Grief Really Shouldn’t End. Here’s Why.

Recently, the husband of a dear friend of mine was killed when a tree limb fell on him while he was working in his yard. A freak and random accident, it has left my friend stunned and so very, very sad.

I’ve written many times in this blog about grief, and how it bounces in and out and around our lives and lands sometimes in the most unexpected places at the most inopportune times (like there’s ever a good time for loss). But you know grief. It doesn’t wait for an appointment.

Sudden loss can feel like an ambush. It barges in and takes over everything, and the accompanying emotions crawl inside us, infiltrate and define our most tender feelings, and they never really leave, even when we don’t feel them as acutely anymore. Time goes by and we go about our lives, not thinking about grief, perhaps even (foolishly) thinking we’ve conquered it, feeling like we’re so over ____________ (fill in your loss), and then WHAM! We find ourselves in a friend’s kitchen, helplessly hugging her as she cries desperately in her own mourning, grieving a loss that, while uniquely hers, feels very, very familiar. The emotions from our own day of loss flood back, perhaps not as strong, but it is grief’s way of reminding us that it never, ever goes away.

There are times, too, when grief is more subtle. It refuses to readily identify itself. Your life, by all accounts, is fine, you’re holding it together, and you even dared to be happy and smile again. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, you wake up one morning with an overwhelming sense of dread and sadness, feeling like you can’t pull the blanket off from around your head. You wander around dazed for a while – a day, a week, a month, longer – unable to put your finger on the culprit because, you know, that death/loss was so long ago and you’re, like, totally over it, so it must be something else.

But it’s not.

I write this to remind us that grief is not something we ever finish. And honestly, I don’t think it’s supposed to end.

I’m not saying we should feel miserable all the time or constantly remind ourselves of what we’ve lost in our lives. But loss and grief are inevitable for each one of us, and instead of trying to drink it away, drug it away, fuck it away, eat it away, or work it away, why not we use the hell out of it and grow empathy where perhaps there wasn’t any? Even if someone’s loss isn’t exactly the same as ours, understanding that the experience of loss is overarching and universal can train us to be more understanding, kind, helpful, and – when warranted – involved in bringing change to what is wrong.

Grief can strengthen us and, sadly, destroy us, but there’s no in between. The thing is, though, that even when we think it’s destroying us, it just might be strengthening us, teaching us more about ourselves than we ever wanted to know. This is not to say that what brought us to grieve is somehow a good thing. Personally, I’d rather my (and my friend’s) husband was alive, or the baby I miscarried had been born, or that the things I lost in the fire hadn’t burned, or that my brother’s memory was intact, or that any of the other losses I’ve experienced in my life hadn’t happened. But all of these losses make up my real life. Subsequently, grief, too, is a part of my real life, and I want grief to have meaning and a purpose, even if that purpose is simply to listen to a friend who is hurting.

P.S. We witnessed a simple and bittersweet lesson in grief recently when a female orca whale carried her dead baby on her back for 17 days before finally letting it go. She didn’t adhere to some cultural agenda that said you get a few days to grieve and then you’re supposed to get on with your life. She grieved in her own way, and so should we.

 

 

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Love is Patient. Love is Kind. (Dammit, I keep forgetting.)

In the Bible, specifically Corinthians I:13 (v. 4), the apostle Paul wrote that love is patient and love is kind. He said that if we give to the poor without love as our inspiration, or if we work hard only to brag about it, that we’re nothing more than a bunch of clanging gongs and background noise.

Love in this context is a noun; an affirmation with no excuses or conditions. Love isn’t “sometimes” patient when we’ve had a good night’s sleep. Love isn’t “once in a while” kind when the people to whom we choose to be kind are “worthy” (i.e. they dress OK, seem to be “trying,” speak our language, can potentially give us something in return…). Nope. That’s not the way Love works.

Paul, for all his faults, is spot on about Love, and his words still resonate with an old agnostic like me who often places conditions on Love in everyday encounters.

This is hardly a confession, and it won’t shock any of you, even if you’ve never met me, but I am not always patient and I am not always kind. I’m not the poster child for presence in those moments when patience and kindness are most warranted; those times when I’m tired, sad, late, frustrated, or just want to get home, take off my bra and watch Jeopardy.

Last Monday morning is a particularly good example of a day that had more than a few gems of moments in which I was presented with the choice of being patient and kind, or being jerk who makes strangers feel bad because they were in my way/slowing me down/not being considerate in the way in which I define considerate.

