Kintsugi

On a small table in my front hall, sits a lovely handmade pottery vase. The vase, pleasingly curvaceous, caught my eye and I was reasonably sure it was meant to be mine the very second I saw it. It was glazed in the shades of earth and sage that soothe my soul. Wrapped perfectly around its surface was a large oak leaf, gracefully rendered in natural, unglazed clay. This vase all but spoke my name. However, as is my habit, I didn’t buy it right then in recognition of the fact that I have way more than enough “stuff.” And, because it’s always possible the lovely things-I-see-but-really-don’t-need might be meant for someone else who would appreciate them more. The surest sign, for me, that a lovely thing-I-see-but-really-don’t-need is truly meant for me, is to find it still there when I pass by again at the end of the day. And, sure enough, the lovely oak leaf vase was waiting for me as I was leaving and so I knew, with certainty, this striking one-of-a-kind piece had been meant for me.

A year or two later, I had the unforgettable experience of welcoming to my home my best friend I’d never met. It’s a long story, how I came to be the best of friends with someone I’d never met, but regular readers will know that this was the woman I met online, in the early days of the Internet, while researching my options following my terminal cancer diagnosis. She and I spent hours sharing our thoughts, fears, hopes, and horrible gallows humor first by email, then by instant message and finally by phone. She also generously used her resources to find research and medical journal articles for me. Suffice it to say, I loved her as much as any friend I’ve ever met in person and, because of what we both went through together, I loved her more than most.

Well, you can guess where this is going. My friend, her sister and daughter all came to meet me (and my husband) as they were passing by on a road trip. We had a high old time actually seeing each other for the first time. We laughed uproariously, we cried with joy and relief, and generally went gonzo. When she was leaving, my friend (who may be an even bigger goofball than I am) decided that she would dip me as we hugged goodbye. She’s a pretty good-sized woman, probably six feet tall, but I’m a pretty good-sized chunk of ol’ broad myself. And, while her whim was absolutely hilarious, it became instantaneously clear that she didn’t have a lot of practice with dipping and, in that moment, things went   awry and the lovely little oak leaf vase on the hall table, which I accidentally kicked with all the leverage but none of the grace of a Rockette, was – thankfully – the sole casualty.

My friend was so aghast and apologetic, even though it was also outrageously funny all at the same time. In the end, I glued the vase back together so well you can barely tell it has been broken. Yet, despite its already unique nature, those cracks are what make that vase truly priceless to me now.

But, I wish I’d known then what I know now. Only recently have I read that Asian pottery craftsmen have a tradition of restoring handcrafted pottery (known in its Japanese iteration as “kintsugi,”) which, rather than take the impossible approach of hiding the damage, seeks to find and enhance the beauty in the irreparable harm by re-joining the pieces and filling in the lost fragments with gold or other precious metals. How perfect is that?

Image And, what does it have to do with the Happy LIFE? Well, because of the “happy habits” program we started at Life University, I received a call from a woman who helps organize a support group for grieving parents. She’d learned about The Happy LIFE from a student’s t-shirt advertising the program and asked about it. When she heard the activities included positive journaling, she was interested in having someone speak about the “happy habits” as a way to deal with grief. Even though I’ve experienced the loss of children through miscarriage and the loss of my only grandchild in the same way – along with what appears to have been my only possibility for grandchildren – I was uncertain I’d have anything meaningful to offer these grieving parents. They’d lost children after birth, or after their first few years, or as teenagers, or as adults. I was particularly uncertain because it seemed like a mockery to present the activities of The Happy LIFE as “happy habits” to people who had experienced something as traumatic as the loss of a child.

It was fortunate that I’d never really liked our use of the word “happy” in referring to activities and actions we can take to increase the meaning and satisfaction in our lives. While it’s a catchy concept, happiness is really too transient a state for any of us to expect to be able to hang on to it all the time, especially in the world in which we live or after something as traumatic as losing a child. I can imagine, closing my eyes and recalling my own intense feelings of a different grief, how hollow the word “happy” can sound. Still, making time for the five acts of gratitude and mindfulness that are part of the Happy LIFE has helped me find and build on something deeply fulfilling and meaningful for which I don’t even have a good word. Perhaps it’s resilience. Perhaps it’s optimal performance or authenticity. Or, perhaps it’s simply hope that there really is more good than bad in the world.

