Consequences of ❤️ Love

Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash

Another one of the things that my mentor, Kelly, whom I wrote about two weeks ago in a blog post, taught me is that tragedy transforms people into one of two personality types:

1.) Bitter and resentful. These are the people who have a need to be right and view the world as a place of injustice, where they are unfairly treated.

OR,

2.) Faithful and grateful. These folks need to feel connected to something bigger than themselves, whether it be God or nature.

Few people, if any, who survive tragedies, Kelly emphasized, end up with a lukewarm or neutral attitude towards life.

I agree that tragedy typically shakes you up in one direction — or another. Bernice is a woman who is a example of this belief. In fact, she exhibits the polar opposite traits of Kelly’s.

Bernice’s then 21-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the 1980s. Eleven months after her diagnosis she died, leaving Bernice and her husband to grieve for their only child.

The loss of a child is one of the most heart-wrenching tragedies that can occur in a person’s life. Whereas few, if any, parents can “move on” from this type of grief they can “move with it” and, typically, learn to find a place for it inside themselves, as if it is a massive piece of permanent furniture. In the process, they can fall into one of the two aforementioned categories.

In Bernice’s case, while grieving her daughter, she ended up fitting category #1. Not to minimize her horrible set of circumstances, but, to this day, it’s easy to spot Bernice anywhere she goes; she’s the one with the sour, lemon-face expression. She’s also quick to lash out and blame others when something, anything, goes askew.

Actually, after her daughter died, she blamed the doctors and medical staff as well as her then husband. Needless to say, her marriage dissolved and she and her husband divorced within a year’s time. Luckily for her, the divorcee met another divorcee, Ernie, a few years later. He was calm, patient and understanding of Bernice’s struggles. Bernice felt he understood her better than anyone else, and she felt calmer around him.

The problem, though, stemmed from her being a bossy, nasty stepmother to his three daughters, who were adolescents at the time. Opposite of their own birth mother, who was understanding and balanced in her parental approach, Bernice was strict and demanded perfection. She forbid them from dating boys or going out with friends, because she felt the only way they would succeed in life was to be focused on school. Ernie did not interfere with his second wife’s method of running the household. In this way, he could focus on his high-profile copywriter position for a large marketing agency.

On the other hand, Bernice’s ability to find a work-personal life balance was easier since she worked full-time in a far-less stressful environment then he did. Plus, Ernie willingly accepted his wife’s “parenting skills” of always telling his daughters what to do and how to do it, because he felt her motive aligned with his: helping his children grow up into good, responsible adults.

The sisters started to rebel against the rules of their stepmother, which led to a chaotic and difficult situation for Ernie. His daughters likely sensed what Ernie did not. Bernice had no control over herself and her tragic past. Unable to find peace in herself, she was an egotistical, unruly stepmother who created her own personal war in her husband’s family. The tactic was a great distraction for what mattered the most — sitting in her pain and taking responsibility for herself.

Basically, Bernice’s approach was the EXACT opposite of Kelly’s step-mother approach. I wrote about the positive building blocks that Kelly achieved in her relationship with her step kids in my previous blog post, but what do you think happened to Bernice’s stepfamily? Yep. It fell apart. It got to the point where Bernice gave Ernie an ultimatum: “It’s either me or your daughters!” Needless to say, although his daughters were heartbroken, Ernie abandoned them and instead, choose to be with Bernice. From there, for decades, the couple fell off the radar of family and friends.

Fast-forward to over thirty years later. The revelation of losing his own daughters caused Ernie to experience feelings of guilt and loss and he wondered if this was his wife’s desired intent. It made sense since, in this way, he could feel sad and grief-stricken in the same way she did. The more he thought about it, the clearer things became. He escaped his resentments and own guilty feelings by having extramarital affairs. Bernice, on the other hand, coped with the turbulent marriage by numbing her feelings with alcohol. Not long after, their marriage ended in a bitter, costly, miserable divorce.

Bernice has always been angry, but now she has reached her limit. She lives in her own small apartment rental and, apart from her kind-hearted brother who checks in on her every so often, she is left to fend for herself. Her only friend, at least as far as she is concerned, is alcohol.

Ernie is still playing the field, but slowly, very slowly trying to mend bridges with his daughters who carry their own load of anger, resentment and hurt toward their father.

Bernice and Ernie remind us that we all want to believe that there are things we can count on to make us happy, but life is not like that and neither is love.

Loss can be devastating and leave people feeling helpless in its wake. It can feel like a tornado has swept away everything familiar and left nothing intact. The question is:

1.) Do we shut ourselves off from all love if we fear the cruel twister of loss? In some cases, yes. (In the manner that Bernice did and, in a different way, how Ernie did.)

OR,

2.) Do we dare travel the open road with courage and an accepting heart while navigating uncertainty? (In the manner Kelly did.)

Do you choose, #1 or #2?

Don’t let anyone kid you, love is always a choice. All it takes is a little faith — or none at all. It’s in your pocket. Dig deep within you to release the strength you will need to walk your unique path and keep your eyes forward to meet the twists, turns and obstacles head on; remembering always, the best lesson in courage is not a lesson. It’s how you take life in stride.

because you take your life in stride

because you take your life in stride
Because you take your life in stride (instead
of scheming how to beat the noblest game
a man can proudly lose, or playing dead
and hoping death himself will do the same)


because you aren’t afraid to kiss the dirt
(and consequently dare to climb the sky)
because a mind no other mind should try
to fool has always failed to fool your heart


but most (without the smallest doubt) because
no best is quite so good you don’t conceive
a better, and because no evil is
so worse than worst you fall in hate with love
-human one mortally immortal i
can turn immense all time’s because to why

– e.e. cummings

Faith Muscle

Life’s❤️ Sweet Recipe

I was in the middle of writing the final paragraph of this week’s blog and then realized it was Valentine’s Day TODAY! Although the last string of my blogs have centered around love themes — figures that the blog I initially worked on for today pertained to a woman who was removed from love. I had to quickly change my plans and attempted to “force fit” a Valentine’s spin on the blog post, but failed miserably and decided to give up the reins of control and post the piece next week.

