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The Book is Available Now!

10 Dec

I am excited to announce that you can now order Seasons of Letting Go on Amazon.com!

frontcover

From the time I began the blog that spawned this book, I had all of my large network of friends in mind as my audience. If you know me at all, whether through the travel industry, as a Facebook connection or as a friend, there is something for you in these 12 essays and 92 illustrated pages.

If you have experienced a loss, this book is especially for you. Yet, although it came to be through the event of a death, this book is about life and living it to the fullest. Happy Holidays!

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I’ve written a book!

26 Nov

“When are you going to write a book?” has been an oft-asked question throughout my life. An English major who always focused on language, won awards for papers in college and worked consistently in communications, ironically I never really gave the question much thought. My flip answers ranged from “probably never” to “when the time is right.” But privately I considered the prospect highly unlikely. I believed I would only author a book if it somehow occurred “organically” due to some (as yet unforeseen) passion for a topic that would naturally and effortlessly lead to composing an entire epistle.

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

A little over a year ago, I was visiting a friend who lost her brother not long after I lost my mom. We were reflecting on the various ways one brings creativity to bear on processing grief. Sarah showed me a series of photographs she had taken over the course of an entire year, exploring the ups and downs of journeying through life while learning to accept loss. I shared that when I returned to Kentucky in 2010 to live with my mother, I started a blog so that I would not lose touch with my writing. What began as simply being around to lend a hand morphed into the role of caregiver—and the blog became an outlet for stress and, eventually, a way to come to terms with the death of a loved one.

While speaking with my friend and seeing her wonderful work, a realization rose up majestically from my subconscious like a giant sea turtle I once encountered while kayaking that had been lying invisible, yet grand, just below the ocean’s surface. I knew I had written my best essays as blog entries during the year of my mother’s death. Why not publish them as a book to honor her life and help others dealing with loss?

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S.K. Schuetz, 2014

I asked Sarah if she would read the four essays I had in mind and, over the next several weeks, we communicated about the ideas. Sarah noticed that the dates I wrote the essays created a seasonal pattern: June 2, 2012; August 9, 2012; October 4, 2012; January 9, 2013—Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter! This pattern provided me with my title: Seasons of Letting Go. Like Sarah’s yearlong photography project (some images shown here), I had a year of essays.

Upon further reflection, I found on my blog site eight other essays that would fit in well following the first four about caregiving and grief. So the concept became a collection of 12 essays, presented in three parts, each containing four chapters. I had already written a book without even knowing it!

That is when the fun began. I set the goal of “doing” the book during the entire year of 2016. Though my 12 essays were already written, I had to edit them—but that was really no big deal. The intention now was to make this a creative experience by involving friends and colleagues who would bring their artistic abilities to the project during an entire year—and I would project manage. I told everyone involved: “There are no hard-and-fast deadlines or production schedules: Just have fun!”

And, you know what? We pulled it off! The book is now at the printer and, when it is available, you will be the first to know. I’ll write another blog about the creative souls who worked on the project. So please, stay tuned, and if you don’t already follow this blog, please sign up in the upper right hand corner so you will get updates about Seasons of Letting Go: Everything I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die.

Post Script added Dec. 10: The book is now available on Amazon.com.

frontcover

Graphic design and layout by Trish Griffin Noe | Cover image by Joye Ardyn Durham

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

Sarah and me.

Sarah and me.

StarGrief: What it means to lose our rock heroes*

15 Jan

In the early morning of January 10, along with millions, I began texting the close friends I knew would be affected by the sad news of David Bowie’s demise. One fan was sobbing: “Don’t you feel like he was your friend?” I was struck by that question and have spent my commuting hours this week pondering it and the role that rock icons play in our lives.

Just as the death of a pet affects us in a way that is more difficult to explain than the death of a person, so the powerful effect of the death of someone whose work we intensely admired—and whose persona became larger than life through the media—is intangible and near impossible to articulate. I remember breaking down at the breakfast table on April 8, 1997, when I heard the NPR announcement that Laura Nyro had died of ovarian cancer at the age of 49. I had loved her music from a young age, read her biographies and felt so close to her through my admiration that I was wracked with grief. I know I will be an emotional wreck once more when the time comes for others of my most revered singer/songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Neil Young, Todd Rundgren, Jeff Tweedy, Pete Townshend… the list goes on.

2014DavidBowie_Getty101818565_210314.article_x4Yet fame, as Bowie wrote, “puts you there where things are hollow.” It is a barrier, on one side of which are the devoted fans who appreciate and identify with the artist’s work so much that they can mistake the emotion for a love of the artist himself, though they only know a version of him from the persona he’s created, amplified by the media. On the other side of the fame barrier is the artist who, while enjoying many pleasures most people only dream about, is also isolated by his status, never sure whom to trust, and could not possibly have enough energy in one lifetime to truly connect with the millions who imagine a connection with him that is powerful and real.

While I most certainly have shed a tear in the past several days—listening to favorite songs, watching YouTube footage, playing Wes Anderson’s iconic Bowie tribute in the form of The Life Aquatic with its other worldly covers rendered by Sue George—the bottom line is that David Bowie was not my friend. How could he have been? What was he then to me and to so many others, and what are all our special musical stars, to elicit such a powerful reaction?