My first stop was the grocery store. I picked up four items and got into the express lane. The woman at the checkout was paying for her groceries with dimes and quarters. She laid them out on the conveyor belt one at a time. When she was done, the cashier picked up each coin, one at a time, and counted the amount in her head. This went on for 10 hours. OK, not really 10 hours, but isn’t it funny how a few minutes fly by when we’re listening to a favorite song or eating ice cream? I could feel my irritation building, and for a second I considered posting something on Facebook like, “OMG, who pays in change?” But pretty quickly that thought felt really, really shitty, and my phone stayed in my purse. The transaction ended, and the cashier handed the woman her receipt. “Thank you for being patient,” she said. The cashier smiled and said, “You’re welcome.”

Driving to my next destination, after encountering an unusual number of red lights (clearly karma was riding shotgun), a construction worker walked out in the middle of the street and stopped traffic. An electric company vehicle needed to pull out of a driveway so someone in a bronze Jeep could get out. I remembered something Buddhist nun Pema Chodron said years ago about traffic, and how it’s the perfect place to practice patience, love, and kindness. OK, I thought, the guy was just doing his job, and the person in the Jeep needed to go somewhere. Either of them could have been me or someone I know, but more broadly, they were fellow human beings. Neither of them deserved my angst. Score one for kindness and patience!

I hate it when I get proud and ahead of myself.

Next and last stop: Dollar General. Like the grocery store, there was an older lady first in line and an older man behind her. She was chatty, talking to the cashier about her dog and asking him about his dog. They talked and laughed as she slowly put her change back in her purse. Finally she moved to the side so the man behind her could pay for his few items. Soon they were all talking about dogs.

I won’t lie. I was irritated. I just wanted to buy a freaking $1.35 bag of ice and go home. When the man got his change, I talked over him and said to the cashier, “I just need a bag of ice, thanks.” Would it have killed me to wait five stupid seconds to let the man walk away from the checkout lane? No. It wouldn’t have. And I still feel bad about it three days later, so I’m using it as a lesson to me: I could have been more patient. I could have been more kind.

My mother, who is 86, told me that many of the shoppers at the grocery store she goes to always seem to be in a hurry, and some demonstrate their frustration of her slow walk, hearing aids, and near blindness in obvious, rude ways. To say that her story made me angry is an understatement, but I’ve been obvious and rude to someone else’s mother, father, sister, aunt, daughter, at times, too. 

So many of us think we’re being clever posting on Facebook or Twitter about our frustration with people we encounter, be it the grocery store or on the road; writing something about someone who doesn’t know how to use their debit card, or who pays in quarters, or who maybe had no one else to talk to during the day except for a cashier or their dog.

I am ashamed, as I should be. I need to remember something I’ve written here in this blog more than once, that no one purposely gets up in the morning thinking, How can I piss off Lynn today? And so I again challenge myself to be more loving by, instead of reacting, wondering what kind of shit the people I’m judging deal with every day in their life.

Love can be a lot harder to do than hate sometimes, but it feels a whole lot better inside.

I’m often nothing more than a lot of noise, but my goal is to one day be able to substitute my name for Love. “Lynn is patient. Lynn is kind.” I am sometimes, but I’m shooting for always. No excuses. No conditions.

“When we feel dread, when we feel discomfort of any kind, it can connect us at the heart with all the other people feeling dread and discomfort. We can pause and touch into dread. We can touch bitterness of rejection and the rawness of being slighted. Whether we are at home or in a public spot or caught in a traffic jam or walking into a movie, we can stop and look at the other people there and realize that in pain and in joy they are just like me. Just like me they don’t want to feel physical pain or insecurity or rejection. Just like me they want to feel respected and physically comfortable.” Pema Chodron

Things

I listened to a heartbreaking interview on Wednesday with a woman named Katy Brogan, who last week lost her home in the Pawnee wild fire in Northern California. She offered a raw and honest account of her experience, including her bewildering feelings about the things she and her family lost, and the often not-so-helpful words a few people said to her following the loss. (Hint: Don’t be a sanctimonious ass and tell someone who has suffered a catastrophic loss that it happened because you didn’t love (G)od/Jesus enough.)

I’ve said it before in this space years ago (see “Fire”), and I say it again: “Things” are important. Not as important as life (usually), but “things” are often what help us remember and honor our own life, as well as the lives of those before us. For instance, my grandmother and great-grandmother, who emigrated from Norway in the early twentieth century, were very poor, and they brought their things over in one trunk each. I have the great fortune of owning both of those trunks, and I would be very sad if I lost them, as they reflect part of my history.

History in the Kitchen

A few years ago, my daughter Carlene rearranged her kitchen to make room for the items she received when she got married. However (and this made me happy), she kept many of the things I’d given her over the years, including loaf pans, Tupperware, a pizza stone, and decades-old dishes that we used when I was a kid. I was struck by the connections we have to our kitchen stuff in particular, including how we acquired certain items. For instance, I inherited my the lefse stick and roller when the grandma (with one of the aforementioned trunks) passed. Her initials, K.H. (Katinka Hagebakken…you can’t make that up, folks), are still printed in permanent marker on the stick. I use it every year when I make lefse. I also still have a smoke-colored Pyrex bowl that was once part of a set of four I received at my bridal shower when I got married 37 years ago. I don’t know what happened to the other three, but I still have the Black and Decker hand mixer I got at that shower, along with the Fannie Farmer cookbook my sister gave me. I won’t part with any of these items until 1) I no longer have a kitchen or; 2) I am no longer breathing.

