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The Amusement Ride That Is My Journal

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No reader would long survive trapped inside the covers of my personal journal, a veritable amusement park ride of twisting emotional turns, a fun-house maze of distorted reasoning. But within the craziness one finds the occasional nugget, like a heartfelt prayer rising from a roller coaster or a burst of joyful laughter floating down from a Ferris wheel.

Last winter I shared “A Fourteen-Sentence Glimpse Into My Journal,” which was surprisingly popular. Maybe it was the brevity that attracted readers, I don’t know. At any rate, I think this is a good time for a reprise. What better way to illustrate the bumpy ups and downs of the grieving process than through random snippets and sentences?

The Ups and Downs

March 11

When you have a brother and then you don’t, life is completely different – not the things you do, so much, but who you are. Coming up on twelve weeks in this new world.

March 12

One of the gifts that makes life livable is spending time with J(my nephew) and his kids. While there’s a sadness to it as there is with everything – all the times I think about telling Biff a funny or endearing thing that one of the kids said – that sadness was there before he died, too. It always hurt my heart that Biff could not bring himself to get well and participate in the family. How he would have loved being Great Uncle Biff!

March 13

What a wonderful couple of days we’ve had here at Edisto Island. Playing on the beach, collecting shells, going for walks, watching movies, reading Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men each night before the kids go to bed. J is as good at voices as Biff was, and we laugh uproariously.

Reasons for Living

Reasons for Living

 

 

charleston and for blog 028.b

March 14

Are you kidding?? More snow?! I am in such a bad mood. I’ve been crying all afternoon since coming in from the airport. Turns out that Biff is still dead. I’m angry at him for the fatal choices he made, angry at God.

March 15

I feel like eating a lot, drinking much wine, watching a movie. I should go to support group, but I want to isolate. This place sucks. More snow coming Monday night – noooo! I want to turn around and go back to South Carolina. I can’t bear to think about cleaning out Mom’s house. Oh God.

March 17

I have decided to “take the day off,” as Biff often said. I always thought but never said to him, “Off from what? You never do anything anyway; you barely get out of bed.” Now I get it. A day off from feeling like you *should* be doing something. To do whatever strikes the fancy, which may well be nothing. I’m going to start the day with my centering prayer practice.

March 18

From the pages of a grief book: “pay attention to the small nudges, some simple thing I might enjoy doing today, some minor project that might seem worthwhile . . . This is no time to be figuring out one’s Lifework. This is a time to follow up on small urgings – anything to establish ourselves as people who can take the initiative.”

There – just the thing. I turned on the classical music station and am making some lentil barley soup full of healthy veggies. I wrote some short poems. It’s a relief that I don’t have to figure out my “Lifework” right now – sometimes I feel that since the crisis is over and I’m no longer responsible for anyone else’s well-being, I must immediately figure out my next (last?) twenty years.

March 19

I think I tend to leap ahead, to try to get beyond all this. Like, if I hire someone to clean out Mom’s house, I can just turn my back and go cross-country. But Biff would still be dead. And there are some things in the house I would like; it’s my family home, after all.

March 20

I’m feeling a bit better. Writing helps, as does meditative prayer. Plus, I’ve given myself permission to start saying no to things in order to create some space for myself. That’s hard for me, but I’ve got to take care of myself and do what feels right for me. Difficult as it is for me to believe, people can get along without me from time to time.

March 22

As frivolous as it feels with all that I have to do for the family estates, I’ve decided to paint my bathroom: purple. I bought a gallon of rich, regal purple for the walls and some rosy magenta for the woodwork. My house is so messy I can barely get through the front door, I haven’t even put away the Christmas paraphernalia, and I’m painting my bathroom purple. Yay!

March 24

Feeling lots better. It’s been a rough spell, but I seem to be getting my feet back under me. The sun is shining and the birds are singing, although it’s in the thirties and it’s going to snow again tomorrow. Little accumulation predicted, thank God!

dear god chalk

Thank you God Photo Credit: Huffington Post

 

 

 

The Power of Names: Meet My Multiple Personalities

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I discovered my multiple personalities about five years ago while working with my therapist. I am going to introduce you to “my kids,” but first I want to make it clear that I do not have certifiable Multiple Personality Disorder, properly called Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).

