Unremarkable Life

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Last Monday, January 18, 2021 marked what would have been my son’s 28th birthday. Numerous times he declared that he wouldn’t see 30, and he fulfilled his statement.

Last year, the first year without him, my daughter, his Godmother and I commemorated the day with a chocolate birthday cake. We lit 28 (one for good luck!) candles, topped off with a solemn rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Initially, this year, I planned to spend the day with my daughter, who lives in the next state, especially since we both had the day off. As it turned out, she is a teacher and had to prepare for her next day’s class.

“Chop wood and carry water,” I told her after she conveyed the update. In other words, get what’s done in front of you.

There are many interpretations to the Zen saying. In those early days after losing my son, my friend Betsy, who also lost her young son a decade prior, gave me faith like no other when she offered the wisest advice. “Chores need to be done.”

Washing dishes. Scrubbing the sink. Vacuuming. During the earliest days of the horrific period, it wasn’t a monumental moment that kept me alive, it was those dull, little duties in life that made it possible for my unbearably battered heart to beat.

Taking it a step further, “Chop wood and carry water” also refers to mindfulness and living, breathing, moment-to-moment. “Pay attention,” my loyal friend Bob reminds me often. “Be present.”

Accepting the present moment as is, sans judgment or inner conflict, helps lighten the load of the griefcase I transport on a daily basis.

So, “chop wood and carry water” for me meant two days of baking turkey pot pies that started one day before my son would have been 28. I imagined him eager to tear into the flaky crust. Then I could picture him in agony, but at the same time satisfied with a “it’s-worth-it” twinkle in his eyes after he burned his mouth on the food as he always did whenever I served his freshly made meals, which was most of the time, at least before he went out on his own.

In my kitchen, as I created these little golden sensations, I threw a Pot Pie Pity Party. Me and the Pies. When I was first getting sober in the early 80s, I was wisely instructed to throw pity parties for myself–with a time limit! No more than one hour. And so, there I was, my eyes sobbing until I couldn’t visualize the pot pie assembly line in front of me. When the hour was up, it’s a lucky thing a pot pie is the ultimate comfort food. Soul food it was, slice after slice.

I should add that when I made those pies, through my tears, I was able to bear to open another can of my son’s corn.

I imagined him tossing the can into his shopping cart at Kroger in that stupid “Unbridled Spirit” State that I have come to love and hate. I know he would have not noticed the brand name, only the price. Corn, especially on the cob, was among his favorites. Happy Harvest. That was the brand name. It was sweet and crunchy and was a perfect ingredient for comfort food.

Charlie Ambler wrote a very interesting post, Chop Wood, Carry Water

He starts it by saying, “There’s an old Zen saying— “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”

Then he says, “Zen requires us to make peace with ourselves, our time, and our place on Earth. We don’t do anything remarkable after we realize that the key to life is simply to live.”

Here is what he wrote that I find mind-boggling:

“There’s no reason to strive for any sort of higher living, or to do extraordinary things just to feel extraordinary— it’s all one and the same. Once we make the distinction between higher and lower, we create boundaries that cause us endless suffering. Instead, we can follow our own bodies and the intuitive gleanings of meditative practice to reach a place where cooking rice or cleaning the toilet are no different from conquering the world or becoming rich and famous.”

A level playing ground is a part of what Charlie is talking about here. My son would have done much better living on this kind of plain. I know I sure do. I decided not to post anything on Facebook on what would have been my son’s 28th birthday. I relished in slices of homemade pot pies with sweet corn. I washed dishes. Cleaned the stove. Washed office windows. In other words, I wrapped myself in my unremarkable little life, and it felt warm like a faith blanket lined with kernels of extraordinarily sweet corn.

Faith Muscle

White Ain’t Quite Right

NOTE: Thank you to my community of bloggers for helping renew my faith with your supportive feedback after you read my heart-wrenching blog last week. You help me realize that I do not have to carry my “griefcase” alone.