Starting in the 60s, music became an acute expression of the political alignments and social mores of our era. It did that so well that the music itself began to take on epic proportions. Thus the period of music in which we live has created a powerful and unique historical culture of its own. It has come to play a central role in many of our lives, acting for some almost as a spiritual conduit.

In Roman times, there were household deities that looked after people and their homes. One of these household gods, the “genius” was the individual incarnation of the divine in every person, place or thing. Not unlike our concept of the “guardian angel,” the genius would follow each person from birth until death. I see our rock icons as an incarnation of the genius or deity that we have created and chosen to accompany us on our life’s journey. We each have our own personal cultural genius, the rock-n-roll paragons who define us and inspire us, dead or alive.

So, since we didn’t really know Jerry Garcia or Freddie Mercury or Lou Reed or David Bowie, and we still have their canon of music after they are gone (which is all we really ever had), why are we all so profoundly affected when they die? Where does this type of grieving really originate?

I think their passing represents the very special connection we share with our contemporaries, made even more poignant during a crisis like the death of a musician we loved together. I first experienced this collective consciousness of sorrow back in August of 1977 when, at age 12, I mourned the loss of Elvis with my slumber party girlfriends. I felt it again in 1980 when, as a high school sophomore, I watched in horror as the TV news reported John Lennon’s assassination. Sans Facebook, cell phones and texting, we all reached out to each other then, just as we do now.

article-1027216-012A9ED500000578-778_468x480_popupThe end of a rock idol also represents our own passage into a time when we are not as connected to each other as we were in those earlier days when music held a more central place in our daily lives—when we danced ecstatically to Young Americans, sang along to Fame and Heroes in our cars or first shared Ziggy Stardust with a friend. Our strong identification with those who championed our culture was central to our home and hearth. We basked in the glow of the artists who represented the creativity, diversity and brave new inclusiveness of our epoch. Back then, we each shared the music of our icons in an intimate way with our friends, probably some of the very same ones we texted on Sunday morning.

Did I feel like David Bowie was my friend? Well, no, not really. But I can understand the sentiment—and I think he would have appreciated it too. As our genius figures pass, we are reminded how truly fortunate we are that the music and musical heroes of our era express our unique and inimitable culture, perhaps more accurately and passionately than at any other time in history.

 

*This piece was first published under the title “David Bowie was not my friend,” which seemed to be misunderstood to the extent of turning away potential readers. So, here it is again with what is, hopefully, a more palatable headline. 

 

50, here I come: 11 lessons from my 40s

24 Feb

Tomorrow I turn 50. This afternoon I got a birthday message from Laura, a younger friend I met in Switzerland around the time I turned 40. Over the years I’ve known her, Laura has had many ups and downs and now has created a successful culinary business for herself on a Swiss farm. We have only been together twice, but shared a deep connection and enjoyed comparing notes about how to deal with life’s challenges. After an initial greeting, her opening words were these:

390864_352805314794540_1782318286_n“I often think about you and imagine you are happy. 50 now… I remember last time when you were 40. Loads of questions and thoughts about life: How is it today? How did these past 10 years help you find peace and answers?”

Wow! These immense, broad questions came to me at just the right moment, as I’d already been formulating the vague idea for a blog to reflect on the past decade in some comprehensive way.

My 40s were incredible, and I migrated through many changes, the culmination of which was the death of my mom, and the realization that she was the true love of my life – even as I was flitting about on several continents during my stint in the travel industry. Finally going home to Kentucky to help her die was the best decision I ever made and although I didn’t do it perfectly, I was strong and I helped her live her last days the way she wanted to.

IMG_0909In 2013, I sold a house, moved, rented for six months, got a part-time job, and then bought a house and renovated it… all of which have led me to my current situation, a new resident of Asheville, NC, still recovering from loss, but growing stronger as I connect with my new community, and find my niche socially and professionally.

What follows is a collection of salient lessons from the past decade, each supported by a favorite quote.

LESSON 1: LOVE YOURSELF

“The most important relationship you have in life is the relationship you have with yourself.” ~Diane von Furstenberg

IMG_2646Last year’s birthday came at a time when I was still grieving the loss of my mom so heavily that I expected others in my life to somehow compensate for the internal void of having no parent left to celebrate my life in the way that only parents can. I learned then the final lesson of independence: that I really needed to only have expectations of my own self, and to face the fact that I was truly alone – and be OK with that. And that helped me to focus on my relationship with myself more in the past year than I ever had previously.

LESSON 2: LOVE OTHERS

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” ~Thomas Merton

This is only common sense, but with those expectations mentioned in the first lesson always creeping into relationships, keeping the right attitude toward love of any kind can be a challenge. It’s good to be reminded day after day that what we love about others is what makes them different from us and it our not our job to shape them or mold them into something we think is best for them – or for us. I think I finally learned this lesson during my 40s and am ready to practice it well in the next decade.

