Holiday lights and haunted houses

A month ago the light was touched with the colors of the season. We counted pumpkins on doorsteps, noting the special ones, unusual colors or sizes, and brought great quantities of candy into our home. The quietly spectacular transformation of green into stains of orange, red and yellow took place before I could appreciate it properly.

One by one, thousands of fallen leaves evaporated into the earth, leaving us with a memory of when they were lush and unseasoned.

Like so many birds, I flew south for a few days last month. During my absence winter came crawling, beckoning at the door. When I got home I dug out gloves and hats in preparation for stinging weather. A rainbow teased itself across the blue only to leave no trace of its existence when I blinked, and suddenly I was gazing upon a dull grey sky.

I blink sometimes, and she is gone again.

When I talk about her with someone who really knew her, it makes it feel real again.

It makes me miss her more, and yet makes me feel like I’m not the only one, and so I am sad and grateful at the same time.

Most of the time these days I’m hardly thinking of my dead sister, though, and the enormous void that was left in our family when she died, and really, for a long time now, my grief  has remained silent. I am happy, and yet my heart is haunted, you see.

So then.

Then something happens, and I am struck, no, torn, torn into a thousand pieces of misunderstanding and hurt and terror mixed with ambivalence and blame and fear, and I fear for my children, for the world in which they are being raised. How on Earth can we protect them?

Yet when I was a child, we lived without sun protection and seat belts. Secondhand smoke was, well, everywhere. I remember tipping full ashtrays into the trash, with no immediate effects. We were routinely allowed to get hurt (or okay, at least put in harm’s way with limited observation especially in the summer time).

My sisters and I made it to adulthood with a few scratches and scars, but nothing serious. Certainly we arrived as newborn adults prepared to live, and live freely and confidently.

This is part of the reason why it’s been so very, very difficult to accept my sister’s death (nine years ago and counting). She was so very much alive.

That, and also that our national and international news is so terrible of late.

I know my sister would be fighting to arbitrate such news today. In her core she was a stubborn negotiator, a protector of human integrity, and a woman who sought to collaborate, agree with or attempt to understand someone despite of or due to their differences.

She was a person who fought back, typically with words but once with a well-placed and most deserved punch to the face. She listened to stories from men and women who were disabled but not downtrodden – she recognized those who needed a hand from time to time were not unworthy of their humanity.

She would fight with me, with us, help me to understand what I can do better.

There’s a lot on my list to do better.

(At least seat belts, smoking and sun protection don’t make the list).

I’ve been doing some yoga lately. I’m not one with the mat or anything, but it makes me feel better.

Yoga makes my wrists hurt, my sister said with a shake of her head, a long time ago.

Some nights I cannot sleep.

There are haunted houses in my dreams, darkened windows, broken glass. The wind scatters leaves across my path; a cat cries before I wake up.

Haunted hearts, empty, shadowed by sadness. Full of memories that can not always be trusted.

I lose you again and again and again.

You move and breathe and smile in our minds, but just like those moving portraits that hang on the walls of Hogwarts, you aren’t really there.

Those whom we we have lost in recent days are real. As usual, I send a silent appeal to my angel sister so that she may greet them in turn, a reflective reception for Michael Brown among them… always, I think, those whose deaths were unexpected deserve a kind and compassionate welcome.

Lights sparkle in our living room tonight, illuminating a tiny Nativity scene organized on the coffee table by our youngest son. He is very taken with the miniature wooden figures, especially the Three Kings and the Baby Jesus. We have been listening to a lot of holiday pop music lately, and not especially focused on theology, but I thought I’d been pretty clear about the meaning of the holiday until he asked me about Michael Jackson’s role in Bethlehem at Christmas.

Perplexed, I asked a few questions, and it turned out that he had confused the Baby Jesus with the renowned rock star.

My explanation of Christmas was puzzling at best, dubious at worst. I attempted to set him straight, and he marched back into the family room to dance to little Michael’s rendition of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

My sister would have celebrated another turn around the sun tomorrow. Surely she’s dancing, wherever she is, and crying, too, at the loss that we invoke while here on Earth, at the sudden force of grief and mourning that we create when another young life is taken senselessly and forever.

