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Moving Van

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MOVING VAN:

My neighbor Van is moving. I was surprised to find myself fighting back tears yesterday when he stopped by to bid farewell. I have several real friends “on the hill” here in New Hampshire, but I’d considered Van more of an acquaintance — the guy who owns the pet cemetery down the road. I had not realized that I actually love the old fellow.

Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours sitting on the porch of Van’s little barn chatting about this and that, because that’s what folks up here do. This and that is front and center. Weather, wells, winters, tractors, pig slop, poison ivy . . . this and that.

Van occasionally beckons me inside the barn, a  country-style man cave, where he offers me a Budweiser and shows me his newest acquisitions, treasures like chicken-slaughtering implements, giant broken freezers that he’s going to fix one day, or burlap bags he’s stitched together to hold turkey feed.

We stroll in his garden and he points out what’s coming up and where the bugs have gotten to the squash and would I like some mint and basil? He shows me the latest improvements to his outdoor rainwater shower that he’s cobbled together from plastic pipe and a rusted industrial drum that once held God-knows-what.

Every week or so, I hear, “Anybody home?” and there he is at the back door, hands full of fresh eggs, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Occasionally he forgets I’m a vegetarian and brings me fresh bloody chicken breasts which I graciously accept and then quietly pass on to my other neighbors.

So that’s our relationship.

That, and politics.

Because here’s the thing: Van is a conservative. And not just a conservative, but a Trump-loving, NRA-supporting, “live free or die” New Hampshire conservative. The kind I’ve spent my entire environmental career fighting against. And I love him anyway. We tease each other, purposely provoke outrage, and shake our heads at our battling bumper stickers. And we laugh. Van has a glorious laugh.

Maybe that’s why I’m so sad that he’s leaving. In the time of trump, I wonder — will friendships like ours ever again be able to take root and grow?

My Friend

 

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Looking for Clues

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“The unexpected sound of your name on somebody’s lips. The good dream. The odd coincidence. The moment that brings tears to your eyes. The person who brings life to your life. Maybe even the smallest events hold the greatest clues. If it is God we are looking for, as I suspect we all of us are, even if we don’t think of it that way and wouldn’t use such language on a bet, maybe the reason we haven’t ‘found God’ is that we are not looking in the right places.”

I read this little excerpt from Frederick Buechner this morning on one of the spiritual email lists I subscribe to but don’t usually read. The little blurbs have nice inspirational titles like A Pause for Beauty and Inward/Outward and Contemplative Living, but they mostly just look like clutter in my inbox. When I bother to click, though, they often contain gems like Buechner’s.

I suspect Buechner’s quote resonated with me because I’ve been having a lot of these moments lately, these “clues” that make me feel as if I’m in the flow of life, rather than fighting against the current as I often seem to be. Sometimes I recognize them as clues, sometimes I don’t.

If you’re one of those people who “don’t think of it that way and wouldn’t use such language on a bet,” perhaps you wouldn’t see these as clues. I get that. The world is an effed up place in many ways, and I can see why some people don’t believe in a loving God.

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Here’s why I think Buechner’s “clues” point to God:

