Sunday, April 29, 2012

I'm grateful

A Tiger

Today I had the pleasure of sitting at my son Jordan's game and watching him play baseball up at Western Washington University. It's been five years since I've had the chance to watch him play, and as I sat there in the stands I thought of all of the years I sat on the sidelines and watched my kids play baseball, soccer and basketball. It filled me with warm memories.

The reason it's been five years since I watched Jordan play is that he was cut from the high school team as a sophomore. We were never given much of a reason why, and I will say it was devastating to a kid who loved the game that much. He never wanted to try out again for that coach, and I think he figured his playing days were over. Then last summer when he was home, he played in a men's league and it reignited his passion for the sport. So he went back up to WWU, and tried out for and made the club baseball team. It's been a gift for him to be back playing the sport he loves so much, and I think it's really helped him deal with Matthew's death.

Today as I sat on the cold aluminum bleachers and watched my 6'3" son play, I thought of all those moments as my three kids were growing up that we attended their games and their practices. Sure there was a little grumbling sometimes on my part (mostly if it was cold and rainy), but for the most part it was a joy to sit with other parents and cheer on our kids.

Friendships were made on the sidelines. Some were a given and have lasted over the years. Others were unlikely and lasted a season. But I learned much from my fellow parents and we bonded over our kids' accomplishments and failures on the field.
2005 BABE RUTH State Champions

We watched as they experienced incredible moments of glory, as well as devastating moments of defeat. We hurt when they hurt. We rejoiced when they rejoiced. We cheered them on as they became members of that elite club that included their heroes like Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax and Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball is a game of failures and we watched as they learned to accept the failures alongside the rewards. It's a good training ground for life.

So when I see those t-ballers in their little baseball uniforms walking through town in early Spring I can't help but get a bit misty. I remember how proud my boys were each step of the way. From t-ball to coach-pitch to intermediates to majors to Babe Ruth they learned the game better and better as each year passed, and wore their uniforms proudly.

Today I felt nostalgic as I watched Jordan play with his team. It hasn't been an easy route for him, by any means. But I'm happy that he's back playing a game that has taught him (and me) so many lessons. It sure has gone by quickly.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

18 Months

Eighteen months ago today, Matthew passed away.  Eighteen months ago, we lost our son, our brother, our grandson, our nephew, our cousin, our friend. Eighteen months ago, our lives changed in ways we never could have imagined.
Hiking in Nicaragua at the end of 2009
I've been reflecting a lot this weekend about the past year and a half.  We've had glorious weather and I've spent a good amount of time outside.  I took long walks, worked in the garden and mostly just sat in the sunshine and thought about Matthew. 

I saw the tree he fell out of as a nine year old when he broke his arm. I saw the batting cage where he took cut after cut all the way through high school. I saw the path he built the summer before he died. 

I feel Matthew the most when I'm outdoors. From the time he was a very little boy, he loved spending time outside as much as possible. For me, the spaciousness of the outdoors helps remind me of the great mystery that surrounds us.  When I'm outside I'm much more able to feel the interconnectedness of all life--past, present and future. It's a comforting thought. 

I want to share a poem that a friend sent me on the first anniversary back in October. I find the last stanza to be particularly powerful.

When Great Trees Fall
by Maya Angelou

When great trees fall, 
rocks on distant hills shudder, 
lions hunker down 
in tall grasses, 
and even elephants 
lumber after safety. 
When great trees fall 
in forests, 
small things recoil into silence, 
their senses 
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die, 
the air around us becomes 
light, rare, sterile. 
We breathe, briefly. 
Our eyes, briefly, 
see with 
a hurtful clarity. 
Our memory, suddenly sharpened, 
gnaws on kind words 
promised walks 
never taken. 

