Summer is so sweet and so full of life.
But grief has arrived and she cannot be ignored.
We have to speak about loss.
In my community, there has been a terribly sad loss of a teen-aged girl. She is the daughter of people I don’t know well, but know in the way you know people in a small town. She is the niece of our friends, she is the cousin of my daughter’s close friend, her name is Maia, and though I don’t know that I ever saw her as a grown-up kid, I remember when she was born, the ripples of happiness that spread through her extended family and touched those of us further out from that center.
What do you do in the face of this or every other sadness we encounter on a daily basis? The surprising losses like Maia who drowned while snorkeling with her father, or the shattering devastation at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina? Each loss reveals more about us than we’d like to admit. Here, this tender dear girl who resembles so many of her cousins, thick eyelashes and a smile that stops traffic. I sense the utter sadness of her parents and I want to claw my children to my chest. I hold my prayers like shoulders leaning in to my heart. In Charleston, layers of revelation about the sinister presence of past and present oppression continue to disrupt communities. Street names, place names, flags and habit patterns bear not-so-subtle reminders of terrible sorrow.
What do we do? How broken open do we have to be before we start to take steps, remove flags, rename streets, extend a hand to another who cannot even speak for the sadness that has stopped us in our tracks?
This past week, I gathered with my sisterhood of bookmakers. We painted papers and built journals and sat in sacred circle where we wrote and shared. In that quiet held space, grief sat among us and carved a bigger space in our hearts for each other. Sitting there with bare-boned knowing, grief rubbed elbows with celebration and the agonies of our lives return from exile.
How do you sit with grief, yours or someone else’s?
What do you do?
In my town, we start cooking. People trodden down with sorrow need to eat and drink, so we utilize the online tool of Meal Train and the family eats.
In the lushness of summer, grief joins us. She edges in like a dog soaked with skunk, fragrant and impossible to ignore.
It is Sunday morning.
From the church of my heart, I send you love.
My apologies for the earlier draft of this post that misnamed Charleston. Yes, I am right with you #Charlestonstrong.
Adulthood isn’t an award they’ll give you for being a good child. You can waste… years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No. You have to just… take it.
Lois McMaster Bujold
My birthday is this Saturday.
I am going to be 54.
This is same age my father was when he died of lung and bone cancer and a life of alcohol abuse.
I am in Wisconsin.
Where, you ask? Didn’t I just get home from Italy?
But while I was in Italy, my youngest sister was in the Democratic Republic of Congo getting/fetching/extracting/receiving her new daughter through the adoption process.
So, at the tender age of 54 I am becoming an Aunt to a little brown skinned angel named Ella Rose. I came here so she could capture my heart.
She has been successful.
And I only just got here yesterday afternoon.
Maybe my heart was easy for the taking. My youngest sister has long looked to me, her eldest sister, for good reasons to do things. I won’t say she looks to me for advice because I think the tags attached to advice are often negative and very pricey, so I don’t offer it. I am here to offer my experience as a mother and to fuss over the both of them, because I am the matriarch of my extended family and this is what a matriarch does. In this case, we cook dinner, do the laundry, crawl around on the floor, and make it easy for this new mom to adjust to being needed and craved by a daughter who has lived through enormous hardship in her 15 months.
Seeing the way Ella Rose’s little hands reach around my sister’s leg to balance herself as she pulls up, her tiny span looks exactly like the tendrils my bean plants put out to anchor and push off in to the air another few inches. My sister has placed herself at the roots of this little girl’s life in order to give her a strong foundation from which to grow. My niece has arrived on the golden plain of Wisconsin from the trash layered streets of an impoverished country in the capable arms of my sister. Our whole family and our friends are weaving together a network of love and care for these two that will sustain them in to the future.
I feel very adult today. My own children are chugging along in high school, their own tendrils are strong and supple and spread to higher and higher places, wrapped snuggly around me and my husband and spread further to other people in our lives who stand at their foundation. When I first heard Hillary Clinton say “It takes a village” my kids were really young and I understood it, but didn’t know it as my life.
Today, as I see my children move around the world with other people as their mentors, teachers, confidantes and buddies, I know the village. I don’t know everyone who lives here yet, but I know that the village is more important to my children than almost anything I can ever say. The words, love and companionship that are offered them by the other people in my children’s lives fall in to their hearts through separate passageways; different from the passageways my husband and I have access to as their parents.
And for this reason, I do not take these relationships lightly. I take the request a child makes seriously and I offer myself to the other children in my life with a sense of reverence and honor. My kids are teenagers, so we do assist them in forging these relationships, helping them set up arrangements with tutors or teachers, but it is their own appetites and who they are attracted to that dictates how firmly or deeply those relationships will settle in to the our village.