Interestingly, while trying to edit my original blog post, I conducted a quick Google search and found the following information about today’s holiday below:

“Today, is Valentine’s Day in America. The name Valentine comes from a Latin word meaning “strength.” There are many legends about it, but it’s ultimately unclear how Valentine’s Day became associated with the tradition of exchanging the affectionate gifts and love notes that we call valentines.”

I never associated Valentine’s Day with the theme of strength. When I learned this information, I thought about how love is beautiful, yet it can be difficult and take a lot of strength to get through each day in a relationship with someone you love. Worst still, is finding the strength to live as an unhappy couple under one roof.

Valentine’s Day is meant to be one of the most romantic and sentimental days of the year. It’s a day for lovers and couples to celebrate their love. For single people, it can be an especially hard day — a day that requires extra strength to get through.

And so this reflects my son’s story. From the time he was an adolescent, he became introverted and socially isolated. Every Valentine’s Day seemed harder than the last one and on those holidays every night seemed more difficult than the last one in the previous year.

I shared a similar history when I was his age. In fact, I wrote a string of maudlin-sounding articles dealing with being single and alone in America and, feeding into my sad, painful state, they were all rejected by editors.

At any age, it’s a challenge to find the strength to combat feelings of loneliness and isolation. That said, Valentine’s Day has also taken on a few new meanings to me in recent years. It is no longer just about a traditional couple’s love and romance, but also about celebrating the LGBT community, marginalized and voiceless. It is a time for me to get unstuck in MY dark feelings and, instead, find the strength to get proactive and distribute a few “sweet treats” JUST BECAUSE, I care. JUST BECAUSE, I don’t want others to feel hopeless and fall into faithlessness.

And that’s what I’ve done over this last week, sprinkled a little Valentine’s magic in the form of greeting cards, gift cards and homemade candy (NOT homemade by me though!) to a few kids and adults I haven’t seen in a while.

My Heart-Shaped Sweet Potato GIFT

Now, I am going to tell you about a surprise gift that I received yesterday. It was a sweet potato in the shape of a heart, right out of the bag. It was such a simple thing, but lifted my spirits and gave me the strength to get through the rest of my day!

No matter how your spirits are today and regardless of your situation, my wish for you this Valentine’s Day is that you have the hope, faith and strength to celebrate the little things that warm your heart. For example, whipping up a sweet potato pie, a classic American dessert, to share with a neighbor will fill the bill (and your belly AND DEFINITELY WARM YOUR HEART!).

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY

Lesson 1 (the only one you need): ❤️ Love

Last week, I planned to write a blog post about love. However, after attending a Wynonna Judd concert, I changed my mind, and wrote another blog post that dealt with a different angle of the power of love.

As I watched the performance, it reminded me of how love transcends all boundaries and brings people together in ways that nothing else can, which, full circle, was what I intended initially to elaborate on. You see, when I was in my mid-twenties, I met a mentor, Kelly, who taught me this vital lesson.

Kelly married later in life for the first time to a divorcee. Her primary focus was on her husband, who was a big-hearted guy, and the couple’s goal was to embrace this new chapter of their lives with confidence and joy. However, as a stepmother, it is not easy to win the hearts of all your stepchildren. In the case of this particular woman, most of her then adolescent and young adult stepchildren immediately accepted her with open arms. Nonetheless, the youngest child, Maggie, was not so welcoming and, conversely, threw verbal pointed darts. Whenever Kelly was in her presence, Maggie constantly talked about her mother’s beauty and intelligence. It was an obvious manipulative tactic to pit Kelly against Maggie’s own mother to make Kelly feel inferior.

Kelly managed to not take anything about how “perfect” Maggie’s mother was to heart. Eventually, Kelly was able to put herself in Maggie’s shoes and realized that her stepdaughter wanted her dad to remain married to her birth mom. Kelly understood her motive, but rather than trying to force Maggie to accept her presence, she chose a different approach. She decided to listen and understand Maggie’s feelings in order to work towards helping her adjust to the new family dynamic. Subsequently, when it came to Maggie’s mother, Kelly made sure to be extra careful with her words. The most important thing to Kelly was that she be keenly aware not to put down Maggie’s mother in any way, shape or form.

(I should note that Kelly WAS NOT a pushover. If Maggie had verbally attacked or hurt her directly, Maggie would have drawn a healthy boundary so as not to subject herself to her stepdaughter’s abuse.)

Ironically, Maggie was an atheist and Kelly was a devout Catholic. Kelly never tried to convert her, (although would have liked to!). Because she allowed Maggie to be who she was without judgment, she found out soon enough, you don’t need a particular belief to have faith. In fact, Kelly found out that Maggie had a lot of love in her heart, which, to Kelly, was all that mattered.

This attitude allowed Maggie to feel heard and understood. By allowing Maggie to be who she was, warts and all, Kelly managed to build an understanding relationship with Maggie and eventually helped her accept the fact that she had another mother in her life.