My last Friday morning

LESSON 3: ACCEPT WHAT IS

“Stop resisting. So much of our anguish is created when we are in resistance. So much relief, release and change are possible when we accept, simply accept.” ~Melody Beatty

During my 40s, I think I adopted a more natural acceptance of reality, learning more about not pushing for things but allowing them to come to me organically. A huge lesson of grief is the acceptance that you cannot change what has happened, what is. Learning to relax into the “luxury of grief” and allow it to consume you for a period of time is actually healthy, and takes you on a tour through all of your emotions so that none is left unvisited – and then you are ready to move on, to move forward.

LESSON 4: BE HERE NOW

IMG_6134“If you no longer want to create pain for yourself and others… then don’t create any more time… realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.” ~Eckhart Tolle

I can’t stress enough how much reading Eckhart Tolle helped to shape my outlook during my 40s. It was like a homecoming finding his writing, because so much of what he says, I feel I’ve always operated on, and just thought that no one else was like me. These were lessons hard-learned and I made plenty of mistakes, but meditation and focusing on the Now helped me prepare to help my mom die, and live through it and on beyond it with a new enthusiasm for life.

LESSON 5: BE STILL

“It is said that all you are seeking is also seeking you, that if you lie still, sit still, it will find you. It has been waiting for you for a long time. Once it is here, don’t move away. Rest. See what happens next.” ~Clarissa Pinkola Estes

As a natural progression of learning not to push so hard for what you want and to accept what is, there comes a realization that you are moving toward things as they are also moving toward you – that its not up to you to facilitate getting there yourself; the movement is one greater than you can orchestrate. This doesn’t mean do nothing; it means be open, listen and conserve energy in preparation for what is coming rather than spending it all. A great convergence is occurring and things are being worked out that you cannot imagine. So be still.

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LESSON 6: BE IN NATURE

“I have passed the Rubicon of staying out. I have said to myself, that way is not homeward; I will wander further from what I have called my home – to the home which is forever inviting me. In such an hour the freedom of the woods is offered me, and the birds sing my dispensation. In dreams the links of life are united; we forget that our friends are dead; we know them as of old.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Time in nature I always find to be my greatest teacher. Moving to Asheville was largely about connecting to natural areas and a sustainable lifestyle that values the environment. From my base in my new home here in the mountains, my intentions are set to contribute personally and professionally to the health of our natural resources, our true home. Through moving in this realm I know I will be comforted and cared for in many ways yet unforeseeable.

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LESSON 7: BE ALONE

“To make the right choices in life, you have to get in touch with your soul. To do this, you need to experience solitude, which most people are afraid of, because in the silence you hear the truth and know the solutions.” ~Deepak Chopra

I remember at a younger age a feeling that for any experience to be truly meaningful, I had to share it with someone. As I’ve aged, I’ve become more and more comfortable with having amazing solo experiences, and enjoying them just for me, not even telling anyone about them. But this took a long time for me. As an only child, it was a hard lesson; I wanted to always be with others. This past year I’ve been alone more than ever before, and now I even have my own house. I confess I’m happier when others are visiting, but my alone time does provide many answers and insights. I feel I have more balance in this respect now than ever before.

LESSON 8: GROW

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” ~Albert Einstein

As we continue to evolve into higher consciousness and greater awareness, we find ourselves able to tackle challenges that previously seemed beyond our grasp. Lessons learned become the foundation for new ways of taking care of our self, interacting with others and moving through our sphere of existence. Suddenly some things that always seemed hard in the past are now parts of everyday life. This is growth.

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LESSON 9: EMBRACE SURPRISES

“So hold your head high
and don’t be afraid
to march in the front
of your own parade
If you’re still my small babe
or you’re all the way grown
my promise to you
is you’re never alone

You are my angel, my darling, my star
And my love will find you, wherever you are.”

~Nancy Tillman from “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You”

Whenever I have extra time at my job at The Compleat Naturalist, I take a moment to read some of our wonderful children’s books. Many of them remind me of the love of my parents, and none more so than “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You.”

I had thought that once I found romantic love again, I would be so sad that my new partner could not meet my parents or know them that it would make the relationship somehow impossible. But something happened that I could never have imagined.

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I met someone who loves me in so much the same way that my parents did, that it is as if this person was sent to continue that deep connection – and that through him, their love has found me. So what I thought would be a desire for them to have met each other is transformed into a serendipitous feeling that they are the same energy, and know one another through understanding and loving me. This is a form of being surprised by joy that I could never have anticipated. I feel that all the other lessons somehow prepared me to be open for this one!

Inner strength

LESSON 10: KEEP MOVING FORWARD

“Inner strength comes only to those who move forward in the face of adversity.” ~ Phil Stutz & Barry Michels in “The Tools”

The Andean Torrent Duck spends its entire life swimming upstream against a strong current. You can see some cool video of it in the PBS nature movie “An Original Duckumentary.” This species, now in decline due to pollution, forest destruction and hydroelectric damming, really inspires me! No matter what your passion or intuition, it’s all about picking a path and moving forward on it… whether you’ve got the perfect plan or not. Sometimes going out on a limb will create adverse situations, but learning to persevere through the storms will make us stronger – and help us appreciate the calmer days.

