Grief Lifeline


He held a coiled manila line in his hands with what looked like leather reinforcement for twenty inches or so…

“No, it’s not leather,” he said, “it’s a rubber hose.” But my comment reminded him of the small dinghy hanging in his father’s garage and how the oars just weren’t quite traditional enough…but he had some oars…

His father recently died and the story was really about the process he and his siblings are going through as they sort all of the possessions in his father’s house. I took that to be an opening to ask how that process was going. What followed was more stories and some touching moments for both of us as the conversation widened. Our fathers had worked together and I remembered his dad. And then I remembered mine and how much I miss him and how the grieving doesn’t stop, but only changes shape and direction and intensity.

I considered it a gift that my friend shared his memories with me. I felt honored.

Sometimes we need a lifeline tossed to us when we have suffered a loss. Not just loss of lives, but loss of career, loss of meaning. Sharing lightens the load and strengthens our connections. But it isn’t easy to start those conversations.

On, I found some great advice for supporting a grieving person.

“When it seems appropriate, ask sensitive questions – without being nosy – that invite the grieving person to openly express his or her feelings. Try simply asking “do you feel like talking?”…”

Then be prepared to listen.

Years ago, someone invented the “LifeSling” for use on boats. It is a carefully thought out product and process that makes it easier for someone who has fallen overboard to be rescued. I think of that because after you toss the sling into the water, you maneuver the boat so that the sling encircles the person in the water. You bring the lifeline to them instead of expecting them to swim to it.

What if someone had embraced your grief in such a way? How might your life be different?

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Saying No to Distractions

I was preparing for dinner and thinking about what I wanted to read while eating when a voice said “just stop”. It wasn’t an angry voice. More like a gentle restraining hand at the edge of a cliff…”don’t do it…”.

And so I stopped my questioning and planning and opened up to the silence of mealtime. It wasn’t easy. I felt agitated and restless and had difficulty settling. Mealtimes are a respite from my workday reality of deadlines and busyness, and it’s not simple to stop the motion. Reading is an important transition from outer to inner and is something I look forward to.

So why does distraction matter to me? It matters to me because I set out to be not just a maker, but a meaning maker. And in order to make meaning, I need some emptiness.

Yesterday, I found this great passage in “The Elements of Graphic Design” by Alex White:

“Emptiness is an essential aspect of life. It is the unavoidable opposite of fullness, of busyness, of activity. It is the natural and universally present background to everything we see. Emptiness is silence, an open field, a barren room, a blank canvas, an empty page. Emptiness is often taken for granted and thought best used by filling in. It is generally ignored by all but the few who consciously manipulate it to establish contrast, to create drama, or to provide a place of actual or visual rest. It is best used as a counterpoint to filled-in space”

If I fill up every moment, there is no emptiness. Which is most likely why I do it. Emptiness can be frightening. Because emptiness can also be a black hole waiting to pull me into its darkness. So learning to work with the lure of distraction is a great challenge…deciding when to indulge and when to stop…finding the right balance of taking in the new and processing what is already present.

This week I started reading the blog “ZenHabits” by Leo Babauta. One post in particular is titled “Leave Yourself Wanting More” and I find that thought a worthy companion in my tussle.

Reading at mealtimes isn’t the demon after all. But it can become one. If I want to remain true to my longing to make meaning in my life, the simple and not so simple path is to pause. Check in with the body, the mind, the breath. Entertain the idea of nothing.

“We use clay to make a vessel; but it is the space where there is nothing in which the usefulness of the vessel depends.”
Lao Tzu

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More about rushing…

According to Cheryl Richardson, I may be addicted to adrenaline. Which explains a lot about rushing, the topic of my previous post. It also makes me laugh because when I first read about adrenaline as a fuel source (Take Time for Your Life, p. 145), I thought it didn’t apply to me at all and I was going to skip reading the list. And then I read the list.

Do you consistently over commit yourself personally and professionally?
Are you usually late for appointments?
Do you repeatedly check your voice mail or e-mail throughout the day?
Do you put things off until the last minute or use tight deadlines to get things done?
Does it seem like your car’s fuel gauge is always on or near empty?
Do you live on the edge financially?
Do you put off making decisions or taking action in spite of the anxiety it causes?Do you juggle several projects at once?
Are you constantly coming up with new ideas to pursue?

