Thursday, May 31, 2012

Stories of Resiliency-Molly Griest

There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen

"Choice" by Molly Greist
Back in a post I titled "Resiliency," I said that I hoped to share some of the stories of people I've met these past 19 months who have experienced some of life's greatest losses, and yet gone on to live healthy, productive lives. One of the people I met early on is Molly Greist. Molly lives in the same community that I do, and I had heard of her over the years, but our paths never crossed. A mutual friend thought we should meet, and so we first got together over a cup of coffee back in January 2011, just a few months after Matthew's death; we had an instant connection.

Briefly, here's Molly's story. In 1989 she lost her 10-month-old son Peter in an automobile accident. In her grief, she found herself drawn to stonework (Peter means stone in Greek), and the results were life-changing and, quite simply, amazing. With her hammer and her chisel she slowly chipped her way "out of the pain and darkness of grief." I highly recommend that you visit Molly's website to view her stunning stonework and read her story more in depth. Here's a link.

Molly and I met recently to talk about resiliency. We sat in her sun porch as the afternoon sun finally broke through the low clouds that hovered all day. Like me, she has had many wonderings over the years and like me, she has more questions than answers. Time spent with Molly always results in deep and meaningful conversations, and this talk proved no different.

In the course of our two-plus hour conversation, we tossed around many words and phrases that resonated with both of us. Words like:

Belief  (in yourself, as well as having someone believe in you)
Presence in the now
Story (How story helps connect us with each other)

All of these things I now find myself thinking about daily as I maneuver my way in the world. I am pretty sure I didn't think this way before Matthew died, at least not on such a regular basis. But now I do and actually it's one of the things I'm grateful for. I guess it makes me feel more grounded and connected to the present.

Nature figured prominently in our conversation and we both realized how much the outdoors has helped us cope with our losses. It's hard not to be humbled by it all when walking in a forest, a desert or on a mountaintop. Molly pointed out that every time she would question something in her life, she would find it paralleling in nature, and she found that comforting. To state the obvious, nature is so much bigger than we are, and that always helps me put things into perspective.

I asked Molly what she meant by 'is-ness" and she said this: "You need to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking. If you are not trying to fix what WAS and instead accept what IS, then you have potential, and possibility is looming in front of you. Hope is waiting. And what if the stone breaks? We can become devastated, or we can see new possibility and potential in the pieces." 

That concept of broken open makes so much sense to me.  It's really not possible to go through life without being broken open by events, big and small. When you are "opened" by some kind of a loss, there is the potential for change. This doesn't mean that it's something you seek, it's just that once something devastating happens you have a choice as to how you want to carry on. Both Molly and I agreed that we realized early on that neither Peter nor Matthew would want their families to be unable to carry on without them. I know that I have often thought of that, and it's helped me move forward.

Finally, how one reacts in a tragedy is a pretty key concept in talking about resiliency. Like Molly says, you can either be devastated by the pieces, or pick them up knowing you can't put them back together again, but see the new opportunity. It's a choice. It doesn't diminish your grief, by any means. It just enables you to move forward and not be stuck. 

So I'll end this post much like I began it, with more questions than answers. But after my conversation with Molly my head is swirling in the best sort of way as I embrace the mystery of life, and know that it's okay not to have the answers. It's also equally okay to continue to ask the questions, hear people's stories and move forward as best I can. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Book Recommendation: Hannah Coulter

I was grateful because I knew, even in my fear and grief, that my life had been filled with gifts.
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

For the past 10 days I have found myself immersed in the community of the Port William Membership in the novel Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. When I closed the book I felt a sense of loss as I bid good-bye to the men, women and children who make up this fictional community. Hannah Coulter is the seventh book in the Port William Membership series, and the second one I have read (Jayber Crow was the first). It’s the only one where Berry tells the story from a woman’s point of view, and his prose is eloquent and thoughtful.

At the start of the book, we meet Hannah in her early 80’s as she begins to tell the story of her long life. For many it would seem a fairly ordinary life, but of course, there’s much grace to be found in ordinary lives. Twice widowed (once as a young woman and then in her late 70’s), the themes of loss and grief are woven throughout the book.  For me, these resonated deeply, and my brand new book is highlighted throughout. Here’s a passage: 

“I need to tell about my people in their grief. I don’t think grief is something they get over or get away from. In a little community like this it is around us and in us all the time, and we know it. We know that every night, war or no war, there are people lying awake grieving, and every morning there are people waking up to absences that will never be filled.” P. 61

There’s a cast of characters and their stories are laced together creating the tapestry known as Port William. For most people in this community, farming is their livelihood, and you feel Hannah’s pain as she talks about how the young people leave to pursue other things (trading their "membership" in Port William for employment elsewhere).  Here are her musings on this:

"One of her attractions of moving away into the life of employment, I think, is being disconnected and free, unbothered by membership. It is a life of beginnings without memories, but it is a life too that ends without being remembered. The life of membership with all its cumbers is traded away for the life of employment that makes itself free by forgetting you clean as a whistle when you are not of any more use." p 133

Port William is community in the best sense of the word, and it certainly gives one pause to think about the role of one's own community. In Port William they are there for each other in sickness and in health, in good and bad times. They celebrate together and grieve together. Their reverence for the land, family and community is a dying way of life and makes one wonder about the direction modern life has taken. 

