Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gravelly Notes

My husband of five years and partner of 16 years died on April 20 of this year.  That is still, 8 months later, a very difficult sentence to write.  The flat, blunt reality of the sentence makes me angry.  And, as I am a writer, I'm writing some essays about his experience, and mine.  My experience, our experience, offers one more view into one of the human experiences we both fear and loathe.  And our experience, although crowded with pain and hurt and anger and loathing for cells that refused to die, was also filled with some of the better parts of what it means to be human and alive and connected to other people.  That surprise, that gift, is longer than a blog post.

But while I am reclaiming my writing table and time, while I am finding my voice and embracing the new gravelly notes in that voice, the planet continues to spin.  Life continues. 

I've recently read, slowwwwwly, Joan Didion's memoir The Year of Magical Thinking.  It is the memoir of the year after her husband died unexpectedly. Near the end of the book, Joan Didion writes:
"...I think about people I know who have lost a husband or wife or child.  I think particularly about how they looked when I saw them unexpectedly--on the street, say, or entering a room--during the year or so after the death.  What struck me in each instance was how exposed they seemed, how raw. 
How fragile, I understand now.
How unstable." 

And that is, quite simply, how it is.

In July of this year I went home to Michigan to be with my family for a visit.  Readers of this post may already know that my sister also lost her husband, Jan, this year.  Nine days before Jeff died.  It is impossible, and yet it happened just that way.  Photographs of me on that July trip showed up recently.  I was struck by two things - how much weight I had gained (again) and how much I looked like a survivor of a tragedy.  My face in those photos did not, does not, look to me like my own face.  I hate these photographs.  But in my belly I know that they are simply accurate. 

So- more truth.  In July, I was more fragile than I am now.  I was more unstable, and still so raw that air sometimes hurt.  And yet, I put clothing into a suitcase and flew to Michigan so that I could be with people I love at a time that we needed one another.   When I feel as though I'm taking too long to regain my footing, I remind myself of this. 

It has been a year of change.  My family has had losses and new babies and children becoming amazing people and a thousand smaller changes - and we are blessed.  Acceptance is an amazing gift, and it makes me take a deep breath and throw open my arms to change, knowing that joy and hope coexist with pain and loss. 

In acceptance, that photo with the fragile and unstable survivor's face, my face, is simply the before picture in the story of the life I'm going to build next.  It is all a gift, all part of the tapestry.  All of it. 

My best to all who happen this way. 


Sunday, October 16, 2011


It has taken more effort than I fully understand to begin sharing myself here again.  Thank you to those who reminded me to keep trying. 

Life humbles us.  We plan and plot and think our way through many challenges.  We have trial runs of our most important presentations at work, job interviews and even dates.  Yet the truly immense and life changing experiences almost all come without warning, without the ability to pre-plan or rehearse.  Lately I've been thinking about what we are left with in such moments.  Informed by a series of such moments, this year I've been thinking about the relationships of grief and fear and anger, of love and loss and grace, of fear and acceptance and strength. I will be writing about those, too.  But today I'm writing about something simpler. 

When I was 13, my parents bought me a horse.  She was gloriously beautiful.  She was also impossibly spirited and very troubled.  I remember the day we were trying to load her into a trailer to bring her home.  She leaped over the loading ramp, danced around at the end of the lead rope, swung wildly around to the side of the trailer, her neck extended into a long line glinting in the sunlight, eyes rolling and nostrils flaring.  She stomped, tried to rear, snorted.   She stood and shuddered with dread, her coat rippling gold in the sunlight.  She was a horse, but we understood how she felt, quite clearly.  She was scared, she was mad and she was notnotnot climbing into that horse trailer.  Not without a fight.  Eventually, of course, she was loaded into the trailer.  And once she did, she was not a horse that stood kicking the side of the trailer.  I truly do not remember any more how she came to be in that trailer's stall, as I've rewritten and reimagined this scene so many times - but in my current memory she lifted her head and walked lightly up the ramp, trusting that it was the path she needed to walk. 

