Tag Archives: loss

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

Things Falling Away

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I’ve lately been revisiting David Whyte’s work, including one of his audiobooks titled What to Remember When Waking. He suggests that one might have faith in things falling away.

It caught my attention because usually we speak of faith in what we judge to be positive: Courage, kindness and the sun coming out tomorrow. Having faith in the shadow side of life suggests a deeper wisdom to me.

This coincides with my current personal focus on shame, which I discover (to my chagrin and sorrow) is a burden I carry every day and can’t remember being without. I knew it was there, in the roots of me, but generally speaking I try to hide it and look the other way. I’ve never had any idea how to eliminate it or transform it into something less painful and more effective, so it’s become firmly and almost invisibly established.

Whyte, a magnificent poet, prompted me to think differently about feelings and experiences we typically cast as negatives and try to avoid, ignore, hide or minimize. Have faith in things falling away.

What kind of things fall away?

Leaves in autumn, innocence, comets, people, memories, time, feelings, others beloved by us, and our own lives. Flowers drop their petals. Snakes shed their skins. Seconds and years fall away, one by one. The sea ebbs from the land and then returns. What we can see of the moon wanes and falls away to nothing before it waxes once more. A fertile woman watches each month’s possibility of new life fall away when she is not pregnant. The dark falls away before the light, and the light before the dark. Cell by cell, lash by lash, hair by hair, our bodies fall away during our lifetimes.

Sometimes we fall away from others, or tear ourselves away from jobs, relationships or places.

Some things we are glad to let go of and leave behind us. Other losses are so terrible we feel permanently maimed.

Then there are things like shame that are forced upon us by others, that cripple our joy and our ability to love ourselves. We long to be free of such burdens, to let them fall away, but we don’t know how to do it. Even if we find a way to loosen their grip upon us, we are sometimes unwilling to cast them completely aside, because then we would become strangers to ourselves, strangers in our own lives, and we fear that change more than our familiar suffering.

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Faith in things falling away. Trust and confidence, in other words, in both loss (things we don’t want to lose) and relief (things we do want to shed).

Could it be that the way through shame, longing, fear, anguish and the like is to turn toward it, embrace it, kiss it on the mouth? Is that what must happen before it can fall away? I wonder.

Can we trust in the approaching storm as much as we trust in the sun coming out tomorrow? Can we trust in the unraveling, the fraying, the slow decline, the darkest shadows of our hearts and actions, as well as healing, vigorous new life, and our kindness and compassion?

I suppose what I’m really asking is if we can trust in all of our experience and feeling, whether comfortable or agonizing, in any given moment. Can we trust in change and suspend our judgement about whether it’s good or bad? If our world is burning around us and everything we know or have is falling away to ash, can we have faith in the purification of that terrible loss?

Taking it further, am I willing to have faith in my own frustration, anguish, scars and shame? Am I willing to explore these things, talk with them, allow them to teach me, even love them, and then let them go or transform? Do I possess the courage to let an outdated version of myself fall away while I enlarge my soul?

Inevitably, inexorably, things change and fall away. As human beings, how do we choose to live with that fact? Faith or resistance?

Tonight I will sleep with my worries through dreams dark with soil
and the heaving cataclysm of the spade
turning earth round me
not speaking of air
or light fused with greenness
but of darkness
and the first leaves
like hands in prayer
clasped inside the seed.

— David Whyte, “Inside”

Faith in things falling away. My daily crime.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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