In my heart I remember you as you were, Liz, 28 years old, a smile upon your lips to greet a loved one or a stranger, a frown as you observed injustice around you. I am grateful for you, and saddened by your absence. Always, I remain your sister and your friend.

love

 

 

spaces in togetherness

I have too much to think about right now, which tricks me into feeling like I cannot write about anything. My family and I are alternately wading and sprinting through some major transition this summer, and I haven’t been sleeping well. There is great reason to be excited and tremendous space for dreaming, and also much to do and consider before we can call it done and my mind can settle.

Additionally, summer vacation requires a whole lotta togetherness, and togetherness has been a wonderful, challenging, exhausting thing for the past month or so. This is what the wise Khalil Gibran had to say about that:

But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love; let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

He was talking about partners, or people in love, but I think this idea of making spaces also applies to families.

Until I can focus on the words tumbling about in my brain that involve family and transition, I will at last respond to a most kind and unexpected award that I received from the truth-telling blogger of the Imperfect Kitchen. Please click on the link and read her thoughtful posts when you have some time; I promise that you will not regret it.

Called the Liebster Award, and created to build relationships within the blogging community, it’s all based around the number 11. To accept the award, one must

  • Post the award on your blog
  • Thank the blogger who presented the award to you and link back to their blog
  • Share 11 things about yourself
  • Answer the 11 questions given to you by the person that nominated you
  • Nominate 11 bloggers who have less than 200 followers
  • Create 11 questions for your nominees to answer
  • Notify your nominees by posting your nomination on their blog.

So here we go.  These are both 11 things about myself and responses to the 11 questions (sorry if I am cheating)

1. Which book(s) should I add to my ‘don’t miss’ list?

Ah, I love this question. What comes to mind tonight include The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. 

2. If you could give $10m to any person or organisation other than yourself, who or what would it be?

The sum of ten million dollars is difficult for me to comprehend because it’s a lot, I mean, a LOT of money, to gift to just one person or organization. There are so many dedicated among us doing good work. I am a supporter of many organizations… Amnesty International, FHI 360, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Farmers Market Coalition, and Oregon Public Broadcasting, among many others. However, I think I’d just give the money to my parents. They’re smart, resourceful, like-minded, and compassionate. Their generosity and willingness to give to a host of just and meaningful causes makes them a strong candidate for when I win the lottery.

3. What’s your Myers Briggs type and Star Trek Personality (click on each to find out if you don’t already know)? What do these tell us about you?

Can I please get back to you on this one?

4. Is ignorance bliss?

Probably. I guess it depends on which issue one is ignorant of understanding. Ignorance explains so much…many people do not have access to a great deal of information out there that could influence their ideas or beliefs. In spite of our best intentions, we are generally far more comfortable not knowing or identifying with something unpleasant than we are with acknowledging difficult truths.

5. If you could change one policy of your current government, what would it be?

America’s immigration policy is in critical need of reform. We need an illuminated path to citizenship for men and women who come to our country, work hard and remain out of trouble with the law. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented children are at the heart of this struggle, and deserve a chance at living among their peers in the USA as a friend, neighbor, and documented person.

6. If you could ban one word or phrase from the English language, what would you choose?

I suggest that we eliminate two phrases from the common vernacular.

1) “Baby bump”.

Yuck. I love seeing my expecting friends become beautifully round, but I dislike this phrase and even more dislike attention from strangers placed on someone’s stomach. The presumption of a stranger (or a friend, truly) to shake and rub one’s pregnant belly is something I do not support or understand.

2) “Don’t take this personally”.

Everything is personal.

Everything.

7. You have to live, for one year, in a different town, city or country to your current home, where is it?

This is a timely question given that we have just sold our house and put an offer on a new house in a different city. Please stay tuned for details! But for one year, please transport me immediately to Barcelona, where I will wander its narrow streets for hour beneath imposing towers and gentle sun, stopping when necessary for grilled vegetables, arròs negre, seafood and wine.

8. Salt or sugar?

Salt, unless fermented fruit counts. Then sugar!

9. Who or what was your favourite discovery of the last year?

That there are strangers who will treat you as a dear friend, and friends that sometimes turn into strangers. The latter part of this discovery brought sadness, but also relief.