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White walls. White-tiled floors. White bed sheets. White 100% polyester bedspread. White slippery pillowcase. White wall sockets. White ceiling. White light. White light switch. If you could color faith, it wouldn’t be the color white. Let’s face it. It’s a bland, nondescript color that, at least as far as I am concerned, flattens the creative juices and makes a brain groggy.

I felt like a hollow light bulb all last week, remembering the white hospital room. I was rushed there over 28 years ago. For the next seven days, I resided in the white room after my water broke unexpectedly and I, along with the doctors, waited for my preemie’s lungs to develop fully before undergoing a C-section.

Even though I had a baby boy growing inside me, and a faithful husband at the time, a feeling of lonesomeness swallowed me. Maybe it was the effect of the decor’s whiteness, but I felt isolated. I simply waited like a prisoner for that moment of release.

I can still hear my first-grade teacher Mrs. Story. “You must learn to wait.”

She snapped every syllable in each word deliberately until her rubber band tone made your head crack.

Looking back, the “It’s Time! Declaration” strings many periods of my life together.

It’s time! I heard the declaration, a false alarm, so many times as my father slowly died from emphysema over two decades ago. It’s time! At the end of the fourth year, it REALLY was time.

It’s time! My mom’s death from a stroke was faster, about six months, and after a couple of false alarms, those two words came to be realized at the end of 2015. My brother Michael, on the other hand, that was a shocker death in 2002. He, too, suffered a stroke. After a week, I heard, It’s time! And, so it was.

Now back to 1993, It’s Time! Signified a week of waiting for my firstborn to be delivered, lying flat on my back like a piece of cork board. First, his delivery date was April then March and here we were January 18th. His time had come in it’s own time. It’s time! As lethargic as I felt from the white surroundings and white noise in my head, I could have kicked into a tap dance on those highly polished white tiles.

Though still in my early 30s, I just never believed I would “be blessed” with having children and here we were ready to give birth. What a twist in my life plot.

If I were given the opportunity to peek at the ending, would I have continued turning the pages? Frankly, I do not know. “Cruel twists in life” are apropos chapter names for so many of the subsequent chapters in the my life’s book.

Am I a better person for having my son in my life for a short period rather then not at all? At the moment, it’s all so painful, I will spare you the answer. You see, last year was tough after losing him, but it felt like his cells that dropped from his skin, his scent, his tracks, his being were fresh and alive, and I indulged in every little crumb. Now, fourteen months later on this day, he is so nonexistent. Dead. Gone. Hours roll by during the week, and his anticipated, regular phone calls are no longer prevalent. Everything feels whitewashed.

Sure, all the “believers,” all, by the way, who have living children, tell me I WILL feel him. That he IS alive. We’ve all heard the drill. Raw fact is that everything feels neutral like the color white.

Perhaps, one day some miracle or epiphany will champion me to have relentless faith and add color into the white palette and make me feel his spirit, but for now, it’s pure vanilla. I don’t know the essence of its meaning, but, ironically, vanilla has been my preferred flavor for many years.

It would have been an honor to see him at 28, as it was an honor to see him every day he was alive.

Faith Muscle

Tree of Death

Artwork by Hughie Lee-Smith

Driving home last week, I turned onto a road parallel to our road and like a magnet I was pulled into a work area where the town crew had recently cut down trees in close proximity to power lines. My heart plunged. I knew what I would witness BEFORE I encountered yet another raw reality. Of the few trees the crew cut down, MY SON’S tree was among them. The sight of the fresh stumps, chopped down trees and severed branches was like losing him all over again.

I blogged about HIS tree last summer when I wrote about our ailing cat’s disappearance: “Later, I discovered that during Chervony’s disappearance, he had sheltered under a tree on which my son’s name that he carved into it in 2008, remains. I came to the stunning realization that the cat had been undergoing his own fashion of mourning.

Since my son’s passing, I avoided looking too much at HIS tree with its prevalent boxed letters: “Marshall 2008.” The actual sight of it reminded me how he was everywhere, but nowhere at all. Concurrently, knowing HIS tree stood signified my beloved son existed. Once shunned by a kindergarten teacher for lack of “fine motor skills,” he had carved up HIS tree with force, vim and artistic achievement. He mattered.