Just this summer, my boy Ben spent 2 days with one of my best friends from college. This is a guy who has known Ben since he was born and has, for Ben’s 18 years, been waiting not-so-patiently to have my son, without me. They had a whole evening to talk philosophy and eat, then another day to hang around. The grins on their faces when I saw them again told me that the scatological humor had run havoc and the food had been just what I would never offer. A perfect time for an 18 year old.
When Ella Rose took my finger early this morning, I felt the first tendrils of her being reach out and wrap around mine. When I returned from a walk later and she ran in to me, not necessarily wrapping her arms around me yet, but bubbling and touching and seeing me up close as I knelt before her, I could sense her feelers judging- is this a firm presence, can I include this big person in my village?
I accept this award of adulthood today knowing that the tags attached to this honor mean standing in my integrity in every relationship I forge- with each person I encounter, whether I am related by blood, proximity or choice. When Ella reaches out her small set of fingers towards me, I stand before her ready to be strong and tall and a stand from which she can reach and stretch.
It is a delight beyond knowing that I get to spend my birthday here. We are going to meet Geri Miller at the Madison Farmer’s Market, apparently, THE Farmer’s Market. I will keep you posted on all that goes on here. And let you know how the tendrils forming.
Please stay tuned for news on the workshop I am leading this fall at Simon’s Rock College called THE POWDER KEG SERIES: a writing workshop for mothers and others. Here is a link to the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers page, our host venue. Many thanks to the Festival for their continued
support of Laundry Line Divine and Out of the Mouths of Babes.
And thank you for your support of my work here. Please pass this blog post on to a friend. And consider subscribing to my site. And, as always, your comments are always welcome.
It is in the air. Sitting at a table this coming Thursday, whether you like it or not, you are part of a community. Riding on the subway. Driving on the Ventura Highway. In line at Joe-to-Go in your rented car. Sitting in an Advent Circle. Floating on the ferry across the Sound. Sitting in an office waiting room. Sitting at the computer in the office of that waiting room.
Our hearts beat in community. There are many solo acts among us, but even they, by virtue of their choices, are a community.
Then there is family, which many of us are thinking about this week. Even stinky Uncle Phil, or adorable Nora, these people who burp loudly or reach under the table with a small sweaty hand to squeeze your clenched fist, they are your community.
These are the people who will be standing up at your memorial service to tell how deeply you loved, because, yes, you stood for loving even the difficult to love.
That is what community is about. Loving each other including our difficulties.
My friends in the School of the Womanly Arts are good at community and getting better. If you look at my friend Joanne’s blog, you will see us in Miami last week, looking so happy. We know each other glowing and we know each other in the moments not pictured here, with gales of tears, snot and despair soaking our socks. We have stood for each other through major life passages and celebrate it all.
My family, my little community here under this roof is a bit like an anemone, reaching out tentacles that suck people in. We each, in our appetite for fun, invite friends for movies or dinners or memorial services and these friends show up.
This salves the challenge of friends who live so far away, for whom showing up is not easy. It comforts you when what you need is a good long cry or a talk over the dirty dishes, getting clean, both of you. We create community.
I believe in community. I thrive in it. I rely on it. I live it.
Six weeks have passed since my Mom died. First, there were the gatherings in Escanaba, where my parents live(d). The Lutheran response to grief is food and for this, I am fortunate. When else would my diet be laced with Scotcheroos for breakfast?
There was the service and the people who traveled across the country to be with us. Miles traveled do not earn any badges of honor, but being there does. Whether it was a custodian from one of my Mom’s schools or my Uncle from Colorado, each came to stand with me, my siblings and stepdad in respect for my Mom. I relied on them to help me remember Mom.
Then, back here in Massachusetts, I was pining away like the dog at the door for people with which to grieve. My knitting circle friend urged me to plant my grieving here in my yard with a service and in my town with a notice in the paper. I could not have come to that clarity without her help. Another in my rich circle of friends, community, comes to my aid.
Standing in our yard a week later, with 30 friends talking about Mom, I felt a bit like I was on top of the Empire State Building…looking out over the vista and realizing it was mine. All this sadness and celebration of Mom is mine. I share it with my sisters and stepbrother and Stepdad, but each of us has her own vista. Whoa. I felt dizzy at the real estate.
Now, as the days pass, peppered through my hours are people I can look at who, though they did not know my Mom, they stood in the yard and planted daffodils in her honor. My friend Roger, who is one of the most extraordinary friends available, even adopted my Mom’s favorite song in to his Jestering. Perhaps you will be fortunate one day to hear his rendition of “I Know A Weenie Man”.
This week, I will be with my community. My sisters each have their own plans. We have not gathered as a family at Thanksgiving for years, so my husband and I have settled in to our community family holiday plan which we all enjoy, wrapped in deep love. We will toast our gains and losses of this past year, we will bake pies, and we will remember with each other how to laugh crying and cry laughing.
May your holidays find you celebrating your community.
Even stinky Uncle Phil.