This is not the whole list. Just the ones I said yes to.

In fact, right after reading about using adrenaline as fuel, I headed out the door to an appointment. I was late, and on the way there, I looked down at my fuel gauge and it was on empty. And yes, I had that distinct vibration in my chest…that little rushing feeling…

So what does it mean? As I understand it, these recurring behaviors stimulate the body which wakes it up and puts it into a fight or flight response. Gets it ready for action. Like many things, it’s not inherently bad. It’s the repetitions and lack of balance that eventually tires the body.

But I’m not sure I want to give it up.

Yesterday morning, I woke early and the light was perfect for some moody photography. There was a slight haze in the air, heavy grey clouds with the rising sun casting a warm glow beneath them. Like this:

Shore Meadows fall morningThe ducks were cruising the temporary lake, and I headed out with my camera to get some closeups of them. Only one problem. I shake too much and when I have the telephoto lens fully extended, I feel like I’m on an ocean going ship on rough seas. And my photos look like it.

After a few blurry images, I decided that I needed to get a tripod. It was Sunday, and I really didn’t feel like getting in my car, but I did anyway and raced over to my beloved who has all of the best photography equipment. On the way there, I knew exactly what was fueling me. The fluttering in my chest felt good and I noted that. After grabbing the tripod, I was anxious to get back while the light was still new. More rapid heartbeat.

By the time I got home, the sun was fully up and the clouds were dissipating, but I was fully fueled and ready to get at least one good photo. Back to the ducks, I got some OK pictures, but they really were too far away for what I had in mind and too fast moving. About to give up, I heard a small bird nearby and turned the camera to see if I could find it. Of course, the bird flitted away and I picked up the tripod, disappointed. Then it came back and, with the little adrenaline this chase provided, I set the tripod down and focused.

And I got the shot.
Worth waiting for


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Slowing Down

Today has been a quintessential Stella Sunday… and I really needed that calm, timeless day to recharge my batteries. I have been rushing too much lately. So this morning, instead of trying to cook soup with clutter on my oh-too-small kitchen counter, I decided to wash AND dry the dishes first. What a difference it made to slow down and enjoy what I was doing instead of thinking ahead, planning my day, wanting to be somewhere or somehow that I was not.

The rushing thing is really troubling me. I’ve written about finding a resting place in every day here… and I’ve written more about being present here… and it seems that I need a new reminder every day. Some catchy words to wake me up.

I’m not alone in thinking that the pace has picked up in the last few years. But the more I contemplate the subject, the more confused I become. The shift has been gradual and complex. I’ve started teasing apart the layers.

Layer One: The obvious change is the internet and the availability of immediate everything which carries, hidden within it, the suggestion that I be equally available. While I can’t really accept all or nothing solutions like Julie Morgenstern says, “never check email in the morning”, some kind of boundaries are necessary. And it’s up to me to create them. Last week, I unsubscribed from the many, many email lists that I usually delete anyway (without reading) or file in my ACTION: Read folder (which I never really read because I don’t enjoy reading on my computer). With each unsubscribe, I felt increasing euphoria and now, my new emails are more manageable. But I’m still rushing.

Layer Two: I’ve gotten more efficient with my planning. I can actually move seamlessly between various work related projects without having to stop and regroup. But the truth is, regrouping is a nice break so that efficiency ends up feeling hurried and I end up feeling harried. Because I’m actually an all or nothing kind of gal. So I either make haste or I make excuses and there isn’t much middle ground so no matter how I try to equalize those poles, I am still the hare in the race: fast and furious or fast asleep! I would like to take full responsibility for this one and come up with a different plan. But can I radically alter my personality? Do I want to?

Layer Three: I’m also overeating. No, I don’t mean food, I mean sensory stimulation. I can go online to the library website and order all of the books and magazines that appear in my daily rounds and these library books add to the stack on the floor of magazines that I subscribe to and books that I own that I haven’t read yet. There are books about art that are full of inspiration, books about inner work with some great suggestions for slowing down, novels in progress that I read voraciously, tutorials on various creative projects that look fun to do, and if that doesn’t tire me out, there are blogs online, Pinterest, Facebook and that evil witch, internet shopping. I need to go on a diet.