The folks in California who lost their homes to wild fires also had lefse sticks and Fannie Farmer cookbooks and dishes and pots and pans they acquired in special, meaningful ways. Katy Brogan lost “Memories of my dad, pictures, some family heirloom jewelry. All my Carhartt stuff. I’m a big Grateful Dead fan, so all my Grateful Dead stuff’s gone — just kind of things that might seem stupid to somebody else.” These aren’t stupid, Katy! We all have that “stuff” that may not make sense to anyone else, but that’s not their business. Losing things we love, rely on, or give us historical perspective is painful, and despite what the “well-intentioned” say, “At least you got out alive” isn’t very helpful when it comes to needing empathy and comfort from others.

It’s OK to grieve the loss of the cookie molds you inherited from your great aunt because she cherished the Sundays when you’d go over to her house and make cookies with her; the cast iron pan your great-grandfather used to fry the walleye he caught in Lake Erie when the family camped on the weekends; the Number Thirty Hamilton Beach malt mixer you bid on and won at your first country auction; the monogrammed apron your husband bought you when you “graduated” from that six-week Asian cooking class. Can we live without these things? Of course. But “things” enhance our lives in many ways.

When we witness the suffering of those who have lost their things, rather than offer pithy, moralistic, and priggish sentiments that suggest they’re simply lucky to be alive, we’d be better off to reflect on and appreciate our own impermanent, often ethereal “things.” Look at the loss from their perspective. Think about the stuff we still have the good fortune to touch, look at, and use. Is Grandma’s green depression-era measuring cup tucked away somewhere in a buffet collecting cobwebs…as mine was? Get it out! Use it the next time you’re measuring broth for soup or flour for cookies. Do you save the “good dishes” for special occasions? Use them the next time you serve sloppy Joes! Dirty the fancy linens. They’ll wash up.

Using your things or passing them on to people who need them allows “things” to do what they were meant to do: enhance lives. And when those lives are gone, “things” can offer comfort in the memory of how, and by whom, they were used.

Weren’t You 18 Just a Few Years Ago?

My oldest daughter is 35 years old today, which is surprising considering I’m 39, or at least I still think like I’m 39 and not what I thought 54 would be like when I was 39. Anyway, I wrote this column in 2001 when Carlene was 18 (and I was 37) when she was a senior in high school and wondering where she should go to college. I love this girl to pieces, and I wish for her the same things now as I did then.

Blackbird Fly (published in The Clarion News, May 2001)

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly / All your life / You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

You asked me, “What do you want, Mom? What do you think I should do?” And it was clear by the tone of your voice that you expected me to say something customary like, “I just want you to be happy,” but with a choked-up guilt-ridden undertone that said “…but keep in mind I’d be happy if you stayed here in Clarion.”

Weren’t you surprised when I didn’t?

I don’t have eyes in the back of my head for nothing, my daughter. Yes I want you to be happy, but I’ve learned a thing or two about you in these 18 years and I know the life you’ve secretly dreamed about for years will die if you don’t leave this town, your home, and see for yourself what lies beyond these hills.

You have an adventurous spirit and a cautious heart. The combination has served you well so far and you must trust it won’t let you down in the future. You’ve learned there is no monster under the bed, no boogey man in the closet, no sandman, and no such thing as ghosts, yet you know there are bigger mysteries to solve, other truths to uncover, out there somewhere all your own. To not live where your heart and head can be free or to deny yourself that place of self-discovery would be placing yourself on a certain and predictable course, and God knows after years of listening to me tell you what the world is like you’re entitled to discover the world for yourself.

So…what do I want? That’s a question I’ve been thinking about and trying to answer since you were born. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

I want you to be happy in your own skin, to be at peace with your decisions, to love God, and to visit the Rocky Mountains in the winter.

I want you to drink good wine and see the midnight sun and walk along the Champs-Elysées with your best friend.

I want you to have babies when you’re ready and visit your grandparents once a year. I want you to never forget your sister’s birthday and to go to Jasper once in awhile and place flowers on your dad’s grave.

I want you to never know an overdue bill, an IRS audit, or a broken tailpipe you can’t afford to fix. I want you to concentrate on what you do that makes you successful and to not dwell on failures.

