Grief

Cutout Heart

Walking past a jewelry store a few days before Valentine's Day, I see a window display of cutout hearts dangling on silver ribbons.

 

I forget, until I remember.

 

Hearts cut out, dangling on ribbons of memory. I see tender threads of sorrow connecting us to our losses: loved ones passed on; friends who have passed us by; lovers whose touch has faded with time. My cutout hearts: our first child, due February 10; our second child, due February 14.

 

I forgive, until I rage.

 

This time of year usually finds me deep underground, out of the chatter, holding my grief silent and sacred. But this year—the year of charmolypi—I decide to hang on and hang out, to push through and pretend. I forget how raw I can become, as though my skin has been stripped away.

 

I am together, until I fall apart. 

 

What happens is coincidence. A curse of timing. Mercury in Retrograde. At my most vulnerable, I linger in a social media forum on the cusp of a weekend, like a child in the schoolyard at recess, watching as a group knits together, their backs to me, intent on their own games, speaking their secret language. The language of sisterhood. The language of motherhood. Languages I will never speak, countries I will never visit.

 

I am whole, until I break. 

 

All the rage. All the raw hurt. It pours out in little-girl loneliness. I lose my shit. I really do. For days, a ticker-tape parade of all my faults and shortcomings replays in digital neon shoutycaps:

JULIE, NO ONE WILL EVER PICK YOU FOR THEIR TEAM BECAUSE YOU ARE

withdrawnawkwardweirduglysillyclumsyboringnotasisternotamothernotoneofus

 

And then it stops. Not all at once. It takes some serious self-talk and soul-searching. The gushing fire hydrant of self-hate eventually diminishes to a lawn sprinkler, and then to the last trickle from a closed water spout. It takes keeping my eyes peeled for moments of grace.

 

I stand in shadow, until I turn my face to the sun.

 

Grace comes first from the inside. A recognition that all my rational energy is fighting the good fight—the one that keeps my head above water when it sees the tsunami wave of depression bearing down. It comes in the letting go of unfair expectations—of myself, of others.

 

Other moments of grace follow: an article, shared by Rene Denfeld—whose powerful writing and capacity for compassion serve as inspiration for the writer and woman I strive to be—and in the reading, I accept my grief for what it is—endless and all right (Getting Grief Right); an essay by Elizabeth Gilbert that makes me realize I must reclaim the shit I've lost and own it. Own that I hurt, that I overreact in moments of acute pain and loneliness, and forgive myself for not always getting the really awful stuff just right.

 

Emotional healing guru Iyanla Vazant says, “When you see crazy coming, cross the street.” In this case, I meet crazy in the middle of the road. I put my arms around her and say, "You are loved. You are worthy. Now, let's celebrate."

 

I walk, until I dance. 

 

A wee package arrives in the mail from someone who has never met me, but who offers up her faith in me, her heart, her home. In the grace of a sparkling just-spring day, I melt.

 

"I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them." I pulled this from that lovely New York Times article to which I linked above. The thing is, I'm writing about my sorrows. I'm writing a whole huge novel about the sorrows. It's the toughest work I've ever done. My character, Holly, she isn't me. The story isn't autobiographical, although some of the places are places I've been, some of the experiences are ones I've had. But it's not so much that I'm writing about what I know; rather, I'm writing what I feel.

 

I write, until I heal. 

 

That girl on the playground feels a warm hand slip into hers, pulling her away from what she doesn't have, into the embrace of what she does: the love of wonderful boy. My Valentine.

 

I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy. ~ Isak Dinesen

 

2015-02-23 08.31.08

 

Walking the Black Dog

Since the news of Robin Williams's suicide broke, I've had some incredible, brave, and heartbreaking conversations with friends about the nature of depression and what would bring someone to the point of taking his own life.  

It's been disheartening to see accusations of "selfish" leveled against those who commit suicide, and frustrating to hear, "But why didn't he ask for help?" But ignorance is an opportunity to open dialogue and educate, and our collective mourning is a chance to lift the veil of shame that covers mental illness.

 

There is a perception that if you don't look or act as if your world is falling apart or if there is not some profound triggering event in your life, that you couldn't possibly be ill. I'm a confident, positive, strong person who has been brought to her knees by depression. It's not the blues, it's not a reaction to crisis, it's a cocktail of biology, chemistry, genetics, and personality that I have to work daily to keep in balance. I haven't asked for help when I most needed it, either. I can look at the woman who suffered so greatly and think, "Did she know she needed help?" I don't remember thinking much of anything but a suffocating hopelessness that I just wanted to stop. There surely was a point when a mental health professional could have helped me turn things around before I fell so far, but depression is insidious-- it creeps in and swallows you whole.

 

Asking for help assumes a level of energy and rational thinking, a sense that you would even know what help looks like or that you don't feel profound shame and guilt for your entire existence. Asking for help means you hope. When severe depression hits, there is no hope. There is only white noise and emotional exhaustion. No one chooses this.

 

I believe that even though I can't change my genetic makeup or my biology, I can alter my chemistry and improve my mental health through diet, exercise, writing, and meditation. I can change my responses, be on guard for my triggers, and prepare myself when I feel I'm starting to slip. I accept now that I will have to manage my depression and anxiety for as long as I live. I'm beginning to find the beauty in the scary times. As a writer, those ebbs become times of quiet gathering, a gentle harvest of words and feelings, a drawing down of reserves, and a turning inward to listen and be still.

 

I have no idea what my future holds and when or if I will tumble again into an abyss. None of us with mental illness do. But I do know that talking openly about mental illness is a powerful step toward managing the worst of its evils. Depression is not logical, it is not fashionable, it is not a choice. But it is not a curse, either. It is.

 

Let's just keep talking about it until we're no longer ashamed. Until we no longer condemn someone for reacting to something beyond his control.

 

I sit beside Robin Williams. I take his hand and I say, "I'm so heartbroken, not because you didn't ask for help, but because I understand why you couldn't."

 

Take a moment to view this video. I had a black dog, his name was depression

For those with depression, watch and take heart. For those puzzling over the whys and wherefores of depression, watch and understand.

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

The EnchantedThe Enchanted by Rene Denfeld My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every once in a great while, a book enters my life and quick like ivy, its words and images rise and twist around my imagination and intellect. Rene Denfeld's extraordinary début The Enchanted is one such book. I feel compelled to push it into everyone's hands, saying, "You must read this. You simply must." It's been nearly two years since the last time I read something that made me ache to shout it from the rooftops--another début by an Oregon writer: Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist. Yet, these two books could not be more dissimilar in style, content, and theme.

I nearly set this aside after just a few pages. I will caution you. The Enchanted deals with the ugliest, most hopeless themes a writer can conjure: abuse, incest, rape, mental illness, murder. It is set in a prison. Two of its characters are on death row.

