Categories
Notes from the Kitchen

Mending the broken bits

The surf and silt it washed up onto the shore beckoned me on a daily basis. This siren’s call became the mandate and mantra of what defined my days closing 2010 and beginning 2011. I would lazily roll over in bed to be greeted by the bright sunshine filtering through the wooden slats and the cheerful din of boughs full of birds outside.

Swimsuit on, breakfast tucked in, our small band of family members would work our way down to the beach, skin slick with sunscreen. Michael and I wormed our way out into the ocean that welcomed us like old friends. Even after my skin mottled and itched from sun sensitivity, I carelessly bade the call of the salty water and the need to bring myself into its rhythms- up, under, up. The world we had left behind felt like a blip cut into the surface of my heart. I came alive under the heft of the waves and the pull of the undercurrent. I began crafting a slowly made peace from hours spent with Michael talking as we looked out beyond the water’s edge, past the horizon line and into a place we couldn’t see but felt certain existed. Beck spent his days writing and walking- the two activities are so deeply worn into each other, are they not? Mama and Tia B. would join us at the beach and sometimes if we were lucky, in the water too.

A year ago looked so different.

Scavenging the beach, we found a stick and scratched 2011 into the warm Costa Rican sand. We waved for the camera as the sunset began shellacking the sky in peaches and golds. We scurried up beach from the tide that now crashed and licked the large outcroppings of rocks. New Year’s Eve 2010 cooked up a fine feast of noodles served alongside red wine. At midnight, we toasted and sat outside in rocking chairs or in my preferred spot, the porch hammock, talking. Under a Costa Rican sky, we felt untouchable and somehow the scabs of yester-year felt so very distant. With my love and close family nearby, I began to mend.

Death is not something easily cast aside. Grief doesn’t have a best by date. In this country where my Dad had lived for several years in high school, the sea, the sand, the conversations and time alone began the tricky work of separating my self from a year in which he was still alive. God used these elements to begin the grand work in me of healing, even as a part of me broke.

Miles and miles of beach walking did no favors for my ankle. Shortly after I came back from Costa Rica, I found myself doing something simple, something mundane in the act of walking to the copy machine. I found myself unable to move forward or back. I stood still, perhaps listening to my body for the first time in a long while. It told me to stop. It told me to be still. I hobbled back to my desk aware in that acute sense of communing with all your inner sensors for what was amiss. One week of oddity led into a month and then several months afterwards, the pain persisted as the healing continued.

Things that are quickly broken are not necessarily quickly mended.

In the time that my mobility slowed, my frustration and anger swelled like a great storm that later subsided as my caregivers in physical therapy addressed the physical situation through rote repetitions to relax the overworked area. Through the simple movements over the span of months, bodily healing had begun. It took a visit with my acupuncturist to help clarify what I innately understood. My body was holding onto an anger I couldn’t reasonably grasp. I sat on the table explaining the nature of the pain, the sensation of it and its matriculation.

Where 2010 was a year of stark contrasts, of unquenchable happiness and the resounding boom of loss, 2011 served as soft cushion underfoot. It became a year of listening and making notes, of taking heed to that foreign language of the body. Call it a lesson of the ocean: slow down. Speed up. Stay the course. It takes that vast expanse to right the rhythm once it’s thrown off. Some pains require time to mellow, though I’m loathe to believe they ever heal 100 percent, but I remember the ocean metronome. And sometimes, healing might require a bowl of White Bean Stew with Rosemary and Garlic. Sometimes, all it takes to reset are a new start and a bowl of steamy savory stew.

white bean stew with rosemary and garlic

Categories
Spirit

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

My favorite gift to receive is a book. (Hint: it’s my favorite gift to give as well.)

This Christmas, among the gifts waiting for me under the tree lay a thin package. Upon unwrapping it, my father-in-law, Bill commented, “that book is a bit old school, but it has some good insight into marriage.”

Intrigued, I decided to take it on our trip to Costa Rica. I know it seems absurd to think of me sprawled out on the beach or more aptly a hammock reading a book with the word “Severe” in its title. I scoffed at my initial bravado at bringing it along and set it aside for the earlier part of the trip.

A few days later, I picked it up again, you know, just to take a quick peek.