All of these thoughts turned out to be the perfect opening to speak with these brave parents. They were generous and receptive and it was an honor to be part of their group that evening. And, in the end, the thought of kintsugi – filling in our broken parts and missing pieces with shining memories of love instead of trying in vain to hide the damage – provided just the right closing for our conversation.

What’s the difference between a parent who suffers the loss of a child and learns to go on and still love life, and a parent who suffers that unspeakable loss and then goes on to lose everything else, too? The possibilities are infinite, of course, but each and every possibility is first directed into a binary stream, at a simple “yes” or “no” junction, and then a new binary stream results from each of those “yesses” and “noes,” and so on, each unto its own new infinity. I know that might sound hippie-dippy or loopy to some, but are you with me so far?

Now, sometimes, as a result of primal grief, a deeply instinctual response to tragedy, most of us don’t have much choice. We simply have to find a way to live, moment to moment. But, sometimes, our responses are purely a matter of choice and when that’s the case, the first binary yes/no stream is created based on “conscious” or “unconscious” decision.

If we want to have a fundamental choice about how we respond, or be able to make a conscious decision that will affect a situation’s outcome, we can prepare ourselves to direct the flow of what happens next and whether we will do harm or provide help. In our grief, there will eventually come a time when we can decide to continue to hurt or begin to heal. We can get better and better at asking ourselves what river of time we want to enter from this point forward. Do we want to create a stream that flows from wonder or one that flows from judgment? Do we want to come to the fork in the river and step into a stream of fear? Or into a stream of hope?

If we direct that flow into a stream of fear, we can be said to be “living in scarcity.” Our thoughts and choices are directing us into a channel that says, “I am going to protect what I have because there won’t be any more.” If we direct that flow into the stream of hope, we can be said to be “living in abundance.” If we can do that, our thoughts and choices are directing us into a channel that says, “I am going share what I have because it could create more of it for everyone involved.” The thing that people who think this way sometimes forget is that both love and hate can be created in abundance. It’s as if they’re stuck on the law of attraction while forgetting (or ignoring) the equal and opposite law of repulsion. Still, a sense of scarcity can create a stream of hatred or one of compassion, but I think only a sense of abundance can create a stream of nurturing love.

Now, clearly some things are always in scarce supply based on their rarity. And some things are temporarily in scarce supply because of the inevitable ebb and flow of nature and its forces, which are far outside our control (no matter how much we want to believe otherwise – just look at the weather, if you don’t believe me). Natural forces are both creative and destructive and we mere mortals can’t always tell the difference from where we sit on the cosmic consciousness food chain.

At first, in the initial loss of grief, we are focused on scarcity. We are only able to focus on the gaping hole that has suddenly been created in our lives. It’s all about what we’ve lost, what we can never have again, and it’s overwhelming. Something fundamentally defining about who we are as a person has been taken away from us. A parent who has lost a child is no longer “a mother of two” or, perhaps with the loss of this child, learns that she will never be a mother at all. Or a husband who has lost a faithful marriage can longer think of himself as “happily married” with a sense of pride and security. And, for a long time, it seems there will never be another moment when it doesn’t hurt.

After a while, it becomes possible for us to begin to notice and appreciate what we still have instead of focusing only on what we’ve lost. We can begin to have a sense of hope that there is life after loss. We begin to see that there are still people and things to love in the world. We begin to experience hope again and it can be said that we are learning to live in abundance. We may even begin to learn that the void created by loss is filled more completely when we’re able to share our pain with others who have suffered in the same way, transforming our loss into compassion for others. We may learn that each new joy we experience in life is sweeter when we’re able to think of a lost child and how much he or she would have enjoyed the experience, too. Or perhaps we are able to discover that the more forgiveness we find within ourselves for those who’ve hurt us, the more we are able to dampen our own capacity to hurt others.

In our loss, our hearts become that broken vase. Through our grief, we begin to mend our broken hearts. We can choose whether we try to mend our broken hearts so that the damage doesn’t show, but there will always be voids created by the missing fragments that are gone forever. Or, we can choose to fully acknowledge our loss, understanding that we are no longer untouched by its sorrow, and fill our broken hearts with that which is precious to us, no matter how much work it takes to discover, mine, and refine it. In the end, and with enough time, we can choose whether our loss is something preserved in its pain and sorrow or whether it is transformed into something beautiful that makes us more compassionate toward others and more aware of each moment as the gift that it is.