10. What is the most fulfilling thing in your life?

My family, of course. But also, my time that is mine spent doing things are non-family: writing, reading, running, sitting in silence, slicing and salting an avocado, and trying to remember how to play the piano. My family.

11. Where do you hope to be in 5 years time?

Smarter than I am today. That’s a what, not a where. I hope to be Home in five years. In a different place but inhabited by the same characters… they will include a pre-teen, a nine-year-old, an old and loving Labrador Retriever, my husband and me.

And these are the nominees (and some have more than 200 followers because they are amazing!):

1. Holy Bee Press (oh, how I want to keep bees someday)

2. Really a Runner

3. An Inch of Gray (heartbreaking and heart-lifting)

4. Brown Girl Farming (stories of food justice in communities of color)

5. Running while Mommy

6. Cupcake Crusade (delicious and fun)

7. Local Milk: A Cast Iron Skillet and a Camera

8. Living on Ink (writing, publishing, writing)

9. Word Savant

10. Invoking Frida (photo tribute to a heroine)

11. Grief: One Woman’s Perspective

path

Thank you for reading, and enjoy the links!

first grade rainbow

A friend of mine made me laugh recently while describing her approach to sharing a potentially objectionable plan with her partner.

Paraphrasing here, she said,

I’m like, listen. There is fantasy, and there is reality. We live in reality, dear. 

And reality makes us do things sometimes that we don’t want to do.

Blogging is a heavily filtered view of reality. I share what I want to share, and I withhold so, so much. It’s a curious way to write. Sometimes I go back and read something I’ve written, and I hardly recognize myself in the words. Other times, I read my words and am grateful to no longer be in that space, yet know it remains within me, unforgotten, unforgiven.

Last night my reality included first grade homework. The task was to write six sentences describing my son’s summer plans. His words were effective. The plans include attending a Portland Timbers soccer camp, a family visit to the East Coast, and camping in southern Oregon.

At some point, however, his mind turned back to school. Casually, he mentioned being almost stapled in the hand. Further questioning revealed that a friend nearly stapled his finger while attempting to fasten together some paper. Nothing indicated that he had actually been stapled, and we agreed it had been a near miss.

The conversation reminded me of when my younger sister once stepped on a staple. I was in the second grade and she was in kindergarten. I don’t remember the incident clearly, but I think it involved her throwing staples down a flight of stairs in a fit of anger. Several minutes later she stomped downstairs and stepped on a staple, sharp side up. There was blood and tears.

And… childhood karma?

I shared the memory with our son, and he wrinkled his forehead. He went to the piano where we keep his aunt’s image framed and present, and brought it to me on the sofa. The photograph of Elizabeth Kasulis Padilla was taken at age 27 during my bridal shower at our family home. She is young and beautiful.

I asked Miles if we looked alike. He studied her image before he spoke.

Um, Mama? No, not really. Well….. yes, you actually have the same eyes.

He continued, but you’re not wearing a bracelet. And she has different eyebrows. Hers go like this (demonstration) and yours go like this (demonstration).

Plus she has long hair. And you have a wig. 

What?! (that was me).

Oh! I mean not a WIG. You have a PONY TAIL. And her hair is long.

Let the difference between a pony tail and  a wig be clear. Not that there’s anything wrong with wigs, but I’m trying to work with what I’ve got here.

He continued, Well, not really, you don’t look alike. Except for your eyes. Oh, and your ears are the same. PLUS you might have the very same big toe.

I swear he said this.

After this illuminating dialog we entered into a faux soccer match between Mexico and Brazil. I’m always Mexico and he’s Brazil or another spectacular team. (I’m not advertising, but these soccer guys are an awesome toy for creative young soccer aficionados).

soccer guys

The 2014 World Cup is imminent. I am excited not only because I’m genuinely interested in watching the matches, but I love that it’s something our family can get into together. We are teaching our children about nationalities and maps and languages and colors. We may choose different sides along the way, but we all experience similar lessons in play, struggle, pain, loss, movement, observation, success and strategy.

Also on the horizon is the anniversary of my sister’s death, and in the days and weeks prior it is no secret that anxiety and fear are my closest friends.

In a few days, Liz will have been dead for nine years.

I still struggle with this menacing truth. It has threatened to destroy what little faith I have for so long.