True DID personalities would fight mightily against being introduced to you — it has been called “a disorder of hiddenness” — and they would likely have the power to stop this blog from happening. While my kids are shy and not sure that you’ll like them, they are nevertheless ready to reveal themselves.

I am not making light of DID when I speak of my kids. I know people who have DID, and it is a painful and debilitating disorder involving mistrust and secrecy that can isolate you from others. Many people don’t even know they have DID and have instead been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, or bipolar disorder.

There’s a whole spectrum of dissociative disorders, with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder being the “mildest” (ha!) and full-blown DID being the most severe. DID is not a dysfunction, per se, it’s actually a remarkable coping mechanism for people who have experienced traumatic events. In essence, the “parts” of the self that have been traumatized “split off” in order for the psyche to survive.  They keep the painful memories isolated.

This becomes a dysfunction later in life when the trauma has passed, but the self and its dissociated parts remain separate and act as if they are still threatened. Hence, the separate parts are usually mistrustful, somewhat paranoid, and protective.

Psychology lesson over. To learn more, check here and here and here.

The Birth of My Personalities

Like a lot of people who grew up in chaotic, unpredictable homes, I experienced some dissociation when I was a kid. When confronted with painful and confusing situations, like my gentle and loving Daddy suddenly becoming an aggressive and nasty person after tossing back a few tumblers of Gallo sherry, my brain compartmentalized the chaos. Distancing from the craziness made it bearable.

My brother told me that when I was thirteen, I walked into the dining room and my father slammed down his glass and said, “So, are you pregnant yet?” I have no conscious memory of this. But the shock and confusion is in there somewhere.

You may be able to relate. Perhaps you’ve reacted to a situation irrationally and then in retrospect wondered why you were so bent out of shape . . . or since it’s easier to judge others than yourself, you may have noticed such inappropriate overreactions in friends, family, or coworkers. Often, the reason for this behavior is that our brains have made a subconscious connection to a similar upsetting situation from childhood and we are literally reacting with a child’s mentality. We have disassociated from our adult identity.

In short, I have some kids in my head, and they sometimes govern my reactions to life events. I can now recognize them and give them their due. It’s like being a parent to a passel of children. You need to listen to them, reassure them, and meet their emotional needs.

kids charleston2

The cool thing is, these little characters are part of my identity — I am reintegrating them into my adult self and find that they are creative, funny, and inspirational. And they like to express themselves through poetry. Their poems help me understand myself.

This week marks twelve weeks since my brother Biff passed away. The kids honored the event by expressing their feelings through poetry. The poems are Blackjack Poems, three lines of seven syllables each for a total of twenty-one. So without further ado, here are my kids and their poems.

Marnie and Biff

Marnie and Biff

Characterization through Poetry

Marnie

Marnie is what I called myself when I was too small to say Melanie, and the nickname stuck. Mom always called me Marnie when she was feeling mushy. Marnie is about four. She likes to laugh and have fun and play and is easily frightened by anger or confrontation. I have an image of her in a puffy party dress, hiding behind the couch waiting for an argument to blow over. She’s the reason I avoid tense situations. She writes:

The house is very quiet

I don’t know what happens next.

Nobody’s laughing. He’s gone.

Sport

Sport is a nickname my brother gave me when I was seven or eight. Sport is a fun kid with short hair, freckles, and a gap between her front teeth. She’s an animal lover and likes to be active outside. In the early sixties, she would flee whatever madness was going on in the house and escape into nature, which she found to be a healing balmalmost mystical. She’s probably the reason I became a vegetarian and devoted my career to environmental protection, and she’s definitely the reason I get so pissed off when people say they don’t believe in climate change. She knows that honoring nature is a matter of survival on many levels. She writes:

No, that’s silly. He’s hiding.

There’s no sun if he’s not here.

He’s the one that makes us laugh.