Great souls die and 
our reality, bound to 
them, takes leave of us. 
Our souls, 
dependent upon their 
now shrink, wizened. 
Our minds, formed 
and informed by their 
fall away. 
We are not so much maddened 
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance 
of dark, cold 

And when great souls die, 
after a period peace blooms, 
slowly and always 
irregularly. Spaces fill 
with a kind of 
soothing electric vibration. 
Our senses, restored, never 
to be the same, whisper to us. 
They existed. They existed. 
We can be. Be and be 
better. For they existed. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Little Free Libraries

The dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul-BOOKS.
Emily Dickinson

Imagine that your bus stop is not only a place where the free exchange of ideas happens, but where the free exchange of books transpires. That's the idea behind Little Free Libraries. Little Free Libraries is a project started three years ago in Madison, Wisconsin by Todd Bol who wanted to honor his mother, a former teacher and book lover. The concept is simple: Build a miniature house (bigger than a mailbox, smaller than a doll house), fill it with books, put it in a somewhat public place (at least a place that has some foot traffic), and see what happens. Little Free Libraries motto is "take a book, leave a book." 

Think of the possibilities. You stand at the bus stop and leave a book you just read, only to discover a fellow rider also read that book. A discussion ensues. Or, you start out on your walk with one book and return with another. You see what your neighbors are reading, and they, in turn, get an idea of what you like to keep on your bedside table.

I just discovered that my own community has one (and maybe even more than one). Crystal Springs is a walk I often take, so you can be sure that I'll be adding and subtracting to this library the next time I'm out.

Here's a close up of what was in there on Wednesday afternoon. 

For more information about Little Free Libraries, visit their website. So far they are in over 40 states, and more than 20 countries. Here's their mission:

  • To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide.
  • To build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.
  • To build more than 2510 libraries around the world--more than Andrew Carnegie. 

I absolutely love this idea! In an age where everything is transmitted electronically, there's something almost magical about an old-fashioned book exchange. Wouldn't it be great if we started seeing Little Free Libraries popping up everywhere?! 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Sense of Place

"Sense of place is the sixth sense, an internal compass and map made by memory and spatial perception together."
Rebecca Solnit
Camelback Mountain

My husband and I just returned from a long weekend in Arizona visiting my mom.  When I'm down there, I'm always struck by how much the desert feels like home, even though I haven't lived there for over 30 years. But there's something about the desert (especially the light) that speaks to me on a deep, visceral level.

Hiking at Piestawa Peak 
We always go hiking when we are in Arizona, and with each step I take I feel the years shed off of me as we walk along the dusty trail. Very quickly, I become the young girl who built forts in the washes, and scrambled up Mummy Mountain to create lookout points on the valley below.  We were knowledgeable about the different types of cacti, and the difference between lizards and gila monsters. We knew to be careful when moving rocks, as scorpions could be resting just below. We also knew to always be alert and listen for the sound of the rattle. Roadrunners, jackrabbits, quails and doves were the animals in our "playground," and at night the howl of the coyotes lulled us to sleep.
These past few days I've been thinking a lot about what a sense of place means and from where it originates. I love the Northwest; it has been my home since 1979. Today when I got back and looked out at the lush greenery of our backyard, I was grateful for the stark difference of the desert.  There's something about the sparseness of that landscape that has somehow shaped me.  I wonder if others find that the landscapes they grew up in are embedded in them? Or perhaps in your travels you discovered a landscape that spoke to you above all others. Why does that happen? What is it that makes a place speak to us on a deeper level? 

I don't have an answer to any of these questions, just wonderings. I know that whenever I return to the Southwest I'm always grateful to step into the landscape of my childhood and let the memories wash over me. I'm also equally grateful to come back to the Northwest, where I've made a home the past 33 years. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

I'm Grateful For... Coffee

"Enjoy the little things in life, for one day, you may look back and realize they were the big things."

Betty Smith- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 

After Matthew died, I read a lot of books on grief and loss. Many of the ones that spoke to me the most were on mindfulness. There was something about the way these books talked about paying attention to the present moment that made sense to me, since you never know what the future holds. The idea of gratitude permeates mindfulness thought, and gratitude was what kept surfacing in my own mind. I began to see how the transformational power of grief and loss could work its way into your life on a daily basis, if you let it. 

So today I have my first post in what I'm going to call my "I'm Grateful for..." series. Periodically, I will look at some of the things that may seem ordinary on the surface, but in fact are part of the many little moments that make up my life.

