Tag Archives: Grief

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.

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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