“A Severe Mercy” is both a love story between two people that spans the gap of life and death. It also details a friendship that borders on mentorship between the author, Sheldon Vanauken and noted writer C.S. Lewis through letters exchanged. I would be remiss to not mention that this book is also a written history of two people’s exploration into Christianity. It most certainly involves all of these elements.

In the beginning Sheldon Vanauken (Van) describes his family’s rambling estate, now a ghosted shell but he seeds it with a bit of the magic imbued by memory and specificity. You learn how he first meets Jean (Davy) and their love story begins to unfold.

Van and Davy’s love is described as a “Shining Barrier”, one that they craft and fashion to be impenetrable. He writes about the importance of sharing interests to stave off what he terms “creeping separateness”. Their intent is to keep the spring of “inloveness” intact.

And this is something that truly is tested later on in the book. (Sidenote: when I described “the shining barrier” to Beck, he made a bit of a gagging motion.) There were definitely moments where their love feels a bit heavy and syrupy but I think the premise makes sense. In marriage, you naturally want to share the things that excite you with your partner. It’s a bonus when they also end up sharing your interest too.

Here’s the thing. You know she’s going to die. I mean, aside from the book jacket description, the title “A SEVERE Mercy”, and his penning it, you know she’s going to die.

And frankly, while I found their love story at moments compelling, other times, it felt too much. What held my attention really were the correspondences with then-Oxford professor of literature C.S. Lewis and later on in the book, Van’s writings on grief.

He writes with such alacrity about the final weeks and days of his wife’s demise and the small joys they found during that period. One particular scene of sweetness involved an approved visit by their dog Flurry to the hospital room. Another scene showed him praying and talking her out of coma. As I read “The Deathly Snows” on the airplane in the middle seat, my eyes over-filled. I felt punctured with his loss. He does well to describe the separation of terms as loss and grief not being the same thing. He is experiencing “grief unalloyed.”

“But grief is a form of love- the longing for the dear face, the warm hand. It is the remembered reality of the beloved that calls it forth. For an instant she is there, and the void denied. It is not the grief, involving that momentary reality that cuts one off from the beloved but the void that is loss. In the end one can no longer summon forth that reality, and then one’s tears dry up. But while it lasts, it is a shield against the void; and by the time the grief wanes, the terrible emptiness of loss has given way to a new world that does not contain the shape of the beloved figure.” (p. 182)

My friend Amanda has said before that when someone close to you dies, you become part of a club. And these other cardholding club members speak in ways that find resonance. I do see my grief for my dad as a cloak; it is at times heavy and burdensome- at other times, warming and soft. Does it dampen the depth of loss for him- not always, but I can’t remember what it was like without the cloak. He died eight months ago on the 8th. For someone not subsumed in mathematics, I have become an accountant of time.

Van’s way of grieving consisted of something he called the “Illumination of the Past” culling together bits of music and memories for a study of their collective past.

“I had assembled, and put into chronological order, hundreds of letters Davy had written over the years. I had the diaries and journals we kept. I had her paintings done in their various periods and our photograph album. But I had gone further than these helps: I had searched out and bought recordings or music we had liked or merely chanced to listen to a good deal in some period, knowing how evocative music is… I had all our favorite poems of the years.” (p. 192)

Our trip to Costa Rica probably meant different things to the family members in attendance. For me, it was part “illumination of the past” by getting to learn more about the man that was my dad during his high school years. His two best friends, Jose Maria and Francisco shared stories of those pivotal years. I learned about their high school band with Francisco playing drums, Jose Maria playing the accordion and of course, my dad, as captain of the band and trumpet player. He was a natural born leader… Hugging both of them and looking at them, I was betwixt seeing my dad among our happy group and sorely wanting to tell him I’d met them in person. When I hugged them, it kind of felt like hugging him.

They laughed as they mentioned escapades of cutting class to slip away to the all-girls’ school under the ruse of helping the girls’ band out. They even started their own magazine and my dad wrote poems (poems!) though Francisco claims poorly. I never knew my dad to be a poet. He never heard any of my poems. Alas.