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LESSON 11: DON’T FEAR MISTAKES

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.” ~Neil Gaiman

IMG_0804_2My closest girlfriend in my new town I met through my time in Costa Rica with Bruce Smith of Seascape Kayak Tours. Nina is a constant inspiration and has given me a great deal of emotional support in my new life here. She posted this quote before the dawn of 2014, but it is apt for the eve of a new decade for me as well. It sums up much of the feeling behind this blog, in that I intend it to be helpful to others, and in no way to say that I have not made tons of mistakes along the way. I have made them… and I encourage you to make them too. And then forgive yourself, and move forward.

50, here I come.

Photos by Joe Lamirand, John Beaudet, Frances Figart

Healing hearts through genetic comfort

10 Feb

As an only child, I understood sibling relationships vicariously through the way my parents each related to their brothers and sisters.

262144_1782171397263_2141167_nWhen my dad passed away suddenly at age 65 back in 1992, I was particularly empathetic and curious about how this shocking loss might be experienced by his younger brother, my Uncle Jack (shown here with me and his wife, my Aunt Mary Nelle).

I was reminded of this when, recently, a close friend lost her older sister, age 64 when she died. My concern for my friend has caused me once again to be struck by the contemplation of a sibling loss.

Some of the books I’ve read on grief since losing my mom in 2012 suggest that the loss of one’s brother or sister can be more difficult to deal with than that of a parent. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that society doesn’t expect it to be so tough and therefore peer support is not as strong. Another reason is the light a sibling death can shed on one’s own mortality. A huge reason is all the memories that only a sibling shares. I’m glad that my friend has two brothers to provide her with “genetic” reminders of the sister who is now gone.

fireplace_grill_company565063When I was a kid, my parents did a lot of special things to “make up” for the fact that I didn’t have a sibling playmate. On winter weekends, they let me “camp out” on the living room couch near the fireplace. I loved this arrangement because I knew my dad would get up and put logs on the fire a couple of times a night. While half asleep, it was comforting to hear him tending the fire, and I’d often wake completely up just to watch him shifting the logs with the fire poker. When morning rolled around, Dad was the first one up, and I’d hear him in the adjoining kitchen, quietly and methodically pacing about, opening first the fridge, then the drawers and cabinets, taking out a bowl and utensils, and cutting up fruit as he prepared his cereal.

Some years after my dad died, I visited his little brother Jack and wife Mary Nelle at their home in the beautiful pine forest of Bastrop, Texas, near Austin. I had always loved hanging out with them as a child, so being there was a treat. I spent the night on the living room couch just off the kitchen. When morning rolled around, I slowly became aware of an eerily familiar and somehow immensely comforting sound: the quiet pacing, the opening and closing of drawers, cabinets and fridge, the same methodical dicing… a morning ritual performed as it could only be done by someone who had some of the same genetic makeup as my father.

Because he was like my dad in some small ways, my uncle represented a healing presence.

IMG_0724Just last month I visited my home state of Kentucky over a four-day weekend, stopping in to see many of my closest friends there. I also called on a few friends of my late mother’s, not so much because they wanted to see me, but because they longed to be with her again, and I could bring them some small and comforting piece of her – almost like the genetic code could allow my mother to visit them through me.

308123_282943175064098_202550860_nIn early September of 2011, more than 1,500 homes were lost in Bastrop’s pinewood forests due to wildfires spread by a “perfect storm” of weather conditions. Jack and Mary Nelle lost their home, most of their possessions and all their trees. They moved forward in the face of adversity and, as a testament to their inner strength and good sense of humor, their attitude was invariably, “Well, it was easier than having a yard sale.”

542445_447718408586573_811013158_nAlthough it was a tough decision, Jack and Mary Nelle decided to rebuild on their decimated land. When my uncle came to Kentucky for my mom’s funeral in August of 2012, the construction was already under way. Now they are in the new house and volunteers have just this month reforested the property with seedlings to begin the long process of nurturing it back to health. The healing has begun.

I haven’t seen Jack’s new home yet. And so, on Wednesday, I’m leaving for the Lone Star State with my new friend John, who grew up in East Texas and lived in Austin for many years. I’m hoping to enjoy a bit more of that “healing genetic comfort” that comes from being with my uncle, and I’m hoping I can provide him some small reminders of my parents as well this Valentine’s Day.………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

1794577_733948516630226_1862585834_n“Hooray!!! We now live in a pine forest again! Volunteers with treefolks.org planted over 1000 pine seedlings on our property this week! Check back in about 30 years to see how they’ve grown and matured!” ~ Jack Figart, Feb. 2, 2014

Image 4Presenting my friend Nina with a heart rock that I found for her while she was attending the memorial service for her sister Robin, Feb. 2, 2014.

IMG_0812My Aunt Mary Nelle has designed and made elaborate quilts for many years. I have at least four of them. She lost dozens in the fire. When I moved into my new home in September 2013, she sent me this handmade Mola, my first house-warming gift.

IMG_7397My Uncle Jack with me at my parents’ grave in Kentucky in August 2012. Most of my mother’s ashes were scattered in the Kinniconnick Creek in Lewis County, Kentucky. Some were mixed into the dirt here.