But the story doesn’t end there. About ten years after Kelly married Maggie’s father, Maggie was diagnosed with a rare blood disease. Her odds of survival were next to nil. Who do you think she wanted by her side as she went through the terrible medical ordeal that followed? You got it! Kelly! Although she loved them both, it was the second mom who happened to be the most instrumental, because Kelly was a physician’s assistant. With her extensive knowledge of medical terminology and her ability to explain complex concepts in a simple way, Kelly was able to help everyone understand the medical lingo.

Despite the fact that her doctors gave Maggie less than a year to live, she ended up living for 10 more years with her illness. Ten! In the process, her parents, all three of them, were with her every step of the way, and, after a brave battle, she died peacefully at 43 years old last year, in the presence of those who loved her, including her two moms and dad.

It is easy to preach, but to teach by example is what counts. Kelly’s story helps me make difficult decisions in my life and gives me the faith that no matter how hard things appear, I can push through with the right attitude and determination. Her influence is not just something that I carry with me in my life, it has become a strong source of guidance and comfort and a force I turn to, like the power of light, which helps guide me through the darkest of times.

Love ❤️ Can Build a Bridge

Despite my reservations, I decided to attend “The Judds: The Final Tour” concert last Saturday. I had a variety of concerns about the event that were causing me to hesitate, none of which I’ll elaborate on, but in the end, I decided to take the plunge and go with my dear friend, Camille, who secured the tickets. As it turned out, my worries were unfounded. 

Wynonna Judd has been a household name since the early 90s when she rose to fame as a country music star. Her success was meteoric, and she quickly became one of the most popular country singers of all time. However, despite her fame and success, although I liked and sang along to her hits on the radio, I was never a huge fan. Since Lucille Ball died in 1989, I did not conform with the masses and follow any other entertainers, singers or celebrities.

Before our family tragedy, I had been an avid fan of country/western music. Now, I no longer feel the same connection to this genre. I was curious, however, to see how Wynonna would bring her style of music to life on the stage. I wasn’t sure what to expect. After all, I had never seen her perform before. But when she took the stage and started playing her country music, I was blown away by her talent and energy that had me – and the rest of the audience – captivated from start to finish.

The Judd family has been in the public eye for many years, and during that time, many rumors and conflicts have come to light. It is no secret that the Judds have also faced a great deal of mental health challenges, ranging from depression to addiction. The matriarch, Naomi, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on April 30, 2022, the day before she and Wynonna were scheduled to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The concert we went to was initially intended to be part of Naomi and Wynonna’s tour, the first one in nearly a decade that the singers announced on April 11, nine days before the tragedy happened.

Strongly influenced by her husband, Cactus, after her mom’s death, Wynonna decided to perform the tour solo. Her decision has led her to be a symbol of hope and faith for many people, myself among them. The singer’s strength lies in her ability to perform while grieving her recent loss, especially when you consider the scope of the monster. Labeling grief as an emotion or feeling is only looking at it in a very limited way. Grief is more like a giant sponge that absorbs and affects us on all levels – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. For Wynonna, there is no running away from the pain. Instead, she takes it head-on with her fearless attitude.

Grief is also a universal emotion, yet it is often associated with shame and taboo. On stage, one woman has chosen to counter this stigma by sharing her story of loss and grief in an open and honest way. Through Wynonna’s tears, she communicates to others that it is okay to cry, to feel pain, and freely express emotions and, thereby, encourages others to confront their own uncomfortable feelings. Furthermore, she demonstrates resilience by continuing to live a different version of life after grief’s transformative effect.

As I looked around the room during the concert, I was taken aback by the sight of numerous rows of empty seats. It was a stark contrast to the energy and enthusiasm that Wynonna spread throughout the arena. Instead of ignoring the empty seats, she addressed them directly, revealing her difficulty in coming to terms with empty seats when she was a young performer. She told the audience that she now at 58 years old understands that quality is more important than quantity. She has experienced the highs and lows of life and decided that living meaningfully is what truly matters. On the night of the concert, it was definitely quality and not quantity that counted. The atmosphere was electric. As Wyonna put it, it felt as if there were 10,000 people in the audience cheering and singing along to every song. She confided that, as it turned out, we had been her BEST audience during that particular week.

The performer shared during an interview that the goal of her performances on this tour was to heal. The stage, in fact, was filled with love, a powerful emotion that has the ability to bring people together and heal broken hearts. It was a sight to behold, as people of all ages and backgrounds were united in love. Last week, I wrote about the topic of love and actually planned to write about it this week with a totally different story angle until I attended the concert.

Interestingly, when I watched Wynonna and Cactus, an amazing drummer, singing and gazing into each other’s eyes, I, too, was moved by their deep connection, a positive element of their relationship that she has also publicly discussed. It was a reminder that true love is not always about grand gestures, but more about being present to the moment and appreciating what you have.

Wynonna’s performance became further enhanced by her nostalgic mix of photos and videos that served as a reminder of the many impactful memories Wynonna’s mom created in her lifetime. At the end of the concert, it was particularly heartwarming to hear Wynonna singing along with a synced video image of her mom singing too.

