Thursday, January 31, 2013

Midlife Wonderings

There is an unseen life that

Dreams us; it knows

Our true direction and destiny

We can trust ourselves

More than we realize,

And we need have no fear of change.

John O’Donohue

Winter Sunrise looking towards Seattle
I don't know if it's the New Year, my age or the constant grey weather that seems to have settled permanently overhead but I find myself more contemplative this month. I'm looking back, I'm looking forward and all the while trying to stay present and in the moment. Not an easy task, by any means.

December left me wiped out with the Newtown shootings, my bout with the flu and just the overall heaviness that seemed to be sitting on the world. But as we turned the page towards 2013,  I (always the optimist) was determined to figure out my next steps. As an empty nester, a bereaved mom, a wife, a friend, a daughter, a sister--who am I? For 24 years I have happily walked the journey of parenthood as we raised our children to be young adults. Now that path is less clear and I see 2013 as a time to rediscover my course. My roles have been changing these last few years, and a redefinition has been taking place. I wish that it were just an empty nest that I was dealing with. That's a big enough change in and of itself. But when you add in the death of your child, well it's almost like you are on the fast track. Your world is forever changed and so are you. Now 26 months later, I feel ready to do the soul searching that will help the new path emerge. I want to look at retreats and classes, read books, write, travel and most of all listen to my inner voice to help me figure out "what next?"

So the first thing I did this year was sign up for a series of classes on the Enneagram. Briefly speaking, the Enneagram believes that there are nine distinct personality types, and each type has its own unique capacities and limitations. Through understanding your type, you can become your best self, as well as understand the people around you better. I am not going to go in depth about it now, as we are only three weeks into a 10-week class; but it's already proving to be quite helpful and revealing.  If you are interested in learning about the Enneagram, here's a link:  You can also take an online test to help you determine your own personality type.

I am also excited by the prospects of a new bereavement training at the hospice where I volunteer. Last May, I went through the initial volunteer training at a hospice in Seattle. I chose this particular hospice because they specifically offer a program for families dealing with terminally ill children. I thought that given my experience with Matthew (although he was not in hospice) I could be a helpful presence to families in need. Anyway,  as anyone who has ever gone through a hospice training will tell you, it is a pretty amazing experience. In addition to the actual nuts and bolts of what it means to be a hospice volunteer, you are asked to examine your own beliefs and theories on death and dying. Not surprisingly, the part that spoke to me the most was the session on grief and bereavement. I understood those concepts to my very core and realized that's where I think my gifts lie. At the end of the session, I approached one of the trainers and asked her if they ever had volunteers help out with their bereavement work. She said that they do and last week I signed up for the training that will take place in March. This feels like the right next step on the journey I have started. One thing I know is that I am not afraid of other people's grief and that I am able to sit with someone who is in that dark place.

Finally, I want to share a book that I read over Martin Luther King weekend that resonated deeply with me. Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment by Katrina Kenison addresses so many of the issues that we find ourselves facing in our fifties--an empty nest, loss, grief and new beginnings.  She writes with eloquence and wisdom, managing to be transparently honest, without being preachy. With the departure of her two sons from home, the loss of her best friend to cancer, a changing marriage and a more open-ended work role, Katrina finds that she is in the unique position of having time for herself for the first time in twenty plus years. She wonders where to next place her energy. As I was reading the book I felt like I was listening to a good friend talk about all the things one talks about with a good friend. I loved reading her musings and watching her journey unfold.

So there you have it. I've been pretty silent this month on Grief & Gratitude, but my mind has been working overtime. I'm sure that many of you can relate. I'm so grateful that I live in a time and place where I can partake in these explorations. I am also aware that I'm experiencing what could be termed as "first world problems." Believe me, that's not lost on me. But I know that there is a connection between all of us, and by going deeper I may be able to become my best self and figure out my gifts for the next act.

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Few Book Recommendations...

Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.
Jane Smiley

I had every intention of writing an end-of-year blog post to say farewell to 2012. Then on Christmas Day I came down with the flu. Yes, the honest-to-goodness, stay in bed for five days, feel weak for another seven days flu. So I spent the end of 2012 and the very beginning of 2013 in a dizzy, achy, fevery state. Needless to say, I wrote nothing. Then it was Matthew's birthday on the 9th, which, as I previously wrote, I wanted to celebrate in an appropriate way. Now, just a little over a week later you'd think I would have something to say to bring in 2013.  While I have lots swirling around in my mind these days, I guess I'm not quite ready to write it down (or at least post it here). So instead, I'll rely on my fallback measure: book recommendations!  So here are some of my favorite books of the past month:

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. This gem is centered on recently retired Harold Fry who is living a modest and (seemingly) loveless life with his wife Maureen. One day, out of the blue, he receives a letter from a woman he hasn't seen in 20 years. This woman is dying in hospice and had done him a favor 20 years ago. When he initially pens his response back to her, as he is walking to the mailbox, he decides that rather than mail her the letter he would deliver it by hand, even though that means walking 500 miles across England. As he walks, he remembers his past and slowly he is transformed: "Life was very different when you walked through it," realized Harold. His journey is nostalgic and sad, as Harold realizes he's never really accomplished much of anything. Thus the journey itself becomes  a goal. His journey could be any of our own journeys, and I definitely found myself rooting for Harold. A parallel story (and similar transformation) takes place with his wife Maureen at home. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a novel of quiet introspection; perfect for a mid-life read.