I want you to come home from wherever you are when you’re homesick and to go back again feeling stronger for having been home again, because I’ll always be here for you and you can wash your clothes while I make you manicotti and chocolate cake. Your room will still be purple and I won’t rent it out or turn it into the hot tub room like I threatened.

You see, I don’t care where you go to college as long as you get the education you need to be what you want to be.

I don’t care where you lay your head at night as long as it’s warm and safe and, when it’s right, with the person who loves you more than life.

I don’t care what you do for a living as long as it doesn’t hurt other people, that it envelops your God-given talents and gifts, and that it gives you satisfaction and affords you the kind of home you can relax in at the end of the day.

I trust you. I have faith in you. But mostly I love you, and love is the reason I can let go. I’m going to hurt for awhile and I’ll probably cry all the way home after helping you move into your dorm, but I don’t want you to feel you’ve caused me pain because you will not have. Love is just like that sometimes.

I’ll miss the smell of your perfume floating up the stairs after you leave for school. I’ll miss hearing you tell me good night and feeling your kiss on my cheek before you go to bed. I’ll miss seeing your face every day, our spontaneous talks in the kitchen and the way you play with the dogs.

But while I’ll miss you very much, I know I’ll still be your mother when you’re frustrated, your mom when you need advice and your mommy when you need money or just a hug.

Your moment is here, my girl, and you’re ready to fly. And that is truly what I think you should do.

 

Books and Boycotts

There’s little else I want to do during cold weather than make soup, and curl up in my heated throw and read. I recently finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (loved it!), and just downloaded another Catherine Ryan Hyde book, When You Were Older that I hope to start today.

I know some of you have very firm opinions about how you prefer to read. I used to fight the digital format, purist that I was, but I now go either way. Digital or bound, doesn’t make much difference to me, unless I know I’ll want to make notes in the margins, then I prefer the bound kind. I just bought a used copy of Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg because I know I will dog ear and highlight the bejeebers out of it. If you’re interested in the writing process or you love poetry or you are curious about Zen meditation, Natalie Goldberg has written it. If you love Anne Lamott (and who doesn’t?), I think you’ll like Natalie, too.

Getting back to Catherine Ryan Hyde, I first heard of her after reading Christina Baker Kline’s incredible book, Orphan Train. While sometimes Amazon and other book sellers get it wrong with recommendations, they got it right when one of Hyde’s books came up as a suggestion. Walk Me Home is my favorite so far, followed closely by Worthy, Say Goodbye for Now, and When I Found You.

Just like fashion, I’m hardly ever up on the literary latest and greatest. I’m usually a good 3 to 200 years behind. It’s why I didn’t realize that A) there was an actual book called Pay It Forward, published in 2000. I thought it was simply a good idea and something a lot of people do; B) that it was written by Hyde; and C) that it was a made into a movie shortly after publication.

In a rare move, I decided to watch the movie before reading the book. Usually I do the opposite. The movie was available to rent online, and in the small promo picture on the TV screen I saw Helen Hunt next to someone who looked like Kevin James. The problem is that it wasn’t Kevin James. It was Kevin Spacey, someone who’s work I’ve long admired, but in light of sexual assault allegations against him, I’d decided to boycott. I realized my mistake five minutes in during Spacey’s first scene. After a few choice expletives, I thought, ‘Do I stop watching or do I keep going?’

I chose to keep watching, but I couldn’t escape the allegations. How could such a gifted person behave like such a douchebag?

Like many of you, I’ve been asking that question way too often lately.  After listening to Al Franken’s farewell to the Senate, I read that Mario Batali, too, had been accused of sexual misconduct. So I asked my Facebook friends if they, too, were tired of all the allegations. An interesting conversation ensued. My daughter wrote, “I’m struggling with all this. There are actors and comedians and singer and artists whose work I truly enjoy, but who are also total assholes in real life. Right now I’m boycotting these people, but there will come a time when I will want to enjoy their work again, and I’ll have to figure out how to deal with that.” My sister wrote, “Maybe after they’re dead we can enjoy their work? Kind of like Picasso. I always have to separate the man from his work and that is often very difficult to do.” That reminded me of why I struggle with listening to Miles Davis. He physically and psychologically abused his wife, Cicely Tyson, on numerous occasions. Not cool.

I think this is something many of us struggle with, so I put the question to you: Has the myriad sexual misconduct/assault accusations waged against actors, writers, and others in the entertainment business affected what you read or watch? Please leave a comment.

Also, feel free to recommend a book or two! What are you reading, and in what format?

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Turn and Face…What’s Changed. It’s OK.

Many of you “met” me years ago through my Lynn’s Weigh blog, the space where I wrote about (mostly) weight and all the issues surrounding it (the good, the bad, the recipes, the exercise). I believed then, as I do now, that there is no easy fix for the physical and emotional complexities of weight, both gaining and losing.