The inseparable nature of sorrow and joy

20 May

When I first arrived in at my new place in Asheville mid April, I met a new friend – an articulate, sociable, industrious, healthy and accomplished retiree in the community where I live. A few weeks ago, I happened into a conversation with this person and learned that, like me, he too had lost a family member recently.

I shared how my 81-year-old mother and I had worked very hard together to make her impending death the best transition that it could possibly be, both of us knowing full well that the outcome we were moving toward was, indeed, her death – which knowledge only barely, I think, prepared us both for the final separation.

Joel and IQMy new friend then shared how he received a call on May 21, 2011, informing him that his only son, a vibrant, successful and extremely athletic 38-year-old, had been tragically killed in an accident.

My friend also shared a tenderly compiled scrapbook chronicling his son’s life from early childhood through his teens and on into adulthood. The numerous pictures spoke volumes: the curly-headed boy smiling with his family, the dreadlocked teen playing with his sisters, the mature athlete excelling in extreme sports, the affectionate uncle hanging out with both hisjoel and ella nieces (shown here), the professional young man traveling the world, playing golf with his dad in Ireland… This person was obviously a larger-than-life character, someone who embraced living fully with each and every day he was on earth.

Amid the tastefully intimate collection of photos, mementos, magazine articles, obituaries and memorial program was a Father’s Day card given by the son a few years ago. A section of its hand-written personal message struck a chord because I recognized some of the same sentiments I had written to my own parents when they were alive:

“Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington – I got to see them all, but not without your enthusiasm and support. A lot of fathers of my friends don’t talk to their children or don’t have much of a relationship with them. It’s very sad and every time I meet someone on the road who is out of touch with their parents, I feel so fortunate. I have a father who is curious and active in participating in my life. I want you to know how much confidence that gives me and how lucky I feel.”

As I wiped away the tears, I hoped this card with its precious message could somehow comfort the grieving father, who surely knows that the connection he shared with his son – transcending so many of the material world’s distances, distractions, trials and trivialities – made both their lives richer and fuller.

Joel and dad, Anniston AL 2009

This experience came to me at an amazingly relevant time because just the night before, I had come to an important decision to embark on a journey that will undoubtedly reconnect me with my own parents.

As children, we tend not to listen to our parents. It’s one of the universal ways we learn to think for ourselves. But when our parents are gone, we wish we could know all the things they were trying to tell us, and we wish we could hear their voices speaking to us again, if only just one more time.

Over the months since my mother’s death, I have made countless decisions about which things to keep, and which to sell or give to special family friends. Now that I’ve sold the family home and moved to a new state, the suitcases, boxes and tubs have dwindled to one particular group of clear plastic containers that I have carried with me for many years – within them, thousands of pieces of paper. And it has slowly dawned on me that what I’ve dismissed as a packrat obsession with all things written is now actually the key to hearing my parents’ voices once again: I have kept every single card and letter either one of them ever sent to me.

So, on July 24, 2013, the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death, I plan to begin to re-read the letters written to me by my parents throughout my life. And, as you can probably guess, I will write the story of what I learn.

We can never know the full extent of suffering of those around us. Nor can we comprehend the depth of another’s joy.

Joel- photo of self- snowMy new friend Steve’s son, Joel, died in an avalanche two years ago while fully immersed in the outdoors sport that he loved the most, backcountry skiing. In a memorial to Joel, Steve shared part of a familiar quote from Kahlil Gibran, which had been shared with him by a sensitive 18-year-old hotel clerk where the family was staying to attend Joel’s funeral. I think it contains great comfort for those who are grieving – which, when we have lost a parent or a child, I believe we do to some degree for the rest of our lives.

“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

Joel on top of mountain

In honor and remembrance of Joel, an indomitable spirit.

Changes are shifting outside the world*

9 Jan

As a student of English Literature, I learned that for a narrative work of any kind to be truly engaging, the main character has to undergo a change.

imagesIn the terminology of dramatic structure, going all the way back to Aristotle, there is a climax or turning point that marks a change – for better or the worse – in the protagonist’s affairs. Consider the Shakespeare plays you recall: In the comedies, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, things had gone badly for the character up to this point, and now the tide will turn and things will get better. In the tragedies, like Hamlet or Othello, the opposite occurs, and events shift from good to bad at the climax.

Of course, by the time we learn about this literary device, we’ve already been exposed to it many times, from the earliest fairy tales and stories that were read to us as very young children on up through just about every form of entertainment that is a part of our particular age group’s contemporary culture. We can all name our favorites: I recall being enchanted by Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and Great Expectations.

images-3As adults, whether we love fiction, theater, opera or rock-n-roll, we are most inspired by those works of art in which a transformation occurs. I will find myself quite bored by films in which the main character never “gets it” and conversely reduced to tears by those in which the change the protagonist undergoes is portrayed in a startlingly realistic way. Some random examples of favorite films are The Razor’s Edge, The Darjeeling Limited, Sally Potter’s Yes, and most recently, Jack Goes Boating. Similarly the music which affects me most profoundly – penned by artists like Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, James McMurtry, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle and Vic Chesnutt, just to name a few – does so through its ability to portray characters realizing something transformational.