 

 

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Closer to Love*

I didn’t know my cousin Beth well.  She was born in September, about three years before I was (and I remember envying her blue sapphire birthstone because I didn’t like my own).  Beth loved “Downtown,” by Petula Clark.  She and I looked a lot alike when we were younger to the point that one of my aunts on the other side of the family was once quite convinced Beth was me, when she got out of my mother’s car because she was spending the weekend with us.  Beth wanted to excel at everything she did and she didn’t cut herself any slack – or even a learning curve.  It always seemed as though she believed she should already be good at everything.  There was a family story about her, on the eve of her first day of school.  Her mother was surprised to find her crying and asked,  “Why in the world are you crying about starting school when you have been positively champing at the bit and driving us all to distraction talking about how excited you are?”  And Beth said, “I’m not ready to start school!  I can’t read!  I can’t write!  I can’t even color good!”

I think Beth knew she was demanding of herself and I hope she had the kind of acceptance of it that would have caused her to appreciate the fact that I sometimes share this family story with those whose pursuit of excellence is very admirable but sometimes prevents them from taking a bit of time to appreciate how exceptional they are.

I also remember that she had fallen smack on her butt, probably quite painfully, on the front steps of my parents’ home, right on the heels of having laughed uproariously at her sister having fallen smack on her butt, in exactly the same way, just seconds before.  At that point, the entire family was guffawing uncontrollably, just as the mortuary limousines pulled up to take us all to my grandfather’s funeral.  I’ve often wondered what the drivers must have thought, at the sight of a dozen people laughing like fools.  Did they think we were making a joyful noise celebrating our grandfather’s arrival in heaven?  Or that we’d just hit the jackpot in the will?  Or that we had a dentist in the family with access to nitrous oxide?  Perhaps the drivers had already seen it all and they hadn’t given it a second thought.  However, I feel certain it was not the decorous funeral comportment any of us were shooting for.

I hope none of the family suffered any lasting ill effects of our unfortunate (but uproarious) breach in decorum.  I especially hope Beth didn’t, because she carried the reputation of insisting everything be “just so,” which must have served her well because she had achieved a good deal of success as a professional person serving her community.  She was also successful in a marriage that lasted more than thirty years, raising two sons who I hope are as successful and happy as Beth would want them to be.

I got a message during a lunch meeting one day last week that Beth had died in her sleep that morning.  She was fifty seven.

Beth’s brother told me a number of years ago, when my father died so much sooner than expected I’d had to borrow clothes to attend his funeral, that we’d reached the age when we shouldn’t travel without a black suit.  More importantly, I think, is the idea that we should all live with the knowledge that “we’re all just a phone call away from our knees.”*

 

* Sometimes I think Pandora knows what I’m thinking, especially when I’m about to resume work on a painting.  The first song I heard as I was thinking about Beth – in a way, making her part of my painting – was Mat Kearney’s “Closer to Love.”  I hope he wouldn’t mind that I’ve co-opted his title as a way to honor – not exploit – his artistry and the feelings he helped me capture.

Mat Kearney’s “Closer to Love” lyrics:  http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/matkearney/closertolove.html

Mat Kearney’s “Closer to Love” video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMRXXBGotnw&feature=kp

Acceptance

I believe that I’ve mourned the loss of our first (and last) grandchild, who did not survive past the first half of his life, on the way to his birth.  I was only able to meet the idea of him before he was gone and still, he changed my life.  Through him, I became aware of – and have opened up to – this phase of my life as the third (and last) chapter.  It’s been difficult – though it’s been made more bearable by having to accept the loss of my own ability to have children back in those days.  Blessedly, that loss came after receiving the gift of my first (and last) child.  I still find occasion to cry over the loss of our grandchild but I feel as though I have managed to grieve his passing, not as a glancing blow of loss but as a lingering gift of spirit.

What I have only recently begun to understand is that I have also been grieving another loss, the loss of the possibility of grandchildren.  Awareness of that loss came as a second wave, keenly felt when hearing about new arrivals in friends’ and family’s lives.  That stab of self-centered grief was tinged with a little longing and, no matter how quickly it might have passed, the longing was always there.  And, I suppose, there will always be reminders of it, slipping in unexpectedly with a surprising stab of lingering loss.