I gained more insight about my grandmother and grandfather and the elegant parties they attended. When the past is illuminated, so much more is given to us than just that which we seek. You have to be ready for it, and I scribbled details down in my notebook as the car drove on. It makes me crave more stories, more of him because story animates memory into the reel-player of imagination.

Reading “A Severe Mercy”, there is a part of me that played voyeur. Apart from the salve and balm it gave in hearing another person coping through grief and loss, I was transfixed on the friendship between Lewis and Van. How I wanted to have a pint with Lewis at the Eastgate and talk about literature and faith with one of my heroes! Never one to mince words, Lewis’ letters reminded me of the power of the written word with scores of pencil marks detailing those pages. The art of letter-writing is not something that needs to be a lost art. Moreover, the execution of letters consisting of more than the mundane but grappling with big questions and sometimes bigger answers, this is something worth pursuing. I wouldn’t say I agreed with everything Lewis had to say, but that’s not really the point. Through the letters you get the sense of friendship-depth that cuts to the quick.

“A Severe Mercy” might speak to some solely on the grief level. Perhaps to others, it speaks on the spiritual- and for those misty-eyed romantics, pure love story. Regardless, this book might change you or turn your thoughts to ponder its truths.

Categories
Poetry

valley of shadow and ash by annelies zijderveld

valley of shadow and ash – first draft 

in this valley of shadow and ash,
i quake and tremble of the forward,
the backward keening out of view.

how to move on without losing
how to let go without-

to be present and awake to life in its simplicity :
the iguana crawl, crab scuttle, monkey swing
by tail or arm, the turtle flail in sand;- her time come

how to stop time to sketch in the eyes
how to steer the wheel of time-

impossible.

instead we take humble steps, we scratch
days off calendars, we light candles,

in death, the dead are whole, not fractured
fragments of bygone eras.

for a moment, we can hold all of them-
the mischievous child, high school band leader,
college student, husband, father, teacher.

for a moment our hands are full.

and then we find them grasping the shadow
of what once was, but can never be stolen or revoked.
take comfort in the permanence
of impermanence of coalescing from body to spirit
of watching the moth alight from the window into wind

by annelies zijderveld (c)

Categories
Poetry

Giving Thanks & an Elegy by Yehuda Amichai

Many people give up on poetry.

They think it does not have anything to say to them after high school English class. Perhaps, they think, it is for a certain social tier or for people who have time. I’m not sure of the why, but one of the when’s of their return to poetry can often involve death. People hobble their way back to poetry when a loss has occurred. Maybe it’s to find that one poem to be read at the Memorial service that will speak a syllable of the shock and awe and numbness in which they have found themselves of late.

There are several forms of poems that evoke loss through content and style. Style-wise, it’s something that fascinates me- it’s the show without needing to tell. Then there’s the lovely elegy. An elegy is defined as “a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation especially for one who is dead.” Mary Jo Bang writes a strong poem to convince the reader of “The Role of Elegy.”

Thanksgiving approaches stealthily this year. There is so much to be thankful for. I tell myself that when I’m feeling it down to the marrow of my bones. I tell myself that when I’m hunkering down in solitude, alone with my thoughts in a room full of people, a dissonant note.

I went to a class two Sundays ago at church on spiritual perspectives of depression. For weeks, I’d seen the blurb out of the corner of my eye and toyed around with the possibility of attending. Maybe I’d learn something. But maybe I’d moved on and didn’t need to go to a class like that. After all, my Jewish grief support group is buoy and rope for all of us involved. Maybe depression was a phase of grief I had graduated from entirely. I had begun feeling invigorated and alive after the wedding, excited about the future and more excited about the present. But then it hit me again.

Thud.

His laugh, that trill his voice took when he called my name in a sing-song tone. The koala face he would make when he held his breath, puffed his cheeks, pulled on his ears and kind of went cross-eyed. The sage words. The secure steel of his arms wrapped around me. Nothing to replace that…

And the thing is you can try but nothing will replace them. After someone you love dies, you get to live through many firsts without them. Nothing diminishes that ache of loss, though I hear love, time and in my case, God sure make it better. In that class on depression, the speaker a Dr. Sullender, charged that often people encountering depression find themselves uplifted by gratitude. It’s an interesting idea and makes sense really. Thinking of the things you are thankful for, said another way, “what you have” turns your back on (what you don’t have) the things bogging you down.