Hannah Coulter is one of the wisest books I have ever read.  It is to be savored word by word. For a fast reader like myself, I actually found it impossible to read quickly, as I wanted to allow each sentence to sink slowly in. Here’s another excerpt:

The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.” I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.” P. 113

I’m not sure if you will find these passages as enticing on their own as they are in the book. But if you are looking for a rich and warmly told story that it full of wisdom, then try Hannah Coulter. This book will make you think about life and love and purpose and all sorts of weighty questions long after you have finished the final sentence. 

And finally some of Hannah's thoughts on death.

Death is a sort of lens, though I used to think of it as a wall or a shut door. It changes things and makes things clear. Maybe it is the truest way of knowing this dream, this brief and timeless life. Sometimes when I try to remember Nathan, I can’t see him exactly enough. Other times, when I haven’t thought of him, he comes to me unbidden, and I see him more clearly, I think, than I ever did.  Am I awake then, or there, or here? (p. 157)

Here’s a hint. At the back of the book is a mapping of all of the families of Port William starting in the 1850’s and going to present day. It is VERY helpful to refer back to so you can sort out who everyone is. 

Thanks to Jennifer Mann for bringing this book to my attention!

Sunday, May 20, 2012


People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong. Why not try and see positive things, to just touch those things and make them bloom? 

-Thich Nhat Hanh-

It may seem strange to have an entry about commuting on a blog about grief and gratitude. But I've been giving this some thought, so bear with me. For those of you that don't know, I live on an island that is a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. I've lived here almost 19 years and have never had to commute downtown to work. I've always been able to work within a ten-minute drive from my home (and believe me I've been grateful for that). Well that's all changing.

The organization where I have worked for almost 13 years-The Center for Courage & Renewal-has moved to downtown Seattle. So my days of the ten-minute commute have come to an end. I have joined the ranks of people who file onto the Washington State Ferries, for what has to be one of the most beautiful commutes around (gratitude). Right now, I am writing this (thanks to BOINGO) on the 7:05 am ferry on a Sunday morning. I just saw an eagle perched on a pylon. Seagulls are encircling the boat as we cross Puget Sound. It's overcast today, so Mt Rainer remains in hiding.

Seattle looms on the horizon, and the Cascades stand further off in the distance.

This will be a new venture for me, and I'm determined to make the most of the commute. I don't know exactly how I will use my ferry time--writing, reading, talking or just sitting and looking out the window. But I do know that rather than look at it as adding hours onto my workday, that with a little change of attitude I can put a positive spin on it and embrace the change. 

Closer view of Seattle

October 2011 sunrise from the bow of the ferry

So as I say goodbye to my old way of commuting and hello to my new mode of transportation, I want to close with an excerpt of a poem by John O'Donohue.  Our Executive Director opened with this at our first staff meeting last Thursday in our new office.  I hadn't seen this poem before, and feel it's a beautiful way to embrace a new space that one is about to inhabit (office or home). 

May this home be a lucky place,
where the graces your life desires
always find the pathway to your door.

May nothing destructive
ever cross your threshold.

May this be a safe place
full of understanding and acceptance,
where you can be as you are,
without the need of any mask
of pretense or image.

May this home be a place of discovery,
Where the possibilities that sleep
In the clay of your soul can emerge
To deepen and refine your vision
For all that is yet to come to birth.

May it be a house of courage,
Where healing and growth are loved,
Where dignity and forgiveness prevail;
A home where patience of the spirit is prized,
And the sight of the destination is never lost
Though the journey be difficult and slow.
May there be great delight around this hearth.
May it be a house of welcome
For the broken and diminished.

May you have the eyes to see
That no visitor arrives without a gift
And no guest leaves without a blessing.

John O'Donohue
To Bless the Space Between Us

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I'm grateful for...Spring

  1. If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.

Anne Bradstreet--Meditations Divine and Moral

In the Northwest, good weather is something we never take for granted. It's mercurial at best, and gray skies are often the only constant. So spring 2012 has been a true gift with its mild temperatures, clear skies and bountiful flowers. 

Sometimes one has to look no further than what is right in front of us to see the beauty that surrounds us daily. As I walked around our yard today, I realized that winter was becoming a distant memory. And while I appreciate each season for its unique gifts, I think the transition from winter to spring is exceptionally liberating. There's something freeing about exchanging its heavy layers for spring's more diaphanous ones. 