Haven’t I grieved long enough?

Allowing the grief to move through me last night, watching my son compare my sister’s image to my own, was enough. It was enough in its authenticity. It was enough in its innocence. The experience was enough in its brevity and relaxed sentiment. It wasn’t sad, comparing faces, one in the here and now, one in the past.

It was enough to move within a brief span of time from dreams of summer to howdoyouspellDeschutesRiver to the dangers of staplers to remembering my sister to World Cup fanaticism. It was enough, and I was happy.

Because, as my son pointed out, my sister and I might have the very same big toe,

and that is enough for today.

Ms. Maya Angelou once said,  “Try to be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud.” 

Last night my oldest was my rainbow.

She also wrote,

When I think of death, and of late the idea has come with alarming frequency, I seem at peace with the idea that a day will dawn when I will no longer be among those living in this valley of strange humors. 
I can accept the idea of my own demise, but I am unable to accept the death of anyone else. 
I find it impossible to let a friend or relative go into that country of no return. 
Disbelief becomes my close companion, and anger follows in its wake.
I answer the heroic question ‘Death, where is thy sting? ‘ with ‘ it is here in my heart and mind and memories.’

And so it is in mine.

 

Stars, sisters and friends

My husband and I were party planning the other night.

Not for us.

Obviously.

Our oldest son is turning seven in June. Suddenly, he’s a real kid with dreams, hopes, questions, ideas and disappointments. Fresh diapers, warm milk and simple snuggles aren’t the answer anymore, to anything. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Seven-year-old tears are way more complicated than six-month-old tears.

At any moment the dialog begins, and the listening, and the questions. Oh, the questions. Unlike my four-year-old (a small but worthy opponent), my eldest is somewhat reasonable. As such, I had high hopes for our conversation a few nights ago.

The theme of the week was friendship, and my hopes were quickly and unapologetically dashed when he shook his head sadly.

Mama, this friendship might be lost. Lost.

Stubborn, angry eyes dared me to protest as he confirmed, It’s over!

As a huge advocate for friendship, I would do nearly anything to prevent such a thing. I listened and talked and offered suggestions. I wasn’t prepared for him to dissolve his sweet friendship with the boy who had been at his side nearly all year.

Sometimes unexpectedly and nearly always regretfully, I’ve lost a few friends over the years. They still have a place in my heart, and because I can’t kick them out of my heart, there they will reside.

Since practically day one of first grade, our son found a kindred spirit in a gentle, sweet, funny child I’ll call T. Miles and T have been close friends for several months, sharing their love of sharks, other sea creatures, and fishing. Recently their friendship has been tested by the appeal of other boys, their own ideas and experiences, and general first grade life stuff.

By the end of last week, I was fully confident that he will end this first grade year having experienced wonderful first grade relationships and frustrating situations where he had or has to compromise, navigate, defend or let go. Letting go, in particular, is not easy for our headstrong eldest son.

Ah friendship. If he only knew what lies ahead.

This morning I rose at 4:35 am EST (let me remind you readers that I live in Pacific time) because there are very loud singing birds at my parents’ house in Virginia. I spent the next twelve hours navigating the streets of Virginia, Washington DC and Maryland with a colleague in order to visit a number of energetic, thoughtful and attractive farmers markets — because this is my job, and this part is awesome.

But I digress.

Before I left the house, I downed a quick coffee with my father and his close friend, whom I’ll call G. G and my father evidently also rose before dawn, and I’m not sure why. When I came downstairs at 5 o’clock in the morning, weary, they were bright eyed and laughing.

Happy Hour starts at 5 o’clock in the EVENING, guys.

Anyway back to friendship. They’ve been friends for over 40 years, so I gave them a pass for such bright eyed early cheerfulness.

Last weekend I had the extreme pleasure of hosting seven (SEVEN!) of my dearest friends for a girls’ getaway and belated birthday celebration. My 40th birthday set the wheels in motion, but really, truly, any excuse to spend time with each and any or all of these extraordinary women is a gift.

One by one they arrived at Portland International Airport, or in the case of two, headed straight for the Oregon Coast. Friday afternoon we met in Arch Cape, Oregon, where we proceeded to talk and talk and talk, break for water and wine and puzzling, and talk some more.

