Every Wednesday

Every other Wednesday, I will post a reflection on grief as I continue to explore its landscape and listen to your experiences. In the sharing of our stories with each other, we find encouragement and build a community of support and understanding.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Grief on TV

 


When grief is portrayed on TV, it’s usually a surface storyline, a convenient pivot for the regular characters to do what they normally do around it. While I don’t expect any TV series to spend much time on dying or grief, because the shows are designed to entertain, when serious subjects are addressed, I want them to be depicted accurately. In real life, most of us want to deal with our problems honestly, and TV has the opportunity to show us how to move past our hesitations and fears.

 

Recently I saw a rerun of the “M.I.A.” episode of N.C.I.S. The guest character, Navy Lieutenant Laura Ellison, has ovarian cancer, and the N.C.I.S. crew is pushing to solve a murder before she dies. What its writer, Jennifer Corbett, gets right is the portrayal of the dying woman. According to Katherine Cunningham, the actress who portrays Laura, Corbett based Laura on a person she knew. For her part, Cunningham goes beyond the stock presentation of someone dying and conveys deeper emotions—the physical struggle of dealing with a terminal disease, her wry humor, concern for someone who was under her command, despair when treatments stop working, and courage in facing her reality. I didn’t realize how much Laura had drawn me in until the episode was over. Every N.C.I.S. episode that Corbett wrote touches the heart.

 

Besides Laura’s realistic portrayal, what I value about this episode is the interaction between Laura and Nick, one of the investigating officers. Nick has avoided hospitals and people who are dying because a girlfriend he expected to marry died young. Laura encourages Nick to face his loss and reopen his heart to others. Nick, for his part, listens to Laura’s fears and keeps her from being alone. 

 

The series gets grief right a lot of the time. In another episode, after Vance’s wife is killed, he has to find a nanny to take care of his young children, but he’s feeling guilty about doing so because it says to him that he’s turning away from his wife and moving on, and he doesn’t feel ready to do that. Ziva counsels that only he can decide when it’s time to move on, and hiring a nanny doesn’t affect this.

 

We all have our favorite TV shows, and we watch them for distraction, laughter, or to be shocked. I find myself drawn to shows that speak honestly about the struggles of human existence, like M*A*S*HDoctor Who, and Inspector Morse

 

In the months after my wife died, I tuned in each week to watch Inspector Morse on the BBC because the struggle and bleakness of Morse’s life now felt like my own. In his police work, Morse dealt with the tragic side of human life, yet he believed in a few friends, good ale, classical music and crosswords, and they were enough to keep him going. He was a resilient pessimist, grumpy at times and often surly, yet I drew strength from his ability to withstand dealing with people who deliberately harmed others. I also liked his philosophical musings.

 

Eventually, Morse dies and the series ended. When it came back, his sidekick, Lewis, was in the lead role, but during the time the show was off the air, Lewis’s wife has died in a car accident. Not only does Lewis have to learn to do a new job without his mentor’s guidance and his wife’s support, he also has to carry on in the midst of his grief, and deal with unresolved anger at the driver who killed her. 

 

Unlike Morse, Lewis thrives on relationships, but he struggles with the job because the counter balance of a happy home life is gone, and a hard shell begins to form around him. My fear is that he will end up bitter and alone like Morse, but his colleagues at work help him along. In later episodes, we see glimmers of happiness return as he shares moments with a new woman and a relationship develops.

 

What does this have to do with us? Many of us feel uneasy visiting the dying because we don’t know what to say, and we feel helpless. It’s the same situation with the grieving. If we can’t think of something positive to say, then we don’t want to go, and many of us don’t. Yet, what the dying and the grieving want most is to know that they aren’t alone in their journey, and this is the gift that Nick gives to Laura. Laura’s gift to Nick is the message that life doesn’t end with a diagnosis. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Boxes of Imagined Grief


 My friends didn’t know what to say to me because Ev died young and unexpectedly. No one had taught my generation about grief, not what to say or do or expect. No one knew to tell me that life was over as I had known it, or that I would be thrown into a land cratered by death for more than a year.

 

Yet everyone had a Box of Imaginary Grief, even if they had never lost anyone close, filled with odds and ends of what they thought sorrow might be like. Whenever I came over, they dug around in their box, took out something braided with hope, and handed it to me to comfort my grief. Then they expected the dinner party to go on as planned. As you might have guessed, this wasn’t what I needed. 

 

When grief punches us in the gut, it hands us two boxes—Before and After. Ev and I had put all our eggs into the Before Death Box because we couldn’t imagine a future that didn’t’ have both of us in it. The After Death Box remained empty for a long time.

