Category Archives: spirituality

A Season of Loss

We’ve had so much going on this year, and I forgot to buy a yartzheit candle to mark the seventeenth anniversary of my mother’s death. This weekend initiates a trifecta of death anniversaries: my mother (April 7), her mother (April 8), and a beloved aunt (April 9).

I have marked these anniversaries back-to-back for years, often lighting candles in my kitchen. For me, marking death in early April can feel incongruous, an affront to the landscape’s perpetual message of rebirth.

This morning, because our past year has been so complicated, I also forgot that today was my mother’s yartzheit. I remembered only after I opened the kitchen door to let our dogs in from the yard. Nature reminded me. Each time I look at a cherry blossom or daffodil, I remember where I was on a Sunday morning seventeen years ago. I go back to the moment before I learned the news of my mother’s death, when I sat on a sofa while the walls turned salt-lamp pink, then swirled around me. I go back to the the moment after I confirmed the news, when I fell to the floor and opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out. My primary experience was one of silence, which now strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for death and grief.

In the past seventeen years I have mourned my mother, I have resisted cultural silences imposed on the grieving. I have resisted avoiding the topic of death. I have resisted language that denies the reality of death and grief. This blog is one form of resistance.

This week, I’ve thought frequently about how hard it was for me to go back to school after I lost my mother, how much pressure I felt to perform normalcy and perfection. I thought about how I learned to hide my sorrow, and how alien I felt in rooms full of 21-year-olds whose parents were still alive, and often paying their children’s bills. At 21, I had no such resources. I was on my own. To this day, I do not know how I graduated from college, only that I did – on Mother’s Day 2003. Some people tell me I’m strong or brave. But I don’t think finishing college was a heroic act. In a period of tremendous instability, the structure of an academic year gave me stability. I clung to stability. If anything, I feared further change. I avoided uncertainty.

After my graduation ceremony, I went out to lunch with visiting relatives but refused to go out to dinner. Instead, I stayed in my apartment with my sister and boyfriend. We ordered takeout. My graduation was not a celebration, and celebration felt fraudulent. My college graduation was the first major milestone I marked without a mother, and I marked this milestone in public, surrounded by jubilant people, on a Hallmark holiday that forefronts motherhood.

That day, I needed privacy. I needed to grieve alone with my sister. The next week, we’d “celebrate” her graduation. I cannot bear to look at photos from either of these events. I had such a sweet boyfriend at the time, and he stayed with me even though it was hard, and we were both too young to understand the emotional pressures bearing down on us. In the graduation photos, my boyfriend stands next to me. He holds me in a protective embrace. But my eyes are vacant, cold, dead.

I am barely there. I do not want to be there.

Something that bonds Carl and me is that we both lost parents young. We both lost the parents with whom we shared a gender identity – my mother, his father. We both walked across commencement stages, received diplomas, fell in love, began careers, bought homes without those parents present. At our wedding ten years ago, we claimed these losses in a candle-lighting ritual. We acknowledged how light and darkness exist side-by-side as natural elements of human experience, our experience. In our family, grief swims beneath each experience of joy.

This morning, because I could not find a yartzheit candle, I walked from our kitchen to our attic, which we’ve recently remodeled into a meditation/Yoga space and writing studio. I sat on my meditation cushion and lit the only candle we have, a rainbow chakra candle I gave Carl for Christmas. Then I carried the candle through our dark house and placed it on the stove, beside a plate of matzah brei I’d made for Carl’s breakfast. A spoon holder that once belonged to my mother sat behind the candle; it’s one of the few objects I have left from her house.

In our kitchen, the makeshift yartzheit candle still burns, will burn all day. I’ll light another candle tomorrow, and another candle the next day. Outside, the daffodils and cherry blossoms will open more blooms. Each time I see them, I will hold despair and hope in the same gaze. Despair. Hope. Neither cancels the other out. Each magnifies the other. Each reminds me how precious, how beautiful a life touched by death can be.

 

Getting “Closer to Fine”

My friend Anne and I saw the Indigo Girls at Wolf Trap in 2015. I could barely move that summer, and going to the concert was a big deal. Before we went, Anne told me she’d ridden her bike to a pool, swum laps, and read a book that day. I couldn’t believe it – like, she could sustain concentration long enough to read a book? When was the last time I’d read a book? Swimming and biking were beyond me, so I didn’t even think about them. The book, I fixated on that. Reading seemed like something I should be able to attain – I have a master’s degree in English Lit. I’m a professional reader. And yet, when Anne spoke to me, reading a book from start to finish seemed as impossible as climbing Mount Everest.

