Yup, today is Steve’s birthday. He is beginning to get comfortable saying that he is “in his late 40s”. We are still working on being transparent with ourselves and each other, genuine, authentic. This morning we talked about how difficult that is for parents to do with their children. We want to be better people, better role models, especially in front of them. But we miss the opportunity to be fully present, fully alive, and fully responsive when we hide behind those roles. That can hurt. The child may feel like they are not worthy to receive the person they love the most. I remember how honored I felt when my father asked me to help him with something. I was the mother of 4 children by then. He had broken his back and was lying flat in traction in the hospital. He asked me to help him brush his teeth by catching his spit in a pan when he spouted it straight up. It was the first time I truly felt that he was volunteering his vulnerability. I left the hospital in tears, not because I pitied him, but because I was so happy to feel connected to this man I adored for so long.
A man who had been my spiritual director for years sent me a TED video this week about Vulnerability. I highly recommend it. See if you don’t recognize something about yourself here. It may be a surprise. Then see if you can find someone to talk to about it. It may be a pivotal point in your life.
Today is All Saints’ Day as well. Here’s to all the truly good friends, the saints in our lives, who allow themselves to be seen, to be vulnerable, to be genuinely available and thereby, help us to find the courage to join them in that important place. “And I mean, God helping, to be one, too.”
(Steve, dressed up to see the musical “Hair” with me.)
Out of the technological complications of internet networking come some of the simplest expressions of human compassion, a wish for another person’s well-being, even if that person is a virtual stranger. And it makes the sleek, glib, electric world a bit softer and warmer. I’ve made some sweet connections this week with a few of my favorite bloggers, all of whom live at least a couple thousand miles away. I’d like to share them with the rest of you.
Mistress of Monsters is like another daughter to me, in a way. She is getting married next week. Here’s an exchange we had. She turned it into a blog post.
Naomi Baltuck is an amazing blogger and professional storyteller. She’s also a mom. I see a kindred spirit in her…although she’s much more adventurous and accomplished than I am, yet. I echo her wish in this post for the Weekly Photo Challenge prompt: Mine.
And then there’s that rascal, Stuart. He’s a gritty city photographer who travels to exotic places like Brazil and Spain and has just taken up residence at a farm for the winter. We inspire each other to keep open to possibilities. Here’s his post. Our exchange is in the comments section.
I’ll be taking about 3 weeks off from the blogosphere beginning next week, but I will be thinking of all of you. May All Beings Be Happy.
During training for my new job at Old World Wisconsin, I was introduced to many new friends. On the last day of training, I took some pictures. Here are some portraits and brief bios about my new co-workers.
This is Bear and Ted, out in their favorite pasture next to the 1860 Schultz farm. They are a magnificent team of oxen. Bear is on the left, with a brass horn cap on his left horn. (“Bear left” is how I remember which one he is.) This is so that when he is yoked to his buddy Ted, he doesn’t gore him by accident. Each of them weighs about a ton (2,000 pounds). They like to be rubbed under their chins, but they will drool on you. I’ve been told that I will now enjoy good luck because Bear drooled on me. I like how this photo reminds me of the drawings for the book Ferdinand by Robert Lawson.
This is Ted with Bear behind. (Okay, I couldn’t stop myself.) They are clever escape artists, but also well behaved. They managed to bump up against the logs that cross the fence opening in such a way that they worked them free from their supports. They carefully stepped over them and went out to the garden in front of the homestead and helped themselves to the red cabbage growing there. Then, they went back into their pasture. The next morning, the staff looked at the obviously nibbled produce and the huge hoof prints in the garden and thought, “Oh no! The oxen are loose!” But there were Bear and Ted, looking innocent as can be from the pasture enclosure. But then they checked the gate, which these guys failed to close behind themselves, and their guilt was confirmed. I give them credit for sticking to the garden paths and returning home by themselves.
This is a close up of Ted. He’s a good worker, slow and steady. He pulls carts and plows and isn’t as skittish as a horse. You can hook up a cart to the team and go into town, but it’ll take you a while. They can run as fast as 30 miles an hour, but not for long. You can’t saddle them up and ride them because their spines form a peaked roof that’s uncomfortable for the rider (and probably for the animal as well). Sometimes a farmer would put a child on the ox’s back for a short time, just for fun. They are very docile, and these guys respond to commands like “Gee” and “Haw” and “Whoa” and “Get up” and “Back up” very cooperatively. They kick to the side instead of straight back, so when you walk beside them, you want to be in front of their back legs. So, that’s Bear and Ted. Here’s another team member. We call her Queen.