The music of a vulnerable human being is something that goes beyond just sound. It is an expression of deep emotion and experience that can touch the heart and soul of listeners. When such a person sings, it is as if they are presenting themselves in a poignant song, inviting us to feel their pain and joy in every note. I was drawn to Wynonna’s music and able to reflect and introspect in a way in which I connected with the artist on a deeper level than I could ever have imagined. Her music moved me emotionally, helped me process my own grief I was feeling at the time. Even though country/western music is no longer the genre that defines me as it once did, Wynonna helped me understand that it still holds a special place in my heart. I cannot erase the part it played, along with my memories, in my own unique narrative and journey. Who would have dreamed that in about an hour and a half of her performance, though I knew the power of love could heal a broken heart, what I didn’t fully grasp was the importance of understanding how the bridge of love had already been built inside me over a long course of time. I can look at both sides, inward and outward, and find solace despite the pain and hurt, see a broken heart and take comfort in the fact that its quality as a vessel of love remains.

____________________________________________________

Love ❤️ is the Answer

The tip of my head to the bottom of my toenails hurt and every part in between. Last Wednesday, January 18th, on what would have been my son’s 30th birthday, I needed a lot of love. More than usual. The stillness of the day exemplified how the world has moved on, and I’m still stuck in the quicksand of November 2019.

The people I thought would at very least “check in” must have “checked out,” because I did not hear a word from any of them, and I found myself focusing on the disappointment rather than on the joy I felt from those who DID show up with kind-hearted words, text messages and emails.

My dear friend, Camille, in fact, surprised me with a lovely sunflower bouquet and beautiful greeting card.

In addition, during the last year, I’ve been honored to assist in writing a widow’s grief memoir. The relatively young widow, Michelle, happens to be a dear friend of mine. The book is partly composed of letters she writes to her deceased husband who passed away tragically three months prior to our family’s tragic loss. Last Wednesday, feeling weighed down with grief, I happened to reread one of her letters in which she elaborates on her mother-in-law’s grief of losing a son.

“I know she is as grief-stricken, but she is stronger than I am and loves more because she doesn’t want any of us to be sad for her. She knows we all have our own grief, and she doesn’t want to add to it.”

Miraculously, through the day I channeled this incredible woman, Rita, whom I know only through writing about her, and found myself feeding on her reservoir of love.

I don’t want anyone to be sad for me.” I repeated, breaking the pronounced silence of the day.

A repeated lesson that I seem to have to relearn constantly is that love is the most powerful emotion in this world. It can change everything ALWAYS. It’s like a ray of sun beaming through the grayest of days. It is a life force; an energy; a mega dose of Vitamin C.

The day ended on a bittersweet note. I hadn’t heard from my 28-year-old daughter all day on Wednesday. I thought she needed the space and privacy, and the solitude to put one foot in front of the other and inch forward.

At around six p.m. that evening, she called, out of breath. I could barely understand her words. “The cemetery is so dark.”

“What?” You got in your car directly after work, jumped into the height of traffic, and you sat on the highway for an hour, just so you could visit your brother in the dark cemetery, even though I do believe it’s supposed to close at sunset? That all sounds kind of risky to me.

I refrained from saying how crazy I felt her actions were, especially since her character is usually driven by pure logic. Though I will say that they were incredibly similar to what I would have done at her age in her situation, working purely from an emotional realm.

Our conversation was filled with love and honesty, and it reaffirmed my faith in the power of love. This is what love looks like when it’s real — when there are tears and laughter and sadness all mixed together in one moment in time. In the end, all that matters is not a perfect public facade that masks our private despair, but the intimate moments of our imperfect hearts. 

I’m learning that grief is my price to pay for love. Paradoxically, living through grief has helped me to push, stretch until it feels unbearable, love in an insurmountable way.

Camille’s sunflower bouquet: nearly a week later, but still beautiful

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Rest Now, Lisa Marie, Rest

A few seconds after I heard that Lisa Marie Presley, the only child of singer and actor Elvis Presley and actress Priscilla Presley, died at a California hospital last Thursday from a cardiac arrest, I intrinsically knew she died from a broken heart. Ms. Presley lost her only son, Benjamin Keough, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 27 on July 12, 2020, at his house in Calabasas, California.

After hearing the news about Lisa Marie, my sadness seemed unrelenting, because I had followed every segment of her grief story. Each time she shared a bloody slice of her grief to the world, I grew short of breath. All that came to my mind was the figure of Atlas in Greek mythology. He was a Titan condemned to hold up the world for eternity.

Man, when I visualize Atlas, I can’t stand his back-breaking pose; and, alas, I imagined Lisa Marie’s face instead of his. It was like looking into a metaphorical mirror and seeing my own reflection.

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

Five months prior to her death, in honor of National Grief Awareness Day, “Lisa Marie Presley penned an emotional essay” about her journey and the lessons she learned after her son died.

In the essay, she writes: “Death is part of life whether we like it or not — and so is grieving. There is so much to learn and understand on the subject, but here’s what I know so far: One is that grief does not stop or go away in any sense, a year, or years after the loss. Grief is something you will have to carry with you for the rest of your life, in spite of what certain people or our culture wants us to believe. You do not “get over it,” you do not “move on,” period.”

Coincidentally, my niece sent my daughter and me a text, “This made me think of you both…” and a copy of the same essay that appeared in People magazine with the headline, “Lisa Marie Presley Said She Was ‘Destroyed’ by Son Benjamin’s Death.”

At the time my niece sent it to me, I couldn’t bear to look at it until days later.

In the same essay she wrote the excerpt below:

” … grief is incredibly lonely. Despite people coming in the heat of the moment to be there for you right after the loss takes place, they soon disappear and go on with their own lives and they kind of expect for you to do the same, especially after some time has passed. This includes “family” as well. If you’re incredibly lucky, less than a handful will remain in contact with you after the first month or so. Unfortunately, that is a cold hard truth for most. So, if you know someone who lost a loved one, regardless of how long it’s been, please call them to see how they are doing. Go visit them. They will really really appreciate it, more than you know ….”