The month of the concert, a weird rash had erupted on my legs. Before the rash appeared, I’d been following my father around Cleveland Metroparks, climbing railroad bridges and doing other outdoorsy things that would have made my mother panic, if she were still alive. I didn’t think to check myself for ticks – I don’t know why. I just didn’t. I was caught up in trying to understand my father’s boyhood, the events that made him the man he became. I was writing my way closer to him, and I did not think about myself. (This is a pattern.)

A few weeks later, I wore shorts and sandals and hiked around Multnomah Falls with Carl. I didn’t check myself for ticks there either. I was having a spiritual experience, completely blissed out on the woods and Portland. Why on earth would I stop and look for ticks?

And then, the rash appeared. Weird pinprick splotches on both calves, just below the knees. It looked like I was bleeding under the skin. And my GP tested me for Lyme and told me I didn’t have Lyme, even though I was too early in the testing window to know. And I didn’t know enough at the time to even know that detail I have just written. My doctor alluded to chronic Lyme as being a completely made up thing, the medical equivalent of a unicorn. Only crazy people had chronic Lyme disease.

I tape recorded him as he spoke because I didn’t trust him. Or I didn’t trust myself.

On the recording, I sound so smart and confident, completely opposite of how I felt in the moment. I do not sound like a person who tape records a doctor because she’s afraid he’s gaslighting her, because gaslighting is what she expects from men in authority. I sound like a person who is relieved because the doctor tells her what she wants to hear –– she’s healthy.  So she ignores all the terrible symptoms that wax and wane and escalate. They are all in her head. They are hormones or hysteria. They are something else and something else and something else. She accepts his version of reality at the expense of her own. (This is a pattern I’m learning to break.)

Anne came with me to a follow up appointment because I needed someone else in the room, and that night we saw Indigo Girls.

We sat outside, our feet touching the grass. We drank wine and ate chocolate and sang “Shame on You” and “Closer to Fine” and “Galileo,” and so many songs that spoke to us when we were younger and had no clue how our lives would unfold. When I think about that summer, I don’t think about all the hours I spent in bed, confused and scared. I think about that concert, about the songs of my past that held such promise for my future.

I’m writing a spiritual memoir and am getting closer to finishing — or “Closer to Fine” – as Anne wrote on Twitter the other day. My treatment for chronic Lyme disease is working, even if my symptoms are still scary and still make me feel like I’m losing my grip on reality. Chronic disease can also feel like gaslighting. I don’t trust my perception of reality. My perception of reality is distorted by a disease that impacts my senses and central nervous system.

This week, to calm myself, I watched Indigo Girls performances from the 1990s, and I rewrote the first chapter of my book, which is about what it means to trust in the multiple paths that carry us forward.

At the end of the 2015 Wolf Trap concert, Indigo Girls sang “Closer to Fine,” a song from their second album, a song that has defined their career. This song is also about what it means to seek, to trust, to take refuge. There’s more than one answer to these questions. 

The chorus of “Closer to Fine” inclines toward the mountain top, the “look out,” but my spiritual awakenings have always begun on the ground. That’s where I go to meditate, or where I lay when I’m too tired to stand. On the ground, I let go of ego and expectation.

This week, I was so tired, I fell asleep on my meditation cushion. I found myself thinking of that song title, the words Anne tweeted –– Closer to Fine –– about how writing and spirituality can be a movement toward something, but not a finish line. This isn’t the answer I – or my students – want to hear, but it’s a liberating truth I need to hear. In this confusion, or darkness, my friends light the way on the journey. They remind me that wandering isn’t the same as being lost.

Indigo Girls 2015
Anne & me seeing Indigo Girls in 2015

 

 

A Gift, a Burden

I bought my mother a journal with a bird on the cover. We were in an Urban Outfitters near The Ohio State University, and my mother was threatening to buy penis-shaped pasta to serve the next time I or my sister had a male friend over for dinner. And I bought her a pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. Inside, I left an inscription. I encouraged her to write down all her dreams, her hopes. When she died four years later, I found the journal under a pile of sweaters. She’d never written a single word.

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The morning my mother died, I fell to the floor and opened my mouth to scream. No sound came out. I reached up and pulled my journal off the coffee table. I opened up to a blank page, wrote the date in a top corner, then scrawled one giant word on the page. WHY?

I’m embarrassed that my first response to my mother’s death was this question, a half formed “Why me?” At the moment I lost her, my head spun with a thousand questions, and the most persistent one rose to the top.

 Why? I asked as if I could find an answer.

Why? I asked and knew I’d never find an answer.

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I have lived for nearly seventeen years without a mother. I was 17 when I bought her the journal with a bird on the cover. Every year, my relationship to her life changes. My relationship to her death changes. Grief changes. Sometimes grief is a bundle that weighs me down so hard I can barely walk. Other times it’s smaller than a speck of dust, something I can almost brush aside, let drift away. I close my eyes and remember what it was like to have a mother. This memory is a dream that escapes me. If I graze the surface of this dream, it shatters.