And yet.

Rene Denfeld works a kind of magic. This is a book of luminous and captivating prose and imagery, where angels of mercy shimmer in the darkest corners. Where horses gallop free, making the dripping, crumbling walls in the lowest level of this Gothic nightmare of a prison shudder and the warden laugh, even as he prepares a prisoner for his final moments on earth.

The author seamlessly weaves multiple points of view and many richly drawn characters into a very few pages. The narrator is the only first-person perspective. He is the prison's most notorious death row resident, but his crimes remain untold. Mute, communicating only with the reader from the maze of his mind, this inmate views death row as sanctuary, its dank confines the only place he has found peace.

Some characters have names: the prisoners York, Risk, Arden; Conroy, a brutal guard; Auntie Beth, a witness to a young boy's wretched upbringing. Other characters, whom we come to know intimately, painfully, remain only lower case titles: the warden; the priest; the white-haired boy. The lady.

The lady. She is a death row investigator, like the author herself. Retained by York's attorneys, she is delving into the condemned's life, trying to uncover evidence that can be used to stay York's execution, to transmute his sentence from death to life. They share, as she learns, a similar horrific past. Yet, she became an angel-wounded, with broken wings- and he became a demon. York spurns her attempts to find mercy. He wants to die.

Death is nearly as present a character as any living one in The Enchanted and the reader is reminded that we are all the walking dead, facing the same inevitable end as those on death row. Denfeld forces our moral hand, showing us all sides of the debate: the victims, the criminals, the decision-makers, and we are in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with each. The warden, whose wife is in the end stages of cancer, contemplates the pro and anti death penalty protestors gathering outside his prison before an execution, and

He wonders why so many easily accept death when it's caused by old age or cancer or even suicide, yet refuse to endorse death by execution. It seems wrong to him. No on deserves death more than someone like York or Striker or especially Arden. And yet those are the deaths that others will say are unnatural, not that of his dear sweet wide, a woman who raised three kids and never did anyone a wrong pass.

There are few writers who can wrest hope from the pit of horror with such eloquence. I think of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, who chronicled their Holocaust experiences, or Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison showing us the wretchedness of slavery and Jim Crow. These writers compel us to bear witness to humanity's darkest hours with beautiful language. With the same poignant but unsentimental style, Rene Denfeld applies a tender, humane voice to society's nightmares. She pries them open, releasing mystical creatures as symbols that help us understand our complex, real fears.

Astonishing, original, terrible, and exquisite. It would not surprise me to see this nominated for book awards, and ranked high on critics' best of lists. It damn well better be.

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Shattering the Silence: Three Minus One

18669335Three Minus One: Stories of Parents' Love and Loss by Sean Hanish My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclosure note: I am one of the contributors to this anthology.

In July 2009, my first pregnancy ended. In July 2012, my second pregnancy ended. There will be no others. Those experiencesas well as the years of baffling infertility that preceded the losses, the attempts at adoption, the anger and hope, resolution and relief, the sense of a life unfinished and unfulfilledhave shaped me as an adult. They have affected me as a woman, a writer, as the mother I will always believe I was meant to be, as a wife who shares forever-grief with her husband.

In 2005, the wife of writer-director-producer Sean Hanish gave birth to a stillborn son. In their journey through sorrow and healing, Sean wrote the screenplay for a film. That film, Return to Zero, starring Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein, premieres worldwide on Lifetime Network, Saturday May 17, 2014, 8:00 p.m. EDT. Return to Zero. Sean's original intention was to see this film distributed on the big screen. But realizing he would reach a vastly greater audience on a solid television network, he signed on with Lifetime at the Rome Independent Film Festival in Italy earlier this year. Bravo, Sean. Congratulations for your brave and beautiful work.

In tandem with the release of the movie and in the spirit of shattering the silence surrounding neonatal death, stillbirth, and miscarriage, Sean and Brook Warner, editor of She Writes Press, conceived an anthology of prose and poetry written by women and men affected by child death. Three Minus One: Stories of Parents' Love & Loss is the result of their collaboration and ourthe contributors'journeys.

This collection of essays and poems speaks of pain and loss so profound, you are left breathless. Yet there is also incredible beauty, joy, and redemption. The writing is extraordinary, each voice unique in its expression of universal themes, experiences, and emotions. The relief to know one is not alone is profound.

In just a few lines Heather Bell's poem, Executioner, captures the absurdity of grief--the acknowledgement that life goes on, even as yours is falling apart, and the strange, sad ways people reacttrying so hard to empathize, to understand—yet botching it all, bless their hearts:

And the baby is dead but we need lettuce in the house, maybe some bread for morning toast so

I am at the store touching the potatoes at the spin, the slim wrists of carrot. And the baby is dead so

this entitles humans to talk about their dog's death, or gerbil's. This means I am expected to sympathize at

their loss. Because all death becomes, somehow, equal

Gabriela Ibarra Kotara reveals the Masters of Disguise that grieving parents become after the loss of a child: "I am that cautionary tale. No one wants what happened to us to happen to them." In Address Book, Meagan Golec reflects on how her friendships have changed since her child was born dead at 38.5 weeks. Elizabeth Heineman's What to Do When They Bring You Your Dead Baby in the Hospital is a tender, beautiful, elegiac prose-poem that I read over and over, wanting to sink inside her words. Marina del Vecchio, Silent Miscarriage, Shoshanna Kirk, To Balance Bitter, Add Sweet, and Susan Rukeyser, Our Bloody Secret, made me realize for the first time that I was not crazy for wanting to miscarry in my body's own time, even though it took weeksthe first timeor left me writhing on the floor for hours, hyperventilating in painthe second timeand that searching in the mass of blood and tissue for signs of your child's body is horribly, gruesomely, okay.

All this death and loss is not a thing you talk aboutnot in polite company. Not with strangers and rarely even with friends. But death brought me to life, as it were. The deaths of my children brought me at last to the page, to be the other thing I've always known I was meant to be: a writer. Isn't that strange and awful and wonderful? I can't fulfill one destiny, but in its denial, I am walking the road of another. My essay Their Names touches on the discovery of another way to create life.

Miscarriage affects an astonishing number of would-be parents: an estimated 30% of pregnancies ends in loss. Mercifully, many of these occur so early that the mother doesn't know she was pregnant. But many of us spend weeks and months planning for and anticipating life.

Stillbirth occurs in 1 of every 160 births in the US and neonatal deathdeath within the first 28 days of life1 in every 85 births. Shocking, isn't it? It's probably happened to someone you know. If and when it does, a simple "I'm so sorry for your loss" and a hug would be a beautiful gift. Offering Three Minus One would be a precious gift, as well. Parents in mourning need to know they are not alone. This book offers all the right things to say and do and feel and not feel. It is an embrace of compassion and empathy.