 

When I was finally able to face the emotional tsunami of sorting Ev’s possessions, I created a Box of Memories and filled it with her photographs, mementoes, letters, and events that marked the important days of our life together, because I didn’t want to forget anything. These stories I share with others.

 

I also collected a Box of Lasts—where we ate our last meal, the last movie we saw, Ev’s last birthday, and those moments when she last smiled at me, held my hand, or we slept cuddled up—without either of us knowing that any of these would be her lasts. I hold on to this box with both hands, and most of these I share with others.

 

I drove around town and collected a Box of Death—the place where she collapsed, the route the ambulance sped to the hospital, the ICU room where she lay connected to wires and tubes until the doctors said it was over. The bag of clothes the paramedics had to cut off. Our cold, silent house where I stared out the window for the first week. The memorial service. The scattering of ashes. The months of anger and despair. Time does not exist here, and I walk in these places alone. These I keep to myself.

 

I do not want to forget the blunt force trauma of death because, as wrenching as it was, it happened, and I cannot undo it. I also do not want to forget the goodness of life with Evelyn, because that was also true. I do not want our struggles to become warm and fuzzy, or our joy to be covered in black shrouds because of grief, because what was good then is still good. My memories need to be as they were, a mixture of happiness and sorrow.

 

Our last moment together was like a thousand other ordinary moments that come and go every day without us noticing, moments that have the power to bring illumination to our eyes, or take it away. I want to live this moment as fully as I can, and then I want to live the next, because some of these moments could be transforming, and one of them will be the last. My After Death Box turned out not to be a box at all, but a path that went through a wilderness of wonder and courage.

 

Those who reach into their Box of Imagined Grief because they don’t know what to say, need only reach into their Box of Hearts and share the compassion they find there. This is what those who grieve need.

 

Friday, March 12, 2021

Doctor Who and the Afterlife


Clara’s dead, maybe.


Doctor Who is a science fiction program on the BBC that revolves around the relationship of the Doctor and various companions as they jump around different universes through time and space saving people, planets, and whatnot. Clara is one of the companions who remind him of his values and keep him in line. They travel in a blue TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), which looks like an old, British police telephone box from the outside, yet is enormous on the inside.

 

If you’re new to the Whovian Universe, you’ll probably miss some of the references in the episodes to what happened before and to previous incarnations of the Doctor. The writers like to do this a lot. In addition to the interesting storylines and characters, I also like the philosophical riffs, although sometimes I like them so much that I continue thinking about them, miss where the story went, and have to scramble to catch up.

 

At the end of one season, Clara dies. Probably. She dies because of a misunderstanding. She transferred the death sentence on an innocent person to herself, and expected the Doctor to do something to save her, which he always did. Her act was one of compassion, not sacrifice, and she was caught in a scheme to nab the Doctor, and the Doctor could do nothing to save her from the Raven of Death.

 

But is Clara really dead? Clara is an unusual Who companion in that she has died a number of times over the centuries yet keeps coming back in new incarnations. In one of them, she leapt into the doctor’s time stream and multiplied into a thousand versions, so, theoretically, she could keep returning for a long time.

 

Clara’s reappearance after her death by raven touches on the afterlife, or at least the part where one’s spirit hangs around here for a matter of weeks or months, which many religions believe, before heading off for the next place. Forget the four billion years Clara that has been dead when we step back in time in the “Hell Bent” episode to borrow her just before she died. It’s the afterlife diner scene that intrigues me. (Diners kind of exist in a time warp anyway.)

 

The Doctor walks into a diner where Clara is the waitress. In their conversation, the doctor says he would know Clara if he ever saw her again, although he can’t remember what she looked like, because his memory of her has been wiped clean. While Clara knows who he is, and wants him to recognize her, apparently there’s a rule that she can’t tell him. He doesn’t pick up on the “Clara-ness” of the waitress, and doesn’t recognize her caring, wit, or notice her tears, details he always noticed before.

 

Would we know our loved ones if they stopped back for a visit and spoke through a stranger, or would we be so blind with grief that we also wouldn’t notice? 

 

As for the doctor, he is having trouble grieving someone he can’t remember. He knows that he misses her, and that she told him something he needed to remember, but he just can’t put his finger on what it was. He’s left playing Clara’s melancholy song on his electric guitar.

 

How much does our grief reside in the spirit of the person and how much is tied to the details—the experiences we shared, their prized possessions, hobbies, favorite foods, and music? Without specific memories, would we grieve as deeply? Would we grieve at all? Maybe we would also be left with a vague sense of missing someone we think changed our lives completely around.

