuffed toy. Perhaps our most brutal memories and experiences are the ones that need the tenderest descansos we can create. As we would nurture, reassure and protect an infant, we nurture, reassure and protect ourselves with the practice of descansos. We allow ourselves to suffer, release our suffering and move on, honoring the way our experience shapes and enriches us.

It’s autumn in central Maine, a good time to make new descansos and visit old ones. A good time to remember. A good time to walk under the trees and absorb the wisdom of cycles and seasons, growth and change, life and death.

A good time to allow ourselves to rest in peace.

My daily crime.

Photo by Autumn Mott on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

 

 

Unforgiven

“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”
― Oscar Wilde

It’s been a chaotic week for me of fear, memories, fire, grief, a couple of new friends and unfinished emotional business resulting in a foul snarl of neglected feelings. Also, in common with millions of others, we are sweltering under a heavy blanket of heat and humidity and I feel about as attractive, energetic and friendly as a slime mold.

My old home place, my old community in Colorado, is burning. I’m not there. I’m glad I’m not there.

I should be there. I hate myself for not being there.

I’ve written before about blessing the ground between us . Now my mind is filled with the ground I once lived on, and all I can see are the horrifying images of flames, smoke, the ashy remains of structures and scorched land. I spend hours every day searching the web for updates from local command and incident centers, the local papers, TV and radio and residents who post pictures and videos. I watch interviews with old friends and weep. I see video clips of my town and it’s like a ghost town, the streets empty and everything looking sere and dry because of drought. Towers of smoke loom and the air is an eerie sullen color. This should be the height of the tourist season there, the streets busy, flowers growing, and shade trees green and cool.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

Now there are tens of thousands of scorched acres between me and my memories of that place. I bless the ground between us. Given time and water, it will renew, but I think water is no longer a certainty and my lifetime will have run its course before the land recovers and the forests regrow. In a strange sort of way, the desolation of all that scorched earth echoes the desolation I feel as I watch nations, communities, and people become more divisive and competitive. It seems we’re getting more and more skilled all the time at scorching the ground between us, soaking it in blood and then sowing it with salt.  We do not forgive differences. We carry hatred between peoples from one generation to the next, and many are at work in the world to increase the divisions by fanning the flames with rhetoric and disinformation, and pouring gasoline onto the fire in the form of resentment, ignorance, shame, guilt and fear.

We do not forgive. We are not forgiven.

Never have despair, powerlessness and fear seemed so darkly seductive to me as they do in these times. My experience is only an infinitesimal part of what’s happening now on Planet Earth, and I’m quite sure we have not yet descended as far as we’re going to. At times, it’s only by deliberately stoking my stubbornness and will and refusing to take my gaze away from where my power is that I continue to cling to faith in some kind of a cosmic balance and plan in spite of fear.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently thinking about my family and dealing with some of the aforementioned unfinished business. I’ve written letters, both to the dead and to the living, some that have been sent and others that never will be. As I make new friends, I listen to what we talk about, watch how we get to know one another and feel the flowing give and take of compassion and support that healthy female friendships create.

“I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”

― Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Over and over again, in all these places in my life, I stumble upon the theme forgiveness: The power of it; the terrible, helpless pain of feeling unforgiven; the weapon we make of it; the fear that we will not be — cannot be — forgiven for whatever our particular stain or shame is. I have lately asked myself and others: Am I unforgivable? Can that be true? Can love be true without forgiveness? How do I continue to demonstrate love and connection in the face of obdurate unforgiveness? When others told me I was unforgivable, did they mean it, or am I still bleeding over something they have, in fact, forgiven?

It struck me this morning, as I lay in bed at 6:00 a.m. with the rattling roar of the window air conditioner in my ears and the damp sheet over my sweaty body, that I’ve once again lost my way, been seduced by the false comfort of victimhood. I’ve been lost in the tangled maze of all those messy feelings and forgotten, temporarily, that the point is not what anyone else does about forgiveness. The point is, and the power resides in, what I do with it. Furthermore, the biggest question of all is the one I haven’t been asking.