Whisper

Whisper didn’t show herself until well after the others had come out and named themselves. Whisper is intensely shy and prefers to be invisible because it’s less painful than being ignored or neglected. She feels responsible for bad stuff happening and carries a lot of shame — another reason for hiding. Whisper spent the late sixties sitting in front of the TV watching sitcoms and eating bologna sandwiches and chips, in the hopes that chubby layers would keep her hidden.

She’s a creative little soul, ten or eleven years old, who finds peace and joy in music and other artistic pursuits. When I decided to face my fear of computers and create a blog, it was to Whisper I turned. I gave her permission to be heard. I think she’s the one who helps me write from the gut. Her poem:

If I am very quiet

And don’t cause any upset,

Maybe he will come back home.

Cat

Cat. Dear Cat. Her name says it all. She is a teenager and powerful in a way that only teenagers can be. She strode in, dressed in patched blue jeans, a paisley t-shirt, and a bandana and stood between my father and the cowering Whisper. We were silent no more, though we could be sullen, surly, and snarky. Passive-aggressive and bitingly sarcastic, Cat was done with my father. (Now that I think of it, she learned those behaviors from her beloved big brother, Biff.)

Cat’s clever and brims with false self-confidence. Underneath, she’s just as fearful as Marnie and Whisper, but you would never know it. I love Cat — she took control and took no prisoners. She’s impulsive and spontaneous and is the one who still occasionally tears down the Beltway at eighty five miles-per-hour in pursuit of some idiot who cut her off. Sometimes she drinks too much and it took me several tries to get her to quit smoking. She cusses a lot. Cat is dismissive of poetry but offers this nonetheless:

How could he do this to me??

What the fuck! This can’t happen.

I gotta get out of here.

 Mel

Mel is a miracle. Mel totally rocks. She is my young adult, twenty or so. She’s the one who started asking, “Why not?” and “What if?” She is smart, capable, determined, and gets things done. Mel worked from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day and held a weekend job as well so she could pay her way through college in night school. When she didn’t find the major she wanted at university, she designed her own Environmental Studies degree. She nagged the folks at the Sierra Club until they hired her in 1982. I think she deserves most of the credit for the Masters in Nonfiction I just received from Hopkins. I need her to get me out of bed during this period of grieving. I’m sure she will step up, she always does. She writes:

I guess I’ll try to do this.

What is an executor?

I’ll ask the lawyer; he’ll know.

Melanie

Finally, there’s Melanie; adult Melanie. Me. Through spiritual disciplines, recovery support groups, and therapy, I’m learning to integrate my kids and am becoming a whole and healthy adult. I seek to appreciate and learn from all my parts — the whimsical joy of Marnie, the outdoor girl in Sport, the creativity of Whisper, the fearlessness of Cat, and the go-getter spirit in Mel. Here’s where I am:

On good days now, I can laugh.

Some days I stay home and cry.

My friends laugh and cry with me.

 ♥♥♥♥♥

This post was written in response to the WordPress Writing Challenge: Power of Names. I’ve found it empowering and enlightening to name and claim the kids inside of me. Who’s inside of you?

Giving Up Christmas for Lent

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I have broken my personal record for leaving up the Christmas decorations. Well, they were never actually “up” in a technical sense. I dragged everything out of the closet, but didn’t get around to unpacking the cheerful red and green boxes that are still strewn around the living room. Garlands and nativity scenes and wooden reindeer remain safely wrapped in tissue paper, right where they were when my brother Biff went into the hospital.

On Christmas day, two days after Biff passed away, I put up the little artificial tree that he got for Mom right before she died in the nursing home six years ago. I don’t remember putting it up, but I remember telling my friends Christmas night that I had done so.

A Comfort

A Comfort

I still plug it in most days. I find it comforting. As long as the tree’s up, maybe . . . what? He’ll come back? It won’t be over? We can have a do-over of the season? I don’t know. I just know I haven’t been ready to take it down.

The only other hint of festivity that escaped its box this year is a red satin runner draped over the back of the piano — Biff gave it to me. How he loved Christmas and all things red! He played Christmas music all year long. Drove me nuts. Anyway, on the red runner are my sympathy cards, some dried roses from the funeral, a candle, a picture of Mom, a picture of Biff, and a lock of his hair.