Layer Four: In the midst of all of this activity, I still want to have an Etsy shop, write on this blog and take time for art daily. Oh, and did I mention that I would like to grow my own food and plant a flower cutting garden? I’m beginning to see a pattern here. It seems that I rather like all of my particular interests and don’t want to give up anything. Which brings me back to Layer One: The Endless Availability Thing. The cumulative total. I think the clever word for today should be Discernment. I’ll put that one on my mantel for now and try and remember to slow down and read it every morning.

Meanwhile, I’d really like to hear how you have been successful in not rushing. Or maybe you like rushing. Either way, tell me your thoughts because this conversation requires a village to evolve it.

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I haven’t updated my CPR training since high school.

I got to thinking about this because I was asked to make a new canvas bag for a “Lifesling” which is a rescue device used on boats when someone goes overboard. The original bag has the instructions printed on the outside and I was trying to decide if I needed to have a place for instructions. Then I realized that if you haven’t practiced and gotten the routine down before the emergency happens, those instructions won’t help much.

When I was 23 years old, my father collapsed from a massive heart attack. It was the second time his heart had failed him. We were taking turns sailing a small laser sailboat in Vaughan Bay. The sun was out, the wind was fierce and the church bells across the harbor had just called the locals to worship.

I was the second one to sail and when I returned to the raft exhausted, I found my father splayed out, eyes open, a touch of blood at his lips. I did what I knew how to do which was to breathe into his mouth with my fingers on his nostrils, his neck tilted back. Breathe and breathe and breathe. It wasn’t enough. He was already gone.

The sirens took forever to arrive at the beach where my mother stood waiting. A neighbor brought the medics out to the raft and took me to shore where we watched as they attempted to revive my father. I’m sure they knew what I did.

And what I know now is that the techniques for CPR have changed since then. Now they focus less on the breathing and more on the heart. The broken heart.

Which is why I haven’t updated my training.

That memory lives with me daily and I am afraid to revisit the motions that I made that day… 39 years ago today. Here is my remembering.

I remember
three days before
he said
that if he died tomorrow
he would die a happy man
and then there he was
letting the fierce wind
tussle his thin gray hair…
his heart surrendered
to that happiness.

Then there was his friend Mac
telling my father’s stories
ending with the eight bells
of navy tradition

**     **     **     **

and into the silence,
“he stood a good watch.”

The music
Bridge Over Troubled Waters
filled the chapel
while people rose
and filed by
the special room
where we sat
mother, brother and I
and I remember thinking
that these were his people
and that now they were mine
but I didn’t want them
I only wanted him
to be my bridge
across these troubled waters
these torrents
of salt filled memories
tumbling from cheek to chin

**      **      **      **

White amongst the deep blue
summer’s air of memory
White is the deck of that sailboat
that I brought
that we sailed
White is the tips of waves
sweeping the raft
where he lay
where I found
and lost him
White were the love letters
she took down from the shelf
and one by one
threw into the fire
White is the box of ashes
his…then hers.

**     **     **    **

They stood a good watch.

Mom and Dad 1945

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5 Things to do when the Muse goes on vacation

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Everyone deserves a break. So why wouldn’t the Muse occasionally slip off to some hidden paradise to recharge his/her batteries? Instead of panicking and fearing that your art making days are done, try these simple ideas:

1) Clean and organize the studio: Go ahead, admit it. In the flurry of creativity, the last thing you want to do is focus on clutter or taking time to reorganize your supplies. So you put up with the frustration of not finding what you know you have because art time is precious and you would rather be in the process rather than getting ready for the process. Well, consider the lull of the missing Muse to be a gift and get busy preparing a fertile, well-ordered place to be creative.

2) Hold a Previously Love Art Supplies sale: Rather than toss what you no longer use or have too much of, organize a sale day. Invite your artist friends to bring their extra stash and throw a small party. As a bonus, you just might be inspired by a new tool or technique that you haven’t explored yet. Maybe you’ve always done watercolors and suddenly there is a set of pastels at the right price. Besides, isn’t it great hanging our with other creatives?