Lisa Marie was on point. Loss can feel like a whirlwind, leaving nothing behind but destruction. It can be difficult to pick up the pieces and start rebuilding, especially when you are doing it alone, ditched by the rest of the world.

Her final, personal lesson is below.

” … particularly if the loss was premature, unnatural, or tragic, you will become a pariah in a sense. You can feel stigmatized and perhaps judged in some way as to why the tragic loss took place. This becomes magnetized by a million if you are the parent of a child who passed. No matter how old they were. No matter the circumstances.”

Again, everything she concludes is absolutely true and not an understatement. Frankly, while processing the news of her demise from a “broken heart,” I also felt relief for Lisa Marie. Atlas’ weight was, at last, removed. I shared with my niece how completely saddened I was by her loss.

In response, she wrote,”Nothing wrong with finding a kindred spirit, no matter how it manifests.”

Marshall’s 27th on January 18, 2020 that I, my daughter and the children’s Godmother “celebrated”

Today, I regret not contacting Lisa Marie back in 2020 after she had lost her son by suicide. I simply did not make the time. (Saying, “I didn’t have the time,” is incorrect since I am one hundred percent responsible for ME and MY actions.)

During last week, I spent a good deal of time reflecting on her death, pacing around my office where I have two calendars, one on the wall and one on the desk. Both of them have stick-it notes on them, smack center, covering up the January 17th block, the day I was so freaking sure my son would be born and covering up the 18th block, his actual birthday. Sometimes, with the world on your back, doing everything you possibly can to press forward, “blackouts” are the best weapon to tackle the challenge.

For this week’s blog post, every single piece of me is on fire with guilt, regret, pain and remorse, and my son’s voice from long-ago, stating, “I won’t make it to 30.” I really didn’t want to sit my inflamed body down to hurt it more and think of the unthinkable, but I was so moved by what Lisa Maria and her family endured.

Now, my heart goes out to the survivors of Lisa Marie, and I honor and acknowledge the grief of her family. In return, I am afforded the strength to honor and acknowledge my own grief.

The way I look at it is if we take a leap of faith and open ourselves up to love, we open ourselves up to the risk of experiencing grief. It begins with love and ends with love. If life surpasses death, then love is what will guide us through the infinite journey.

For Lisa Marie, Benjamin, and Marshall, I hope they are now liberated from their back-breaking duties on Earth. Whether it involves physical burdens or mental obstacles, I also hope they are no longer crushed by the weight of life and, instead, free to catapult and soar to new heights.

Faith Muscle

Wish U: Ubuntu

Photo by anna-m. w. on Pexels.com

Last Saturday, November 19, marked the International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. Each year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention honors the day by helping to organize large and small events at different venues around the world. The events connect people who are survivors of suicide loss with mental health professionals, and provide a safe, empowering, empathetic and educational space that supports and exemplifies the value of storytelling and shared experiences.

This year, two-hundred and seventy-one events took place at different sites not only in the United States, but also in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Nepal, Russia, Scotland, Taiwan and South Africa.

The International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year, which, if you think about it, can be viewed as an oxymoron. How can this day, centered around grieving parents, spouses, children and those affected by suicide, be in such close proximity to a holiday that celebrates blessings? What sort of “blessings” can there conceivably be when it involves heartbreaking, unexplained losses, and deaths associated with widespread societal stigmas that oftentimes are hidden below the underbelly of silence and shame?

If we examine Thanksgiving Day itself, one definition of it is “an annual national holiday in the United States and Canada celebrating the harvest and other blessings of the past year. Americans generally believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people.”

Conversely, since 1970, the United American Indians of New England have organized the National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day. “To us, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, because we remember the millions of our ancestors who were murdered by uninvited European colonists, such as the Pilgrims. Today, we and many Indigenous people around the country say, ‘No Thanks, No Giving.'”

After experiencing our own personal tragedy nine days before Thanksgiving Day of 2019, our personal day of mourning helped me stand, as never before, in solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters. “Solidarity” is commonly defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action.” Ever since our family’s post-tragedy during that “first” Thanksgiving in 2019, each year afterward, I not only acknowledge a feeling of sadness, but I consciously act differently. I make it a point NOT to stuff myself and over-indulge on food, drink or merriment. By nightfall, I direct my eyes at the endless blanket of stars in the night. To me, each star represents those people around the world who have or, at that very minute are, through circumstances beyond their control, forced to leave the comfort of their homes and homelands. In addition, I think about those, now and through history, unjustly serving time in brick and mortar prisons and those trapped in minds of mental illness.

So, anyway, last weekend, five days before this year’s Thanksgiving Day, I feared that attending a suicide loss survivors conference at the Noroton Presbyterian Church could plummet me to the depths of despair.

Coincidentally, the previous week, I watched an incredible movie, Mission: JOY, “a film that shares the humor and wisdom of two of the world’s most beloved icons, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”

The movie kicked off a four-day summit based on Joy. The theme on day two was “The Inseparability of Joy and Sorrow.” In a segment entitled, “Inciting Joy: A Poet’s Perspective with Ross Gay,” Mr. Gay elucidates a number of definitions pertaining to joy. Most apropos for this blog post, he explains that joy “emanates from the tethers between us when we hold each other through our sorrows.”

He continues saying that the definition not only pertains to the concept of grief associated with death, but with other losses as well. The common thread, he says is that “We’re all heartbroken, all of us, and all of us are in the process of dying, as is everything we love.”