Joseph Campbell took the Greek notion of dramatic structure a step further to define the common plot element in all stories as the hero’s journey. In any narrative, things are going along routinely, and then the main character is faced with an upheaval of some kind in which all he thought was stable has now changed, requiring him to rise to the occasion and fight a dragon of some sort or another, usually representing a personal fear. It is through this battle that transformation occurs and the hero emerges a new, better, stronger person than before. Think Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Castaway, Avatar, the list goes on and on.

62463I recently watched a film called Finding Joe that expounds Campbell’s hero’s journey concept. It does this through interviews with a dozen or so articulate speakers who have achieved greatness, some well known and others who worked quietly behind-the-scenes to accomplish successful projects. “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” This quote, which might as well be Campbell’s tagline, is one of the main ideas behind this uplifting film, from which you’ll come away feeling like an esteemed squad of cheerleaders including Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood and Laird Hamilton is rooting for you personally.

But to witness another person taking on the ultimate hero’s journey leaves us empty, mystified and lost – because when the final dragon is met and fought with, the essence of what the person was here in this realm of form actually seems to leave us, nevermore to return.

In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle writes, “The weakening or dissolution of form, whether through old age, illness, disability, loss, or some kind of personal tragedy, carries great potential for spiritual awakening – the dis-identification of consciousness from form. Since there is very little spiritual truth in our contemporary culture, not many people recognize this as an opportunity, and so when it happens to them or someone close to them, they think there is something dreadfully wrong, something that should not be happening.”

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Trying to come to some terms with my mother’s death over the past five months has been like trying to wake up after being heavily sedated. One is so overwhelmed with the grieving process that it’s like being mired in physical, psychological and emotional quicksand. After many months of struggling just to get through each quagmire of a day, finally, strangely, you begin to process emotions and information like yourself again.

A few weeks ago, I was driving through the woods at sunset feeling as if I had been a victim of amnesia and was trying to remember something about who I had been before. It was like hearing snatches of a melody and parts of a lyric hovering just below the mind’s surface, almost reachable and yet, still distant.*

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After chasing my ethereal thoughts for roughly a 24-hour period, a revelation of sorts began to emerge from the clouds, like mist rising from a mountain ridge. It was slowly dawning on me that just because I can no longer see and hear and feel my mom doesn’t mean she is not still on her journey.

Separate wholly from any learned connection between death and religion, the simple truth becoming less and less dim was that, given our limits of understanding, there is no reason to believe the changes do not go on. Changes are very likely still shifting outside the world as we know it.

As Tolle explains, during illness and finally in death, “what is lost on the level of form is gained on the level of essence.”

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The night my mother died, I awoke from a deep sleep having heard some sound in our shared room. When I reached her, she was unconscious but still living. And then I experienced something I never could have anticipated. Her essence, what some would call her spirit, left her body and very rapidly spread out around me with a palpable aliveness. It is impossible to describe this because I didn’t see or hear it or even feel it. (I was actually quite devoid of emotion at the moment it occurred.) I simply experienced it. And when it was over, her body had become a shell, not unlike that of an insect. Her essence went on. It was tangibly not trapped in the shell, which had died.

From that point on, I knew that to honor my mother was no longer to look at or touch her body, for it was no longer her. And so I sat near the body for only a short time, and then left the room and did not watch when it was carried out of our house.

Mother had fought the ultimate dragon; she had faced her fear and gone through the consummate change. Or had she?

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The way we experience time in this realm of form brings a horrible finality to this type of separation from someone we love. But, we need not lose interest in the plot as we might do when watching a movie where no transformation seems to be occurring. Change can still be going on – and who are we to say that it couldn’t be? Maybe the essence that used to appear in the form of my mother finally found the doors where before there had been only walls. For all I know, Mom is now on some level of the hero’s journey that is beyond my comprehension.

My continued closeness to her essence gives me the impression that changes are indeed shifting outside this world and that she is still learning, growing and changing as she has always done.

Nature photography courtesy of Nathaniel J. Miller. Computer generated paintings by Kathleen Farago May.

*The title of this essay is an intentional misquote from the song No More I Love You’s in which the lyric actually reads, “Changes are shifting outside the words.” The Annie Lennox cover of the song written by Joseph Hughes and David Freeman provides the very personal aural backdrop against which this essay was conceived.

Songs of a new order

4 Oct

My mother gave me many gifts, one of the most treasured being the sensibility to appreciate the artistic marriage of music and words. Those who were able to attend her funeral heard an array of classical, traditional and contemporary compositions that were chosen and put in order by her – not recently, but years before she passed. She included on her program (which she helped to design and approved just before her death) some special lyrics from a hymn she loved, Lead, Kindly Light.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now, lead Thou me on;
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; Remember not past years.