There was a hot tub.

There was rain and wind and pouring rain.

And more rain.

To my delight and surprise there was also a wildly fantastic basket full of treats that showcased my eclectic love for 1930s Frida Kahlo and her decor, good coffee, rich chocolate, excellent wine, and inspiration for running.

I have to confess that my friends know me well.

I don’t know why this truth makes me teary. Obviously anyone who writes a public blog lacks some sense of indiscretion, so there shouldn’t be anything the matter with acknowledging that people understand me, or at least get me in some meaningful way.

But still.

Blogging — this sharing of lessons and learnings and thoughts – it only tells but a bit of a private story, you see, and sometimes I have come across as optimistic, while at other times depressed, or perhaps some kind of hybrid experiment in humanity.

I don’t quite feel one hundred percent optimistic nor deterred from moving forward tonight.

Cautiously, I’ll keep writing this blog.

And in any case, I remain filled to overflowing and grateful for the love of the seven gentle, spirited, beautiful, smart, funny, curious, and INCREDIBLE women with whom I spent a few days last week. Their support, love and laughter over the years cannot adequately be revealed — but I would not be where or who I am today with out them.

And a special shout out to my youngest sister.

She is a star. That is enough.

Given that most of us are always learning, evolving and being, I used the present tense of the quote below: I have the privilege to meet you… even the seven women whom I know and love dearly,  I still invite them to meet me, and humbly ask to continue to meet them.

I should also note that there were a few of my dear ones that weren’t able to join us this time, and when I think about having them there, too, my heart just about explodes – it’s almost like too much friendship, except there’s no such thing.

Here’s looking at what tomorrow will bring for all of us, and I hope we can experience it together.

one world

 

Dear 17-Year-Old Me

High school was a series of dark, dreary lows and dazzling reach for the stars highs.

That’s not true. Not really.

Except for the occasional moment, there actually wasn’t much drama in my high school experience. Every morning I slept as late as possible and rushed to throw water on my face, brush teeth and pull a shirt on before my ride cruised by my house honking. We were rarely late, but not a minute early.

#thankgodmykidsarenotinhighschoolyet

Adolescent mood swings notwithstanding, some routine was built into my high school experience. For example, lockers were organized alphabetically. I remember my locker neighbors, for better or for worse. Routine can be a very good thing for works (and human beings) in progress.

Some schools around the country are removing lockers for safety reasons… kids hide stuff they shouldn’t have in lockers, obviously, and also for changing norms… Kindle Fires and other e-readers require less storage than heavy textbooks.

But beyond the locker, nearly everyone’s high school experience seems full of events that are either real, not real, fantasized, or flat out made up. High school is quite terrible and wonderful. Or so my high school was, all those years ago.

In high school, I had a huge crush on a BFF’s boyfriend – which is to say I experienced a thing quite common and impractical and mostly not acted upon – because he was nice to me.

Never in a million years would I have copped to the crush at the time, given that I didn’t really understand that it was happening. While surrounded by loyal and not-so-loyal friends and beautiful and not-so-beautiful people for four years, my adolescence was more or less romance-free.

Instead of making out, I got good grades and lettered in track, cross country, swimming, and soccer. I didn’t excel in any of those sports, but I wasn’t the worst, either. It sounds crazy, but I would love to show up for practice tomorrow… in the pool, on the track or field. I loved being a part of a team in spite of the tough parts (read HERE for my thoughts on team sports).

This past Saturday my husband and I were walking toward the stadium to watch our dear Timbers draw another match, and we spied a young couple dressed to the nines, the girl in bright rose, the boy in a tux and a pink bow tie.

Prom? Prom! we both noticed simultaneously.

They were holding hands and happy as they strode past us in downtown Portland. Unknowingly, the young couple brightened up the street.

I secretly thought they were very brave, but I kept that thought to myself.

Seems a bit early in the season for Prom, I observed out loud instead.

Because once I got asked to the Prom by this guy who was a friend. It was cool because we were friends, and also friends within a larger group of friends, and it seemed right at the time.

Somewhat awkwardly, we got dressed up and took pictures.

I thank God regularly for a lot of things, like for my amazing family and my health and Pharrell Williams’ song Happy, but mostly right now I thank God that I am old enough not to have had social media at my fingertips when I was 18 years old. Those who scan old photos of that era, well, you know I love you but please keep me out of those publicly shared memories.