I also believed, and I don’t anymore, that I would always be in control of my physical and emotional world if I regularly (obsessively?) did ABC. In doing so, I would maintain the results I’d worked so hard for: a (too) thin body and the (faux) happiness that it brings. I believed I had to be a certain way – the Lynn’s Weigh – in order to have a voice in the subject of weight, and when the physical changes and the weight gain started about four years ago, I felt I’d let everyone down – my readers, my children, my boyfriend, my doctors (some of whom kept the People magazine in my folder to inspire other patients). But mostly I’d let myself down.

And so these last 2½ years since absorbing Lynn’s Weigh into Zen Bag Lady and not writing, I’ve been quietly trying to make peace with my physical and emotional changes without laying blame, feeling guilty, or being angry and frustrated.

And the results? I fail miserably sometimes on all points. But I don’t fail all the time. In fact, I fail less today than I did a month ago, and less a month ago than six months ago, and less six months ago than a year ago. In widening my field of vision, I was supported by and found comfort in the words of former weight loss bloggers Jeannette Fulda and Shauna Reid, both of whom wrote pieces in 2017 that spoke directly to me.

In April, Jeannette wrote: “These days the internet seems like a much more misogynistic, judgmental place, like a flood of tourists have swarmed the local bar and you never know what asshole is going to show up, start a fight and then breeze off, never to be seen again.”

We see this all the time everywhere these days, way more than when we all started blogging in the 2000s. Some people have no filter, no compassion, and no common sense. Words hurt, especially mean and hurtful words that come from some anonymous little puke hiding behind a computer screen. People say to ignore it, but I’m not emotionally built that way. I never have been and I never will be. I’m fine with constructive criticism that comes from a place of love and concern, but it takes me an inordinate amount of time to unfeel the pain of hurtful and untrue words. While I didn’t have many trolls on Lynn’s Weigh and none on Zen Bag Lady, “coming out” like this, with the (not so surprising) revelation that I’m not the same person I was 2, 5 or 12 years ago, might cause some people to gloat or to throw my past words in my face. But I’m going to take that risk because speaking up for change rather than staying silent and hidden is worth it. As Jeannette reminded me and everyone else, “people have the right to change”.

Indeed.

In September, Shauna wrote: “What I struggle with is contradictory. First there are the feelings of failure for not remaining the After photo, like that invalidates any value of the book (The Amazing Adventures of Dietgirl) entirely. I wrote about the After photo struggles on my blog for awhile, then slinked away from the topic. I avoided people and places. There’s been so much shame and fraudy feels… Then there is the part of me that is so bloody done hiding and ready to make peace with it all.”

Amen!

Sometimes I look at my After photos with a bit of regret, but I don’t regret the journey one bit. Like Shauna and Jeannette, I hope my words helped people on their own journeys. Gaining weight after my journey has been humbling, especially given the myriad physical shitstorm that’s been my life the last several years. But looking at the Afters also reminds me that nothing is permanent.

I don’t owe the Internet an apology. However, I would like to continue the conversation with all of you in this different chapter of my (and your!) life. You’re not the same folks you were 2, 5, 12 years ago, either, right?

So what’s new with you? What has changed? What have you held on to? Leave a comment, and please don’t be bothered by the fact that I have to “approve” (or not) all comments. While I’ve learned I am not in complete control of my physical or emotional life, I can definitely control what gets said on my blog 🙂

Also, I dusted off my old Twitter account. I’m @TrixieB1963 (after my beloved childhood book heroine, Trixie Belden), if any of you want to stalk me and I you.

Thanks for being here again. And welcome if this is your first trip here! Namaste.

In 2018, Maybe Poetry Can Help

The Internet can be a brain suck, for sure. Then there are sites like Dictionary.com that can inflate the brain, sort of. For instance, the word “pajamas” comes from the Persian words pah, meaning “leg,” and jammas, meaning “clothing”. The British spell it as “pyjamas.” If I were in London, I’d still be in my “pyjamas”. But sadly I’m not. In London, that is. Here in the U.S., I most certainly am still in my “pajamas”. Happy New Year to me.

And Happy New Year to you! Have you made any resolutions? Established any goals for 2018? Still in your jams? I made no resolutions, but I do have a goal: to see The Moody Blues inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April!! I’ll stand in the parking lot if I have to, but I need to be there. IT’S ABOUT DAMN TIME THEY WERE INDUCTED! Whoever thought inducting Dusty Springfield, Kiss, and The Animals before The Moody Blues needs some serious musical educating.

Looking back over 2017, there are several more things in my Best Of grab bag than I thought there would be, given how discomfited so many of us felt last year at this time. I had little hope for 2017, but a lot of good things happened. Jim and I had fun growing our on-the-side antiques business at a local antique mall. Zuzu the Wonder Dog moved in. I completed the fifth of six semesters of my master’s program (Graduation: May!).