I'm like that.  Faced with some types of change, with things I do not want to do or things that I fear, I flail and stomp and kick just as that horse did.  I have language, I'm sharp-witted and often funny, but I kick like a mofo.   I try to avoid the ramp, reroute the ramp, bypass the ramp - just as she did.  And, when it is clear that walking up the ramp is precisely what I'm going to do, I shake it off and walk up the ramp with as much grace as I can muster.  And as most everyone knows, I don't kick too much in the stall.  Once I'm in, I'm in for the duration of the trip.

Prose writing workshops I participated in, especially fiction workshops, spend a lot of time talking about the complexity of character reactions.  We sat around conference tables, analyzing a piece of writing and talking about the complexities of emotions. "Love," we would say confidently, "does not come in the package that Hallmark is selling. It is not Lifetime Movie Network love. It is complicated and messy and has elements of so many emotions."  And then we would try to imagine a few.  An interesting set, a set that seemed true to the character and to the story being told.   I remember thinking deeply about characters in love, in hate, in betrayal.  I do not remember thinking about characters in grief.  Grief was simple.  Sadness, regret, a little relief now and then mixed in.  I am embarrassed to say that I had always thought of grief as being the most universally felt and understood emotional experience.  I was wrong. 

Be well and happy wherever this may find you. 

~  patti

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Power of Breath

Spring is flirting with me. I can feel the tickle of her warming sun and the sweetness of earth coming back to life in the brisk winds and mercurial precipitation patterns that define March in Idaho. Promise is sometimes enough, but I'll admit to needing something a little more substantive to sustain me just now. So, if you have any power over the weather patterns please send sunshiney spring days to Idaho. STAT.

Many of the people I love most and connect to most readily have lived through difficult things. Months and months ago, I remember a discussion (almost a debate) with one of my favorite people at work. We were at a bar, and I stated this preference and he asked, essentially, is that fair? How can you know that those who have not been tested would not rise to the test with strength and grace?

I don't really have an answer for whether it is fair, but I can tell you for certain that if you have lived through a few challenges you don't react with the same sort of shocked horror when a new one arises. It doesn't become routine for anyone to face difficult things, but the cycle of disbelief gets shorter and shorter. And maybe that is the essence of my connection to others who have weathered storms. It saves so much time, when time maybe matters most, not to traverse the terrain titled "this can't be happening to me" and "I can't do this." Bad things happen to us. They do, they always will. Some we might have helped avoid with different choices, some crash in on us like the springtime snowstorms that put a chill on the warming earth.

And so it is happening to you. Right now, not in some hazy future moment. And you can do it, if you choose to. In all likelihood when bad things are happening whatever the "it" is that you feel you can't do will be only the first of the many things you will do. Later, you will look back fondly at the "it" you can't imagine doing today. You will remember how sweetly naive it was to imagine being unable to do that, when you have done not only that, but a hundred more difficult or unpleasant variants of that.

Yes, I'm aware that some people truly cannot do "it" and that someone else will have to then step in and pick up the messy blechy thing and get it done.  I empathize with that, but frankly I'm not usually that person.  And selfishly, or in a desire to understand myself, I'm not so interested in them.  My interest is directed toward those who look at the new challenge both warily and fearlessly, sizing up the battle.

Lately, I've had too much time to think, but not enough sleep to think clearly.  Still, I am struck by the idea that all we really have is how we react, and how we live through things. Sometimes our lives and our world are defined by our choices. And in other circumstances we are not allowed the luxury of choice.  In those instances, we have only what we will do about the challenge that has been thrust upon us.  And in those situations, our behavior defines our experience, not the other way around. So when a loved one is dying, a marriage is ending, a dream has been erased from the realm of possibility, the person you are at your core will show up and your actions will define how you experience your life.  They will either underscore or contradict the person you thought you were, that the world may have thought you were. 

As in all things, it's important for us to choose.  Take that deep and steadying breath, and choose.

Best to all who happen this way. 

~ patti

Sunday, January 30, 2011


This past week has been one of the toughest I've ever lived through.  And I'm through it, and while I'm pretty tired, I am also still standing and able to smile.  There are weeks and weeks of challenge in front of me - but for today I am grateful to be where I am.  Thank you to those of you who are reading this and helped make it happen.  I appreciate it more than you may know. 