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. This is a wonderful and loving tribute to author Will Schwalbe's amazing mother-Mary Anne Schwalbe. Diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer, she and Will continue on their tradition of sharing and talking about books while she undergoes treatment. Along the way, we learn what a remarkable life she led (she was one of the founders of the IRC-International Rescue Committee)  and continues to lead despite the fatal prognosis hanging over her head. It's a book written with much love, and Will's grief of what is to come is fairly palpable throughout. But it also depicts a life well lived and you can't help but admire his mom. Along the way, we are introduced to the many books they shared. Some I had read, others I have jotted down in my "to read" list.  If you are a book lover, I think you will enjoy The End of Your Life Book Club.

In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. I'm not sure how I missed reading this when it was first published in 1994, but I am so glad to have finally discovered it. This novel is inspired by the true story of the Mirabel sisters during the time of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Alvarez does a masterful job blending history and fiction as each chapter is told in the voice of one of the four sisters. This is not a "quiet" novel, and it kept me on the edge of my seat. It's filled with courage and heroism and I came away from it better informed about a very sad chapter in Latin American history. 

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Okay, I admit I read this in October. But I will be re-reading it for my book club in February so I thought I would include it. I really enjoyed this novel about a middle-aged protagonist and his reminisces about his life. It's a story about the role of memory, and how often our memories may not be what they seem. But mostly what I loved about this book is the language. It's just so beautifully written. Here's a sample: 

We live in time-it holds us and moulds us-but I've never felt I understood it very well. And I'm not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time's malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing-until the eventual point when it really does go missing never to return.

Finally, I'm in the middle of an amazing non-fiction book called Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo. This is not an easy read by any means, but is an important one. It's the harsh story of the have-nots in Mumbai, who live in a slum in the shadow of a luxury hotel and busy international airport.  I have to keep reminding myself this is real, this isn't just a story. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an important book to read precisely because this is how so many of the poorest people in the world live. It's the kind of book that cracks you open and makes you look at the world through with softer eyes. I can imagine its impact will be felt long after I read the last page.

So those are a few of the books that helped me close out 2012 and greet 2013. I love hearing people's recommendations, so please drop me a line if you have a book that particularly resonated with you. I'm always grateful for new recommendations. And, if you are buying a new book, please consider supporting your local independent bookstore!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

Bob Dylan
On the ferry to Ometepe, Nicaragua (Dec 2009)
Today is Matthew's birthday. 1-9-89. I always thought that was such a great birthday to have. Matthew would have been 24 today. Twenty-four years old. It's such a pivotal age for a young adult. It's the age when many of his friends are navigating their first jobs after college, or trying out their first serious relationships, or establishing themselves in a new city, or traveling the world. All of them are just beginning to figure out who they are. And he's not here. It doesn't seem fair.

Two years ago, when we had to navigate his birthday for the first time, we went away. His birthday fell on a Sunday and we all went north to Vancouver. It was clear and cold and far enough from our home to feel just right. Just before we left I had coffee with a woman who has since become a good friend. She had lost her son twenty years earlier. So when I told her what we were doing to mark Matthew's birthday (I remember those are the words I used), she said she always tries to do something special to celebrate her son's birthday. I remember being somewhat taken aback by the use of the word "celebrate." It just didn't feel right. At least then it didn't. Now however, two years later, I think I can use the word celebrate. For January 9th will always be a special day to us and I want to celebrate the day that Matthew was born.  
So here are some things that come to mind when I celebrate and remember Matthew (in no particular order):

his contagious belly laugh;
his crooked smile;
his deep brown eyes;
his enduring love of history (especially Ancient Roman and the Civil War);
his tenacity and ability to master things that didn't come easily to him;
his discipline with his studies;
his curiosity about the world;
his love of baseball;
his love of the outdoors and of hiking;
his ability to develop deep friendships with a few friends;
his love of movies (all Martin Scorsese films, plus The Departed, Gladiator, Fight Club)
his love of books (Chuck Palahniuk novels, Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Brothers K)
the way he relished  being "non-pc;"
his love of politics;
his ability to mimic accents;
how he was looking more and more like a young Robert DeNiro (he could mimic him really well too);
his love of words and his unique ability to create new ones;
his knack of creating nicknames for everyone;
and most of all the powerful love he had for his family.

That's just a little bit about Matthew. It's just the tip of the iceberg really. As the years go by, I realize he will remain forever young. Even as we get older and celebrate the passage of time, he will always be twenty-one (or younger) in our minds. No, it's not even remotely fair. But life's not always fair, is it? We just have to be grateful for the memories we have, and for the 21 years we had him.

Besides, love lives forever.