She and Quincy make up our team of Percherons. Stud horses were brought over from Europe in the mid 19th century and bred with local mares to improve the stock of draft horses for heavy farm work. I don’t know the pedigree of Queen and Quincy, but I imagine they’re crossbreeds. What non-profit museum could afford purebreds? They do a lot of wagon hauling in the harvest season, I think. Kids love to see them, but they’re massive and a tad dangerous. We have some quite elderly horses who provide the petting and photo opportunities for visitors with less risk. Steve put his apple core in Queen’s feed box just about 20 minutes before I snapped this photo. That may be why she’s giving me such a benevolent look.
This is Lily. She and her paddock mate Daisy (who was known last year as Thelma) are over in the Koepsell farm, where they are installing a new exhibit called Life on the Farm. They’re erecting a petting barn for baby animals, and Lily will be used for milking after she’s calved. Oh, yes. She’s pregnant. Look in her eyes and you can see the fatigue and determination of a heavily laden mother-to-be, can’t you? She will be producing milk for our dairy demonstrations: cream separation, butter churning, cheese-making and such. I am hoping to get the opportunity to milk her. I used to milk goats at a camp when I was in college, and I really enjoyed it. We milk by hand at OWW, of course. It seems like a very intimate way to get to know another working mother. Perhaps it will produce a beautiful friendship.
The pigs who will be in the piggery over in my area haven’t been moved onto the site yet. One sow just gave birth to a litter of 7 about two weeks ago, and another is about to drop her litter any day. The piglets are still too young and the weather too cool, but I will get a batch in a few weeks, I imagine. I’ve been instructed to name them things like “Bacon” and “Hammie” if anyone asks. Hog butchering is one of our autumn events.
I am very excited about working with these creatures. I want to be more aware of my anthropocentric mindset and challenge myself to think outside of that box. I wonder about the relationships we have with animals and the domination that we assume in those relationships. I expect that there is a lot more to discover than what we are used to or instructed to consider.
“There’s a giant millipede in your apartment. And one of the rooms is filled with water.”
Those were the first words out of Steve’s sleepy mouth this morning. “Say, what?!” He usually says whatever thing left over from his dreaming thoughts is still floating in his brain when he first wakes up. He rolled over and closed his eyes again. I thought about how every day with him is surprising and interesting and genuine. I told him that I feel very fortunate to have had such a good friend during the past tumultuous 3 years. I wonder how my grief and recovery would have been different without him. Would I still be drinking tumblers of gin after work and crying myself to sleep in an empty house? Would I be knocking on the doors of half-interested acquaintances looking for more attention, more love, more support, parading my needs pathetically about? I don’t know. I believe that I wouldn’t have tried half the things I did without Steve or gotten through the necessary bits quite so well. Steve then asked me what I thought was our best “best friends” photo. We agreed on these:
Today, we’re heading over to Kettle Moraine State Forest where Old World Wisconsin, the living history museum, is located for our back-to-back job interviews. Ever gone job hunting with your best friend? I did once before, in college. My friend had a summer job as a camp counselor, which I thought would be perfect for me. I went up to interview there and didn’t get offered a job, but I did find a camp closer to home which hired me. I love the feeling of adventure, the unknown, the “let’s just try this; I will if you will!” daring. With a friend beside you, it’s a win-win situation no matter what happens.
So anyway, as my mother would say, “Enuff zis luff-making!” Time to shower and be off! Life is rich; friends are golden!
Companions. The gift of friendship, togetherness, to know we’re not alone.
Steve brought me breakfast in bed this morning. I am having one of my cyclical let-downs, when I have wearied myself in contending with life and death and love and loss. We were discussing E.M. Forster’s novel “A Room With A View” when this came on. Hormones, of course, have everything to do with it as well. Lucy Honeychurch gets “peevish” when she plays Beethoven, and I get “peevish” reading Mr. Emerson’s speech on life and “muddles”. Steve gets Slavic and moody listening to Mahler, or perhaps he listens to Mahler when he feels moody and Slavic. We are beginning to know each other’s moods better and better. And I really believe we are lucky, blessed, in a state of grace in that we accept those moods and are not threatened by the most peculiar of them. That’s why he’s my best friend.
I’ve never had a lot of friends, and all of my best friends have been male. Maybe that’s because I grew up with 3 older sisters. I am a little suspicious of females. I have a feeling it’s because I compare myself to them far too much. A sly competitiveness creeps in and makes me uneasy. I pull away. With guys, I don’t compare. I can be ‘other’ and so can he. It seems simpler. It’s a mindset that should apply to females as well except for my own perverse insistence that it can’t. Growing up, I played with a boy who was a year younger than I and lived two doors down. We were best friends for 9 years. We played in the woods across the street. We played house and wedding, and he was always the bride. He had older step-sisters who kept being married off, and I think he found that really enchanting. I suspect he grew up gay, actually. I Googled him and found out a few pieces of information that might support that assumption. But it’s just an assumption. I know for a fact that at least one of my high school boyfriends came out after we broke up. What does that matter? I suppose I enjoy creative, artistic, sensitive male companionship. Jim was definitely my best friend as well as my husband, and that description could fit him, too.