3) Play with new techniques: The key word here is Play. You are not trying to create a masterpiece (although you might…). You are experimenting, making happy accidents, dabbling. Or perhaps there is a class you’ve been wanting to take to expand your possibilities or perfect your style. Now is a great time for skill building so that when the Muse returns, you will be a fertile field for planting ideas. And along the way, you might make new art friends.

4) Send yourself a postcard from the Muse: Imagine what the Muse might have to say while on vacation… words of encouragement, brilliant discoveries, new resources. Or enlist one of your art buddies and write postcards to each other. Be the Muse for a day. Be silly. Be serious. Be creative. Mail those postcards… more than one if you can… to fill the days with fun surprises.

5) Take a Nap: You know you haven’t been getting as much sleep as you need to be productive. In fact, you could even build up a sleep Reserve for when the Muse returns and you’re back to your inspired way of staying up late or having sleepless nights full of new ideas. I’m not talking about the sleep of escape…the sleep of boredom…the sleep of I-don’t-wanna. I’m talking about the deep and restful sleep of restoration. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have vitality and strength to bring to your art? Wouldn’t the Muse be pleased to have your full attention and enthusiasm? Make GOOD sleep a priority.

With both your studio and yourself prepared for resuming art making, the Muse is sure to show up and soon. Congratulations on using your time wisely and faithfully so that you can put your heads together and create Beauty and Meaning.



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The Dangling Conversation

IMG_2752There are conversation starters and conversation stoppers…delightful openings that have everyone vying for vocal position  and dark explorations that have everyone staring into their drinks.

I’ve been thinking about a conversation stopper for weeks now and I’m beginning to think that I’ll need a laxative to cut it loose! Like the evil character in Harry Potter, “he who shall not be named”, death is a dark force that most people avoid. Including myself.

So meanwhile, I was looking for some writing prompts in “A Poet’s Companion” by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux and I opened to the chapter titled “Death and Grief”. Of course…

My first attempt was a stream of consciousness poem where I explored what would happen when I’m gone… how all of my stuff would tell a story about me and the life I have lived. It was playful and yet serious. Not a conversation stopper or starter, but maybe occasion for nervous laughter.

This emboldened me.

So the next day, I wrote another poem using one of the ideas in the book: “write about your first experience with death…then write about your most recent experience with death”. This poem went a little deeper, but not so far as to stifle my curiosity. I wrote about a kitten I lost and about the death of my dad, and still there was a lightness/comfort that I hadn’t imagined possible.

I’m not obsessed with death. More like a veil has been lifted and I see my mortality with new clarity. I notice how my to-do lists go on and on, like silent pleadings for more time. How my batteries need recharging more often. How my heredity influences my path. These are not fearful examinations, but curiosity about aging and changing.

So why don’t we talk about death? Why do we steer the conversation away as soon as possible? Is it superstition…the fear that if we say the dreaded word we will invite a visit? Or do we simply wish to not expose our vulnerabilities? How do we begin a dialogue?

I found poetry, in its simple directness, to be my answer. My opportunity to touch the topic lightly and so I returned to “A Poet’s Companion” again and wrote one more poem. I offer it here as a place to pick up the dangling conversation.

What the Dead are Doing

In the morning, the dead wake
waiting for the sun to rise
and illuminate the living.

They watch the longing begin,
the speaking out with silent hopes,
the pleading for a place in the day.

They get dressed as usual
and head out the door
to meet with each other on the streets

not gold, not silver, not paved
but winding, rough, no road signs,
just things they left behind,

ads for new liveson the lamp post
stapled haphazardly
so as to mimic the world.

They nod to one another,
wink when the worry shows,
step aside for the type A
still determined to make a life.

They laugh fiercely
at that old way of being.
They know better now

gathering up all the lost moments
like abandoned children
cooing and patting and taking them in.

The dead are very conscious of family
of bloodlines broken
of hearts left on the line too long

wrinkled and dry
but smelling so fresh when you take them down
and hold them.

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