I could barely stand erect when I witnessed HIS tree cut to the ground and missing, a victim to a wood chipper. It felt like another stab spiked threw my heart, already slashed and beyond repair, a bleeding valve of hurt. It was another typical “Marshall Story.” When you couldn’t imagine him enduring any more blows in life, another targeted him. Brush, cut up bark and sawdust; I felt like I was looking at the irreversible damage through his eyes.

I could hear him under his breath, inwardly despairing, “Figures.”

My eyes were tear stained imagining the unimaginable. If he witnessed HIS tree gone, his eyes would be dry. He learned early how society expected men to soldier on and “be men.” Lift their bone dry-eyes up and look toward the sun no matter how much the rays burn through the irises.

Out of a variety of definitions of faith, one is “believing without seeing or fully comprehending something.”

I lived most of my life in a spiritual realm, believing without seeing, even after witnessing unimaginable, incomprehensible things that no human being  should experience. Now, after recently being diagnosed with PTSD, one thing that helps me is sinking my teeth into REAL things like a hamburger. In other words, maybe some others can champion their lives on magic carpets woven with affirmations, positive thinking and happy thoughts, but fantasy thinking got me into a heap of trouble. Try, for instance, going to the bank and telling the teller you’ll pay your mortgage after your book hits the best seller’s list. I was in those shoes, and they aren’t Cinderella’s.

Finally, retiring my glass slippers fourteen months after my son’s demise, the following is a quote that I’ve also sunk my teeth into. The words help pull me up and put one foot in front of another. “In the 1960s, I began to lose my youthful dream of a better world – free of racism, free of the threat of instantaneous cremation of the bomb – and feed on a slow burning disillusionment. As a consequence, my work turned inward, and I began to seek some sort of essence to it all.”

The quote is from Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-1999). He was an American artist and teacher who is known for his highly realistic and somewhat surreal paintings of figures in desolate urban landscapes that are fraught with psychological tension.

HIS tree no more

Learning to reprogram myself for “a slow burning disillusionment,” I came face-to-face with MY SON’s cut down tree. Metaphorically, a life cut short; a life short-changed. I endured reliving the trauma AGAIN. Revisiting the unbearable head on. Immediately, I knew there is nowhere for me to turn outward without taking the chance of being plummeted. I can’t go down any farther. I am at ground level, eye-to-eye with a tree stump. At this level, for me finding the “essence to it all” is through creative expression. For Lee-Smith, it was artwork. In my case, reading, writing and ushering myself to make-believe worlds.

With this psyche I examined the damaged landscape. I soldiered away and tried to recall what my reading list entailed. As I dog paddled forward through my ocean of tears, I sailed on faith, believing somewhere in this heap of sawed down dust of nothing there is something of substance, just a kernel of meat for me to sink my teeth into.

Faith Muscle

Need Seed

My New Year’s wish list:

  • Hope for the hopeless
  • Voices for the voiceless
  • A sense of purpose, whether it is cleaning the sink or operating a business, for the bored and lost
  • Disconnection from social media and connection to real-life humans, see below
  • Inclusion for all, see above
  • The experience of one sunrise in the upcoming year that abashes the soul in its chorus of silence
  • Infinite Seeds of Hope packets to plant and create perennial gardens of aster, dahlia, goldenrod, mum, sedum and other vibrant and showy flowers that will illuminate the most pitch black soil

In fact, I think we can all be inspired by “Stars of Hope,” an art installation by Jane Ingram Allen at 620 4th Street, Santa Rosa, California, that was installed on November 25, 2020. The website states:

“In this time of a pandemic and an economic downturn, these stars of colorful handmade paper with seeds for wildflowers in them express hope for a brighter future in 2021. After the installation comes down in early 2021, these stars will be given out to residents to plant in their own yard or keep as a remembrance of this time and our hopes for a better world.”

  • Most of all, on the wish list is my hope for a better world. Always remember, even one positive change, albeit small as a mustard seed, can be the spark that inspires a “flowering” inferno one day.