Now back to Prom. My date and I headed out for dinner and dancing, teenager-style. At some point I danced with another guy. A guy who, I guess, was interested in me. Thinking that my “date” was no big deal because he expressed zero interest in me, I thought nothing of said dance. A few weeks later, we drank too many Miller Lites plus an unknown quantity of cheap tequila, got into an argument and the sad story played itself out.

Fast forward to High School Graduation. I was a capital W Wreck. But I was also thoughtful and surrounded by wonderful friends. I was happy and worried and excited. I was eager and motivated and ready for summer, post-high school style.

And did I mention I Was Surrounded All The Time By Other Teenagers?

Who wouldn’t be a Wreck?

Oh, and by then I was a practicing bulimic.

In other words, totally ready for college.

Right?

Recently a distant friend from high school suggested that we meet up at a local race this summer and grab a beer afterwards… a lovely invite, absolutely welcome. But a little, long ago voice inside of me inquired: Why? Why on earth would she want to hang out with you?

It made me remember those days, high school days, filled with highs and lows and in-betweens that I would not change today. Well, maybe I’d change a few of them. But mostly I’d change the way I perceived myself, and others, as a result.

Dear 17-year-old Me, please know that you are not all that ugly or different or bad.

Please reach out more authentically to those smart, interesting people that don’t play sports or direct student government and produce talent shows.

Please connect more willingly and openly with your closest friends and teammates. 

Please notice that one of those people was nice to me, and especially realize that this same guy who once gave you a rose before taking you to a movie isn’t deserving of you being a jerk, and please stop being so unresponsive to his kindness.

Dear 17-year-old Me, please consider that what it takes to bring people together is more important than what may be taught by your peers, teachers, coaches, siblings and parents resulting in people remaining apart. 

My kids are little guys. They embrace and reject their friends all the time, depending on the wind, day, sport, class. It’s a joy to witness their friendships and observe how they learn, grow, stretch, and challenge one another.

I suppose we “grown ups” continue to do so as well, but we don’t hold hands spontaneously anymore.

Every night at the dinner table we take turns around the table sharing our gratitudes. Once a novelty, now it’s a tradition. Both boys raise their hands frantically, competing as to who gets to state their gratitudes first.

It is a time when we can each think briefly about something – anything – for which we are thankful. Some nights, like tonight, it’s hard to think of things for which I am thankful. I’ve got a parent who is hurting and friends who are wandering. I haven’t met personal goals that I set earlier in the year. We put the boys down unhappily last night –  I try to time it so we avoid meltdown sibling squabbling, but didn’t close the deal tonight before they fell apart. It’s so frustrating.

And yet…

they slept nearly twelve hours last night, blessedly ignorant of what awaits them in High School.

Today I asked them what they wanted to be when they grow up.

The oldest responded confidently, A professional soccer player and a shark explorer.

The youngest said, I want to be the Happy Guy.

You mean you want to be like Pharrell Williams, the singer who sings Happy?

No. I want TO. BE. THE. HAPPY. GUY.

So you want to become Pharrell Williams when you grow up?

YES.

Ok.

I love my guys. And High School wasn’t awful. It was actually pretty good. I am grateful.

BUT.

IT. GETS. BETTER. 

hermanitosabril

 

Ashes – My Messy, Beautiful

A few months ago someone I know liked a business on Facebook that creates cremation urns.

You know how we like stuff on social media. Sugar sweet piles of puppies, spinning dolphins who live in crystal blue seas, dazzling rainbow sunsets in far off lands. We like sleeping newborns, political jokes, break dancing toddlers, important messages, pleas for prayers and hundreds and hundreds of photos that we cannot unsee and occasionally we wish we could. Social media descends on our lives every day like so many birds, assailing us with images that remind us of days long since lived, or of places where we one day hope to go.

We scroll down, down, down… clicking on the occasional link that someone we truly like has posted or for whatever reason catches our eye at the moment.

Well, it turns out that on social media there’s a bunch of us that like cremation urns.

I guess.