So of course, when things are very tough, you should start major organizing projects.  Yes, that was sarcasm.  Here is a question:  are your cabinets, closets and storage spaces filled with things that you will never use, wear or display again, but that you keep because they are "too valuable" to toss or donate?  I spent most of my afternoon digging through a biiiig cabinet in my house.  It contained:  nail polish, a truly shocking variety of nail and foot care devices and products, OTC cold medicines, lotions, suntan lotions, bandages (including 14 varieties of neatly-rolled elastic bandage), knee/ankle/wrist braces, a lot of greeting cards, a bunch of wrapping paper/ribbon, a stack of beautiful but not-for-me plates, five big oversized photo albums (empty).....and two more shelves of stuff. 

Does anyone want to see how much the packaging has changed for AlkaSeltzer Plus Cold Medicine since 1997?  Anyone? 

I'm grubby and tired from sorting through 13-year-old documents and 10-years-expired self tanners.  And I find myself thinking that the habit of tucking such things into a cabinet is the same habit that has me leaving more important things half-answered until I'm pressed into a corner and must do so.

This is definitely the year that I am focused on committing to each moment fully, living through it fully.  I don't have the inclination or the energy any more to tuck things into corners to be dealt with at some hazy future moment of truth.  Nope, I intend to simply decide, each moment, and move forward. 

If there is one very true gift that comes from experiencing pain, it is the gift of clarity.  I intend to put that to work in my life.

Best to all who happen this way!

~ plk

Monday, January 3, 2011

Commitment, Not Resolution

At various times in my life, I've felt certain that I knew how to prioritize effectively.  No, actually the word I mean to use is not effectively - let's try appropriately.  We all need to prioritize, but I have three characteristics that, together, are something of a perfect storm for filling my days with opportunities to do things. 
  1. I have quite a lot of energy.
  2. I have an overly developed sense of responsibility.
  3. I possess an almost-hilarious five-year-old's curiosity about everything I see, touch, smell, taste, hear or in some other way perceive.  
Also, I like things to be done well.   Also, I like to change things for the better.  Also....yep, the list continues.

But in the last several years, either I've lost my ability to appropriately prioritize or I've lost my sense of certainty in that ability.  I'm never wholly sure that what I'm doing is the very best use of my minutes.  I'm never certain that I won't regret or curse the minutes I spent doing X activity or task when Y activity or task is late, missed or simply left undone. 

So, that whole paragraph doesn't sound like me.  At all.  I read that, and I think....who is this person writing at my keyboard?  I'm not terribly fond of her.  Why?  Because what is really missing is the truest, surest priority - that once you commit, you're in.  You do the thing you are doing, and you are wholly in it, and you feel every pleasurable or painful bit of it, and then you put it in the memory pile and move on.  So yes, it occurs to me that what is really changed is not so much my ability to prioritize.  No, it is my ability, willingness or commitment to stay in the moment long enough to truly live it and experience it, to taste, experience and even savor every sweet, salty, peppery, bitter, putrid, awful and wondrous millisecond of it. 

How this happened is pretty simply to deduce - when the ugly moments become more frequent, and the demands become more numerous, it's very tempting to hurry through them as glancingly as possible.  When I close my eyes, I think of this rushing as being something like the sensation of running through the sprinkler on a hot day, not pausing long enough for the sting of the chilled water to become welcome on your skin.  But that's a pretty image.  It's not a pretty habit, not really.  So here I am, showing you why that is a bad strategy - the habit of hurrying through difficult moments becomes a way of being, not a choice.  And before you know it, as quickly as you're running through the dark moments, you're hurrying through moments of beauty, laughter, love, connection -- and leaving in your wake a life half-lived.  Worse yet, those difficult and dark moments are far better than the joyous ones at reappearing insistently in front of your nose, demanding that you deal with them. 

I'm not in charge of what the world throws at me, but I'm wholly in charge of how I respond, and how I spend each moment.  Let's not call it a resolution, because words matter.  Let's call it a commitment.  To the extent that I am able, and strong enough, I'm all done with "multitasking" my moments.  It doesn't work, even when it makes me feel or look superproductive.  One moment, and then the next, and each one allowed to have the time and space it needs. 

My intent is to wring the sweetness out of the good moments, and let the bitter and putrid ones have their due time, all of it.  And not a millisecond more.  Count your good moments, and be thankful for your strength in getting through the awful ones. 

Best to all who happen this way ~ plk