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Grief, from the Old French grever means “burden.” The word grever derives from the Latin gravar, “to make heavy,” a root of the word gravity.

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My mother was my gravity, my ground, my root. Without her, I am rootless.

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 Grief can be an experience of rootlessness, just as grief can be an experience of being weighed down.

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Two contradictory things are true at the same time. That is grief.

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Why didn’t my mother write in the journal with a bird on the cover? What was she afraid of? Or did she not care? Or was she saving the journal for me, because she saw me as the writer?

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 A year after she died, I went to Greek island of Crete. I took her journal. I slept in a room that looked out on the sea. I filled the pages she left blank. I am still filling those pages. I will fill the pages for as long as I am able, which is to say until I die.

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Carl Jung wrote, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.” There it is again. That word. Burden.

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 My mother’s legacy is a burden, and it also a gift. Neither of these ideas – burden, gift –erase the other. They exist side-by-side, like twins, like my sister and me.

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 My mother’s death did not make me a writer, and I could not make her a writer. I responded to her death with a question because death is a question. I can never know why she refused to write in the pale blue journal with a blue bird on the cover, or why I even bought her the journal in the first place.  Now the pale blue cover strikes me as an important detail. Blue. The color of sky and water. The color of expansion. The color of dreams I cannot touch.

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Birds mediate heaven and earth. I love that word. Between. My mother lives in my memories, my dreams. She inhabits the in-between of her life and her death. She lives in that sentence, in the conjunction and, a bridge between two words, two worlds. Once I had a mother. Once I bought her a pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. Once I wanted to capture her hope in a book emblazoned with a quintessential image of hope.

But she left all her pages blank. She left all her pages for me to fill.

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Do you hear the suggestion of the word “grave” in that sentence, an echo of gravar? I do. I can’t stop myself. Her burial, her resurrection live together on the page, where I recreate her and say goodbye, make her into a memory, a ghost.

I can see her now, standing in the Urban Outfitters aisle, sunlight glittering on the edge of her chin. She holds up the pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. She smiles, as if she knows something I do not yet know.

 

How to Survive the Holidays as a Grieving Person


1. Our dead are gone, and they are everywhere. They are absent, ever-present, the way some people talk about God.

2. Our dead come back. Again and again. When we least expect them, they shout, “Surprise!” For example, I lost all my mother’s recipes after she died. Barely 21, I couldn’t imagine living without her, much less becoming a person with her own kitchen and recipes one day. And yet, this year, I found a Taste of Home recipe that replicates a chocolate pizza my mother served at our Hanukkah Party each year. Melted down chocolate chips form the pizza’s crust. Cheese comes from dried flaked coconut. Melted maraschino cherries serve as pepperoni. I’ve decided to serve this dessert during my family’s Hanukkah celebration this year. When I place my own chocolate pizza on the dining room table, I suspect I’ll feel like my mother has returned to me once more, a most welcome and unexpected guest.

3. Headphones. I don’t know what I would have done without them the summer after my mother died, when I moved abroad to work at a newspaper in a country I barely knew. Each day, I’d walk from the flat where I stayed in Dennistoun, to the newspaper in the Glasgow City Centre, where I worked. The Cure sang me forward. I believed every song on one particularly tortured album was written just for me. With headphones on, I tuned into myself and a pain that might instruct me, if I learned how to listen.

4. Now I use headphones to tune out the nonstop Christmas anthems that play everywhere this time of year. I cannot bear the public performance of joy. There is no right way to be happy, just as there is no right way to be sad. Our memories bring comfort, and they bring knee-deep sorrow. Headphones help me tune out the less helpful noises of this season, help me quiet the expectation that happiness comes easily to us all, that happiness isn’t the battlefield of my life.

5. A path lit by joy and sorrow runs down the center of my heart. How bright, how beautiful. How lucky I have been.

6. When I am feeling at my worst, I remember I dared to love after I lost the person I loved most in the world. I do not believe in god or heaven or clear categories of afterlife. But I believe in salvation. I believe love saved me, just as love will save you.

7. Get out of town, if you can. Take a road trip, a flight, a ride on a boat. Make new memories, memories that are yours alone to cherish. After my mother died, a friend told me, “Life goes on.” She wasn’t trying to silence my grief. And she meant what she said. My life would continue beyond the point where my mother’s life stopped. I had to stand up and walk toward her death, walk past my grief, and understand there would never be a point where I surpassed my grief. But I could walk along side this unbearable loss, make grief my companion on a journey I barely understood, a journey that is mine alone to understand.

8. I chose to travel because I was young and could sleep in a closet and live on potato chips and candy bars. So I left my mother’s house. I left my country. I met my life for the first time. I cried every day, and I ate a lot of potato chips and candy bars. I gained ten pounds. I fell in love. I grew big with wonder and joy. I started to live the life my mother wanted for herself, which became the life I chose, and the life she wanted for me.