Urns are tenderly created bowls of earth made for the purpose of housing ashes. Dedicated to offering a space in which one’s remains can be kept safe and sacred, they have been used by many civilizations across thousands of years. Like seemingly everything else on the planet, today you can buy them on Amazon.

You can bury ashes. You can scatter them. You can keep them. You can do whatever you feel is right, and you can possibly almost forget about them because they may be tucked into a brown paper bag in your closet, by the neatly folded sweaters that you never actually wear.

Truth: just seeing this “like” of urns on Facebook destroyed me a little bit for a few minutes.

A portion of my sister’s ashes has been housed unceremoniously in a paper bag on a shelf in my closet in my bedroom for over eight years now. Safely out of sight in a quiet corner, I rarely notice them. Occasionally I get up there to sort out sweaters and whoa – there they are.

It never, ever occurred to me to acquire an urn until I saw that Facebook post.

A few months after she died, my family and I scattered my sister’s ashes in the way back of my parents’ generous backyard, close to the basketball court where she spent plenty of time dribbling, free throwing, rebounding, and laughing (I didn’t play but I paid attention).

A breeze nudged the warmth of the day aside, but did little to temper our feelings. My feelings were red-hot, smoking, passionate in the anger I felt toward my sister’s death. Not toward my sister. Never ever toward her. Well, maybe just a little bit.

WHY had she gone out that day? Why to work? Why on a bike?

Why Why Why?

Then a roaring crippling sadness tumbled down the mountainside trapping me beneath its weight.

We said nothing as each of us in turn gently tossed her ashes across the creeping green ground cover that blankets this bit of land and protects it from erosion and drought.

The physical and poignant process of scattering my sister’s ashes is one that remains matchless in its depth, love and sorrow in my experience to the present day.

All the spoken words before and during and after her memorial service were beautiful and brilliant and funny and heartbreaking. I loved all the words, all the voices. They lifted and carried our family through those bleak days, but when it was my turn to hold my sister’s ashes in my bare hands I couldn’t have stood it if anyone dared whisper another goddamn word.

Hushed, we scattered some of her ashes in silence, then trekked back indoors. Our hearts and bodies were heavy.

The days and weeks afterward happened, and we began again to do the sorts of things we used to do. I moved again, and kept waking up every day.

But some of her – a piece of her – was kept aside for me. My husband and I moved a few months later, and among the boxes I tucked a flimsy paper bag full of ashes. It may have traveled on my carry-on, or lay beneath clothing in a suitcase… I cannot remember anymore.

Should I house my sister’s remains within an urn?

Do people really have urns any more?

Who imagined they would sell so well on Amazon?

I did a little research, but not much. Did you know you can turn yourself into a tree when you die? There are biodegradable urns made from coconut shells, and inside they contain seeds. You can even pick the type of plant you would like to be.

Even after eight years, it’s still too hard and horrible and impossible. I’ve been dreaming lately, and they aren’t good dreams. I believe my sister would forgive me for hitting the pause button a few times in my journey toward accepting her absence.

So I am satisfied with the paper bag in the closet. It is her life that I remember – not her remains – as I move throughout my days, as I sleep, struggle, smile, cry and think — this is the way in which I know and honor her.

I am not going to procure an urn anytime soon.

But I am going to make more of an effort to honor her memory, and realize that the life that I am living is the only one I’ve got, and love the lives around me to pieces more often. I can appreciate the joyful messiness that is parenting, working, living, loving, and being.

And the funny thing is that I feel pretty okay today, actually, a feeling I thought would never come back when my sister died. I feel happy, humbled, and realize that happiness is fleeting – is cannot be sustained. It can’t really be caught, either. I think it’s more a consequence of being in the world as one should be for the moment.

And since life is just a series of moments (as social media would confirm), I feel happy to be among them today.

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! 

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You must not blame me if I do talk to the clouds. ~Henry David Thoreau

Do sharks cry?

I haven’t been writing as often as I had intended to this month, and I blame all the good stuff there is out there to read. Books, essays, blog posts, newspapers. There are so many compelling words that other people write that fill me up and bring me to tears. The tears always surprise me, because after my sister died I cried daily for about five years straight and then completely stopped. The tears dried up and I could suddenly think, speak, act, breathe, and work normally in the presence of her absence.

I still felt wretched much of the time, but figured I was permanently all cried out.