 

And what about us? If we knew that we would continue to exist in an Afterlife, would that change how we live our life here, especially if entrance is based on the kindness and compassion that we show others?

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Stone Monastery of Grief


 For many people, the world of grief seems like a void, a large cavern of terror that everyone wants to flee, a place filled with utterly depressing chaos and rampaging emotions. And it is. It’s also filled with people who have unshakable compassion.

 

There are long periods of silence after the first onslaught of grief calms, and to those who grieve, the experience feels like living in a monastery. So much has been taken away that life feels pared back to stone walls and quiet, except for occasional rantings in the middle of the night. We’re always slightly cold, and the food we eat, while nutritious and warm, is nothing to write home about.

 

In the first month, well-meaning people show up in the monastery’s guesthouse to visit us, bringing flowers and chocolate, and praising us for how strong we have been to survive such trauma. They listen to our words as if they were golden and we have learned hidden truths. Then they leave, because a glimpse into the dark hours of human existence was enough, and they don’t want to live it. We have no choice.

 

In this silence, when we’re by ourselves in a bare room with only a bed, a chair, and a desk, we scribble down random thoughts and feelings on scraps of paper that we stuff into our pockets and pull out at odd moments to remind us who we are and where we’ve been. Grief doesn’t seem that exciting, yet in the stillness, life stops swirling and we find an image that brings life into focus. We find a place to sit that holds us in place, and see how grief connects to love, anger to compassion, and despair to hope. In the solitude, we feel the absence of our loved one, but we begin to feel their presence, as well.

 

As we wander around the monastery, we begin to bump into others who are also grieving. We gather in small groups, and community forms where we do not have to explain ourselves to each other, because everyone understands grief in the Monastery of Shadows. We are living in the sacred space that exists between the living and the dead, between the hard realities of life and the comfort of illusions. A door opens to wisdom that is deeper than what we’ve known, and we step through.

 

In the long, stone sanctuary, we read passages written down by those who traveled this way before us and find strength and encouragement. We chant ancient psalms of prophets from many traditions who understood struggle, doubt, and courage. We speak the names of our loved ones to the darkness as we light rows of candles so that they do not lose their way. The soft, steady beat of a Celtic drum accompanies the rhythm of our hearts.

 

As we make our way through the corridors of grief, we move deeper into the Mystery that is unfolding and enfolding us. Simple joys appear throughout the day, like a wren singing at the window, a book left outside our door with a passage marked that moves our soul, a smile from someone we don’t know passing us in the hall.

 

A community of broken people gathers and passes compassion from heart to heart to heart.

 

                        *

 

There is spirituality in grieving because we are dealing with matters of heart and faith. It’s following the ancient path of grief’s wisdom that connects us to an Awareness of how life often takes us through fire and helps us rise from the ashes.

 

Besides spending time in a Trappist monastery to deal with grief, I often went to Yosemite to hike in the mountains and listen to its counsel. My friend Elaine Mansfield felt she dwelt in the Monastery of the Green Man for two years before she came back to life after her husband’s death.

 

Do not despair. Share yourself with others. Open to those who listen.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Valentine for Grief


 (When a partner dies, we begin an unwanted relationship with grief. My article was first published on Rebelle Society. http://ow.ly/38xznn )

 

            *

 

I admit it’s unexpected, but I find Grief romantic. 

 

She gives me her undivided attention, but she’s badass. A tiger-woman. Wounded-little-bird woman. Wild, frontier woman with soft doe eyes and fishnet stockings. I never know what she’s going to do next.

 

Grief whispers in my ear, entices me to dig deeper into emotions than I want to go. Asks what I loved best about Evelyn, and when I tell her, she twists the knife. “You don’t have that anymore, do you!” Then she slams me to the floor and walks out the door.

 

Never a dull moment with her.

 

All I wanted was a fling, something to distract me for a month from the incessant battering of Death. I didn’t realize they were cousins and talked to each other behind closed doors.

 

I’m falling in love with her melancholy ways. She’s sexy and mysterious, but my god, so INTENSE! When I finally straggle to bed, she crawls in beside wanting to cuddle. But her skin is cold, and she stares. I don’t think she ever sleeps. Every night at 3 a.m. she wakes me to go party at the Bar of the Dead, a catacomb dive with morose skeletons slow dancing to Tom Waits.

 

Push-me, pull-me. Whatever. She gets what she wants. A siren singing to my sailor, luring me to her crashing rocks. She’s manic. I’m depressive. We’re a great pair.