9. I am not religious anymore. But my favorite prayer is the V’ahavta. It literally means, “and you shall love.” When I was a little girl, I used to wait for this prayer during the Shabbat service. We sang those words over and over again, “and you shall love.” They are the only commandment I’ve kept from Judaism, the only prayer I remember and return to. These ancient words remind me that loss hurts in direct proportion to how greatly we have loved.

10. Even after I gave away all her clothes and scattered her ashes in the Chesapeake Bay, my mother’s love refused to leave me. The longer I live without her, the more powerfully I feel her love. It’s there when I wake up each morning and kiss my husband. It’s there when I write, when I listen to a friend in the midst of a struggle. It’s there when I refuse to lose my shit at my horribly behaved dog or a student who needs a second chance. And you shall love. My mother’s voice rises up in my memory, as fervent as the prayer I once chanted. Dead, she is everywhere, an ineffable god.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Want to Wish You a Merry Chrismukkah

I came downstairs the other morning to find our Hanukkiah sitting on the living room floor, beside Carl’s work backpack.

How sweet, I thought. He’s getting our Hanukkah decorations out to make sure my holiday doesn’t get dwarfed by Christmas. This has been our routine for a few years. I go crazy making sure all his grandmother’s hand-tatted angels find their way onto our Christmas tree branches. He counts the Hanukkah candles leftover from last year, then orders enough from Amazon to last us through the whole eight nights.

Turns out, I was half right.

Carl retrieved our Hanukkiah for our use, but also to light during the Christmas Eve service at the Unitarian congregation where he serves as minister. For the first time since 1978, the first night of Hanukkah intersects with Christmas Eve.

Most families might not notice this cosmic coincidence, determined by a lunar cycle that means Gregorian dates for Jewish holidays shift yearly. In our family, we can’t help but notice. Carl grew up celebrating Christmas. I celebrated Hanukkah. When we married at my family’s synagogue more than nine years ago, we chose Judaism as the dominant religion in our home.

As if the Judeo-Christian complexity of our December holidays weren’t enough, there’s also the minister issue. This is arguably the busiest time of Carl’s professional year, although he might disagree. All I know is that on Dec. 24, he’s officiating at a wedding, followed by two Christmas Eve services.

He’ll be back at his pulpit by 10 a.m. on Christmas Day, a time when most normal people are unwrapping presents or eating breakfast casseroles. This means we will not eat Christmas Eve dinner together, nor will we have time to unwrap presents on Christmas morning, as we have done for the entire twelve years we’ve been a couple.

On Christmas Day, we’re hosting a lunch for his mother, my sister, her husband, and their three kids, all of whom keep kosher. I will be cooking for hours beginning Friday night. As I peel two pounds of grapes for Carl’s grandmother’s fruit salad recipe, I will no doubt be channeling my Bubbie Fran: Eat. Eat. Eat. This is appropriate because Jews will outnumber Christians by 3 to 1 at our holiday table.

I would be lying if I wrote that I felt at peace this holiday season. The darkest time of year is hard on us. But I’m trying not to get swept up in the holiday crazy, to become aware when I feel consumerism’s pull. Sometimes I get it right. The other day, when a man honked at me near Walgreens, I flipped him a peace sign.

Still, I truly lost it earlier this week when a large package arrived for Carl. He’d ordered himself the exact same monastery made meditation cushion I’d purchased for his Christmas gift. This means it’s Dec. 22, his mother’s flight arrives tonight, and I still don’t know what I’m getting the man who wants nothing for Christmas. (Lump of coal? Lump of coal?)

Still, it’s amazing to me that I even have money to purchase holiday gifts. I grew up in a family where money was scarce, and sometimes I didn’t know if I would receive presents on Hanukkah. They were always small gifts, always something I needed. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I wish I’d cherished everything my mother ever gave me.

Now my mother-in-law lavishes me with gifts, which she wraps in Hanukkah paper. She spoils me beyond words, and I appreciate her consciousness at a time when it’s 100 percent more likely that the receipt checker at Costco will wish me a “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Hanukkah” or miracle-of-miracles Chanukah sameach.

My mother-in-law still lives in the small South Carolina community where she took her son to a big steeple Baptist church a few times a week. Where she finds Hanukkah wrapping paper, I will never know. I do know that I’ll be making her and Carl blueberry blintzes for breakfast on Christmas Day, before they scurry off to church. (Thanks, Bubbie Fran.)

I also know we create refuge by sharing in each other’s traditions, rather than foisting traditions on each other.  I still do not know how to live without shouldering other people’s expectations. But that’s what New Year’s resolutions are for.