Between the conference I attended and, now, heading into Thanksgiving week, I’ve felt a sense of interconnectedness that Mr. Gay refers to, and I’ve realized how our stories of our shared humanity can land us in a place of belonging, a place, symbolically, that is home. This helping of “comfort food,” BTW, is the complete opposite of my typical “There’s no place for me to go” frame of mind.

The Dalai Lama, in fact, in the movie, mentions a Tibetan saying, “Wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”

I will tell you the moment I felt I was “home” at the survivors conference: when I sat in a circle of about fifteen people at the church that donated their facility for the event. It was the moment Michelle Peters, area director of the Connecticut American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, welcomed the group, her throat constricting as she tried to suppress the tears in her eyes.

It was apparent that the sorrow was not only her own. It signaled Ubuntu in its purest form. Ubuntu means “I am, because you are.” It is derived from an ancient African word meaning “humanity to others” and describes connectedness, compassion and oneness.

(Again, quite coincidentally, the theme on the last day of the four-day summit based on Joy was “Interconnection & Ubuntu.”)

In other words, although Michelle did not know us, nor our stories, there were no strangers in the room. She knew our hearts and the depth of our sorrow.

I am because you are.

From the onset of the conference, Michelle set a “Thanksgiving” table in the affluent town of Darien, CT, and we sat and spent the bulk of our time sharing tears and sorrow, anger, disgust, rage, stories, more tears and sorrow and more stories and even laughter, all connected to the heart of the soul, the heart of Ubuntu, where our genders, skin color, ages, backgrounds, political affiliations, IQ’s and all the labels were set on fire, ablaze in solidarity. We held each other in our sorrows, and in the process, joy and thanksgiving filled the day.

Marshall Matters,” January 18, 1993 to November 19, 2019

My wish for each and every single one of you in my blogging community is that you find a renewed purpose, a fearless sense of thanksgiving to enable you to embrace the sorrow in your personal brokenness, and keep the faith that your brokenness will not break you, but allow the light and spirit of Ubuntu to shine through the cracks.

Faith Muscle

Sing, Ma! Sing!

Alexandra 10/10/1925-12/29/2015

Year after year, since my daughter was born, whenever my mom called or said my daughter’s name, Alexandra! (always with the sound of an exclamation point at the end), she squealed as if she were waking from a dream come true: her youngest granddaughter really did carry on her name.

“Alexandra! Alexandra!”

She was grateful for everything, but she especially relished in the notion that she had left a legacy that she was privileged enough to experience while she was still alive: hearing her real name said out loud. You see, this wasn’t always the case in her youth.

Many people experience hardships, but my mom fell into the group of survivors who lived through enormous tragedy and in doing so, life took on a completely different meaning for her. I thought I did, but I never did, understand what living through tragedy meant, until I lived through one of my own.

And so on what would have marked your 97th birthday yesterday — this blog post is for you, Ma! It’s in memory of the long ago little, dark-haired girl who, like a perfectly tuned violin, had a soprano voice that could melt steel. When she sang in concerts, it certainly did melt audiences’ hearts in her beloved European city of Minsk. Her father, my grandfather, Nicholi, a merchant, as well as a part-time bootlegger, recognized and supported his young daughter’s talent by hiring a voice teacher to train her professionally.

For a number of years, my mom made the weekly trek on foot to the voice teacher’s house to study with her. My mom’s own mother passed away when she was still a toddler and even though her dad had remarried a “nice enough” woman, as my mother referred to her, her beloved voice teacher, whom she endearingly called “Cho-Cha,“ meaning “Aunt” had become her surrogate mother.

Cho-Cha went beyond helping my mom with her vocal range. She became a trusted mentor, built her up with compassion and wisdom and as World War II broke out, became an increasingly important anchor.

Prior to the bombing and total destruction of her beloved home in her native Minsk, the Capital of Belarus, and the surrounding area, there were insidious occurrences that transpired, such as my mom’s neighbors mysteriously disappearing. without further investigation. Nazi troops, too, grew and ballooned throughout the city.

For me, two books helped widen my perspective of how war can be a slow build —just enough to be noticed, but unremarkable enough to be conveniently denied.

The first book is Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos M. N. Eire, and the second book is The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles.

In spite of the fact that World War II was moving in on my mom’s own personal world, she was about 15, and was walking to Cho-Cha’s house for her weekly vocal lessons. I imagine she was warming up by singing.

Suddenly, as she retold the story, the sky turned into an evil pitch of darkness. Rounds of machine gun fire sounded in the distance. She immediately took cover, hiding alongside the city’s buildings. She did not, however, turn back. Eventually, she snaked forward, toward her Cho-Cha’s residence.

When she moved closer to the voice teacher’s house, the gun fire subsided. At first, she said she thought it was a hallucination. But then, the piercing reality hit her in front of her young eyes as her song books unleashed into the brittle dirt of the pathway. There, on the sidewalk, laid her beloved Cho-Cha in a pool of her own blood. It was obvious that Cho-Cha had unsuccessfully tried to run for her life. Her only offense was being born a Jew. My mom’s devotion and loyalty propelled her to run into the center of the scene, gunfire still in the distance. She flung her young body over Cho-Cha’s and draped her corpse with her own distressed body — my mom’s love spilled over Cho-Cha like her mentor’s blood had spilled out of her.

“Cho-Cha! Cho-Cha!” My mother cried, losing what felt like her mother for a second time, as she weeped and bawled into the night without consolation.