Music became a part of my grieving and my mourning even during the long night spent clearing and cleaning immediately after Mother’s body had been taken from our house. For several days I could only find solace in the offerings of Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian singer songwriter I’ve always loved for his ability to write about spiritual matters from a Christian foundation moderated by a cultural perspective that does not diminish others of the world’s religions. I chose to place some of his lyrics from the song The Rose Above the Sky on the back of Mother’s program:

Something jeweled slips away
Round the next bend with a splash
Laughing at the hands I hold out
Only air within their grasp
All you can do is praise the razor
For the fineness of the slash

Some weeks ago, I was able to get out the tiny tape recorder that I kept near the piano for the times when Mom could sit there and allow some of her favorite pieces to fly from her weakened fingers. I listened one whole afternoon to the scattered recordings I’d made, remembering the joy that overwhelmed me each time I heard her play once again when I had begun to doubt she would make it back to the bench. On some of those occasions, she would play My God and I, which was sung by a friend at her service according to her plan.

My God and I go in the field together;
We walk and talk as good friends should and do;
We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter;
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.

A few weeks (maybe even a few days) before Mother passed away, she had just finished playing the piano when she asked me a painful question: “Do you think there is any way that I can possibly get better?” As I was trying to formulate my response, I thought immediately of Cindy Bullens and her CD Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth.

I don’t remember how I learned of Bullens and the 1999 album of 10 songs she recorded as a tribute to her 11-year-old daughter who died of cancer – but the work has long been an inspiration. The genre is light progressive rock, influenced by the likes of Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Heart and the Indigo Girls. Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt make small contributions to a couple of the songs. But it’s the introspective lyrics in combination with the poignant melodies that give this work its ability to help anyone who is mourning. Bullens unabashedly carries the listener through the various stages of grief, with tangible examples like a trip to Paris seeming dull in comparison to memories of her daughter and the impossible hope that a scientific discovery like finding water on the moon can somehow mean young Jessie will find her way back to earth.

With Bullens and her acute loss in mind, my answer to my mother took the form of another question: “What if there was an 11-year-old child here, whom we loved, and who had cancer – and we knew she was going to die? What if she asked us this question? How could we answer her?” I then told my mom that it was time for her to practice what she preached, and to talk to God, in her own way, so that she could prepare for where she was going. I told her, in effect, to let go of the things of this world, and to begin to look forward to the next.

And now it is me who is left here trying to let go – of her. It’s hard when your mom was cool, was someone you hung out with, loved the things you loved, understood human nature in all its flawed nuances and exercised her sharp language skills and dry sense of humor up until a few hours before she took her last breath. It’s hard when you’re a relentless perfectionist constantly plagued with feelings that you could have done more, should have done better as a caregiver. It’s hard living right where it all went down, the set and setting for our last two years together. And it’s hard when a relatively non-material girl has an accumulation of 81 years of sentimentally charged high-caliber material possessions to sort through, deciding what to keep, and doling out the rest as best she can to those who will appreciate them as much as Ruthe did.

But one of the lessons I have learned from my grief is that if I can do some good now for others around me, then Mother lives on… because in some way I become her as I move forward.

And move forward I have decided to do. I have the beautiful house we shared in Winchester, Kentucky up for sale, and whether it sells in two weeks or two years, I am soon headed to the mountains of Western North Carolina to seek work and a new beginning. When my father was working at Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center outside of Asheville the summer he was courting my mom, he took her on several memorable hikes; she even made it up the strenuous trail to Catawba Falls, which is no small feat. They loved the mountain forests there – and so do I.

Another lesson I have learned from my grief is this: When someone dies, there is a shifting and a shuffling that happens in preparation for the “new order” left behind. To use a baseball analogy (and I did go to a Reds game last month in honor of Mom), when one player is out of the game, the lineup changes. Since losing Mom, I have gotten closer to some folks I’d never really known before, including some of her close friends and members of our extended family who’ve come forward to lend support. Even among my own close friends, the shifting and shuffling is apparent; new bonds are formed as everyone rallies to take a position that will not only offer me strength, but also allow for growth that somehow just wouldn’t have been possible before.

True, like the protagonist in Gillian Welch’s traditional-sounding song Orphan Girl, “I have no mother, no father, no sister, no brother” – but I feel more whole and connected each day, nonetheless. Some lyrics from Cindy Bullens express it best:

There’s a curious freedom rising up from the dark
Some kind of strength I’ve never had
Though I’d trade it in a second just to have you back
I gotta try to make some good out of the bad

So I laugh louder
Cry harder
I take less time to make up my mind and I
Think smarter
Go slower
I know what I want and what I don’t
And I’ll be better than I’ve ever been
Better than I’ve ever been

Find Cindy Bullens “Between Heaven and Earth” on Amazon

Listen to Orphan Girl by Gillian Welch

Listen to Bruce Cockburn’s The Rose Above the Sky

Let’s roll: A tribute to Ruthe

9 Aug

My mother did not want it said that she died peacefully. True, she was in her home, surrounded by the people and things she loved. But despite the fact that she had no fear of making the transition out of her earthly, physical form, she fought willfully for more time here, mainly to be with me, her only child.

In life, however, she was a peacemaker, helping dissenting parties to focus on common ground long enough to realize the folly of their conflict. She was a teacher, a student, a leader, a speaker, a writer, a decorator, an accountant, a musician, a nature enthusiast, an animal lover, a baseball fan, a fashion maven (she could tell you exactly what she wore at every important event of her life) – and a spirited woman who wholeheartedly supported her family and partners, while paradoxically remaining staunchly independent.