And I solidly fell in love…

… with poetry.

I had the great fortune of teaching a poetry workshop this summer at the Indiana County jail. I’d taught a few classes in the women’s block, but this was the first time that my students were from two men’s blocks, and the first time the topic was all poetry.

I’ve always liked poetry, even though I have zero patience for epic poems like “The Faerie Queene” or the Sylvia Plath-ish ones that make me want to bang my head against a brick wall. But poetry asks us to pay attention to a moment for a moment. It gets in your face and says, “Look at me! What do you see?” It turned out that reading poetry with a group of men in jail was not a bad way to spend summer vacation.

Since then, I’ve fallen in love with poetry, and I wake up to a poem every morning in my email, thanks to Poem-A-Day from poets.org – another non-brain-suck website. While not every poem is a wake-up call or invites contemplation, each one is someone’s attempt to make sense of some part of their world. What speaks to you might not speak to me, but that’s the whole point!

I really like this book: Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. It’s a collection of poetry selected by Billy Collins when he was poet laureate (2001-03). Collins’ own poetry is accessible (meaning it shouldn’t usually make you want to bang your head against a brick wall). I use his work in my classes, and his Ted Talk is a lot of fun. It’s not a brain suck, I promise.

Suffice to say, poetry will help get me through 2018. I hope it lends you some comfort, solace, and contemplation, too.

Below are a few of my favorites. Please send me some of yours! Add them to the comments.

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World by Sherman Alexie

Losing the Narrative

A shattered bottle tore through my hand last month and split 
a vein until every finger was purple and I couldn’t
make even a tentative fist. I used the other hand to indicate
I’m okay. 
How unwise I am, how polite in a crisis.
In triage, an overheard photo of someone’s lover 
almost 3000 miles west made me seize with longing 
when I spied a palm tree in the background.
I understand what it says about me 
that my body lustfully wishes to place itself where it was never safe.
I have put enormous energy into trying to convince you I’m fine and
I’m just about there, no? 
Besides, decades on, poorly healed bones help me to predict rain!
though it’s true I like to verify weather
with another source because I tend not to believe myself.
I’ve been told repeatedly that I don’t understand plot but
it would be a clever twist, wouldn’t it, if in the end 
I realize it’s me who does me in.
Credit:

Copyright © 2017 by Lynn Melnick. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 26, 2017, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem:
“I injured my hand rather gruesomely last spring and it took a longer than expected time to heal. That injury triggered memories of earlier, more traumatic injuries, which got me thinking about how my instinct is to always reassure everyone I’m okay, whether I am or not.”
—Lynn Melnick

Navigating Fear

I learned to drive on the flat terrain of Minnesota, and developed a kind of invincibility about driving in winter weather. When I moved to western Pennsylvania in 1991, I acquired a somewhat healthy respect for the the hills and curves, but I was still that driver who thought that winter driving was more of a nuisance than a hazard. Spinning out of control on an icy US 322 in 2006 changed that pretty quickly, though.

I was driving home from work in a heavy snowfall in our old Dodge Caravan. My dog, Jake, was sprawled out in the back. Crawling down a hill, I hit a patch of ice which sent the van spinning around and around and around in circles until it finally stopped in the right lane, facing the wrong direction. I managed to turn around and park on the shoulder as cars swerved to avoid hitting me. A man pulled up behind me and came to my window to ask if I was OK. I could barely speak, and I was shaking horribly. He asked me where I was going. I told him I lived in Clarion, and he said, “Follow me. I’ll make sure you get there.” It was like he hooked a tow rope to my front bumper. I didn’t take my eyes off his back lights for 15 miles as he guided me slowly over hills, bridges, and ice patches, and delivered Jake and me to the town’s limits. He simply waved as I turned in the direction of home.

In the 12 winters since, I’ve become that driver I used to dread to get behind, the one driving 20 mph down a snow covered hill, the one I’d yell at from inside my car, “If you’re too afraid to drive, stay home!” I never considered that the person ahead of me had little choice but to be on the road, and that whatever the reason was, it was more important to them than their fear of driving in the snow.

Now I want to slap anyone who says to me, “You grew up in Minnesota! You should know how to drive in this stuff!” I know HOW to drive in the stuff. That’s not the issue. I am AFRAID to drive in the stuff. This isn’t like my fear of flying, where I can pop a Xanax, chase it down with a glass of wine, put on headphones and shut my eyes.

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They’ve grown in 2 1/2 years!

