Sunday, September 30, 2012

Two Roads...

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

Robert Frost

Last week, my husband and I had a conversation about the different paths one chooses in life, and how you never know which ones are going to lead you to places you never dreamed of going. He reminded me that last March marked 30 years since we first met each other on a kibbutz in Israel. He wondered what would have happened if I had landed in the kibbutz office an hour later and been directed to a different kibbutz. Our lives would probably have never intersected and we would have found ourselves on very different journeys.  I told him that for me, it all came down to a train ride in Italy when my life veered in a new direction.

I was 22 and had just graduated from college. I had conveniently saved my final quarter to study in England so that I could travel after school. From England, my friend Amy and I began our backpacking trip in Europe.  We traveled a bit in Spain and southern France and then found ourselves in Venice. We also found ourselves in different places on our journey. She was beginning to yearn to go home and I was just finding my traveling legs. The differences were unspoken, but there was a little tension between us. Then, on what would turn out to be a fateful train ride from Venice to Florence, Allison from Ottawa entered our car and my life took a new direction. Allison was traveling on her own and heading on to Greece, Israel and Egypt. She wondered if we were interested in tagging along. Not only did this allow Amy and me to part amicably, it also changed my life completely. 

Initially, what most intrigued me about Allison's offer was Egypt. My grandfather had a Ph.D. in Egyptology and I had grown up listening to his stories and looking at pictures of his various trips there. Greece intrigued me also, and while I didn't know much about Israel at that point in my life, I was up for an adventure. Little did I know when I made that momentous decision that I wouldn't make it to Egypt on that trip. Instead, after a month in Greece I would land in Israel and within days meet the man who would become my husband.

We are all faced with choices, big and small, every day. We never know when we make a decision to do something what kind of impact it might have on our future. Obviously the above example ended up being pretty significant for me. But it makes me think about all of the little decisions we make along the way that lead us in new directions. It could be the college we choose brings us to a new part of the country that just feels like home. It could be an inspiring professor whose enthusiasm for a subject makes us change our major completely.  It could be that our preschool choice introduces us to a lifelong friend. Or it could be a volunteer role leads us on a completely different career path. 

There are infinite possibilities that await us, and infinite paths to choose from. Sometimes I think it's important to stop and think about the paths we find ourselves on and reflect on our journey so far. It's far too easy to plow through life somewhat mindlessly and not appreciate the choices we make.

Obviously, I am grateful that I happened to be on that particular train from Venice to Florence and that Allison from Ottawa sat in my car. It makes me mindful that every day there is always the possibility of meeting someone who will have a direct impact on my life (or visa versa). It may be significant or barely perceptible. It may not even be obvious until years later. It certainly makes me look at the world with my eyes a little more wide open and thankful for the blessings that surround me. 

Learn to get in touch with silence within yourself, and know
that everything in this life has purpose.  There are no mistakes,
no coincidences; all events are blessings given to us to learn from.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Thoughts on Fall

Life is neither linear nor is it stagnant. It is movement from mystery to mystery. Just as a year includes autumn and winter, life includes death, not as an opposite but as an integral part of the way life is made.
Rachel Naomi Remen-Kitchen Table Wisdom

Fall is almost upon us. While the official date for the fall equinox is September 22nd, for me it always occurs the Tuesday after Labor Day. That's when the shift from summer to fall becomes most evident. This year, for the second year in a row, we took off for a vacation on September 4th. Now that we don't have kids in the K-12 system, we have the luxury of heading out in September. While last year we headed to the coast (the banner picture on Grief & Gratitude was taken out there), this year we headed east to the Methow Valley. What a beautiful place, and what a perfect time of year to go. For those of you who don't live in Washington, the Methow is east of the Cascades, and in a totally different topographical zone. It's dryer, has more wide open spaces and the sky seems bigger. We love spending time there, and this year was no exception. Temperatures were in the mid to low 80's and we spent a lot of time hiking and exploring the region. I had every intention of writing an entire post about our week there. But now, it's a week and a half later, so I'll just leave you with a couple of pictures so you can soak up the atmosphere.
Maple Pass

Lost River-Mazama

Heading back, I felt that something had shifted here in Western Washington and that summer was definitely over. There's that fall feeling in the air, where once again you see kids waiting along the side of the road for their buses, leaves begin to turn and (sadly) there's a lessening of light on each end of the day. And while fall has always been my favorite season, it is not without a healthy dose of paradox these days. For fall is the season when our son, Matthew died (October 22), when my dad died (November 6) and when my dear friend Toby died (September 18). So, for me, it's a season where I am confronted with all that life has to offer--which includes the end of life. I turn to fall now more fully aware that life is not forever and that we must embrace the preciousness that living offers us. 