Recently, though, I’ve been making gratitude something of a habit and things have begun to change.  I find myself experiencing the babies and children I encounter with the most surprising mix of feelings, whether I know them and their families or not.  I’m discovering as I write this that tears still find their way to my eyes when I think of kids in the world and the hope and dreams they represent.  What I’m especially surprised to feel is deep gratitude to all the children we’ve seen out and about who’ve waved and smiled back, and to all the parents who’ve stopped to chat.  I’m even grateful  to our little dog because she loves children and children love her; she is a kid magnet.

The highlight of my holiday weekend was having three children literally squeal with delight at seeing our dog and, because they had great parents, approach her excitedly but with appropriate care and respect for her space.  It was a clear display what happens when children experience loving and effective parenting.  It was a snapshot of kids whose parents were showing them exactly the kind of gentle – but definite – attention the children were giving our little dog.  And, in that moment, I was struck by a sense of acceptance, though still inescapably tinged with sadness.  None of the children I ever encounter will be my own grandchild but, in some unfathomable way – through gratitude – they are all are.

Happy Birthday, Daddy

NOTE:  Today would have been my father’s birthday.  This story is several years old but I didn’t have a blog when I wrote it and, even though my father passed away in 2001, it makes me Positively Happy to think of what a character he was.

The Driver’s License

Let’s start with a Southernism:  license is plural in the vernacular of old-time Southerners.  You don’t get “it,” you get “them.”  Now that you know that, you also know where this story is set.  Maybe that particular bit of information will help explain my driver’s license test – or maybe there really is no explaining it.

It could be that you’d have to know something about my father, Hunter, to grasp what I’m about to tell you.  Daddy (another Southernism – we seldom grow up and call our fathers “Dad”) was a tinkerer of legendary proportions.  He started driving and fooling around with cars while he was still in grade school.  Family lore says he was driving the delivery truck for his grandfather’s grocery store when he was eight.  He was souping cars up to run way too fast by the time he was in high school.  He was involved in stock car racing long before NASCAR, probably when he was just helping NASCAR’s ancestors (moonshiners) outrun the revenuers.  Years after the fact, my mother discovered that Daddy used to take vacation time, surreptitiously, and spend it helping his old friend, Cotton Owens, who built cars for the Dodge racing team in the seventies.  Daddy could often diagnose the automotive woes of friends and acquaintances over the phone, either from a description of the problem or by hearing it.  We knew we had to be quiet if he was talking cars on the phone and said, “Lemme listen to it.”  He never stopped tinkering with his own cars or those of his friends.  He often made dramatic improvements in performance or diagnosed problems no one else had been able to.  This remarkable, nearly preternatural, skill came to be known as “Hunterizing.”  Bear this in mind; it will come into play again later.

When it came time for me to take my driver’s test, chauffer duty fell to my father.  Driving instruction had been my mother’s job because she was probably afraid that Daddy would teach us either to lead foot it, driving at speeds as close to Mach 1 as possible, or to engage in the sort of steaming verbal berating of all fellow drivers that would, years later, come to be known as road rage.  I’ll add here that her efforts were far too little, too late.  I’d grown up hearing such a constant barrage of vituperation emanating from Daddy while he drove that I thought the car wouldn’t run if you didn’t say SOB or a. hole with sufficient frequency.

Daddy decided that we should not have to suffer the indignity of waiting in line at the highway department of our thriving metropolis (population somewhat smaller than that of a mail order ant farm) so we drove over to a nearby small town (population smaller than that of a packet of mail order sea monkeys).  His strategy proved effective and, once we’d arrived, I was almost immediately escorted out to my father’s car by a State Trooper.

Now, I had learned to drive in my mother’s car, a 1962 Dodge Dart that looked like an unnatural cross between a tank, a manta ray, and a space ship.  Its horizontally projecting fins had proven wonderfully effective at preventing major damage done by student drivers as well as by Mama as she ultimately bounced her car off every single column in the Belk-Simpson department store parking garage.  It had also never been fully Hunterized, having received only the minimal upgrades.  Prior to the day of my driver’s test, I had never driven my father’s car and there was a damned fine reason for that.