It only seems appropriate to start with one of the first things that occurs during the course of my day: my daily coffee. I have my regular order (double tall split shot Americano with room for half and half). I try to remember to always bring my own cup (just about 70% of the time). The price isn't too bad ($1.73-$1.85, depending on my cup situation). I have a favorite place I buy from (our local market's espresso stand). 
The coffee and the milk are organic. And, most importantly, I have live interactions with the most wonderful baristas who help get my day off to a good start.

Eric, Andora, Kristen and Britany make up the morning crew at our local market. They always greet their customers with a smile, and many times know our orders by heart. Just a note for people who don't live in the Seattle area. Northwesterners have complicated coffee orders, so it's no small feat when I say that these guys have hundreds of orders in their heads. Sometimes the pleasantries are just superficial commentaries on the weather, sometimes authentic interchanges; more often than not, there's laughter involved. There is heartfelt warmth in these exchanges, and I always walk out the door with a smile on my face, ready to meet my day.

Today as you go about your day, take note of some of your little moments and see if it makes a difference in how you view your day. I know that when I do this with genuine intention, I am more attentive and grateful.

So to conclude this post about coffee, here's a fun tribute to our favorite morning beverage by Marge Piercy 

In Praise of Joe
by Marge Piercy 

I love you hot
I love you iced and in a pinch
I will even consume you tepid.

Dark brown as wet bark of an apple tree,
dark as the waters flowing out of a spooky swamp
rich with tannin and smelling of thick life—

but you have your own scent that even
rising as steam kicks my brain into gear.
I drink you rancid out of vending machines,

I drink you at coffee bars for $6 a hit,
I drink you dribbling down my chin from a thermos
in cars, in stadiums, on the moonwashed beach.

Mornings you go off in my mouth like an electric
siren, radiating to my fingertips and toes.
You rattle my spine and buzz in my brain.

Whether latte, cappuccino, black or Greek
you keep me cooking, you keep me on line.
Without you, I would never get out of bed

but spend my life pressing the snooze
button. I would creep through wan days
in the form of a large shiny slug.

You waken in me the gift of speech when I 
am dumb as a rock buried in damp earth.
It is you who make me human every dawn.
All my books are written with your ink. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Book Recommendation: The World to Come

"In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own."
Anna Quindlan-How Reading Changed My Life

One of the things in life I am most grateful for are books.  My love of reading is something that has been with me since I checked out my first chapter book--B is for Betsy--from the school library in first grade. As my friends know, I love talking about books, recommending books and hearing about other people's recommendations. So when I come across a book that knocks my socks off, I will write about it.

I discovered The World to Come by Dara Horn in January and wondered how I missed this gem of a book. It was published in 2006, and I feel cheated that it took me until 2012 to find it. It is one of the few books that I have willingly read twice in a six-week-period.

The World to Come is part mystery, part historical fiction and part Jewish mysticism all rolled up into one delicious book with many layers to un-peel. It starts off in the present-day with Ben Ziskind, a former child prodigy, attending a singles mixer at a Jewish museum where he sees a Chagall painting that he is convinced belongs to his family. So he steals it. You are then whisked back to the 1920's in Russia and introduced to a cast of characters that includes Marc Chagall and the Yiddish novelist Der Nister, a.k.a "The Hidden One." Naturally, a connection is made between Ziskind's family and Chagall, and a suspenseful plot spanning 80 years is born.

Yiddish folktales are woven throughout the book, and provide a strong thread between the past and the present. Horn is adept at handling the changing timelines as well as the changing character's perspectives. It would be easy to get confused with the multiple characters and settings that are introduced, but you don't. With each page I found myself getting drawn in deeper and deeper to the story.

Then there's the whole concept of "the world to come"... the world that lies just beyond our world. Whatever your beliefs on this subject are, I think you will be intrigued and enchanted by what Horn presents. The last chapter is unlike anything I've ever read. I had to read it twice to try and fully grasp it. In this world to come, old souls meet souls ready to be born and teach them much about the world they are about to come into. Here's the first paragraph from the last chapter:

"It is a great injustice that those who die are often people we know, while those who are born are people we don't know at all. We name children after the dead in the dim hope that they will resemble them, pretending to blunt the loss of the person we knew while struggling to make the person we don't know into less of a stranger. It's compelling, this idea that the new person is so tightly bound to the old, but most of us are afraid to believe it. What if we are right? Not that the new person is the reincarnation of the old, but rather, more subtly, that they know each other, that the already-weres and the not-yets of our world, the mortals and the natals are bound together somewhere just past where we can see, in a knot of eternal life?" 