 

Grief strokes my hair and listens as I pull out my heart in pieces and chunks. Pours another drink and says, “Tell me more.” But she has no memory, and tomorrow I’ll have to repeat my stories again.

 

She’s a roller-coaster ride zipping through the dark on a 10-second loop.

 

She says suffering proves the depth of my love. I tell her to “Stuff it. I don’t need to prove anything to you!” She whacks me in the head. I call her names; she calls me worse. I apologize. It’s this way with us. I could use less drama.

 

Grief is driving this big rig without brakes and we’re barreling down the mountain highway so out of control that I scream until I pass out. When I wake up, she’s leaning over and says, “I will never leave you.” And I believe her. I have to. She’s all I’ve got left. 

 

One day she goes out for cigarettes and whiskey and is gone for an hour. I get a tattoo of her, but when she leaves again and doesn’t return, I think I’m so pathetic that even Grief doesn’t want to hang around.

 

A year later, after I’ve forgotten about her and have begun talking to other women, she sneaks up, whacks me behind the knees, and down I go, sobbing. I wail that I missed her, but she brushes me off. Tells me not to forget again. And she’s gone.

 

She drops by now and then, especially when our song comes on, and asks if I’ve thought about X or Q. I haven’t. So, I make coffee. We discuss Q, then X, and I come to see what she was trying to help me understand a year ago.

 

I thought I loved Grief, but what I wanted was to feel not dead.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Writing Our Grief Out


 All sorrows can be borne if they’re put into a story, Isak Dinesen said. Writing about our grief unties its knots, and unhooks death’s claws from our flesh. 

 

It’s helpful to sit down at the same time every day and write about your grief. Record all of your thoughts, feelings, memories, and heartaches. Write about everything that seems connected until you can’t think of anything else to say. If something more shows up later, make a note to explore it later. Writing helps, as does walking in nature and having a community of support.

 

Writing is what got me through each day after my wife Evelyn died, because the one person I knew who could help me with grief was her. I wasn’t good at dealing with emotions, and because my friends were also young, they didn’t know how to help. Every evening before bed I sat down and detailed what grief had done that day. I wanted to understand what was going on, and I needed to see signs that I was making progress.

 

To start, find a calm rock in the middle of your cascading river of grief and focus on that.

 

Then write. Don’t think about what you’re writing. Turn your inner editor off. No one will ever read your words, unless you choose to share them. If some phrase or thought or image keeps showing up on the page, it’s probably something you need to pay attention to. Reflect on that, and let your thoughts and feelings deepen.

 

By writing about our grief, we face up to the trauma of death and deal with its attendant side issues. Finding the right words helps us identify our feelings, puts sorrow into context, and opens us to insights. Until we face grief, it will rumble under our surface like a thousand tiny earthquakes that grow stronger. This movement of tectonic plates will continue to push against each other until the pent-up tensions release and emotions go flying like dinner plates against the walls.

 

Writing about our grief is therapeutic.

 

If we don’t deal with grief, we will be in danger of closing our emotions down, putting barriers around us, and not letting anyone get close enough again. But that’s a steep price to pay—forgoing love. By writing, we take grief out of our bodies and place it on paper where it can live instead of it moping around inside us where it keeps jabbing us with spears and knocking over the furniture.

 

Writing allows us to step back from sorrow for a moment and breathe. It opens space up for something new to happen. By being creative with grief, we take back control of our narrative from death, and we move from being victims to being survivors.

 

We can also take the raw material of grief and be creative with it by writing stories, essays and poems, as well as by painting, composing music, and making pottery. We become artists of grief, interpreting its turmoil in physical ways so that others can see, touch, and hear what we’ve experienced. By expressing our brokenness, we help others deal with their own.

 

Grief brings you a story. Write it, if only for yourself. Later on, you will want to look back and remember this time of sorrow that brought you to your knees, and how you found the courage and strength to go on.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Grieving Outdoors


 Mollie Taylor wrote and said that she was interviewing people for her nature and grief podcasts, and would I like to do one? 

You can listen to our podcast at this link:https://open.spotify.com/episode/28WZdhyIg6xkFobXFwqrmv


            *

 

Mollie Taylor works with the Parks and Bereavement Services in Bournemouth, England, on the south coast of England, which I think is a tremendously insightful pairing because nature is where I found solace after my wife Evelyn died. 

 

She began the bereavement group at the Hengistbury Head nature reserve, and meets weekly with those who are grieving, taking them into nature to experience its benefits. She helps them identify plants and animals, works with them on projects that benefit wildlife (like building bird houses), and provides social time for interaction. When the pandemic began restricting their gatherings, she looked for more ways of sharing content with her group, and came up with the idea of doing podcasts of interviews with people who understood the therapeutic benefits of being in nature while grieving.

 

Her interest in this began when her grandmother passed suddenly when she was an undergrad at university. Mollie lost her footing for a time, and found that going into nature helped her piece life back together. For her masters’ dissertation in Biodiversity Conservation, she focused on the benefits of nature for the grieving. 

 

Mollie has also written several articles for the Institute for Cemeteries and Crematorium Management about the relationship between nature and cemeteries, and found that the general public favored cemeteries that had the most wildlife over those that had less, as well as over nearby greenspaces. She proposed that they encourage more wildlife to be present in cemeteries by creating habitats, and forming community-based groups to maintain them. 

 

I am guessing that English cemeteries, in general, look different than the cemeteries I’m familiar with in the States. A photo I saw of a cemetery in Bournemouth had quite a few trees, bushes, and benches to sit on. It looked more rustic and slightly untamed. Our cemeteries are generally flat, or on gently rolling hills, with large expanses of mowed grass and a few trees, similar to the look of a golf course, but without the sand traps or places to sit. If we have woods, they are kept outside the boundaries of the cemetery. There are exceptions, of course, like neglected, rural cemeteries that are overgrown with vegetation.

 

Generally, we go to cemeteries only if we know someone who is buried there, to honor and grieve them. Cemeteries offer us a quiet place to reflect on how life continues to change. Some of us also go for the history, and we get a thrill by standing at the graves of famous leaders, authors, and musicians. I’ve not heard of anyone here going to a cemetery for the wildlife.

 

A survey of more than 26,000 adults in Europe found that the number of bird species in a person’s surroundings correlated to their level of happiness. The happiest Europeans were those who experienced numerous bird species in their daily life. It’s easy to lose touch with nature in our concrete cities. If cemeteries are our largest green areas, why not invite wildlife in, especially birds, and provide them a place of refuge?

 

            *

 

(related link: Nature and Grief - https://widowersgrief.blogspot.com/2020/12/nature-and-grief.html)

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Madonnas


 A couple of years ago, my essay “Madonnas” was published by The Manifest-Station. You can read it at http://themanifeststation.net/2015/01/06/madonnas/ Some of the words here come from that essay.

 

            *

 

I’m mindful of Mary today, the Jewish madonna, because January 6 is the celebration of Epiphany that commemorates when Mary welcomed the three wisdom teachers of the East. Because of their gifts for baby Jesus, she began to understand the nature of her future grief.

 

I’m also thinking of the unheralded compassion of mothers and grandmothers throughout the centuries who have taken on suffering in order to help the abused, the hungry, the poor, the disenfranchised, the widowed and the lonely. They brought healing to people from the body of the earth, and brought the spirituality and wisdom of the body and the heart into their communities of faith. 


It’s as if the light of love can only be let out in measured amounts, light that has to pierce flesh before it touches the world’s darkness.

 

Nine months after my wife Evelyn died, I was feeling restless. Wanting to do something other than mope around the house on a day off from work, I drove to Lake Merritt in Oakland, California to be in a place where Ev liked to go on her lunch breaks, thinking it was time for my new life to be born. Sitting there, I remembered the compassion she had for so many people who were grieving, dying, or struggling with troubled children.

 

Evelyn brought warmth and compassion into a world that too often is indifferent to suffering. She opened her heart to others, and physically took on their pain and despair as she helped them deal with trauma. She brought them healing and hope like the Black madonnas of Eastern Europe who root the deity’s love into the rich, fertile loam of the earth. The Orthodox madonnas of smoky icons and shrines where pilgrims light candles to honor their courage. The Amish madonnas who lift the hems of their long skirts to kneel down and play with children in the grass to my right. 

 

Walking on the path along the shore, I move through Gypsy madonnas in tie-dyed skirts, who are singing and swaying to the rhythms of the earth. Tiny bells ring on cords tied around their ankles and waists, and when they invite me to dance, I do. 

 

            *

 

After Evelyn’s death, I experienced the compassion of many women, some whom I barely knew. They knew that a widower who was not good with emotions could use a hug, words of encouragement, and the presence of another human. They showed up on my doorstep, and I let them in.

 

Think about the women who have nurtured you. Send them a note of gratitude.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Winter Prayer


 (I posted this earlier this year, but it’s still timely and needed. Photo taken by Marcia.)

 

 

Winter Prayer

 

 

In the turning of the natural world back towards light, may we so turn.

 

May we be grateful for what we have. 

and mindful of the widowed, the sick, the refugee, the battered, the abandoned. 

May we realize when we have enough and share the rest.

 

May we take risks and love without expecting anything in return. 

May we respond to others with compassion instead of judgment. 

May we sit with those who are hurting or lonely and be present.

 

May we realize that all of us are fearful, struggling, and have dreams. 

May we talk through disagreements instead of cementing divisions into place. 

May we be so open to others that they surprise us every day.

 

May we breathe slowly in the coming year. 

May we walk through nature and listen. 

May we be mindful of our heart and its leanings. 

 

May we be creative, brave, and caring. 

May we dance when the day’s work is done. 

May our lives exceed our expectations, but not our love.

 

                                    Mark Liebenow

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Shoo Fly Pie


 The holidays are a time of sharing stories of the past—“Remember when …”. They’re also about eating food that we get only at this time of year. But this year, many of us won’t be able to gather as families, and we will have to create new traditions. We will make some of the holiday recipes—the cookies and cakes, the soups, and savory dishes, and the smells of baking and cooking will warm our hearts and inspire wishful thinking.

 

This is my story of shoo fly pie. May it spur you to remember one of your own. 

 

            *

 

I made two shoo fly pies today. They were a favorite of my wife Evelyn before she died. Every Christmas season, she would bake a variety of holiday cookies and shoo fly pie. Holiday foods carry extra meaning, although if you’re grieving, they also carry extra sorrow, so for a number of years I didn’t make the pies. I found the recipe in her cooking file, and used the pastry cutter she used to make the crust.

 

Shoo fly pie is made with molasses, which is important to know if you don’t like the taste of molasses, which I can’t understand. It’s an odd concoction because it’s a cake that is baked in a pie crust, not that this detail bothers anyone. It’s also intensely good, if you like molasses. If you want it stronger, try blackstrap variety.

 

Ev learned how to make it from her mother Marjorie. Marjorie grew up in Arizona, so I suspect she learned to make the shoo fly because of husband Stan, who grew up with it in Pennsylvania. Marjorie’s recipe makes four pies. I cut the recipe down to make two, and will give pieces away to friends. Why Marjorie would make four pies at a time is beyond me. Their family wasn’t that large. 

 

Marjorie always hoped that at least one of the pies would have a wet bottom, which meant there was a thin layer of molasses on the bottom, but this was happenstance. After decades of making the pies, Marjorie said she couldn’t figure out why only a few turn out that way. If she knew, she’d make them all the time, which would have delighted Evelyn because she eagerly watched the first slice being taken out to see if it was wet. I wanted to make the pies this year to celebrate them, and remember how they welcomed me into the family and fed me pie.

 

Shoo fly pie was developed by the Pennsylvania Dutch (Dutch meaning Deutsch, meaning Germans) in the 1880s. Apparently, they ate it for breakfast. The rumor is that putting the cake in a pie crust made it easier to carry, but why would they be in a hurry to go somewhere when they could linger and enjoy the shoo fly? Germans have a heritage of being busy, convinced that there is a lot of work they have to do to make the world neat and orderly, and it would be irresponsible not to use every hour of daylight that the good Lord gave them. The insides of the pie, at least in Marjorie’s recipe, is made with sugar, brown sugar, and molasses, in about equal portions, along with flour to hold it together. That’s a lot of sugar to start the day, but many of them were farmers and would burn that off by noon.

 

I’d consider shoo fly for breakfast if I also had scrapple. I learned about scrapple from Marjorie and Stan, too, although I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what scrapple was made of, knowing some of the things that my German ancestors ate, not wanting to waste any part of the animal. I guess they figured their digestive systems would extract what was nutritious and bypass the rest.

 

One day I asked Stan where it came from. He said, with a grin and eyes shining with humor, “Boil one pig’s head …” Basically it’s a ground mush of pork scrapes and trimmings with cornmeal added in. It was tasty, and peppery in the version we could find occasionally in Bay Area stores, and it provide a nice counterbalance to the pie. We’d slice the scrapple thin and fry it up crisp. At least it wasn’t haggis, which is part of Stan’s Scottish heritage, he being a MacNair. I have no desire to try haggis. It’s made by stuffing a sheep’s stomach with its heart, liver and lungs, and cooking it. I’m not fond of any of the ingredients, but lung is a deal breaker.