Some war narratives have no endings, such as this one. I don’t know why the Nazis did not shoot my mother dead too. I don’t know if, as I would think, someone finally picked my mother off Cho-Cha’s lifeless body and then hauled the corpse away.

I do know, either days or months later, as I’ve written before, the Nazis snatched my mom up from the street where she was roaming and kidnapped her to Germany. She eventually became “forced labor” for a German family. In actuality, the appropriate term was “slave labor.”

The Germans also changed my mom’s name from “Alexandra,” as she was called, to “Lysa,” pronounced in German as “Leeza.”

And now, you understand why her real name meant so much to her, Alexandra; Alex, for short. How she lit up every time someone mentioned her name, especially in relation to my daughter, Alexandra. (Their birthdays are also a mere 12 days apart!)

The point is, the Nazis stripped my mom’s name away from her, but only temporarily. Then the honor of identity was bestowed on my mother, not once, but twice!

But that’s not the end of this story, and this story still pertains to the effects of war, but it does have a clear end, sort of.

Mom did sing again after she immigrated with my dad and two older brothers to America. When I was growing up, I heard her sing in church, and every part of my body and soul would rise to the steeple when I heard her euphonious voice. Then, without the slightest indication, she’d stop abruptly and cry. Cry! It made no sense to me, but, as a child, I was publicly mortified. (Fortunately, everyone in church pretended they didn’t notice.) When I was an adolescent, to my relief, she ceased singing all together — at least in public.

Once in a while, though, I’d overhear her in her bedroom singing and then wailing. I never understood and finally asked her very irritated.

“Why do you have to cry, Ma? Why? Why can’t you just sing like everybody else?”

“Because happiness always brings sadness.”

Well, after that, I didn’t broach the obviously difficult subject too often. Then, a few months ago, I was revisiting the two books I mentioned, thinking about tragedy, real, honest-to-God tragedy where God, or any sort of higher power, has vanished and faith is zapped in an electric chair of fear.

All at once, I realized for the first time ever that the Nazis had stolen my mother’s name only temporarily and then stole her voice almost permanently when they murdered her voice teacher. The long and the short of it is she still sang, regardless of how she couldn’t get past a few lyrics, she still sang!

Best of all, my memory of her singing voice has become the breath of life for me! When I am particularly struggling amid the realities of life, I ask her in my mind to, Sing, Ma! Sing! And I hear her flawless musical talent as natural and flowing as the doves’ wings that visit my garden.

Sing, Ma! Sing! As if there were never wars. Sing, Ma! Sing! As if life were a birdsong without sad tears, only happy melodies. Sing, Ma! Sing! I say, and go forth through the darkness in a backdrop of her high notes, and the music helps strengthen my diaphragm and fills my lungs beyond a capacity of unimaginable proportions.

Sing, Ma! Sing! This song is for you, Ma! Happy Birthday, Ma! My love for you is an endless melody!

Faith Muscle

Hurrah Hosta

Photo by Fiona Art on Pexels.com

When schedules and plans screw up, I owe my “it wasn’t meant to be” reaction to a former friend, Chris T. I met him over 30 years ago when black and white thinking, also known as a dichotomous thinking, caused me much disappointment when situations didn’t work out as planned.

You see, a few months after I met Chris, I was highly anticipating an upcoming out-of-town weekend away with a friend. Then she called me a week prior to our planned three-day excursion to inform me that she had to cancel our plans, because of family obligations.

Never mind black and white. All I saw was red. Even though she profusely apologized and the hotel agreed to refund our room deposits, I just couldn’t let the anger go. My emotions soared, as if I were commanding the wheel of a fire engine headed to a 24/7 wave of emergency blazes. Three days after reeling from disappointment, I ran into Chris and nearly hyperventilated as I conveyed my despair over my canceled trip.

When I finished explaining my situation, he simply stared at me and belted out, “So? So?”

I stood baffled at his response, waiting for an explanation.

“It’s a damn GOOD thing you’re not going!”

“What?” My bafflement was now more like shock.

“It wasn’t meant to be. Do you know you could have been involved in a car accident if you had gone? Maybe paralyzed for life — or maybe something worse. It’s a damn good thing you didn’t go. You should be grateful … ”

On and on he went. I felt as if I had accidentally landed on some remote island, met one of the natives and was trying with great difficulty to understand the language. I walked away without fully grasping the point he was making, but he planted a seed.

As my relationship with Chris grew, my perceptions about my life outlook slowly widened. I started comprehending the notion of gray thinking and, by doing so, I added a lot of interesting colors on my life palate. I mean, black and white aren’t even considered to be colors!

Below is an excellent explanation that I found on the internet of why:

“In physics, a color is visible light with a specific wavelength. Black and white are not colors because they do not have specific wavelengths. Instead, white light contains all wavelengths of visible light. Black, on the other hand, is the absence of visible light.”

As I consciously practiced this new, more flexible lifestyle, and learned to let go of unplanned outcomes, my trips to the gastroenterologist became less frequent. Over thirty years later, I cannot tell you how this conscious practice saves me each and every time when my black and white thinking returns, because it still does.

Take for instance, over a week ago. As much as I wanted to leave the house early and embark on a walk around the neighborhood, I left later than planned. By then, it was hot and humid, and it was making me feel crankier than usual. In fact, I almost turned around to return home. Those little critic critters in my mind kept beating my brain, saying, “You should have left earlier. You should have left earlier.”

Finally, I just shouted repeatedly to them: “Shut up!”