N.B.: The following readings by contributors from Three Minus One are scheduled in the Seattle Area (* I will be reading):

May 9, 1:00 p.m. Pacific Northwest Writers Association Cottage, Gilman Village, Issaquah

*May 22, 7:00 p.m., Third Place Books, Roosevelt, Seattle

*June 15, 3:00 p.m. Elliott Bay Books, Capitol Hill, Seattle

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Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear SugarTiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dear Sugar,

I didn’t want to read your book. I don’t read advice columns as a matter of principle. Needy people, foolish people frustrate me. To read an entire book of advice column Q&A seemed about as necessary as professional football, with the same end result for this reader as for those players: heads bashing into unmovable objects.

But my book club selected it. Duty calls.

A bunch of shit happened in the three days I took to read your book. Like, universe is speaking to me shit.

The First Day (Parts I & II): On this achingly bright morning I was securing a hank of hair in a little clip when I noticed gray hairs. Now, my first gray hair appeared in 1999 when we bought our first house and I’ve had a few more here and there over the years, but they’ve always been curiosities, anomalies. This morning, however, my hair was streaked in silvery white strands. I’m crazy-nearsighted and in the months since I’ve become a full-time writer, I have little reason to examine my face in the mirror; I think I last wore mascara in October. So maybe that gray has been there for a long time and it took the rays of sunshine through the skylight at just the right time to expose my new middle-aged reality.

I checked the next morning at the same time, with the same intense sun pouring through the skylight. Yep. Still there. But the hair isn’t gray. The strands are silvery white against my natural auburn. They are beautiful. I can’t fathom trying to cover them up with chemicals.

I won’t complain that people often assume I’m several years younger than I am, but along with that assumption comes the presumption that I haven’t lived, haven’t experienced, don’t quite know or get or “Just wait until you’re my age …” This beautiful hair says “Yeah, baby. I’m forty-fucking-five. I’ve lived it. I get it. I’m older than you know.”

I almost stopped reading after How Do You Get Unstuck—only the second Dear Sugar— about the woman suffering after her miscarriage and you sharing the horror stories of the young women you’d encountered as a youth advocate. It was all too raw for me. It hit too close to home. But I kept going and a few dozen pages later, you rewarded me with Write Like a Motherfucker, a statement I printed in Sharpie on a Post-It and pinned to my bulletin board.

Dudes in the Woods gave me a different way to think about friendship and I realized I needed to share a piece of knowledge about someone with a mutual friend—that it wasn’t gossip, but a search for the best way to help. Turns out that mutual friend was suffering, too, and now we’re able to move forward together.

The Woman Hanging on the End of the Line slapped me in the face with the force of my bitterness and rage at a few individuals who wronged and betrayed my husband and me and the price I’ve paid for that rage. I’m not sure I’m ready to let it go just yet, but now I accept that I have a choice.

The Second Day (Part III & IV): I went to coffee with a new writer friend (three lovely words, don’t you think?). We shared our writing journeys. I explained I’d wanted to be a writer my entire life, but I quit writing at ten, when my parents split, and didn’t resume until I was 41, after I lost my first pregnancy. And finally found the courage to begin my novel days after losing my second, when I was 43. Those are the facts.

You succeeded in making me cry with Beauty and the Beast and laugh out loud with The Known Unknowns: “I’d rather be sodomized by a plastic lawn flamingo than vote for a Republican…” Can I use that? I’ll credit you, of course!

But it was A Glorious Something Else I’ll carry with me: “…boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments, or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well the as the responses you will have to those behaviors.”

Day Three (Part V): I finished your book this morning. Of course you would end with a letter from a reader who wondered what your now-forty-something self would tell your twenty-something self that made me cry. I closed your book and cried loud, cathartic sobs. My twenty-something self had already found an amazing guy and was deep into a rewarding career, so it’s not like I could relate to your encounters with the Ecstasy-dropping gay couple or your heroin addiction or failed first marriage. But there are other pains, other regrets, other mistakes, betrayalsabandonmentslosseshates for which I cried. It was a collective of tears for the stories I’d read and the empathy I’d felt.

Moments later I learned a friend’s marriage is ending, with a bitter custody battle underway. Reading her words, I became my ten-year-old self, caught between two bitter, angry, vengeful people who had a choice. And didn’t choose me. Didn’t choose what was best for me. They chose hate and recrimination instead of cooperation and love. I wrote to my friend with that little girl’s soul, hoping she would make the right choice for her young child. And then I went for a run.

I ran in the same aching light that three days before had revealed the undeniable proof: my body is fading from the solid brilliance of youth to silvery, tenuous old age. I ran straight into the epiphany that I stopped writing when the child I’d been was abandoned and her world fell apart and didn’t begin again until I accepted the loss of my own children and let go the hope of being a mother. I knew these as facts—I had relayed them to my new friend two days before—but I hadn’t felt the facts as emotions until that moment, in the 16° wind chill and determined sunlight. I had to stop running. I was laughing and crying so hard, I couldn’t breathe.

Dear Sugar,

I'm ETAing to let you know that one of my brothers called me a few days after I posted this review to my blog. He said he'd learned more about me from reading my review than he'd ever known. But isn't that why you published this collection? To learn about yourself? Good on you. I reckon it worked.

Yours,

Going for Silver

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Between Truth and a Human Being

Fog. Days and nights of fog so thick I wonder if the artist Christo has wrapped the peninsula in cotton batting and left us to suffocate. I drive grandma speed, hunched over the steering wheel, on the lookout for deer casing neighborhood gardens during their pre-dawn perambulations. They like to appear suddenly in your headlights with that deer-in-the-headlights look. It's a hill repeat day. That's runner-speak for "run up and down hills a bunch of times like a natural-born fool." I have a few favorite hills in and around the state park north of town. Four hundred and thirty-five acres of forest, meadow and a restored 19th century military fort built on and below high bluffs overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, bordered by two miles of seashore--it's a runner's dream.

It's just past 7 a.m. Usually there are other humans about, walking dogs or clutching travel mugs of coffee, heading for a bench on the bluff to greet the sun as it crests the Cascade Mountains. But on this morning, there is no dawn. There is only fog. The air is blue-black, thick, wet, cold. I am alone. I complete my warm-up mile around the former military parade ground and head down to the beach for my first set of repeats.

A gray ghost glides down the bluff and steps onto the road in front of me. His eyes flash gold and red, catching the pulses from my lighted wrist band. I halt in mid-stride, but my momentum nearly carries me head-over-heels downhill as my knees Jello out. I back up. Coyote watches me for a few heartbeats, then trots up the way he came. Me? I turn and run.