  • “The unexpected sound of your name on somebody’s lips.” I experienced this the other night at a gathering of old environmental lobbyist friends, many of whom I worked with for twenty-plus years. Since I retired six years ago, I rarely connect with any of them except for an occasional Facebook comment. I find this odd, since I had felt so integrally connected with them all. I know how it is, though — I remember the busyness and how Capitol Hill eats your life so that nothing else seems to matter. And part of the separation is my own choice — I haven’t had much time to connect, being so busy with school and taking care of my sick brother. At any rate, as I passed through the crowd the other night, I heard my name over and over. “Melanie’s here . . . did you see Melanie? Remember how Mel used to say . . . ?” Every time I heard my name, I could feel my spirit-self relaxing into a warm, comforting bubblebath, a bubblebath of belonging. They know me, they remember me, I belong here. I think the magic word belonging is one clue to God: we were created as one spiritual whole; we just get disconnected. God puts the longing in our hearts for the unity, the oneness, the belonging. Sadly, it is often organized and compartmentalized religion that causes the disconnect.
  • “The good dream . . .” Oh yes, please. We often remember scary dreams and dreams of loss and fear, and although these can be great teachers if we take the time to work with them, it’s such a gift and a blessing when a “good dream” comes along. These dreams, I think, are a sign that there’s a spirit of goodness floating around in the ether and it communicates with our subconscious. I remember when my older sister, who is vehemently anti-God, told me that she had discovered that the Universe is Good. This filled me with joy because she’s a serious introvert with few connections, so the fact that she ran across this lovely truth through her private meditations meant to me that the good spirit in the ether had taken the initiative to connect with her.
  • “The odd coincidence.” These are the strangest, because the exact same thing could happen to a God-believer and a non-God-believer and their conclusions would be completely different. I love coincidences because they remind me that there’s a plan. That when I’m in the flow, weird little things happen that I could never have dreamed up on my own, like lovely sun-warmed boulders in the river of life on which I can rest for a short time and get a better view of the journey.
  • “The moment that brings tears to your eyes,” reminding us that we are all human and we all share emotional bonds that buoy us up and carry us through the hard times. I tear up a lot, whether it’s sharing someone else’s pain, watching a little girl bang a tambourine and dance at church, or laughing with my friends till we cry and then our eyes connect and we know that we are blessed to be in each other’s lives. Through our tears, God reminds us that we are not alone, that joy and grief are universal. Plus, I think it’s awesome that our creator made tears to lower stress, elevate mood, and carry away toxins from our bodies. How cool is that?
  • “The person who brings life to your life.” Hmmm. I suppose this line could make me sad, since I don’t have one particular person that “brings life to my life” at the moment. No lover, no kids. And it makes me miss my brother, who was also my best buddy. But somehow it doesn’t make me feel sad — I feel like I have a huge community of people who bring life into my life. Different ages, different races, different backgrounds, different interests. I love my life. I’m crazy-blessed. I suppose Buechner’s point here is larger — it’s about love. Unconditional, absurdly generous love. And that, my friends, is the biggest clue to God. We’re swimming in it, if we “look in the right places.”

 

The Issue is God — And Six Reasons it Doesn’t Matter

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The big question — that’s what we disagree on. Is there a God or not? Several of my very close friends whom I love and respect believe that there is no God: no conscious, purposeful Spirit at work in the universe. I could no sooner believe what they believe — or don’t believe — than I could decide to live in a different era.

God is a reality to me. In God I live and move and have my being, as the Bible says. This isn’t a faith passed down from my parents, it is the fruit of my own hard-fought battles with life. It is what I have learned from life and death: we are accompanied.

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But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I’m responding to the WordPress Daily Prompt:

“Do you have a good friend or close relative with whom you disagree on a major issue (political, personal, cultural)?

What’s the issue, and how do you make the relationship work?”

How to Make it Work

The issue is God, as I say. So, how do my atheist friends and I make our relationships work? Without having asked them, here’s what I think:

  1. Respect. Recognizing that none of us has all the answers, which requires at least a modicum of humility.
  2. Being non-judgmental. Not placing ourselves above each other, even if we can’t help thinking that our belief system is somehow better or superior or wiser or more logical or whatever. Does that make any sense? It’s separating the belief system from the person and honoring our common state of “doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”
  3. Refusing to play the victim. This entails trusting that “the other” is not judging. Christians can feel judged by a secular, modernistic world where the metaphysical realm is undervalued if not outright mocked. Atheists (obviously) feel judged by certain Christians who tell them they are going to burn in eternal fire if they dare to entertain non-Christian beliefs. My atheist friends avoid mocking me, and I avoid relegating them to hellfire.
  4. Dare I say unconditional love, or will that sound religious? They love me despite my belief in fairy tales, and I love them despite their inability to recognize a power higher and more loving than the human mind.
  5. I’d like to say open-mindedness, but that doesn’t fly because atheists are not open-minded about God, and I can’t very well be open to atheism. I understand atheism given our societal paradigms, but I can’t begin to open my mind to it. Some things are opinions, some things are beliefs, and some things are just unequivocally true for an individual. If life’s beating the crap out of me hasn’t made me lose my faith yet, nothing will.
  6. We laugh a lot. I have a sign over my desk that reads: “Blessed are we who can laugh at ourselves, for we shall never cease to be amused.”

So there ya go, WordPress, that’s how we make our relationships work.

As it happens, I’ve spent this week wrestling with a blog post that’s got me all tangled up in metaphors related to God, atheism, and climate change. I took a break from that blog post, and I ended up writing about the same dang thing!

I can’t help it. Sorry, atheist pals. Thanks for reading anyway.

And on earth, peace . . .

And on earth, peace . . .

I Got Skills: And Some Wine

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If you could choose to be a master of any skill in the world, which skill would you pick? Good question, right? I’m still in a bit of a writing funk, having fallen into a vast vortex of nothingness, so I thought I would check out the Daily Prompt from WordPress. I like their question, so — what’s my answer?