Today I think the “feeling” part of my brain just needed a major rest.

I’ve also come to the understanding that grief is supposed to hurt. It’s not a gentle pat on your shoulder or a hug or a promise that things will get better one day. The pain means that grief is doing its thing, and the magic of the grieving journey is that one day you’re not crying every single night and then you actually laugh. You laugh at something someone said, or something on the radio, or even at yourself. And then you startle, because you haven’t laughed in so long that it feels uncomfortable and itchy and wrong. But then something happens, like when my mom mentioned making a donation to my sister’s scholarship fund before the end of the calendar year in order to write it off for taxes, and I thought, that is so… so…. practical.

I could just hear my sister making some smart remark about her being gone and we’re worrying about taxes? Liz was so darn practical when it came to money that I pictured her smiling at my mom while checking her bank account.

Then I remembered her hopping off a city bus in Manhattan because she spied a discount department store where she ended up buying her bridesmaid dress for my wedding for $14.99.

Anytime someone complimented her on the dress, she was all smiles as she announced that it cost fifteen dollars!

And I laughed.

Last weekend we took the boys to see Frozen, and since that day we’ve watched Elsa sing “Let It Go” a half dozen times on YouTube. If you haven’t yet seen it, the story is that this gorgeous (of course) princess is born with the power to transform everything she touches into ice. It’s a creative version of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, a fairy tale published in 1845. And every single time we’ve watched Elsa sing I’ve had to bite my lip and take a deep breath in order not to cry. I’m not sure if it’s the music or the message that makes me feel, but either way it brings me to tears. 

Then it’s over and I’m fine and my youngest is fussing for one more time.  I have no inclination to sink back into the land of tears (this is a post that I wrote one year ago. It’s fascinating that what I was feeling last year is so close to what I’m feeling this year, and yet different – more on that later). It’s much more entertaining to take notes on my kids then to focus on what’s going on within me, not when what’s going on within me this week mostly equals extreme soreness due to fun boot camp and lower back distress and physical therapy and desire for real pain drugs that remain sadly unprescribed

Booooooring. 

During last night’s dinner gratitudes our eldest said he was thankful “for today, the whole day, yesterday, and tomorrow.” 

Just as I was absorbing his sweet message, he managed to turn gratitudes into a detailed explanation of the Gila Monster. I had asked him to take a bigger bite of the nutritious soup I had prepared instead of just eating bread. He took a small sip, then informed me that the Gila Monster swallows eggs and small prey whole without teeth. Additionally, the Gila monster dislikes the heat, though he lives in the dessert. Who knew?

It’s amazing to me how much a six-year-old can absorb from a video, book or a lesson. He retains scientific trivia like it’s a competitive sport. His demeanor during dinner resembled a very small professor of entomology. Or maybe it’s herpetology. Perhaps one day… both.

On the other hand, he can exasperate his younger brother to no end simply by ignoring his tricks. Instead of falling apart in a full-on tantrum, however, our youngest instead called out these words after dinner:

Annie always says we include our friends! And he’s not including me! Annie says we gotta include everybody!!!!!

His teacher, Annie, taught him that we must, or should, include all of our friends in our play. Big brother (B.B.) was content playing alone, and younger brother (Y.B.) desperately wanted to engage him. What to do?

In this situation I generally let Y.B. know that B.B. is playing alone right now and needs some space. But Y.B. had used his words so beautifully that I took his side, and insisted that they attempt to play nicely together.

Nothing went really wrong with this scenario, and yet nothing was overwhelmingly right, either. I am trying to step back as referee in order to let them resolve their own problems. It’s not easy to stay in the background.

Later, I posed a question to B.B.

Do sharks cry?

He shook his head. A definite no.

Why not?

Because they are the most powerful creatures in the sea and cannot be hurt.

What about if a mama shark lost her baby shark?

Well, baby sharks and grown up sharks have special rememberies. They just know how to get back. 

I have special rememberies, too, I think.

What about other animals? Do they cry?

No.

What about dogs?

Um, well, they make like (whimper, whimper) sounds when they are sad. 

Then we were interrupted by L.B. when a bunch of Legos came crashing out of a box, and chaos resumed in our pretty Christmas lit home. And I laughed.

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