Back at the car, behind the safety of the open door, I search in the fog for Coyote. He stands on the edge of the bluff peering down at me, so close I could toss a pine cone and hit his brown-gray flank. I'm in awe, jolted and not a little pissed.

There goes my run. Coyote 1, Julie O.

But we're both adaptable creatures. I head back into town and run the Washington and Monroe St. hills. Ever on the lookout for the damn raccoon that snarled at me last week.

It's a jungle out there.

A few days after Coyote, I'm in a local bar with some women friends--a monthly get-together. We drink a couple of pints, talk local elections and books.

As we settle up our tabs and sort out jackets and purses, one of the women turns to me and says, "Julie, you are in such great shape. But of course, you've never had kids."

Coyote stops in mid-stride and fixes his red-gold glare on me.

God DAMN it.

There goes my run. Coyote 2; Julie 0.

You'd think at some point shit like that would stop hurting. But it doesn't.

The thing is, that statement had with no more malice than Coyote had for me, floating out of the fog and crossing my path. Said in ignorance? No, this woman knows my past, knows my pain. Said without thinking? Clearly, for there are so very many things wrong with correlating someone's physical conditioning to their experiences with childbirth. And it's one of those things you just.don't.say. to someone who has suffered infertility and miscarriage.

Yet, here I am, making excuses for thoughtless people. What am I going to do--throw pinecones at Coyote and hope he'll turn tail so I can continue down that hill without looking over my shoulder? As if.

Me? I'm the deer in the headlights. I turn and run. Straight into my own words.

A few days after the Coyote and The Bar, this e-mail landed:

Dear Julie,

We are thrilled to announce that your submission has been accepted into Three Minus One. Thank you so much for your wonderful contribution. Sean and I welcome you! 

We also ask that you spread the word widely about Three Minus One. It is a labor of love for all involved! Please feel free to share on social media any and all developments regarding the book, and create links to your own websites to presell the book once it becomes available. We will do our best to keep you all in the loop as developments happen.

Here is a link so you can share your acceptance with your friends:  Three Minus One Congratulations to Contributors 

There are approximately 75 contributors.

Again, congratulations. There were over 600 submissions and it was tough competition, so this is a huge accomplishment and we are celebrating with you!

Very best,

Brooke and Sean

Three Minus One is a book project tied to the soon-to-be-released film Return To Zeroabout a couple whose child dies in the womb just weeks before his due date. Brooke is Brook Warner, editor of She Writes Press. Sean is Sean Hanish, the film's writer and director. He's also the father of that little boy. Three Minus One, to be published by She Writes Press in May 2014, will contain the essays, poems and visual art of women and men who have lost children through miscarriage or stillbirth. I am honored to be a part of this project and amazed that my voice will be among those speaking for all who cannot.

I must learn to live with Coyote, to know when it is time to raise my hands and shout to frighten him away or when I should back off and find someplace else to run. I can't fight every battle, but I can add my words to the peace treaty.

“You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.” ― Anthony de Mello

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Book Review: Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood

Falling to EarthFalling to Earth by Kate Southwood My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I tacked the Earthquake Preparedness checklist to my bulletin board several years ago, vowing I’d devote a weekend to assembling the suggested survival kit. I finally admitted defeat when we moved this spring and tossed it into recycling. But I had a queasy feeling my careless act meant I’d set the Pacific Northwest’s geologic karma a-tilt.

Like many residents of the Pacific Ring of Fire, I sense we are living on borrowed time. The Big One - the devastating earthquake that is a matter of when, not if - hangs in the ether of the abstract. It solidifies into fear during the days after a Tōhoku or a Christchurch, when shifting tectonics wreak horror on neighbors who share our ocean and our peril.

It is during one of these cataclysmic events when I look across the shining steel and glass landscapes of Seattle and imagine them crumbling as the earth ripples and shreds. I imagine a city in shambles; I think of that checklist, with its recommended gallons of water, cans of food, and fuel to be stored in car and cellar. There should be enough to get through several days while the region’s utilities scramble to restart and grocery store shelves are emptied by those like me, who didn’t prepare, or worse – by looters. I think of all the horrific possibilities and resolve to get serious about that disaster checklist.

What I never considered, however, was what it would be like to be someone who escapes harm, whose home remains standing while others are ripped apart, to be someone whose livelihood is not only left intact but who would in fact benefit from the destruction. I never considered how a moment’s good fortune could unleash a nightmare.

But author Kate Southwood has. In her raw and elegiac novel, Falling to Earth, she presents a parable of survival that causes the reader to reconsider disaster and its victims.

In March 1925, the Tri-State tornado tore through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, flattening dozens of communities and killing nearly 700 people. One of the destroyed towns was Murphysboro, in southwest Illinois. The author’s fictional Marah, IL steps in for the real Murphysboro. The images of the tornado’s destruction are made all the more gut-wrenching by Southwood’s clean, unaffected, elegant writing. She presents the gruesome scenes of homes and bodies ripped apart through the eyes of the survivors. Those who are able set themselves immediately to digging out the dead from the rubble. They bear witness to the gruesome scene of bodies torn apart by impartial winds, yet shock protects them from internalizing the horror until it is time to begin rebuilding.

The plot centers on one family: Paul and Mae Graves, their three children and Paul’s mother, Lavinia. They alone emerge from the tragedy without injury, either to their bodies or to their home. Even Paul’s business, the local lumberyard, is unscathed. The Graves respond with gratitude and, like every other survivor in town, they focus on helping their neighbors. The women open the Graves’s kitchen and gather clothing for the homeless; corpses are laid out on the front porch; Paul and his crew saw pine boards by hand and build dozens of coffins. No one has the time or the energy to think about anything other than the moment at hand and mustering the will to get to the next.

Yet within days, over open fires at the camp built for survivors on the edge of Marah, at the camp’s laundry area, in the town’s trash-strewn streets, in what remains of neighbors’ front yards, the whispering begins.

Is it true what they’re saying about Paul Graves?

All true.

What’s that?

Didn’t get hit.

You mean his place? His house didn’t get hit?

That’s right.

Not just his place. The lumberyard, too. Neither one got touched.

His kids weren’t even in school that day. Home sick, all of them, and down cellar.

One man whistles in spiteful amazement. That’s luck for you.

Another man looks from face to face and says Well, that can’t be. There can’t be just one. The others look back knowingly, in gentle derision of his disbelief. …To accept this news as true is to magnify his own anguish…

What follows is haunting exposition on grief and suffering. The random nature of the tornado’s destruction represents the random nature of tragedy, no matter the mode of delivery. Southwood’s writing is pitch perfect – the poise with which she handles her themes of human nature, chance, suffering and loss left me breathless with admiration. There are a few omniscient voice passages that feel heavy-handed, but even these give the reader a chance to step back and view the destruction - first by the tornado, later by the town’s unity against the Graves – from a detached perspective before diving back into the immediacy of the Graves’s peril.