I wonder if it’s cheating to pick a skill that people tell me I’ve already got.

Maybe this is supposed to be something to which I aspire. If it is an aspiration, then I’d like to be a brilliant creative writer: My words and I would become one, and my prose and poetry would conjure up vivid images and intense emotions and move my readers from laughter to tears in a matter of moments — and I would never, ever, fall into a vast vortex of nothingness.

Woman Writing Letter by Gerard ter Borch. Public Domain, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Woman Writing Letter by Gerard ter Borch. Public Domain, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

But meanwhile, back in reality, I will choose a skill that I’ve been told I already possess to some degree. Some call it a “welcoming spirit,” some tell me I’m “easy to talk to,” and some say I make them “feel at home.” Others say I make them laugh a lot. Or it could just be the wine.

Anyway, that’s the skill I want — to make people feel comfortable. Not a big deal, but it makes me happy to be relaxed and open with people, and that’s easier if they feel comfortable with me.

Dysfunctional Roots and Shoots

I developed this skill as a way of coping while growing up in an alcoholic home — if I could get people laughing, lighten the mood, relax the tension, then I might prevent the nightly dinner table dramas and arguments. The stakes were high, because if laughter failed, I would have to break the tension by spilling my milk, and then I’d get yelled at. 

As a child, this coping mechanism served me well, although as an adult it morphed into a desperate need to be loved and resulted in some pretty dysfunctional behaviors. But I’ve worked hard to rid myself of emotional baggage, and now I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of me (yeah, right).

C’mon, Smile

I’ve also used the skill in a professional capacity. Having an easy-going, accessible personality came in handy when I was an environmental lobbyist on Capitol Hill. One of my secret personal goals was to get a staffer or member of Congress to laugh in the first five minutes of our meeting. Even if they were super-conservative, right-wing folks that I simply needed to cross off my list and from whom I had no chance of getting an environmental vote, I still wanted them to listen to my pitch. Putting them at ease was essential.

I’d probably make a good salesperson, except oh my God, talk about a vast vortex of nothingness.

Wanna Be Friends?

The skill I’m after is not the lobbyist’s insincere, slightly manipulative, chumminess. What I want to master is friendliness. Like comfy slippers or a purring cat, I just want to be a good friend. And I’ll bring the wine.

So – if you could choose a skill, what would it be?

Are You Tired of My Grief?

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It finally happened, the thing my grief counselor warned me about. I was in a local pub with a couple of friends and one of them said, “I’ve been reading your blog . . . don’t you think it might be time to move on?”

From my brother’s death, is what he meant.

The question didn’t surprise me – my friend is definitely not a “feeler” when it comes to personality types, and he’s not one to intentionally process his emotions. Like many people, he sees “bad” emotions like grief as troubles to be overcome, wrestled to the ground.

I, on the other hand, am an off-the-charts feeler who firmly believes that uncomfortable emotions are meant to impart life lessons. They are spiritual teachers, and we should sit with them and listen to them. 

In my experience, if psychic pain isn’t fully processed, it comes back as depression, anxiety, anger, or – in the case of my dear departed brother – death. 

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Living in the Land of Grief

What that processing entails and how long it takes is unique to every individual and to every loss. Nevertheless, my grief counselor told me that at some point, someone would probably decide on my behalf that it was time for me to “move on.” 

So I had to smile when my friend used that exact phrase.

I can’t remember what I said to him, if anything, but the answer to his question is: No – it is not time to “move on” or “get over it.” That’s not what happens. Ever. A major loss will gradually become a part of you; you adjust. You do not get “finished” with grief. 

It’s like learning a new language in a new country. You will, over time, get used to it and function fairly normally. But it’s still a different country than the one you used to live in.

Bottom line: stuffing my feelings doesn’t work for me anymore, so I won’t be pretending that I’m “over” my brother’s death. If you’re uncomfortable with that, simply don’t read my blogs tagged grief, even if they are brilliantly written and sometimes maybe a little funny.

Deal?

Six Month Check-in

It has been six months now. I have little memory of the first three months, except for a great fear of losing my mind because that’s what my mother’s death did to my brother. I was relieved to find that several others in my grief support group shared that fear. That’s mostly gone now, thank God. 

When I try to analyze or control my grief, to tell it what it “should” be doing now, I still experience anxiety. 

If I get too busy or spend too much time with others and don’t take time for rest and reflection and writing, I find that the tears come rushing back as soon as I’m alone. Pacing myself is key to recovery.