The strategy worked. It usually does. I made the rest of my walk in relative solitude. Looping back around, about 10 minutes away from home, I espied a sign, “FREE!” A kind, generous neighbor had plopped up the sign against a few dozen uprooted hosta plants that were for the taking. The plants had not been there when I had first started my walk. They were a gift to me, because it solved my dilemma as far as what type of flora I should plant around the house. I ended up picking the lot up later and putting them in my car’s trunk. A week later, they are growing nicely.

So, the moral of the story is: if I had left for my walk as planned, I would have missed the plant giveaway! Even though in my mind, the timing of the walk was off, it was, in actuality, exactly right! It illustrates exactly Chris’ point that changed my life so long ago.

Now, fast forward a few days later: thanks to the influence of Chris T. in my life and thanks to the hosta, I didn’t get too depressed about not being able to attend the Connecticut Press Club awards presentation last Wednesday.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I tested positive for COVID-19 and was unable to attend.

Instead of being recognized for winning FIRST prize for blogging and an honorable mention for travel writing at the awards ceremony and having an opportunity to meet the presenter, who is a pretty well-know author, I watered newly planted hosta that night.

As a “consolation prize,” I squirted the hose, watered down my sad emotions and lectured myself that there was a reason that it was better I did not attend the ceremony. ‘Who knows,’ I told myself, ‘maybe I would have tripped and twisted my ankle … or … ’ It simply wasn’t meant to be. Have a little faith and just say ‘thanks’ to the universe for blocking the whole shindig.

I dreaded looking at the event’s Facebook pic, but I forced myself to observe all the smiling faces, and I even offered my “Congrats!” to the winners. They really looked happy. Ego aside, I was happy for them.

Two days after the awards presentation, the good news is, I tested negative and I am Covid-free. Admittedly, still tired and a tad congested, but I have the best winner’s circle: a clean bill of health and one of the most empathetic and inspirational blogging communities I can imagine. In addition, I also have an assortment of hostas that lift their stalks up to the sun and remind me that roaring success is based on daily building blocks of achievements, such as making the bed first thing in the morning and watering the plants before nightfall.

Faith Muscle

Juxtaposition Axiom

Photo by Fiona Art on Pexels.com

There is a tall and svelte woman Peggy that regularly jogs in my neighborhood. She works as an accountant at a startup company where her husband is the chief executive officer.

She spends more on keratin hair straightening treatments than most people spend on their monthly grocery bills. Temperatures and humidity could be soaring, and Peggy won’t break a sweat.

While I listened to the news on my car radio about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX, that left 19 children and two adults dead, adding to an alarming series of mass killings in America, she rolled past my view like a smooth, scarlet-colored ribbon.

I was headed to Trader Joe’s for a bag of reduced fat cheese puffs. It was my usual justified, self-trickery. Predictably, I would return with two bags of additional snacks and ice cream.

During my shopping trip, in my mind, I pictured the families of the deceased as well as the families of the perpetrator. Faces seized by shock’s fire. Raging in sorrow, grief. Confiscated homes that were once smooth and sound and as predictable as compiling a grocery list. Lives similar to normal plane mirrors, a mirror with a flat (planar) reflective surface. Sure, you wipe them off. Remove the smudges and streaks. In turn, they work for you. Not so.

Men, women and children now trapped in a not-funny fun house of distorted mirrors where every turn from here on means smacking into another jarring convex and concave section. Where to go? How to go? Direction is lost in a maze of thick grief, ground sodded and planted with inescapable emotional booby traps.  

My mind’s photos create a juxtaposition between scenes from the recent Texas tragedy and Peggy’s face, smooth with a ladybug complexion. I picture her scouring the pages on Amazon’s website, searching for blankets, sheets and pillows, helping her son get ready for his first year at an Ivy league school …. Gearing up for her jog the next morning.

During the rest of the week, the Texas tragedy unfolds on the news. I see the victims’ faces. Each one represents a wrinkle- and scar-free youth. I see the families’ faces. Each one, muscle lost, thin skin, ten-thousand tomorrows lived in a moment.

I repeatedly spot Peggy jogging out on the road. Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker’s “stunning” Italian wedding plaster the other news sections on my computer screen. By the time last weekend arrives, Platinum Jubilee celebrations of England’s queen steals the limelight as she hails “a renewed sense of togetherness.”

Maybe because it is my brain of COVID-19 (I was recently diagnosed), but I feel like I’ve lost my bearings, and I am out of touch, caught in unfamiliar terrain. I ponder, why can’t we all live a royal life of jubilation? Wander around, spending our days in a fun house where we can laugh at distortion, because it’s not real.

Why is it that some adults and children never seem to get a lucky break? Have they broken mirrors and it resulted in bad luck that exceeds its seven-year limit? Or is it that infants are born already swaddled in bad luck? Always by-passed. Never chosen to play on a sports team, while others seem to live life enjoying a daily picnic spread with plenty of no-calorie desserts?

Whether you consider yourself one of the lucky ones or not, the real question is, how do you find faith when there’s so much disparity? I don’t have the answer. I do know when I stay off the national news and social media and do something more productive like water ivy houseplants, I feel less anxious, less sad, less mad. I float on my sea of grief, cease the mean fight against the waves. It puts me back in my own shoes, and I can forge the walk-the-walk trek in life that I was taught 37 years ago. Pick up the discarded empty cigarette packs along the roadside in my teeny-tiny landscape. Pick up extra snacks at the store and give half away. Choose listening over talking. Stop thinking so hard and just be, because I am most precious to myself and others when I am humble, brave and free of distracting airwaves.

Faith Muscle