Fall is also the season of the Jewish high holidays. Monday was Rosh Hashanah-the Jewish New Year, and ten days later it will be Yom Kippur. These ten days are known as the "Days of Awe," a time of repentance, prayer and good deeds. It's a time where, according to Jewish tradition, it is determined who shall live and who shall die. This concept has always been difficult for me to swallow, and never more so than after Matthew died. Matthew got sick about a week after Yom Kippur in 2010, and three weeks later he died. It's very hard for me to look at this concept of the holiday with anything but skepticism. I have a hard time believing that God sits up there and determines who shall live and who shall die and decides that it's time for a 21-year-old to go (or a 12-year old, or a mother of three young children or anyone for whom it's considered a premature death). I just can't go there. Instead, what I am able to do is focus on what we CAN do to make the world a better place while we're here. I have to come at it with love and optimism, not fear and dread.

I choose to focus on the introspection that is a natural part of this time of year. Like others, I try to figure out how to become a better person for the year to come. On Rosh Hashanah we visualize the type of world we want to live in--a world that is focused on kindness, tzedakah (charity), justice, and most of all love. I see it as a chance to focus on how we want to be in the world-both for ourselves and for others. Resolutions are made, but they're different than the standard January 1st resolutions about losing weight, eating better etc.  Rosh Hashanah presents us with the opportunity to remember what's really important in life with both a sense of gratitude and awe. It makes us ask the big questions such as how can I make the world a better place? How can I make a difference in someone else's life? How can I become a more perfect version of the unique person I am?

So as the days get shorter, I find myself turning inward. I find that despite the losses in my life, I am grateful for all I have. Perhaps it's because of these losses that I am so very grateful for my family, my friends and my community.  I wish everyone a very happy, healthy and meaningful New Year! I hope that it's a year where we can both acknowledge our blessings and share them with others. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Book Recommendation: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving: A Novel

"Listen to me: everything you think you know, every relationship you’ve ever taken for granted, every plan or possibility you’ve ever hatched, every conceit or endeavor you’ve ever concocted, can be stripped from you in an instant. Sooner or later, it will happen. So prepare yourself. Be ready not to be ready. Be ready to be brought to your knees and beaten to dust. Because no stable foundation, no act of will, no force of cautious habit will save you from this fact: nothing is indestructible."
From The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving: A Novel
by Jonathan Evison

I've just spent the last three days immersed in the wonderful new novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison. It's the story of one man's journey through grief, but ultimately it's a story of hope and redemption. 

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is Evison's third novel, and as I understand it, his most personal. He happens to live in my community and I went to his reading last week at Eagle Harbor Books. As always, he was funny, quick-witted and a true pleasure to listen to. I knew this novel was garnering some good reviews and because I so enjoyed his first book All About Lulu, I was looking forward to reading it. (For some reason I have not read his second book-West of Here-but it's on my list now). Anyway, what I wasn't prepared for at the reading was when he told us that this is a book that he's been carrying around with him since his 16-year-old sister died in an automobile crash years ago. He spoke about the grief that tore into his family, and I, of course, leaned in even more. And while the story is not about his sister, it is about what that most unimaginable of losses--the loss of a child--does to a family.

The book opens with Benjamin Benjamin ruminating on his life, which we quickly learn has hit rock bottom.  He's lost his wife, house and livelihood, and alludes to a horrible tragedy 18-months ago, which we soon learn is the loss of his children. "My life, if it could be called one, bled mindlessly through the hours like ink on a blotter" (p. 16). Bogged down for the past 18 months in what he terms the "blur," Benjamin decides to take a night class called "The Fundamentals of Caregiving" as a way to re-enter the workforce. His first assignment is nineteen-year-old Trevor, an angry teenager with the debilitating disease of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. 

Benjamin tells his story, alternating between the past and the present, and along the way we meet some of the funniest, quirkiest characters in modern literature. A lot goes on in this 276-page book, and I found myself fluctuating between laughing and crying as Benjamin's story unfolds. The dialogue is snappy, irreverent and immensely readable. The first third of the book is a little slower-paced, as we come to know Ben (past and present), and the people in his life (past and present). But then Ben and Trevor go on a road trip to visit Trev's long-estranged father Bob, and with that the pace picks up.  More oddball characters are introduced, and as their journey continues both Ben and Trev begin to make peace with what life has dealt them.

You'd think a novel that holds so much sadness would make one feel depressed and hopeless, but it doesn't. For ultimately, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is a story about hope and Benjamin's struggle for salvation. It's about our remarkable ability to carry on even in the worst of circumstances. It's about love. It's also happens to be hilarious in parts. I admit that knowing Evison's personal story lent a certain poignancy to it. I can fully understand his need to tell his grief story. I get it.

I don't write that many book recommendations, primarily because that's not the purpose of this blog. In fact, I've only posted two others: Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry and The World to Come by Dara Horne.  I realize that the lens through which I now view the world is that of a bereaved mom, and all three of these books offer something different to me now than they might have 22 months ago. But whatever lens through which you view the world, I think a read of The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is definitely worth it. You'll laugh and you'll cry; what more could you want from a book?

Please consider buying The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving at your local independent bookstore.