This is a tremendous début: insightful, imaginative and timeless.

I lived for a few years in the Midwest – in central Illinois – where each Tuesday from early spring to the first weeks of autumn the tornado warning siren would sound its practice run. It was something to be ignored. You plugged your ears if you were crossing campus at the wrong moment.

There were occasions when the siren wasn’t a test. We piled into the hallway of our building, a designated tornado-safe zone. The building’s emergency designate held the radio handset to his ear, waiting for instructions to crackle through.

Each time the tornado took a different path or failed to materialize into a storm that touched ground. But that time, as is all time, was borrowed. Borrowed from tragedies past and those yet to come.

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Ghosts That We Knew

The Universe gently letting me know it is still watching, listening, remembering...  

A group of eight women discovering each other over salmon and fruit salad. Strangers becoming fast friends as women do - sharing intimacies of childbirth and marriage, our deepest fears and silliest thoughts - and then having to ask your first name again, because you look just like the woman who used to teach Hot Yoga at the rec center.

 

Some of us are mothers; some of us are not. Some are married as many years as we were old when we met our husbands; some have remained single. Some wonder if they had more cash, would they have they courage to walk away from failure?

 

Some drive up in Mercedes; others have no idea when the oil was last changed in the rusting Toyota pickup.

 

We come together through a love of books and a desire for fellowship. Perhaps we are new to town and keen to make friends. Perhaps we need an excuse to escape a too-familiar routine. Perhaps we crave conversation that does not center around Sponge Bob Square Pants and refusals to eat the spaghetti that was our child's favorite meal last week.

 

We discuss the book: a rare meeting of minds as eight women revile the month's read in equal measure. We marvel at our host's mad chef skills as she cracks open the baked thick crust of salt, revealing an entire salmon, steaming and tender: Pesce alla Sale à la Olympic Peninsula. Three of us run out to our cars in search of corkscrews we know are shoved into dashboard boxes or picnic tote bags. When we come up empty and are forced to drink ginger beer without a cheap Pinot noir chaser, we decide it's an excuse for another bacon-jalapeño scone. We eat tapioca pudding made with milk from the goats we milk on our farm.

 

Which leads to a discussion of breast-feeding. As discussions about ruminants do. Who is, who wishes they weren't, who misses it. Pockets of the table fall into silence as those who are secretly glad their breasts remain high and firm even as they ache with dreams of unborn children and those who simply cannot imagine the logistics of nursing a three-year-old try to find something to do with their thoughts.

 

A side conversation begins. Did you start Terry Tempest Williams's When We Were Birds?

 

It's waiting on the nightstand; I had to finish tonight's book first. I can't wait.

 

Another voice joins in, breaking away from the conversation about pitocin-induced labor. "Ooh, Terry Tempest Williams, I love her! What's this one about? What's it called?

 

"When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. It's a series of essays she wrote after her mom died. You'd love it. It's amazing."

 

One of us curls up inside. One of us remembers a summer's night a year ago, a crowd streaming into a high school auditorium, an audience hushed as an author reads from her elegiac, elegant book of essays inspired by the journals her mother bequeathed her. Journals the author discovered, after her mother's death, were empty.

 

One of us remembers that it was a year ago tonight her womb emptied.

 

One of us marvels at the way the Universe wraps seductively around chance and feigns to be Fate.

 

One of us mourns. Mourns that she had forgotten until this night what this night is.

 

One of us sees the beauty in spending this evening in the company of women who don't know her sorrow, not yet. But if we did, she knows we would care. We sweet mothers soothe her with our stories, we childless ones smile and allow the others to reminisce, commiserate, to delight in the bounty of their creation.

 

A phone beeps with an incoming text. One of our sisters, in a neighboring state, has just given birth to her second child. She texts us from the hospital bed, proud and exhausted. She attaches a photo. It is a son.

 

One of us reads aloud the opening page to When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice.

 

One of us returns home to reread the words she wrote a year ago. These words, here: The Scariest Thing

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand

So lead me back Turn south from that place And close my eyes to my recent disgrace Cause you know my call And we'll share my all And our children come, they will hear me roar So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light Cause oh they gave me such a fright But I will hold as long as you like Just promise me that we'll be alright

Ghosts That We Knew ~ Mumford and Sons

Not All Who Wander Are Lost*

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

There was never a question that the celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary would involve passports. It was just a matter of where. I recall having plans to celebrate our 15th in Greece, but we found ourselves living in New Zealand that year, so we traded in visions of the cobalt Mediterranean for the reality of the cerulean Pacific. Not a bad deal. Greece is back on the table for our 25th. Italy sat at the tippy-top of the list for a long while. I've travelled it knee to toe; Brendan and I have been to the Veneto and Trentino together. But there is so much we want to do in Italy, we couldn't decide where to start. Italy got reshuffled back into the deck.

Southeast Asia was mentioned. Enchanted by Cambodia and Vietnam during his stay in 2005 as a Fulbright Teacher-Scholar, Brendan can't wait to return with me and I can't wait to go. But it requires more preparation and planning than we have energy for right now. Then there's that walking and whisky tour of Scotland we've mapped out, with a long weekend in Iceland on the way over. Maritime Canada. Mongolia. I've been after South Africa for some time now and I've just about got Brendan convinced, but not in time for this year.

At some point in early spring we realized we were over-thinking the whole program. If you know us, you know we'd pick up sticks tomorrow and move (back) to France. France forms the foundation of our dreams. It is where we both entered adulthood, Brendan working at a family-run vineyard and Cognac distillery the year after he graduated the University of Oregon, I studying at the University of Savoie. It is the reason we met, a shared struggle over Proust in Advanced French Literature. Brendan was completing his teaching certificate at the same university where I was finishing a double major after a year studying in Chambèry and a summer teaching in Japan. We've returned to France several times over the years, mostly together, on occasion alone.

When we moved to Seattle from New Zealand, we did not resume our former careers as a high school teacher (Brendan) and study abroad program manager (me). This meant no more summers off for Brendan and the drying up of my frequent flyer mileage account. We determined that for the next few years, given the demands of our jobs that zap time and energy for complicated journeys, we'd limit our travel to the one place we know we love, where every visit solidifies our desire to make a life there, someday: France. It is travel with a strategy. We keep up our language skills and culture specific know-how while scoping out long-term possibilities (I'm talking retirement here, people, nothing like a little 20 year vision). We visit a new region each time, staying in one place to really learn it, then end the trip with a couple of days in Paris. We even have "our" hotel in Paris. It is never work to plan, but it's an adventure from start to finish.

This year, for our 20th, Burgundy called. We decided to base ourselves in Beaune and bike the countryside, rent a car for a long weekend hop over the German border to visit friends in Freiburg, take a few day trips by train south to Macon and Beaujolais; we'd drink and eat and bike our way through one of the most beautiful regions of France we've never seen. Done deal.

So, we're headed to Ireland. Come Wednesday, our anniversary, we'll be lacing up our hiking boots and setting stride along the Kerry Way.

It's been a year of tremendous change and turmoil. Events exhilarating and exhausting have left us with such a need for peace, reflection and a complete unplug from our current of thoughts. One afternoon as we mulled over where to pick up the rental car, which weekend to dash to Germany, if we should bypass Paris to spend a weekend in Champagne, Brendan turned to me and said, "Let's go to Ireland." In that instant, I knew. I felt immediate peace.

By just speaking the word "Ireland" aloud, I feel my heart rate slow, my shoulders relax, my jaw loosen. I envision those long, quiet hours on a trail, surrounded by every shade of green, blue, gray and gold the fields, sea and sky can offer, the clouds overhead as creamy white as the sheep that watch us as we tramp through their paddock.

This will be our fourth trip to Ireland in ten years. We do the same thing, in a different area, each time. And that thing is The Walk. We surrender all planning to the darling, generous, efficient, tremendous team at Southwest Walks Ireland. We simply arrive when and where we are told. We rest and rise the next morning to begin days and days of walking. There is a map, we have our packs, we hike hill and dale, stopping to marvel, rest, eat, talk when and where we will, trusting we will find our way each day to that night's lodging. In the evenings there is a snug B&B, a warm pub, a steaming bowl of stew, a Paddy's over ice or a pint of Guinness with a head taller than my hand is wide. There is music, there is silence. And always, every day, there is the long, long walk. 

In the early days we stick together, chatting, bubbling over all the things we haven't had time to share in the rush of days and weeks when we hardly see one another. But soon we fall silent. Words are no longer necessary when your hearts are in perfect synchronicity.

Warm beaches on remote islands or ocean liners on the high seas don't interest us. We both rest best when we are in motion - it is a mélange of play and exercise that allows us to let go of the pressures and expectations of our everyday lives and brings us back to the sweet and simple people we are at heart. Walking our way through a holiday adds a significant dose of zen - there is nothing more meditative than the motion of one foot in front of the other for hours on end. And nothing more delightful knowing you do not walk alone.

This is a bittersweet journey. We embarked on our last visit, in 2006, just a month before we moved to New Zealand. An enormous adventure blossomed before us, dreams on the cusp of being realized. Thinking of all that has happened in the intervening six years just rocks me. Starting over more times than we'd bargained for. Saying goodbye far too often - to loved ones, to babies, to dreams. It is staggering.

We shared that last hike in Ireland with two of our dearest friends, two men as in love and committed as Brendan and I could ever hope to be, who had been together at least as long as the anniversary we celebrate now. We made plans during that hike that they would join us in New Zealand when their retirements were finalized; we'd open a café, have a small farm... One of those men is gone now, taken by cancer. Even after two years, my life will never be as bright without Peter in it.

Ireland is in celebration our lives together, this amazing adventure that we've lived in the 20 years, 5 months and ten days that have passed since our first date. It is to recapture peace that we have lost in a tumultuous year. And it's to touch that fragile, tender part of the soul that needs looking after, before you set it free to dream again.

 “I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.” – Lillian Smith

*All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost. - Gandalf, "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" by J.R.R. Tolkien

These Are The Days

The first warm days of May set me thinking about the promise of summer. The season gets shorter as I age and each year my sense of urgency grows. I plan small adventures, vowing that this summer will be unforgettable, this summer I will feel like a child again. I look for quiet magic:  Shakespeare in the park, concerts at the zoo, swims in the lake, picnics at Shilshole. Once the gloom of June has passed, Seattle sparkles blue and green, wrapping an easy warmth around long, bright days. From the summer's true arrival in the Pacific Northwest in early July well into golden October, there are few lovelier places.  I never live up to my own expectations of summer. What becomes of those simple hopes, those picnics, concerts, Sundays at the market? What exactly did I do with my weeks that I have so few of them left and only a fog of memory behind me?

This year summer had an agenda that diverged so far from mine, we may as well have been in different hemispheres. I wake in mid-season, wishing I could press rewind on the remote control - not wanting to replay the weeks I'd lost, but to erase them and begin again, to insert a new story into the machine.

For seven weeks I've bled. From miscarriage to surgery to the first menstrual cycle since April, I live with a daily reminder of my helplessness over my body. A small fortune spent in the feminine hygiene aisle. A flood of hormones that sets my edge on edge, never certain what might set off the tears or the rage.

But now I emerge from the haze of heartbreak into the blue summer that is as soft as a worn pair of Levis. I tally the hurts, but also the triumphs. Days after my loss, I turned my heart to the page, filling the hollow space with words and finding joy in the act of creating characters and watching as their lives unfold on the page or screen before me. I may not have had the emotional energy to prepare those picnics or plan for those concerts, but I've made certain that every day I turn my face to the sun and move my limbs in the breeze. My running has never been stronger, my freestyle stroke never more fierce. Yes, I've retreated - it's my nature to pull away when I most need the comfort of others - but with a few deep breaths I'm able to reach out until it no longer feels like a chore.

And now it is August. The days of waking in the wee hours to the first dove-gray light of dawn have ended. I rise to the blue-black that will darken my early mornings until April. The afternoons are hot, but the brilliance has dimmed - our small section of Earth is tired from weeks without rain. The trees billow, but their bright leaves have faded to sun-baked green mottled with brown.

My favorite season is before me: Autumn, a time of renewal, when my energy rebounds in the cooling air. But the sky won't deepen to Grecian blue or glow with a Tuscan aura for a few weeks, yet. The evenings aren't ready to yield their velvety warmth to the freshness that heralds the season's change. Summer is resting, languid. The ice cubes in her sun tea have melted, the lemon wedge is limp, but she still tastes sweet. Let her stay, linger, for a while. I'm not quite finished - there is a little girl who wants to come outside to play.

These Are The Days ~ Van Morrison

These are the days of the endless summer These are the days, the time is now There is no past, there’s only future There’s only here, there’s only now
These are days of the endless dancing and the Long walks on the summer night These are the days of the true romancing When I’m holding you oh, so tight
These are the days now that we must savour
And we must enjoy as we can
These are the days that will last forever
You’ve got to hold them in your heart.
These Are The Days lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

The Scariest Thing

"What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open."  - Muriel Rukeyser, as quoted by Terry Tempest Williams in her book "When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations On Voice" A reading given June 21, 2012, Bellingham, WA "Writers must share the scariest things about their lives." Sherman Alexie, Opening address, Chuckanut Writers Conference, Bellingham, WA, June 22-23, 2012

 

I will share something very scary with you. I will tell you a truth about my life.

But not just yet.

I attended my first writers' conference this past weekend. I entered trembling, wondering if there was a secret handshake, if I was too young or too old, if I had too few works published to be credible, if it was written all over my face that I did not have that all-important WIP or MS to offer up (writer jargon for Work-In-Progress and ManuScript). Famous Writers wandered about, as well as a Poet Laureate or two; Literary Agents took 5-minute pitch appointments; aspiring and published writers clutched notebooks and tablet computers - a life's work on college-ruled or flash-drive - hoping to be discovered.

Oh but no, it wasn't at all precious. The Chuckanut Writers Conference - held in the earnest, evergreen-and-blue city of Bellingham, perched on a bay just south of the Canadian border - was a welcoming gathering of writers of prose and poetry of every level of experience and ambition. I soaked up insights in sessions on the seduction of a sentence and packing premise into your novel; I scribbled pages of notes on the practice of story-boarding; I held my breath as a panel held court on Breathing Life Into Characters. I came away from each workshop and plenary with concrete ideas to put into practice. I was inspired, motivated, encouraged, overwhelmed and determined.

So, thank you, Chuckanut Writers Conference. I hope to see you next year. And perhaps I will have something ready to pitch. You know, the premise of My Great American Novel in fifty words or less.

But the weekend did begin and end with tears. And there's that scary thing I said I would share.

The evening before the conference began, Terry Tempest Williams - the celebrated writer of environmental literature, women's rights activist and conservationist - gave a reading in downtown Bellingham from her new book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations On Voice. This is a lovely collection of meditative essays on motherhood, nature, faith and love, inspired by the journals her mother bequeathed to her shortly before her death at 54. Three bookshelves of journals, which the author opened a month after her mother died. Each journal was blank. When Women Were Birds is Ms. Tempest Williams's attempt to understand what her mother had written in those empty books.

One of the several chapters the author read was XXVII. It is, on the surface, an essay on the importance of women's reproductive rights. But the muscle of her words, what sent the tears streaming, is what she writes about the meaning of menstruation:

"Because what every woman knows each month when she bleeds is, I am not pregnant. Because what every woman understands each time she makes love is, Life could be in the making now. Because until she bleeds, she imagines every possibility from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do, and until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds. Because until she bleeds, repeat it again, she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life. Because until she bleeds, she wonders if her life will be one or two or three."

 

The author writes of women who wait for the reassurance of their monthly cycles. Yet for those of us who have faced infertility, who know the devastation of miscarriage, her words resonate as deeply. For us, who have experienced such loss, this bleeding is an ending of all hope, not a sigh of relief. And so her words, they made me cry.

"Because until she bleeds she will check her womb every day for the stirrings of life."

Two days later, late Saturday afternoon, just before the final session of the conference, I dashed into the bathroom for a quick pee. I pulled down my panties and saw what I hadn't felt.

A streak of bright red blood.

I sat on the toilet with my head between my legs as the world went gray.

When I walked into that bathroom, I was ten weeks pregnant. When I walked out, I was

 

Empty.

 

The cramps began after I returned home Saturday evening. They were bad. Then they got worse. By Sunday afternoon I was writhing on the living room carpet, crying and gasping as my uterus ripped itself apart. I have never experienced such agony for so long. I refused to let Brendan take me to the hospital. Women have been giving birth to life and to death on their own since the beginning. These were the only labor pains I would ever know and it was pain I would own, pain I would remember, because I had nothing else. At 10 p.m. Sunday evening, I finally crawled into bed, my body no longer sharing space with another.

Though shocked to learn we were pregnant - we'd long since given up hope after years of trying, years of exploring alternatives, years spent healing from loss - it was impossible not to give in to joy, not to allow our hearts to swell in anticipation of meeting the life we had created. Yet we tried to prepare ourselves for heartbreak; the wounds from our miscarriage in 2009 reopened as we admitted our deepest fears.

In a moment of twisting around to look at a less-dark side I said to Brendan, "When we lost the first baby, I wasn't writing. I wasn't creating anything, I had nowhere to voice my grief and rage. But now, if the worst happens, I have a voice. I have a place to go that gives me hope and joy and meaning. At least, if the worst happens, I have that."

And the worst happened. At the same time that my intellect was pulsing with life, my body was casting off death.

 

I am very very angry.

 

I am so very sad.

 

There is no sense to be made of nor any higher purpose served by our losses; there is no "That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger" bullshit platitude that I can bear hearing without wanting to slap silly the mouth which delivers it.

There will be no next chance. I am 43. I am done with this now. My heart cannot take the pain. My body cannot take the turmoil.

Brendan took me in his arms when I returned home Saturday night. My first words to him were, "It's going to be just the two of us."

"That's fine by me," he replied.

And we cried, because nothing was fine.

But it will be again, someday.

So I work, because it gives me dignity.

I run, because it helps me make peace with my body.

And I write, because writing is how I will create life.

Yet the Edge of Day is Bruised

It is a singularly beautiful day. Brendan and I are walking through one of our favorite haunts - a stretch of beach on the Puget Sound north of Seattle. Nature is shaking her hair free, sending droplets of rain one moment, a burst of sun the next. The wind is whipping up secret scents from the forest behind me, the kelp and seaweed at my feet weep a salty tang. Seagulls coast on air currents and fall in flocks to the water, whistling and laughing in jovial competition; geese march in armies across driftwood to the wetlands hidden among giant cattails and Lady ferns. The autumnal equinox occurred on Friday, yet there is only a slight shift of color, an occasional rash of plum red or burnt sienna staining the leafy arm of a maple or ash. On this windy afternoon the tide is high and waves spin and slap against the shore. The water is surprisingly rough in this sheltered finger of water. The rush of whitecaps in the cobalt water mirrors the bundles of clouds rushing in the forget-me-not blue sky. Wind surfers twist in the cool air, fish trawlers crest the heaving water. A towering city floats past - a cruise ship bound for Alaska that seems outlandish in this solemn stretch of bay between Seattle and the Kitsap Peninsula. Shadowed by clouds, the Olympic Mountains beyond are a primordial and ominous barrier to the Pacific Ocean.

This is a peaceful, beloved place only a few steps removed from the chatter and traffic of a city. It is not far from where a friend recently ended his life.

I am acutely aware of Jeff's absence as I walk along the sand, so near to where he spent his final hours. It is hard to imagine that anyone would choose to forgo this beauty, that there could be any sorrow so deep it could not find comfort in a place so unblemished and whole.

After Jeff's body was found and his death ruled a suicide, we wondered why he didn't ask for help, why we didn't see it coming, how such a warm, generous, open-hearted man could hide such unhappiness and continue to function in a job he loved, to care for an ill wife of whom he spoke in the most tender terms.

But the mine shaft of depression is deep and the slide into its depths can be swift - the trapdoor opens and swallows you alive, leaving behind your skin and a shadow of your soul. You remain in the close, dark place alone, your voice silenced, like those nightmares when you try to scream, but only a croak escapes your throat.

Some are able to crawl their way back to the surface, to emerge panting and dazed. Their visible scars will fade in time, but there will be wounds which never fully heal. Others slide deeper, until the only way out becomes the only choice they believe is left to them.

We cannot know another's heart. We cannot judge their response to or tolerance of pain any more than we can begin to understand our own. We will regret missed clues, we will feel anger at what we perceive as a selfish act, we will mourn the beautiful days they will never experience.

I am deeply sorry for the choice Jeff made. I am beginning to accept that it cannot be undone. But I'm certain he is with me on the beach today. And now I know he's okay.

 

The sweeping up the heart/And putting love away

Again this year, for the third bewildering time, I have said goodbye to a friend. I have mourned a life that graced the world with compassion and integrity. I have felt anger over a light extinguished far too soon. These friends - Tom, Peter, and Will - celebrated all the wondrous things the world offered, embraced circles of friends with boundless affection, explored this earth from the peaks of the Himalayas to the deserts of Namibia, choose careers that touched the lives of countless individuals, and displayed mercy by providing loving homes to abandoned dogs and cats. They each reserved a special place in their hearts for the least among us and showed the best of what we can all be. Tom. Chance and coincidence put us back in touch after the many intervening years between 1988-when we were students at Central, and 2008- when Brendan and I made our home near your Fremont neighborhood.  I remember the day at PCC when you shared with me your broken heart at the loss of your beloved Lucy. A few months later we too lost our little Lucy-girl and you understood, without having to say more than "I'm so sorry," how profound is the pain of losing a canine companion.

The world came to right when you found a home in the heart of a beautiful, strong, intelligent woman and her sweet blue heeler, Josie. It was a joy to watch that romance blossom and a comfort to know two worthy souls had found one another. The neighborhood was devastated by the sudden and senseless accident that stilled your vibrant life. I still catch sight of you in Fremont, strolling along Leary Way with your easy, open gait; I hear your voice in the store, that warm bass bidding hello to the many friends you encounter. Know that you are missed, that there is a beautiful girl who will carry you forever in her heart, and that we, your many friends, regret the beers at Brouwer's and the runs at Alpental that we will never get to share with you.

Peter. Oh my heart. How lovingly Brendan spoke of you and Randy and how he marveled at the bond that formed the moment he met the two of you at the language center in Amboise in 1988. By the time I finally met you and Randy in Paris in 1996, you were a part of the story of my marriage because your friendship with my husband shaped so much of his character.  You both loved and celebrated him unconditionally. Your commitment to each other showed us what a loving relationship should be; how two very different souls with different ambitions and goals could unite and support one another; how conflict and challenge could make a relationship stronger if the heart is allowed to lead.

The two weeks we spent together hiking in the hills of western Ireland were magical. You and I, ever the Type A's who tolerated no dawdling, would charge ahead on the path. Randy and Brendan, with their patient and reflective characters, would pause to enjoy the views and catch up when it was time for a pause chocolat. We chattered about books, about food, about politics and travel, our words tumbling together as we delighted in our kindred spirits. You talked about taking an early retirement after many successful years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Brendan and I hoped to lure you and Randy to the Land of the Long White Cloud and we talked about creating a peaceful life together in the New Zealand countryside. You and I planned out the menus of our bistro- an intimate venue that would feature regional and seasonal delights with a Provençal twist. Our men would do the heavy lifting behind the scenes, I would manage the front-of-house, you would be chef de cuisine. We believed in butter and flowers, in the right stemware and linen. We would have played with recipes, trolling markets, changing menus, flirting with the same delivery drivers and fishmongers. I idolized and adored you.

For two years you struggled as your health deteriorated. Not even the world's most skilled physicians at the Oregon Health Sciences Institute and the Mayo Clinic could determine exactly what was tearing down your organs. Finally, after endless tests and changing regimens of drugs, countless hopes raised and dashed, they found the rare sarcoma against which you were powerless to fight. But to the very end you chose your own path. You let go when you were ready, not when the disease determined it was time. You were only 54. You and Randy should have grown old together, we should have grown old with you. There was so much more world to explore, so many plans to make.  The sun dimmed when you left this world.

Will. My sweet, irreverent Southern man who was at once bon vivant with a Ph.D and a just-folks boy from the hollers. You would be the last to admit your own extraordinary courage. As a young man growing up in South Carolina in the 50s and 60s it was unimaginable that you reveal your true self. How painful it must have been to live a secret, though there is no doubt you loved your wife and cherished your little girl. You served in Vietnam, an experience you rarely discussed. You would never allow anyone to label you as a hero. But you were. The courage in revealing your sexuality was rewarded when you met the love of your life, your darling Michael, who was your companion for over twenty years.

Will, you saw something in me when we met in Athens, Ohio in 1995 at the very start of my career in study abroad. You reached out to me in complete trust and never-ending affection; you became my professional champion, very quickly my friend, and for a great, crazy, whirlwind four years, my boss. I don't know of any other man outside of my husband and my father who rewarded me with unconditional love the way you did. How many people ever end a business phone call with their boss by exchanging "I love you's"? How many bosses would play hooky from work to take their charge to London's Camden Town flea market or a gay pride parade in Paris? My God, I was so blessed. The little gifts you showered on me are among the few things I've carted with me around this world: the antique French shoe-shine box;  the Degas knockoff I couldn't stop coming back to at Covent Garden that you bought for me on the sly; the lavender sachet with its embroidered "W"; the silver fish fork with the bone handle; the wooden coat hanger from a French farmhouse. We shared a love for South Asian writers, Roxy Music, Paris, and you always, always made me laugh. I am so glad I was able to say "I love you" one last time, when we both knew it would be the last time. You are my angel.

So much loss.  I have felt the sadness of my mortality; the terror at the thought of losing my life partner; the sorrow in not being able to relieve a loved one's pain; the regret in acknowledging the body's fragility; the paranoia of watching out for that split second when one decision instantly ends a life.

So much life. I cannot give physical life to these cherished men, but I can give life to their memories with my tears and my words. I can feel again and forever the love with which they graced this mortal world and try to measure up to their integrity, courage and generous hearts.

Emily Dickinson, "The bustle in the house"
THE BUSTLE in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth,—
 
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.