He countered the idea of depression as being particularly special by citing numerous people who were depressed for a stint of time caused by loss, not just those instances where depression requires medicinal assistance. Did you know it’s the second most cited mental affliction in the United States today, second to addiction? Did you know three Saturdays ago was National Survivors of Suicide day? Grief tends to find a friend in depression, at least for a time.

Last year I didn’t go home for the holiday. Maybe I did the year before that, memory is time’s fool. I found myself visiting Beck’s parent’s house for the first time. I found myself ensconced in the guest room for a pocket of time describing the kind of Thanksgiving we were about to embark on to my dad. I found myself saying I love you right before hitting the end button on the call.

You can never say I love you enough.

I remember making a salad one year for Thanksgiving, trying to share a bit of that part of me so enthralled by taste and flavor with him. He had tried the pomegranate seeds floating between leaves of arugula and liked it. The “rabbit food” he usually abhorred, had this time tasted delightful…

I received word that my Dad’s half-brother Oom Kees passed away a week ago today. Upon reading those words in my email inbox, I promptly sought to bury my head in the sand and be an ostrich for a day. The news made me increasingly tired but found me up late that night with insomnia. It may seem odd, but I processed this information through a lens of how my Dad might. I knew he would be deeply saddened. It really made the pang of wanting to talk with him sharp. That desire to talk doesn’t go away. Instead, often what you get is a gnawing sense of something not quite right with the world anymore. Even in the best and most dizzyingly high moments, you can’t quite put your finger on what might be casting a pallor making the great good. And then it hits you anew.

Sometimes you want to hear that things are going to be okay, even though you now know they don’t go back to the way they looked beforehand, which doesn’t mean they can’t be good. They just won’t be the same and frankly neither will you. I would charge you to be gentle and kind and patient with yourself as you sort out what you are all about after a major death. Take it as my from me to you.

Taking the idea brought on by Dr. Sullender, I’ve crafted my thankfulness list. What would yours include?

To be thankful in the loss and thankful for the living before it and that which comes after.

To be thankful for an engagement and thankful for the wedding nine months hence.

To be thankful of embracing old family and thankful to say ours not yours or mine.

To be thankful for the strangers cum friends, friends cum family, thankful for arms, sound, silence.

To be thankful for the time given and thankful to ungrip when the going needs to be let.

To be thankful for a mom, a dad, cousins, aunts, thankful for love spoken in three languages.

There is so much to be thankful for.

I picked up my dog-eared tome of Yehuda Amichai given to me by one of my poetry mentors. My dad would have liked the earthiness, the lust for life of this Israeli poet. Maybe he would have seen the magical realism of the one culture speaking and informing the other. The us instead of the them. I miss my Dad this Thanksgiving but I will choose to give thanks for his rich life and that I got to share part of it.

So here’s a poem from Amichai with a bit of an elegiac timbre to it, in honor of my Dad. In it, Amichai’s resolution to the loss of the beloved is personal and direct. It is a one-sided conversation of letting go and remembrance entertwined.

In the Middle of This Century

Yehuda Amichai
Translated, Stephen Mitchell

In the middle of this century we turned to each other
with half face and full eyes
like an ancient Egyptian painting
and for a short time.

I stroked your hair in a direction opposite to your journey,
we called out to each other
As people call out the names of the cities they don’t stop in
along the road.

Beautiful is the world that wakes up early for evil,
beautiful is the world that falls asleep to sin and mercy,
in the profanity of our being together, you and I.
Beautiful is the world.

The earth drinks people and their loves
like wine, in order to forget. It won’t be able to.
And like the contours of the Judean mountains,
we also won’t find a resting-place.

In the middle of this century we turned to each other.
I saw your body, casting the shadow, waiting for me.
The leather straps of a long journey
had long since been tightened crisscross on my chest.
I spoke in praise of your mortal loins,

you spoke in praise of my transient face,
I stroked your hair in the direction of your journey,
I touched the tidings of your last day,
I touched your hand that has never slept,
I touched your mouth that now, perhaps, will sing.

Desert dust covered the table
we hadn’t eaten from.
But with my finger I wrote in it the letters of your name.