A few days ago, on Christmas morning, I was in bed hanging on tight to my phone as I checked the road conditions from Daughter #1’s house, where I had spent the night, to Daughter #2’s house an hour away, where my four grandchildren were waiting anxiously to open presents. The route consists of five miles of back roads and 55 miles of interstate. There was a winter weather advisory in effect, and it had indeed snowed a few inches, and the wind was blowing 30-35 mph. My stomach was in a knot as I got ready to leave, but no one else seemed to anticipate or worry about the potentially hazardous road conditions (at least to the degree that I did). I don’t often give voice to my fear because it feels so…irrational, so I said nothing.

Until I got to Sheetz.

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Zuzu is 13 months old. While she looks like a Gremlin, she’s half French Bulldog, and a quarter each Pug and Jack Russell Terrier.

Sheetz offers free coffee on Christmas Day, and so per the tradition, my daughter and her husband, driving together in their vehicle, were going to stop there before getting on the interstate. I left a few minutes ahead of them, and, white-knuckled, drove in the direction of Sheetz with my little dog Zuzu in the back. The roads were slippery and snow covered. It was snowing, and the wind caught my Jeep every once in awhile and knocked it to the side or the middle of the road. Every mile I grew more anxious, and here’s what was going through my mind: I am letting everyone down. I am a big baby. I am pathetic. I am ashamed. It’s just a little snow! Snap out of it! When I finally pulled into Sheetz, I started to cry.

I called Daughter #1 and told her I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t drive any further. And like that kind man who guided me home that day I spun out of control, she told me to hang tight, they’d be there in a minute. When they pulled up alongside me, my son-in-law smiled and said, “Hey, there’s no crying on Christmas!” and my daughter said, “Get in the passenger’s seat. I’m driving.” I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it’s OK to be scared. It’s how I react to fear that can cause the bigger mess. A mindful moment is one breath of goodwill that can soften the conglomeration of feelings that seem to all mesh together into one tight ball.

When gripped with fear and the berating is knocking, may we all remember the words of the poet Pablo Neruda: “You start dying slowly / When you kill your self-esteem; / When you do not let others help you.”

 

I’m baaaack! At least I think so. Maybe. We’ll see.

For more than nine years (2006 to 2015), Zen Bag Lady and Lynn’s Weigh were spaces for me to talk out loud, contemplate, negotiate, vent, and convince (mostly myself), and they acted as dressing rooms in which to try on different perspectives and attitudes that may or may not have always fit. I morphed Lynn’s Weigh with Zen Bag Lady (see my About page), because I realized that they are and always will be one and the same. They are timelines of change, both within and outside my control.

I’ve wanted many times during this 888-day hiatus to post a new blog, and to do that I thought I would have to explain the spiral of changes that have transpired, changes which still leave me a bit breathless. Revisiting some old posts recently, I see that explaining stuff isn’t why I blogged. I blogged because I had something to contemplate, negotiate, vent about, and try on. Putting myself out here again isn’t comfortable, god knows, but maybe no one will notice.

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I recently heard someone quote Benjamin Franklin: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I’d heard that quote before, many times, and I certainly can’t argue with it. But old Ben was wrong. There are way more certainties in this life. Emotional and physical spaces will always be in flux, and our bodies and perspectives will change, even if we desperately hang on to dogmas and calorie counters. Even when we think we’re stagnant, we change. That is for certain.

And so here I go again… (you’re welcome).

New blog tomorrow.

It’s Like Riding a Bike

Who cries when they buy a bike?

Me.

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I cried when I bought this used southwestern-goldish-color 5-year-old Schwinn Voyageur 2 at a local bike shop on Monday. AND I cried when I got her home and hoisted her off the bike rack I bought (that cost more than she did) and the handlebar smacked me in the cheek. Happy tears/pain tears…either way, I now have a bike-friend again.

My previous bike-friend was a men’s Giant hybrid I called Bike. (Creative, I know.) We were together for 7 years. I knew all her idiosyncrasies. Bike gave me confidence. Strength. She helped me think. Bike made me feel less lonely and isolated after my divorce. We went on adventures to places I’d never gone alone before. She encouraged me to take chances.

The last time I rode Bike was in March 2013. I rode 3 miles on my favorite trail when my right knee gave out. It just…stopped working. I’ve had surgeries, I’ve had babies, and never have I felt the kind of pain I felt in my knee that morning. I was on crutches for a week, but when I felt better, I was afraid to ride again. Bike stayed perched in the garage, ready for another adventure, but I ignored her.

I moved in January 2014 and stored her in my boyfriend’s barn. But I was beginning to feel optimistic about riding again when I wrote “I Believe” on January 29, 2014. I was so sure that I would ride Bike again.

Four days later, Bike burned in a fire that destroyed the barn. Gone with Bike was a bike rack, helmet, lock, odometer, trail maps, tubes, tire levers, air pump, and the $5 and package of Kleenex I kept in the bag.

This is all that’s left of Bike.