I’m still having trouble doing the things that need to be done: lawyer crap, social security and medical bill crap, house cleaning crap. Crap, crap, crap. 

Sometimes I’m angry at Biff, at God, at life. At crap. But in general, I’m doing OK. I am feeling better, not worse. 

Write, Cry, Celebrate

I will continue to write about grief when I need to because it helps me, and because I hope that it might help others who are grieving to know that they are not alone. 

I want you to know that it’s OK to talk about your grief. Talking and talking is an important part of the healing process. Don’t feel that you are a burden — just make sure you choose safe people who won’t judge. There’s no right or wrong. If someone doesn’t understand, don’t share your grief with them. Simple as that. Your journey is unique. But it does help to have company, so find a support group if you can.

Write about it. Cry if you need to. 

Celebrate when little things get back on track. I can now go to the grocery store without losing it. This is big. Sometimes I can listen to music.

Six months is nothing, really, when you’re putting your soul back together, but every day is a small victory.

An Outsider on Christmas Eve

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There’s red, a lot of red. The overhead lights are dim, but there are candles. Bulky shapes mill about, coats and scarves and hats that presumably contain people. All of this I can see as I approach the double glass doors, and I slow my pace.

What was I thinking coming here?

I’ve met some friends in the parking lot, and they nudge me towards to the church building.

“You OK?” one of them asks, and my scarf nods. I feel completely disembodied, as if my physical self left with my brother when he died, now twenty-eight hours ago.

It’s Christmas Eve, my favorite church service of the year. I thought I wanted to come.

My friend opens the door and my body recoils from the music, the laughter, and oh my God, the smiles. An arm is around me and shepherds me through the door. Inside, I shrink against the wall, burying my face more deeply into my red scarf, the one my brother gave me last year.

I feel as if I’ve unexpectedly happened upon a horrible accident, and I wish for all the world that I was not here. I can’t bear to be near the joy.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I say to my friends. They circle around me, offering protection from the churning mass of smiling humanity. One of them hands me a cup of hot cider and I inhale the sweet smell but am afraid to sip it. Swallowing is not the simple matter it was a few days ago. Nothing is simple.

One foot in front of the other, I walk with my friends into the sanctuary. Delicate white lights twine through Christmas trees, wreaths, and holly, and quiet carols fill the room.

“Merry Christmas!” someone says. “How are you?”

“My brother died,” I say, because that seems to be all I will ever say for the rest of my life when someone asks me that question.

“Oh my God, no,” and I’m enfolded in arms and then more arms and I cry.

Then I’m sitting between my friends holding the candle that will soon be lit and raised upwards as we all sing Silent Night together.

“You OK?”

I take a sip of my hot cider and feel its spicy warmth move into my chest. I nod and smile, just a little.

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This post was written in response to today’s Daily Prompt:

Tell us about the experience of being outside, looking in — however you’d like to interpret that.

Daily Prompt: “Rabbits,” She Said

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She was always there, my Mom’s best friend.

Myrtle, she hated, so Mike she was.

She came for tea; they went to concerts.

Slumber parties, college reunions, and charity balls,

My shy mother endured, all for the sake of friendship.

Mike brought me Lambykins the day I was born.

Lambykins

Lambykins

The night the doctors unplugged my father, Mike was there.

She told me to go to college orientation anyway –

He would have wanted it that way.

Her hair was always silver, always just so.

I never saw her without her blue eyeliner, even into her nineties.

She was a terrible flirt, “incorrigible” my mother would say.

Mike would wink, and they would laugh.

They always laughed.

And always, always, they said “rabbits” first thing on the first day of the month, for luck.

It’s how they knew they were soul mates when they met as freshmen in 1935 — they both said “rabbits.”

Mike always called the night before to remind my mother, for seventy-plus years.

After Mom died, Mike called me or my brother instead.

“Don’t forget to say rabbits!” she’d say.

Halloween night she called:

“What are we supposed to say tomorrow?”

“Rabbits,” I said, feeling very sad.

For the rest of my life, I will hear her voice on the first of the month.

“Rabbits,” she’ll say. And wink her blue-lidded eye.

Rest in Peace, Mike.

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I wrote this in response to today’s Daily Prompt:

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/12/09/source-of-anxiety/. You’re supposed to write about a noise, or a silence, that won’t go away. The WordPress Gods view this as a source of anxiety, but say we can interpret it different ways. When I heard this morning that Mike had passed away, I was going to write about her silence – but I find she will never be silent. And so, Mike’s monthly “rabbits” brings me comfort, not anxiety.

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