The third of four daughters born to a farming couple in Clark County in 1931, Mom gleaned her sense of fashion from her father, who wanted his girls stylishly clad, even during the Depression. If growing up with few possessions created in the sisters a penchant for the finer things, they were nonetheless well aware that spirituality trumped materialism every time.

Losing her mother at age 16 must have contributed to Ruthe’s early individualism and maturity. Georgetown College student Ross Figart was the visiting youth minister at Carlisle Baptist Church the summer of 1948 and he couldn’t help but become fascinated with the most beautiful and interesting girl in the choir. Some of her favorite memories are of staying in the original Rucker Hall at Georgetown during their courtship. They were married in 1950.

My parents had been pastoring the county seat church in Vanceburg, Kentucky, for seven years when I arrived in 1964; Mom nearly died having me and doctors cautioned, “Don’t try this again.” Not one to gravitate toward anyone else’s children, she loved her only child fiercely and spared no energy in teaching me her spiritual values, her thirst for great literature and music, and her love of all creation, especially birds and cats. My earliest memories are of her scrubbing coal dust off of me and off our black and white tomcat in Hazard, Kentucky, where she would emerge from our tiny mountain parsonage ready for church looking like a combination of Donna Reed and Jackie Onassis.

Throughout my life, I’ve been told by Kentuckians of all ages how much my parents influenced their spiritual development. During my dad’s 13 years as director of missions for Boone’s Creek Association, and his 11 years as director of missions for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, I watched my mom live her roles of “preacher’s wife” and “missionary’s wife” to their fullest – from the slate-rock hills of Eastern Kentucky to the jagged coastline of Brazil, South America. She had a gift for helping others to reach their potential, whatever the field of interest.

Growing up in the idyllic setting of Boone’s Creek Camp, I tagged along as Mom led campers on nature hikes and bird walks through the wooded hillsides. I watched her transform the tiny timid Corinth Church choir into a forceful ensemble that could deliver a cantata to rival those she’d been a part of during music weeks at Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. Sometimes we’d arrive at a church where Dad was slated to interim preach, and when no one came forth to play the piano, Mom would matter-of-factly assume the bench, unrehearsed and unruffled.

Any time I heard her speak publically – from small circle gatherings to state WMU conventions – she always made herself vulnerable to her audience by sharing a moving anecdote or reciting a powerful verse that would inevitably bring my highly emotional “Mom Bit” to tears. But this caused others to respond on a far deeper level than would have been possible if she had refrained from crying.

After my dad died in 1992, Mom finally had her own college experience when she majored in English at the University of Kentucky in her mid 60s. She won awards for her writing, as her daughter had done decades earlier – not surprising since my communications talents were obviously inherited from her. She won an entire piano once for writing in 100 words, “Why I love my Baldwin.” Never forgetting her Georgetown connection, she supported the school whenever possible as a way of honoring my dad.

When Mom fell in love with Bill Sphar in 1999, she cycled back to the farm life she had left behind in childhood. After five years of traveling and enjoying Spring Hill together, he became ill and she managed his daily care for two years. In the stressful throes of caregiving, she accidently ran over her own dear cat, Louisa, and a part of her soul never recovered from this trauma. Her strength and determination made Bill’s final transition a comfortable one. When she left the farm, she took with her his faithful hound, Bebe, and gave her a life of luxury until her death this past January.

When Mom could no longer continue teaching her beloved adult Sunday School class at FBC, she turned her creative energies to writing a memoir of her bucolic childhood, “A Feast for Charlie,” which was published earlier this year. About the same time, God sent Paula Underwood Rhodus – who was born and raised in Vanceburg a decade after we left – to help me care for my mother. Every day Paula came, Ruthe taught her something new – about birds, about flowers, about language, about music, and about life. Paula gave Mom a new connection to one of her favorite communities and provided an opportunity for her to continue to teach at home.

Ruthe never lost her sharp mind, offbeat sense of humor or “the-show-must-go-on” poise. Whenever she became bored with crossword puzzles and Neiman Marcus catalogs, Mom would gaze resolutely at me or Paula and say, “Let’s roll.” We’d get her into the small transport chair and she would pedal along as we rolled around the house–first to the screened-in back porch to see her squirrels, rabbits, finches, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, cardinals, wrens and blue jays; her roses, crape myrtles, hydrangeas, herbs and tomatoes on the vine. Next she’d visit favorite books in the library, gleefully wake the cats from their naps, watch fervently from the front door as we went to retrieve her abundant mail, and sometimes she would play hymns on her piano, as she always had, by ear.

On the night of July 23, Mom watched with satisfaction as the Reds trampled the Astros. As the game ended and we got ready to go to sleep, she looked at me on the couch beside her bed and said earnestly, “I love you too much.” I responded, “And I you.” After that, she closed those piercing eyes that remained ever clear and bright, and I imagine she must have said to her Lord something along the lines of, “Let’s roll.”

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The Georgetown College flag was lowered to half-staff for two days after Ruthe’s passing to honor her inimitable spirit. Her ashes will be scattered in Vanceburg’s Kinniconick Creek. We will all miss her grace, humor, insight and unconditional love.