Can I, do I, will I forgive myself?

That’s where my power is.

East Peak Fire, Huerfano County, CO 2013

Can I forgive myself for living in this lovely green, lush, landscape where we do still have water? Can I forgive myself for reading the signs of what was to come in the long, unending drought and fires in my old place and leaving before I was forced out by climate change and fire? Can I forgive myself for the mother, daughter and sister I was and am? Can I forgive myself for loving, trusting, hoping, believing, trying, accommodating, pleasing and failing? Can I forgive myself for all the years of neglect, silencing and abuse I colluded with and perpetrated toward myself? Can I forgive myself for now recognizing and responding to my own feelings and needs first? Can I forgive myself for writing or speaking the simple truth?

Forgiveness is a slippery concept, like tolerance. I don’t think of forgiving as forgetting. I’d be foolish to forget what I’ve learned as I interact with others. I’ll cripple myself if I don’t forgive. For me, forgiveness is an integral part of loving. Forgetting is not. Nor do I equate forgiveness with trust. Trust can be lost and rebuilt, but it takes time. Trust depends on forgiveness, but forgiveness doesn’t necessarily include trust.

I’m not at all sure we can create a better world together without forgiveness. I’m quite sure we won’t forgive one another if we’re unable to forgive ourselves. As resources shrink, we’re going to be forced onto a more level playing field in terms of our standard of living. Some of us have a lot more to lose than others. The have-nots are filled with rage. The haves are filled with fear.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

There will be a lot to learn in the years ahead. I might as well start now to work with forgiveness, to befriend it, to embrace it, and to talk about it. Forgiving and letting go are both easier for me to do externally than internally, but internal work is the one place where we all have equal power. That’s where it must begin. We’re going to need our power, and we’re going to need to manage it well in order to survive. When our houses, businesses, cars and stuff disappear in fire, storm and flood, when our arable land becomes too hot to grow food, when no water comes from the tap and when money no longer allows us to pretend it’s not all happening, then we will rediscover what true power is, and then perhaps we can begin to bless the ground between us, forgive what has come before, and find new ways to collaborate and cooperate with the living system we call Earth.

In the meantime, I think I’ll stop begging others for forgiveness and concentrate on the places where I have power. Others may think of me as unforgivable, but I needn’t agree, and no one can prevent me from forgiving another.

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

― Mahatma Gandhi, All Men are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections

My road to self-forgiveness may be long. It’s hard to take back the power of forgiveness, because now I have to be responsible for granting or withholding it. In some ways, it’s easier to beg others for it. If it’s not forthcoming from others, well, it’s not my fault. The path of self-forgiveness, though, is all up to me. It will be interesting to discover what sort of shame, guilt and self-loathing lurk in my internal terrain. It will be interesting to challenge the power of what others will think and navigate by my own stars and compass. It will be interesting to put out fires on my side and observe whether others are invested in keeping them smoldering or assist in quenching them so the ground between us can heal.

Here’s a poem by Wendell Berry that maps the journey of self-forgiveness. It’s a good map. I’m taking it with me.

Do Not Be Ashamed

You will be walking some night
in the comfortable dark of your yard
and suddenly a great light will shine
round about you, and behind you
will be a wall you never saw before.

It will be clear to you suddenly
that you were about to escape,
and that you are guilty: you misread
the complex instructions, you are not
a member, you lost your card
or never had one. And you will know
that they have been there all along,
their eyes on your letters and books,
their hands in your pockets,
their ears wired to your bed.

Though you have done nothing shameful,
they will want you to be ashamed.

They will want you to kneel and weep
and say you should have been like them.

And once you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.

They will no longer need to pursue you.

You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.

They will not forgive you.

There is no power against them.

It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach. Be ready.

When their light has picked you out
and their questions are asked, say to them:
“I am not ashamed.” A sure horizon
will come around you. The heron will begin
his evening flight from the hilltop.

Photo by Yuan Yue on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted