Writes With Pencils

fiction, memoir, essays and poetry

Category: Essays

1st Anniversary of a New Voice

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In response to the supportive urgings of my writing group to put my work out into the world, I created this blog one year ago today. At the time I’d first met them more than a year before, I’d been working on a novel scene by scene for a couple of years, much of which I then shared with this revolving community of fellow writers in the back room of a Belltown cafe we met in twice weekly. Hearing the diversity of their work, from poetry and memoir to sci-fi and urban fantasy, was as helpful and inspiring to me as the thoughtful, constructive feedback I received about my own work. From Smeeta I learned to dig deep and tell the truth; Mark’s action-packed narratives taught me to inject energy and movement into my own stories; and Kay recognized and encouraged the voice of a poet in my rambling prose.

Six weeks before signing onto WordPress that first time, I had sustained the most devastating trauma of my life. Five weeks after that day that shattered my universe, I discovered something that intensified and distilled the trauma. I couldn’t sleep. Anxiety and despair gripped me, caused me to scream and wail while driving, to dig my fingers into my unwashed hair in an attempt to extinguish the pain of overwhelming anguish. I tried to write about it, but alone at home the page remained blank. Finally, after four desperate days, I headed to the cafe to sit in silence among my tribe of fellow writers knowing that if nothing else, I would find acceptance and understanding there of my blocked state. Forty-five minutes of free-writing later, Found Receipt emerged in powerful verse from my pencil. It was only the fourth poem I had ever written. The first had been a child’s gift to my parents for their anniversary, the second a high school English assignment, and the third an abandoned experiment.

Completely cracked open by this unimaginable trauma, I discovered a new voice that day and have written over 100 poems since. I would never have chosen the tragic events which led to that discovery, but I am incredibly grateful for this growing voice. To honor it and commemorate its birth, I am submitting some of its verse today for publication consideration. Regardless of the outcome of that submission, I will keep writing. It has been a salve to this deep wound which still bleeds but is healing, an invitation to others to share their own grief, and a bridge of connection to people who would have otherwise remained strangers to me. It has led me to the desert of Utah and the Highlands of Scotland and back home again to my own writing desk. I will keep writing. The characters of my dormant novel have even appeared on the page again for the first time in over a year in recent weeks. I will keep writing. Thank you for reading.

 

Found Receipt

Found Receipt

Eight dollars and seventy-five cents,
Why didn’t you pay cash?
Eight dollars and seventy-five cents,
You’d have gotten change back from a ten.
Eight dollars and seventy-five cents,
You charged it on your credit card.
Eight dollars and seventy-five cents,
You left it for me to pay for.
Eight dollars and seventy-five cents,
They were cheap and there were lots of ’em.
Eight dollars and seventy-five cents,
For a box of fifty.
Eight dollars and seventy-five cents,
Forty-nine more than you needed.
Eight dollars and seventy-five cents,
Because it only took one.
Eight dollars and seventy-five cents,
For a bullet in the brain.
Eight dollars and seventy-five cents,
To kill yourself.
Life is expensive, but death is cheap.

The inspiration for and the power of a new voice discovered: The Value of NO

 

Three Red Apples and the Virgin Mary

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When I was a child I believed in the Virgin Mary. God the Father, his son Jesus and the Holy Spirit were part of the family, but it was the Virgin Mother, with her peaceful expression, open palms, and voluminous blue robes who captivated me. Jesus hung on the crucifix bleeding, in mortal pain with nails piercing his hands and feet, a violent stab wound in his side, and a circle of thorns which drew even more rivulets of blood from his scalp. His expression was all agony and suffering. Mary’s statue was always surrounded by flowers and candles. She was a mother who had lost her only son. She should have been weeping in agony, but she was all beauty and grace. As a lonely child with my own hidden, unspoken-of suffering, it was an easy choice of whom I’d turn to for comfort. She must have the answers. My search for meaning and understanding was myopic, its gaze hypnotized by the flames of prayer candles I lit in every chapel and church I passed. I caressed the decades of pearly-white rosary beads between my fingertips as I mumbled the prayers, huddled with my stuffed dog in my closet or kneeling straight-backed in a pew. The rhythm calmed and comforted. But I’d turned to her for more than comfort; I’d turned to her for guidance, for answers that never came.

There was no epiphany, no sudden moment when I stopped believing in her divinity. As I grew older my world expanded; I traveled and moved away from home and away from the Church. The works of great thinkers, mostly dead white men, became the source materials in my quest for answers and wisdom. Works on philosophy and classic literature full of beautiful prose made me think and question. Art inspired me. I sought out masters and tried my hand at painting and then sculpting for several years. Next it was work, non-stop for decades: arbeit macht frei! All of these: reading, creating, and working, gave me something. Reading expanded my mind, exposed it to new ideas. Creating art sharpened my vision to see beauty everywhere. And I found something deeply satisfying in working hard then seeing the results of my labor; it made me respect the work of others. But none of these gave me the answers.

Throughout these years I began to see signs, signs everywhere, that pointed in the direction to go, that prompted decisions, and revealed the meaning of things. I dreamt of a man who looked like my ex-husband. When I then met him two weeks later for the first time, I thought it was a sign that we were meant to be together. After looking for a house in Spain for eight years, I found a house I loved within ten minutes of searching for a place in southwest France instead. I thought it was a sign, since it had been so easy, and we bought the place. The marriage ended six years ago and the house in France became a casualty of the economy shortly thereafter. I’d followed the signs. they were so obvious. No regrets. But they hadn’t provided the answers either.

Now, having lost everything more than once, I see signs everywhere: three red apples in the middle of the desert that inspired a poem, a lone elk in a field that inspired a promise, and just last week a pair of stainless steel rings found in the driveway which inspired a renewed commitment to my own well-being through self-care. But I no longer look to these signs as I did to the Virgin Mother or the works of great thinkers. I no longer look to them as something external, as something outside of me benevolently offering me the answers. The poem I wrote speaks a truth I believe deeply. The promise I made is one I am committed to even as I’ve failed it. And I have long known what is good for me, what feeds me and makes me feel whole. Simply by being, when we are still enough to hear them, we have the answers already. Sometimes the outside world is too loud and we can’t hear them. Or in our busyness of living we forget them. Now when I see signs I know it is my own mind and heart which are trying to speak to me my truth through the fog of distraction and self-doubt. I know that any meaning I find in them is meaning I’ve placed on them; they are symbols of my deepest values and needs. I am happy to be open enough, awake enough, to have reminders everywhere, Hail Mary.

 

Professor Grief

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Grief doesn’t care if you’re tired of crying. It doesn’t care about your schedule or what you had planned. It doesn’t care whether you’ve changed the scenery, gone on a road trip, or flown across the sea. It doesn’t care if you’ve met someone new. It really doesn’t give a shit how you envisioned your life. Tomorrow. Next summer. Next year. When you’re retired. None of that matters to grief. It will smack you down, put you in your place and tell you you’re not done, “Hold your horses, you’re not going anywhere yet!” After a while things will be going along fine; it’s been days, maybe even a week or more since you’ve shed tears. You start to think you’re done, that you’ve made it through. Then BAM! As you return the seven shirts, three pairs of pants and a suit jacket to Costco that were in his closet and still had the tags on them, the tears come. Just when you thought it was safe to get things done, BAM! The dark grey, Italian wool jacket and trousers made a suit. You say to the cashier, “He might have bought this as a wedding suit,” and your words trail off to nothing but moist eyes and compassion. Because you’ve already begun to let go of that vision of your future: the vision of holding hands and exchanging vows, the vision of creating a home built from a million bricks of daily shared rituals, the vision of walking that dog together which you haven’t even rescued from the shelter yet, the vision of sailing to all the ports in Puget Sound, the vision of warming up together every February in Hawaii, and the vision of growing old together as you sit on a bench in Sunset Hill Park.

The fact that grief doesn’t care about your feelings doesn’t make it mean. It’s not malicious. It’s not your enemy. It’s a teacher, a mentor, a guide. Remember back in 8th grade when you didn’t like your social studies teacher and never did your homework just to spite him? Remember that? Did he get fired? No. Did he have his pay docked? No. Did he at least feel the sting of personal insult from your act of defiance? No. He gave you a “C”, the only one on your otherwise straight “A” report card with the comment that “the student is capable of much better work if she would complete all of the assignments”. No skin off his nose. He probably taught for years after that, until he was eligible for retirement. You’re the one who missed out. You’re the one who lost that all-night game of Trivial Pursuit freshman year of college because all you could remember about Lewis and Clark were their names. You never did finish that report on their expedition. Even though you said you didn’t care, you’re the one who felt the shame of that “C” on your report card. The shame of not doing the best you could. The shame of letting someone else inspire the worst in you. The shame of not being strong enough to face what was uncomfortable and take care of yourself in spite of that discomfort.

I dislike grief even more than I disliked my 8th grade teacher. But I’ve learned some things since junior high, and I’ve decided not to fight it, not to be that defiant student that thinks she knows more than the teacher and won’t shut up and listen. I recognize that grief knows more about some things than I do. It has things to teach me, if I let it. If I listen and do my homework, the lessons may even sink in. A dear friend whom I’ve gotten to know through my grief support group says that he wants to get an “A” in grief. He’s sitting in the front row, attending every lecture, taking notes, and reading all the extra credit books on the subject. I admire his commitment as a student and his courage to face the pain and discomfort. It’s inspiring. I may not get an “A” in grief, and that’s ok, but I’ll have at least a Bachelor’s Degree from the Universe-ity of Life eventually. I’m only in my second semester though, just a freshman. I’ve got a long way to go, but even the entry level courses are valuable.

Here’s what I’ve learned from Grief so far:

It won’t kill me.

After having lost what was most precious to me, I have nothing left to lose.

Being cracked open is an opportunity; the cracks are what let the light in.

We are all broken. And that’s absolutely beautiful. It’s our humanity.

We share more things in common than we have differences.

Grief has allowed me to connect with people I never imagined knowing.

We give people a gift when we give them an opportunity to be kind to us.

People are capable of incredible kindness.

Animals give comfort selflessly.

With each loss there are many boxes of grief to open.

Not everyone is capable of accompanying me through my grief.

My restaurant staff is more amazing and supportive than I ever imagined!

Sleep is precious and should never be taken for granted.

Small worries no longer matter.

I’ve lived a good life, no regrets.

Take even more chances, especially emotionally.

Figure out what I need and ask for it.

Speak my truth.

Love is eternal.

Grief is heart wrenching, soul crushing, life devastating and physically painful. But I haven’t even tried to avoid it. I’m pushing through it, I embrace it, explore it, feel it and have even wrapped myself in it because I’ve also learned that grief is a part of love. And why would I want to avoid any part of love?

99 Sleepless Nights

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I understand why some men pay for sex. Lately I’ve considered hiring a professional myself. Not to turn me on and get me off, I can handle that alone, just as the men who meet women in motels, cars and alleys learned to do as boys. Conversation doesn’t interest me either; I have plenty of close friends and acquaintances who fill that need. Nor does nighttime companionship without complication; I’m not lonely, just alone, and I like my own company. I just can’t sleep.

Going to bed is the worst time of the day. Before I met William I never had trouble sleeping alone. Ever since I was a baby I’ve been a “good sleeper”. Trouble falling asleep has rarely been a malady I’ve had to cope with. And that’s still the case. I’m no insomniac. But the day he died lasted 46 hours and in the 100 days since, I’ve had one, single, good night of sleep. It’s not the falling asleep that’s the problem; it’s going to bed, lying down, and closing my eyes that I struggle with.

The first hurdle each night is leaving the couch. William’s cat Boo-Boo and I have gotten into a rhythm since we adopted each other. After her evening bowl of canned food with extra gravy, she leads me to the couch so that I can sit down and create a lap for her. She’s quite vocal about it. It’s amazing the volume that can come out of such a small creature. Within a couple of evenings she had me well trained. After 10 to 20 minutes of brushing and petting, she settles in for her post-dinner nap, her tail curled around to cover her nose. First my knees, then thighs, then the rest of my body relaxes under the breathing, purring weight of her as I read or watch a movie. I’m a morning person and for me waking up at 6 am after eight hours of sleep is the perfect way to start a day. Now though it’s well past midnight and already morning before I manage to set aside my living heating pad and drag myself off to the empty, uninviting bed.

All of those relaxed muscles tense as I crawl between the sheets. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I’ve cried a dozen times or only once in a day. The moment I close my eyes to sleep is when I see my grief the clearest. That’s when I see the loving looks and hear his quirky sayings. It’s when I see the pain of his anguish and despair in the end. It’s when I see the days and years ahead without him. And it’s when I see the violence of his death. Most nights I play a little piece of music on my phone and slip it under my pillow so that it fills my head. It’s a Gregorian chant, soothing and meditative. It’s only seven minutes and forty-three seconds long and I never hear the end of it, quickly falling into a dreamless sleep. But the anticipation and dread of that first minute when I close my eyes tortures me and keeps me up.

Sex isn’t what I’m after; it’s sleep, but I need to feel another breathing being nearby to coax me from the couch and Boo-Boo won’t sleep on the bed like she used too. The first five evenings after William died, she’d jump up onto his side of the bed, onto the duvet that should have covered his body but laid flat. I’m no expert on feline body language and expression, but she looked confused and lost. After sniffing her way from footboard to pillow, she’d leave, and hasn’t been back up on the bed since.

During the first couple of weeks, one of my sisters and a few friends ushered me to bed each night and sometimes sat with me until I fell asleep, but I always woke early after only three or four hours. After everyone flew home and I was alone in the house, I endured some sleepless nights and then asked some friends who live locally to come for a brief visit at bedtime and sit with me until I drifted off. Everyone I asked said they were happy to do anything they could to help, but not a single one has made it over in the late evening. I don’t fault them for it. Bedtime is an intimate space whether it’s a pair of lovers who share it or a mother reading a child a goodnight story. Once we outgrow grade school slumber parties, it’s not a time that many friends share.

I do understand why some men pay for sex. It’s easier to pay someone for the service, to receive what we need from a stranger, than to risk rejection or deal with the complication of emotions with someone we know and care about. At this point I’m so exhausted that I’m willing to pay someone for an hour of their time to see me off to sleep. It would be worth it. But I won’t. I’ll keep asking friends and promising myself to be asleep by ten and breaking that promise until eventually I don’t.

Or should I just get a dog?

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