Below are some spring images from my own yard.
One of the first signs of spring

Our orchard
The vegetable garden two weeks ago
The vegetable garden today

Rhodies! Washington's State flower

Lilacs! My favorite sign of spring in the NW
My side garden
Our resurrected chicken coop

The ladies in waiting

I am grateful for these longer, warmer days. I know they're unusual and that we may soon get the more typical "June Gloom." But for now, I'll savor the sun, the flowers, the blue skies and perfect temperatures. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Matthew's Memory Quilt

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

One of the toughest tasks after a loved one dies is knowing what to do with their things. How long do you hold on to their possessions? What feels right to one person, doesn't feel right to another. I know that when my dad died, my mom was very clear about not wanting to face a closet full of his clothes everyday. It just made her too sad. I also know of a woman whose son was killed in a car accident over 35 years ago, and she hasn't touched a thing in his room. There is no right or wrong way to go about this. It's a very personal decision. But I am so grateful to a friend of mine who did something for our family that helped us immensely in this regard.

Peri Greenberg approached us a few months after Matthew died and asked if we would want her to make a quilt out of his shirts. She had seen a woman in her quilt group do this for a neighbor whose son died, and saw how touched the neighbor had been.  We were incredibly moved by her offer and set about choosing the 20 t-shirts she requested. For anyone who knows 21-year-old boys, you know that t-shirts very much define them. So we sorted through them, and slowly put a pile together. We found the Che Guevara shirt he bought in Paris in 2007, and the Tona Beer shirt he bought off a street vendor in Nicaragua in 2009. There was a Western Washington University shirt, as well as a baseball shirt from his high school. Each t-shirt had a memory of Matthew wrapped up in it.

Before I share the beautiful quilt with you, I want to share something that Peri told me when she was making the quilt. She said that she felt Matthew's presence while she worked on it. She said that when she was cutting up his shirts she felt a real sadness that stayed with her the whole time she was piecing it together.  She was on the verge of tears most of the time while working on it, and she had never felt that before when working on other quilts of loved ones lost. The amazing thing was that once she got it back from the machine quilter and began to bind it in a baseball fabric, the feeling was much lighter. It was if something beautiful had come out of the sadness. She felt that maybe Matthew's spirit was with her and he saw what she was doing with his shirts.    

So last June, Peri, her daughter Hailee and our friend Lisa came over to the island to deliver the quilt. When she showed it to me, I was overwhelmed at the simple beauty of it. There were all of those familiar t-shirts and they gave me great comfort.

I wrapped myself in it in the parking lot so Peri could get a picture.

If you look closely at the edges, you will see that it's lined with a flannel pattern of baseballs, which is perfect for Matthew. The flannel makes it very comfortable to snuggle in (the perfect napping quilt).

We are so grateful to Peri for this gesture of love. Her artistic eye and attention to detail has made this such a perfect way to remember Matthew.

Thank YOU, Peri!

Monday, May 7, 2012


In the midst of winter,
I finally learned 
there was in me
an invincible summer.
Albert Camus

Last weekend I went up to Vancouver B.C. with three good friends. We traveled up there to walk in a 1/2 marathon, but as you might imagine that was only an excuse to have a weekend away in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We had deep (and sometimes not so deep) conversations, lots of laughter, great food and most of all the wonderful camaraderie that comes with friends who have known each other for a long time.  
Vancouver, B.C.

In one of our many conversations, we touched upon the resiliency of the human spirit. This came up when one of my friends mentioned she knows someone who has lost both a husband and a son, and yet continues to have an amazing outlook and perspective on life. She sounds like she's an inspiration to all who meet her.

So I've been mulling this over today. What is it that allows one to continue on in the face of heart-breaking loss? How does someone manage to get through a life-changing incident (divorce, loss of job, illness, death of spouse, or the death of a child) and still continue to find meaning and purpose in one's life? What makes humans so resilient?

As I was thinking this over, it reminded me of the PBS show-This Emotional Life. I watched this when it first premiered in January 2010 and remembered that it wove together people's personal stories with the latest scientific facts on topics like depression, happiness and resiliency. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. So I looked it up on the PBS website and found this little gem about resiliency: 

Factors that contribute to resilience include:

· Close relationships with family and friends
· A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities
· The ability to manage strong feelings and impulses
· Good problem-solving and communication skills
· Feeling in control
· Seeking help and resources
· Seeing yourself as resilient (rather than as a victim)
· Coping with stress in healthy ways and avoiding harmful coping strategies, such as substance abuse
· Helping others
· Finding positive meaning in your life despite difficult or traumatic events

Any one of these bulleted points could be a blog post in and of itself (and perhaps will be). For me, I think that all of these have helped in varying degrees over the last 18 months. Certainly having strong relationships with others has to be number one on my list.

During the past 18 months I have met people who have weathered life's most difficult and profound losses. I am in awe of them and find their stories to be incredibly inspiring.  I hope to share some of their stories of resiliency on Grief & Gratitude.  So stay tuned!
B.C. Buddies-Elizabeth, Linda and Nancy