We read this in my book club, and while everyone really enjoyed the book, we held divergent opinions on the last chapter and it made for an interesting and lively discussion. I think The World to Come is a great choice for anyone interested in a well-told story that makes you pause a bit and think. 

A special plea: If you're going to buy The World to Come, I urge you to consider buying it at your local independent bookstore. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Death of a Pet

Today our sweet-natured 20-year-old dog, Sierra died. Yes, you read that correctly, 20-years-old. When we brought her into the vet this afternoon, I asked him how many 20-year-old dogs he had in his care, and he said "none."

We brought Sierra home 15 years ago as a rescue dog. The people at PAWS could tell that she already had at least one litter of puppies, and had been probably abused, as she was very skittish around men. But she was welcomed into our family of three kids, a cat and another little rescue puppy named Edgar.

Sierra was the easiest of our pets. She was a gentle soul, whose only annoying habit was that she would often snap at invisible flies in the air.  As she aged, she lost her fear of men and would just come up to you and place her head on your lap. There was something about her that drew people in, and never more so than in the last few years of her life. In fact, a friend of mine thinks that she lived so long because she had to make sure that our family was going to be all right after Matthew died. I guess she finally realized we were going to be okay, and she made her transition.

So many people have written about dogs and their remarkable ability for unconditional love, that I really don't think I can add much to it. We are all just so grateful that we had such a long time with Sierra.  As I drove home this afternoon from the vet's office, raindrops were splattering down all around me, while at the same time the sun was sending giant rays through these big, white puffy clouds. All I could think about was how life is full of paradoxes, and they keep showing up at my doorstep. Sun and Rain. Grief and Gratitude. Life and Death. I've got to keep paying attention.

In honor of Sierra, here's one of Mary Oliver's "Percy" poems.

Little Dogs Rhapsody in the Night

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I'm awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws
in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.

Tell me you love me, he says.

Tell me again.

Could there be a sweeter arrangement?
Over and over
he gets to ask it.
I get to tell.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Before and After

People are like stained - glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed, only if there is a light from within.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross

Everyone’s lives are filled with before and after moments. I think they are the way we remember and define the events that make up our lives, as well as remind us who we were at a given time. 

Before college ~ after college
Before I met my husband/wife ~ after I met my husband/wife
Before I had kids ~ after I had kids

I now have an "after" in my life that demarcates it like nothing before. A line is drawn right down the middle, with October 22nd, 2010 as the point where so much changed. "After Matthew died." I straddle those three words as I try and figure out how to navigate this new path I find myself on.

I've come to realize that loss is an inevitable part of life. While I define this critical "before and after" moment in my life as the loss of my child, it can be many things besides the death of a loved one.  Loss can be the end of a marriage, the end of a job, a life-changing illness, or moving to a new place. All of these often require a recalibration of our life's purpose, which in turn sets us on a new path. 

Over the past 17 months, it has been helpful for me to hear people's stories and see how they have chosen to continue on with their lives.  I've been grateful when I meet people who despite being shaken to their core with loss, have gone on to redefine their lives in positive ways. They've managed to pick up the pieces and proceed with a new sense of purpose. 

I have many wonderings about my own path these days as I learn to navigate it without Matthew. Some of these are the natural stirrings of mid-life; some are precipitated by our loss. I have more questions than answers, and wonder how my grief journey fits into my overall life journey. But I do know connections with others are important. If you'd like to share your before and after story with me, I'd love to hear it. Comments or e-mails are welcome.

I'll end with a Mary Oliver poem that says it all much more succinctly than I can (although "gift" is not a word I think I can ever use, I do understand her meaning).

“The Uses of Sorrow”
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this too, was a gift.

Mary Oliver

Hoh River Rain Forest/Fall 2011