 

Stan grew up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania where the Deutsch/Dutch hung out. Down the street from his house lived little Jimmy Mitchener, who would go on to fame as a writer of 40 books like Tales of the South Pacific, which was made into a Broadway musical by Rogers and Hammerstein. Stan knew of him, but Jimmy was an orphan, and Stan’s parents wouldn’t let him play with him because of this. 

 

In 1946, Dinah Shore sang the Sammy Gallop song about the pie: “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy / Makes your eyes light up, Your tummy say ‘Howdy.’” Apple pan dowdy is a dish from colonial times, and Abigail Adam’s favorite. I would be willing to taste that.

 

Why did Stan crave the inexpensive German food rather than the Scottish food of his heritage? Maybe the proper Scottish ingredients were harder to find, or more expensive, or perhaps his family wasn’t that keen about their Scottish roots? A traditional Scottish soup, Cullen Skink, requires haddock, and Black Pudding required some kind of animal blood, as well as the obligatory oatmeal. The Scots also like Clootie Dumplings, which first made me think of cooties (no), and then of coots (similar to ducks, so maybe), but it turns out that the clootie is the cloth that holds the pudding, made of oatmeal, currants, flour and suet, while it is boiled in water. 

 

One side of my family came from Germany and the other side came from Scotland, not that I know any stories about them because my family didn’t think they were important enough to share through the generations. Apparently, they were too busy carrying pie around to pick up a pen and write their stories down. 

 

Because of Stan’s Scottish heritage, I grew curious about that side of my family, and when Ev and I traveled through Scotland years ago, we spent extra time in the Highlands, and visited Iona, the holy isle that Stan loved, and where St. Columba once lived. John Muir, my nature saint, was also born in Scotland before his family moved to Wisconsin and lived near where I grew up. Muir went on to Yosemite, where he wrote about the transcendence and spirituality of nature, and where I would go to hike and be where he wrote the words that have long inspired me.

 

            *

 

So that’s my story about shoo fly pie. I wish I knew more. I can’t ask Evelyn, Marjorie, or Stan because they have all passed on. 

 

The stories we treasure are never about one person, but about a supporting web of relationships that connect us to each other, then, and for all time. Sometimes our favorite holiday traditions are not the ones we grew up with, but the ones we choose, and the people we care about the most are those we find along the way.

 

May your celebrations this year, in whatever form they take, bring you strength and hope. May your stories rekindle the memories of people you love. And may your dreams for the year ahead be filled with compassion and courage.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Nature and Grief


 If you lost someone you loved, and if you also love nature, you probably went to your favorite place outdoors to find solace and guidance. I went to Yosemite after my wife Evelyn died. It was hard to be there the first few times back because Ev also loved Yosemite, and I had to deal with our memories, but during those trips, I was able to make peace with death, and find my way through grief.

 

Each of us is a union of body, mind, and spirit. When we are grieving, we need to nurture each part. Nature is grief therapy.

 

This week I heard about the Forest Bathing movement going on in Great Britain. It began in Japan some 30 years ago (Shinrin-yoku), and is popping up now in the United States. It’s also known as Forest Therapy. The plan is simply to go into a forest and be present to what is going on. It’s not about hiking somewhere. Rather, it’s about casually walking around, sitting, and being immersed in the sights, sounds, scents, and textures of the outdoors. It’s setting your normal preoccupations aside for a few hours and listening to the woods. I would think that being on the shore of an ocean, or in the desert, would work as well; any natural place where you are alone with nature.

 

While the health benefits of being outside are evident (reduced stress and blood pressure levels), Forest Bathing also addresses three other modern problems: our alienation from nature, the degradation of the environment, and the splintering of cooperation within our communities. By paying close attention to nature, we notice where the earth has been wounded by our actions, and see how each part of a living environment works in cooperation with every other part.

 

Forest Bathing excursions use nature guides to help people notice and identify the details—the different species of birds, the squirrels digging for acorns, how animals are moving about, what plants are growing, the different sounds of wetlands and creeks, and how the bark on different kinds of trees can have deep ridges or be smooth to the touch. The longer you sit quietly, the more you see and hear because the animals and birds return from their hiding places and resume their daily lives.

 

Some therapists, like Emma Pritchard, an integrative counsellor at Dorchester Counselling and Wellbeing in the UK, take their clients into the woods. Nature has become the basis for her therapeutic work. She feels it’s important for people to be in nature where they find mental, physical, and spiritual health. Often, by the end of a session outdoors, she can see the inner light coming back into the eyes of her clients. 