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In spring 2014, I developed hip pain and I reasoned that was why I didn’t go biking. Truth was, I was mourning Bike and I didn’t have it in me to test drive a different bike. What if I failed? What if it hurt? What if I made a fool of myself? Bike would have told me to try anyway, but I couldn’t.

I had my hip replaced, which took away the reason I “couldn’t” ride. A local trail runs parallel to a road I frequently drive on and when I saw other people biking I got that twinge in my heart, that yearning to be them. Still, I wallowed in feeling cheated. My hip, my bike, poor me. It got to the point of ridiculous. It was a month ago when I went for a short walk on another beloved bike trail that I climbed out of the self-pity enough to ask, ‘What if?’

Like a person you love who dies, I believe Bike would want me to do what it was that made me happy. Given my propensity for adopting shelter pets, I went to the bike shop and test rode that somewhat beat up Schwinn. The minute I started pedaling, I felt free. I could see joy. It’s like I had a physical purpose again and a partner who would challenge me to take down that “I can’t” wall I’d built.

That evening, I practiced taking my bike on and off the new rack on the back of my Jeep. I researched local trails and decided on one not far from me. Tuesday morning, I drove to the trailhead, nervously watching my bike bob up and down on every bump in the road.

I felt like I was on a blind date. I tried to be cool by unloading my bike like I’d done it a thousand times. I attached my water bottle, loaded my bag, calculated my computer/odometer thingy, locked up the Jeep, only…when I got on my bike, I had no idea where I was going. I followed the signs, and after a stint on a road and a turn on to what the sign said was the trail, I rode slowly up a moderate incline. At the top, I saw this:

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Another steep grade…only steeper! Weeeee!!!! Yeah…but I’d have to come back up eventually.

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I negotiated briefly with my id and super ego and decided to give myself permission to walk my bike back up the incline rather than ride up, even if someone was watching. Judging. I hate that part. Defeated, I acknowledged that A) it’s been over two years since I’ve ridden a bike, and B) I’ve gained a new hip and a few pounds and I have not been exercising like I used to. My body’s in a different place and so humility was my best friend at that moment. Swallow it and move on.

The temperature was about 84 degrees and the humidity was at least 1000 percent and the trail was mostly exposed with very little shade. Plus, I’d selected to first ride the uphill part of the trail, but it was a little more uphill than I had bargained for. I got 1.5 miles in and decided it was best to turn around. I felt sad at first; betrayed, embarrassed. And then I stopped in this place and had a little talk with myself:

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“Lynn, here’s the deal. You have to push yourself slowly because you’re not in the same physical condition you were in two year ago. No, you won’t break any land speed or distance records, and you won’t be saying ‘passing left’ anytime soon. You’re starting from the bottom. You have no place to go but up.”

I had to think through the real reason that I love to ride a bike: it’s not for physical fitness as much for psychological fitness. I need to ride a bike. Without it the last few years, I’ve become more of a small self, an isolated self, an egoic transient wandering from fear to fear. I crave the movement, but moreover I crave the butterflies, the dragonflies and the indigo buntings, and swerving to avoid the chipmunks who skittishly venture out on the side of the trail. I crave the smell of the woods, the feel of the humidity clinging to my arms, the breeze that cools my skin. I need these things, and now, I am again part of them.

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Today I went to a new trailhead. On the West Penn Trail I experienced that exhilarating fear of wild, of no one around, of a bear could come out of nowhere and I was completely alone. I rode without my headphones, listening to the air and staying hyper aware of my surroundings. I heard every bird and every crush of the limestone beneath my tires. Three miles in, I turned around, even though I ached to go another two miles. I knew my legs would question that choice on the way back, and I wanted to do what was best for all of me. I put in my ear phones and turned on “…some music to start my day…” “More Than A Feeling.” Great tune.

When I got back to my Jeep, I was totally high. So happy and sweaty. A man was securing his bike on his car’s bike rack and he offered to help me load mine. I declined, thanking him and telling him that I had to get used to doing this again. We talked about the trail for a few minutes and I was reminded of another reason I love biking. People on the trails are usually really nice people. I’ve missed that camaraderie of like-minded people. We are like ships in the night. “Good morning!” we say as we pass each other. “Passing left!” It’s like a secret handshake.

I’m still part of the fraternity/sorority of people who love bike trails, even though my thighs, arms and neck are asking me why. I just rub them and say, “You’ll get used to it.” I will press on because I am not the same person I was three days ago. I am my old biking self. I am the person I’ve missed for two years. My goldish-color bike isn’t Bike, but I think Bike would approve of her replacement.

I need to give a name to this oldish-new friend. “Salvager,” perhaps. God knows she’s gathered all that was missing, and has assembled the bits and pieces of my former self into a funky collage. We have places to go tomorrow and I’ll think more about her name, but she’s truly earned her status of BBFF (best biking friend forever).