Flowers from Biff's best friend Ralph

Roses from Biff’s best friend Ralph

My previous record for leaving the Christmas tree up – that one was a real tree – was Valentine’s Day. My roommate had a date and she didn’t want him to see how lazy we were, so just before his arrival we hastily dragged the dead tree down to the dumpster behind our apartment. When we came back inside, we followed the very obvious trail of dried needles up two flights of stairs and right to our door. That relationship didn’t work out anyway.

Moving Forward

Since giving up fear for Lent, I’ve been working on becoming aware of my fears. I’ve noticed that I have a fear of moving forward on a number of things right now, which I understand is normal during grief. The Christmas tree has become a symbol of that fear: I guess I need to give up Christmas for Lent.

I have an idea. Spring equinox is less than two weeks away. I will get myself mentally prepared and aim to take down the tree on March 20th. I’ll have a little ritual, maybe play Biff’s favorite carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

It truly has been a bleak winter, but the days are getting longer, and it’s time.

Here’s a poem I wrote about moving forward:

Now that you’re free,

I am learning to look at the world through my own eyes.

I know you are watching me,

A whole and healed you, loving me,

Not judging me.

 †††

There is fear about moving forward,

Fear about leaving you behind,

Even though I’m the one left behind.

Here, today, you are so present in my heart.

What if I go somewhere else, do something else?

Will you come with me?

Will I come with me?

 †††

Giving It Up For Lent

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Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season in the Christian church. I wasn’t raised in a religious tradition, and my only childhood experience of Lent was a vague feeling of exclusion when certain kids would come to school with ashes smudged on their foreheads. I eventually became a Christian in my forties after discovering that unlike the judgmental, unloving, money-obsessed preachers on television, the historical Jesus was a rabble rouser who confronted systems of economic injustice and religious oppression and liked to hang out and drink good wine with messed up people like me.

As a new Christian, I was drawn to the idea of sacrifice as a way to focus on God during the forty days leading up to Easter Sunday. The Lenten season mirrors several stories from the Bible: the forty years that the Jewish people followed God through the wilderness and the forty days that the devil tempted Jesus with earthly enticements in the desert. The word Lent comes from lang, meaning long, because the days grow longer in the spring. And when you are engaging in the common practice of giving up something for Lent, the days can seem very long indeed.

I started out just giving up something for the sake of giving up something. When I missed whatever that was — alcohol, saturated fat, cheese — I would turn my mind to God. That was nice, as far as it went, but I wanted something more meaningful.

I’ve since learned that the real point of a Lenten sacrifice is to seriously reflect on an area of your life that you would like to change and then consider what practice you might engage in that would help you move towards that change. The point is not the practice, it is the transformation.

candle

Releasing Fear For Forty Days

This year I’m trying something different: I’m giving up fear for Lent. For forty days, I will work on becoming aware of the many ways that fear rules my life, and I will engage in practices that will help release me from those fears.

I start today. I’m pretty jazzed about this — I think it could be deeply transformational. I’m sure I’ll be blogging about it as I learn thrilling and absolutely fascinating truths about myself, which may to you resemble  tiresome navel gazing. I hope not. We shall see.

Tonight I’ll receive the mark of the ashes on my forehead, reminding me that I came from dust and to dust I will return when my journey here is through. I have only a short time here on earth to become the person I was born to be, and I would rather be led by love than driven by fear.

A Poem I Did Not Write

For Ash Wednesday, I offer this excerpt from a lovely Lenten poem by Joyce Rupp called Prayer of One Who Feels Lost:

†††

I want to be more but I fight the growing.

I want to be new but I hang on to the old.

I want to live but I won’t face the dying.

I want to be whole but cannot bear

To gather up the pieces into one.

 †††

Is it that I refuse to be out of control,

To let the tears take their humbling journey,

To allow my spirit to feel its depression,

To stay with the insecurity of “no home”?

 †††

Now is the time. You call to me,

Begging me to let you have my life,

Inviting me to taste the darkness

So I can be filled with the light,

Allowing me to lose my direction

So that I will find my way home to you.

 †††

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