Daddy’s 1966 Dodge Coronet had been fully Hunterized and beyond.  He relished having young drivers in “hot rods” pull up to a light next to his sedate looking sedan and rev their engines.  He would turn up the corner of his mouth in his characteristic sardonic near-sneer and, when the light changed, he would accelerate at head-snapping speed and, invariably, would leave the kids far behind to wonder incredulously at how some old geezer in some old heap could have so humiliated their Mustangs, Firebirds, Camaros and GTOs.  It was rumored in my extended family that, in addition to the beefed up suspension, brakes, wheels and tires, Hunter’s car had an engine that his racing buddy had given him.  That engine was said to be identical to the one that had won the Daytona 500, and the car that contained it, that beast, was the vehicle I found myself approaching to drive, for the first time, to take my driver’s test.

I tried to appear calm and blasé about the whole driving experience so that I would not communicate my fear to the trooper who, I believed, could smell fear with his finely honed senses.  Holding my breath to stave off the incipient trembling in my hand, I reached to turn the key in the ignition.  The car roared to life.  I can imagine, now, that the sound of that ignition made the trooper cock his head and wonder about the promise of power that sound held.  I knew nothing about driving such a creature as this, my father’s pride.  All I knew was that the gas pedal was stiff, and it was stiff for a reason.  I pressed it as gently as I could, knowing that there was a “catch” in its downward movement and, past that catch, you were likely accelerate very quickly to a speed approaching hyper drive.

Everything went reasonably well.  I did not whiplash the trooper upon acceleration.  I did not tear off down the road at a speed that would have ended in having my license revoked before I ever got it, and I did not go straight where the road did not, thereby ending up nose first in Twelve Mile Creek.  Still, I reached new heights of budding panic when I was asked to do my three-point turn.  The trooper directed me to a road I knew because it was on the way to my Uncle Carli’s house.  It was quite narrow.  It was not too menacing on one side but, on the other, it dropped precipitously down a bank past which was a heavily wooded area.  This was the test right here, the real test.  How would I be able to contain my panic while I shifted so many times between drive and reverse, trying not to go off the pavement on the safe side, or fall off the pavement on the dangerous side, all the while maintaining sufficiently light pressure on the gas pedal so as not to end up climbing one of the trees so inconsiderately placed on said dangerous side?

I don’t have a clear memory of that three point turn.  I believe that it was lost in an adrenaline clouded fog.  I do remember heading back to the Department of Motor Vehicles, not on pins and needles but more like swords and scythes, desperate to know if the close-mouthed trooper had passed me on my test.

We pulled into to parking lot and went silently into the building.   The trooper spotted my father and made beeline for him.  I, of course, believed he was going to berate Daddy for having the gall to think that he should let someone like me behind the wheel of a car.  Instead, and to my surprise and delight, he said, “I’m going to pass your daughter, so she has some paperwork to do.  Let’s you and me go outside and talk.”  They left and I went to the counter to fill out the forms and have the first of what would become an increasingly humiliating series of driver’s license photos made and to lie about my weight.  And then I sat and waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Finally, Daddy and the trooper returned, all smiles, and shook hands as Daddy said, “I’ll see you this weekend.”  Daddy said later that he was going to come over and help the trooper out with his car a little bit.  I didn’t discover until years later that Daddy and the trooper had gone drag racing and, of course, Daddy had won.  I suppose that the trooper had sensed what sort of vehicle he was sitting in the passenger seat of and wanted some of that for himself.  Daddy had let the trooper drive the car and revealed some its secrets, most notable of which was some sort of novel grinding of the cam shaft.  It may be legend, but I seem to recall Daddy getting a phone call or two from some pretty famous stock car drivers of the time inquiring about that cam shaft.  I like to imagine that the trooper got many years of chasing down surprised hot rodders and that his Hunterized patrol car remained with him for many years after his retirement.

My father died a few years ago.  He was not an especially brave man when it came to sickness and suffering.  But when it came to death, he faced it down and crossed over the threshold on his own terms, letting go gracefully and with dignity.  And on the November night he died, the skies were wondrous with a meteor storm the like of which I had never seen in a lifetime of watching the yearly Leonid show.  Truly, the display was so magnificent that it was nearly scary.  I couldn’t help but expect the streaking meteors to hiss as they passed and explode as they hit; it was eerie that such an awesome sight could be utterly silent.  And, as I stood there in grief and awe, I thought, “Oh, Lord.  My daddy has only been dead an hour and, already, he’s Hunterized heaven.”