 

I’m not aware of any nature and grief programs going on in central Illinois. In Peoria, we do have the Forest Park Nature Preserve that has miles of trails that wind through the forested hills along the Illinois River, and there are trail guides who will take you on guided tours. I don’t know if any therapists work with their clients there.

 

The nearby Sun Foundation for Advancement in the Environmental Sciences and Arts, begun by Bob and Joan Ericksen, coordinates a wide variety of innovative programs that help people experience the natural beauty of the land, understand how they are connected to the earth, and how to be good stewards of the environment.

 

I often hike in Forest Park. At points on each trail there are listening benches where I can sit, catch my breath, and listen to the life going on in the woods. After each hike, I come away feeling refreshed.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Pomegranate


When someone we love dies, we need to sit with our sorrow for a time and grieve. We need to mourn and cry and pound on the walls. We need to acknowledge our emotions and the fears that show up—of our own death, of life changing, of being alone. Grief is overwhelming. The impact of the death sends an electrical surge through our body, and our brain’s main circuit breaker trips before our entire wiring gets fried, but we end up numb and in shock.

 

We find ourselves in a place of darkness, feeling vulnerable and broken. For a time, we will live here, in the space between the world we knew and loved and the unknown world that is coming. 

 

There comes a time when we have exhausted our grief, when we’re tired of wandering around the emptiness of our home and the loneliness of our heart, and we turn toward the possibility of a new life. How we make the transition is not obvious. Christina Rasmussen calls this the Waiting Room. Part of us doesn’t want to make any change because we don’t want to lose touch with the person we loved.

 

As a coach and crisis-intervention specialist, Christina works with people who feel stuck in trauma. Her Life Reentry Program encourages people to face their grief and, when they are ready, helps them emerge from the safety of their cocoons.

 

If you lose your spouse when you’re in your 30s, as Christina did, or in your 40s, as I did, you realize that you probably have decades of life left, and you have to decide if you’re going live all those years wrapped up in a blanket of grief or find out what life still has to offer. If I had been older, I might have given up on living in the city and moved to a cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There I would live simply, read all the books I never get around to reading, and watch the animals and birds go about their daily lives.

                                 

The words in Christina’s book are encouraging and supportive. It feels like she is sitting with us over coffee, making observations and asking questions that open doors in our perceptions that we didn’t realize were there. She shares her own experiences struggling with grief, and uses stories of her clients to illustrate the steps for creating a new life. We feel her compassion and warmth.

 

I’m going to share some of her insights. I won’t mention them all because she has so many.

 

- Be honest about your grief and emotions. Acknowledge the devastation and where you feel broken. Look at your situation objectively, without judging, as you assess where you are. Be kind to yourself because there are no shoulds or oughts in grief.

 

– Grief is so encompassing that it becomes your identity for a time. Yet the life force within you will start rumbling and remind you there is still life that you want to explore. Entertain new possibilities. Reclaim what brought you joy in the past. Imagine.

 

– Shift your focus from surviving grief to possibilities for the future. Set aside your fears and take small steps in different directions to see how you feel about each of one. As you look outside your grief, you will feel sparks of excitement and hope. And as you let other people in, compassion and love will begin replacing your sorrow and despair, and your new life will unfold.

 

– You have grown because of grief and learned more about your strengths, your need for others, and what you want out of life. Brainstorm about what you would really like to do, if you could do anything you wanted. List the steps necessary to make it happen. 

 

– Take the leap. Christina says she was in her Waiting Room for three years before she took the risk and started her new life.

 

I love the gentleness and understanding of Christina. She doesn’t say that you should begin taking steps to get out of grief after the first week. She doesn’t say it’s time after the first month. She knows that only the griever can decide when the time is right. But she wants you to know from the beginning of grief that there is hope and a new future, and when you are ready, her book will be waiting to guide you.

 

·       

 

The Pomegranate is a fitting image for grief, especially during the dark winter months in the northern hemisphere when plants and crops die before they are reborn in spring. Pomegranates are connected to the Greek myth of Persephone who was taken against her will into the darkness underground for a time, before she returned to the world of light and warmth. 

 

The pomegranate also speaks of solitude. Because of our experiences with grief, Christina and I discovered that there are times when we like being by ourselves. Solitude helps us clarify what we are feeling and thinking, and roots us in what is real. Every year Persephone returns to a place of darkness and solitude to rekindle her vision and bring hope back to the world of the living.

 

Last month, Christina interviewed me for her Dear Life Podcast. We shared a delightful hour together talking about grief, of finding refuge in nature, and when we knew we wanted to take the risk of loving someone new. You can listen to our discussion using this link: http://www.dearlifepodcast.com/episodes/ep78