Friends to suffer with your moods, enjoy the stuff of life, travel with you through adventures of all kinds. Old friends, new friends. Situational companions. Steve likes to imagine how he’d be if he were stuck in an elevator with a few people for hours. He would definitely skip the small talk about the predicament and enjoy a captive opportunity to get to know them really well. He’s kind of intense like that. Scares some people. Yesterday, I saw a news video about a policeman who crawled under a bus to hold the hand of a 24 year old woman who was run over and pinned. The photo of them together on the asphalt and his interview afterward just filled my heart. I know what it’s like to be so afraid and to just cling to another person for the reminder that we are never alone in our fears. We suffer together. We are interconnected. And if anything is God, it is there as well. Presence. Abiding. Being with each other. It is the ultimate ‘yes’ of living. Which brings me back to Forster and Mr. Emerson. “In his ordinary voice, so that she scarcely realized he was quoting poetry, he said:
“‘From far, from eve and morning/ And yon twelve-winded sky/ The stuff of life to knit me/ Blew hither: here am I’
“George and I both know this, but why does it distress him? We know that we come from the winds, and that we shall return to them; that all life is perhaps a knot, a tangle, a blemish in the eternal smoothness. But why should this make us unhappy? Let us rather love one another and work and rejoice. I don’t believe in this world sorrow.” Miss Honeychurch assented. “Then make my boy think like us. Make him realize that by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes — a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.”
Ah, Yes. To love one another and work and rejoice. Companioned. Who could ask for anything more?
One year ago, my house had been up for sale with no offers for 8 months, despite making huge drops in the listing price. We celebrated our last Thanksgiving in the home we had occupied for 20 years with two of my daughters, my eldest’s First Mate, and two college friends of my youngest. We filled the place with warmth, laughter, good smells and love. Two days later, I got the offer. Closing date was January11. Without hiring professional movers, except for the baby grand piano, Steve and I moved out everything in the house, basement, patio and 3-car garage. Numerous trips in the van distributed the contents to Madison, Chicago, Harvard, charities, storage and Milwaukee. We had help from the First Mate’s dad and fireman friend for the couch and a super-heavy TV, but the rest we managed ourselves. I remember trying to corral the cat after everything else was gone. She had nowhere to hide, poor thing, and she refused to get into a cat carrier. Steve agreed to drive the van with her in the passenger seat in the bottom portion of the carrier, top removed. He petted her and talked to her soothingly as he drove the two hours here. I drove Jim’s car, grateful not to be distracted by her.
Steve’s place was stuffed to the gills with boxes, furniture, books, and cat. I marvel at how he made room for us. He’d been living alone for about a dozen years, five years in this place. We lived, worked, played, loved and engaged in our relationship intensely, doing the dance of supporting, caring, giving and taking. There were many tearful times, there was a 4-week adventure on the road, there were late-night Summit Meetings and many long walks through the countryside. I woke this morning and began to think of giving thanks. I looked at him sleeping next to me, and my nose prickled. A quiet stream leaked down my cheeks. I am so lucky to have a best friend, someone who truly loves me. I am so grateful to be here, to have a life I love, to be at home again.
For all of you, whatever your situation, I wish you Godspeed to your home. Welcome.
“Sudden massive coronary events” are dominating my thinking lately. I am reading Joan Didion’s account of her husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking and browsed the pertinent pages of Ekaterina Gordeeva’s book My Sergei while waiting for Steve to glean salable items from Good Will on Tuesday. I am also writing my own memoirs of my husband Jim in a Continuing Ed course. What struck me this morning was the role of the grieving person’s best friend as hero. Not the knight-in-shining-armor type hero, but the simple, calming presence modelling a way to be. In a moment when shock obscures all notions of how to act, having a trusted person exhibit some caring, helpful behavior is a distinct grace.
My mother was that hero to me when my sister was killed in a car crash. She and I were traveling across country together, enjoying the freedom of being 20 and (almost) 17 when it happened. My mother cobbled together connecting flights to reach me in Nebraska the next morning. She got me discharged from the hospital and set up in a hotel with her while she went through all the details of bringing Alice’s ashes back to California. We went to the mortuary the next day. I was still rather zombie-like while my mother handled the business. Then the director asked us if we would like to see the body. “Absolutely,” was my mother’s reply. For some reason, I hadn’t realized that was why we were there. I hesitated. Mom led me into the room while the director closed the door. “Oh, honey,” she sighed as she approached the table. “No, she’s not there. She’s gone. Look here…” she began to comment on her wounds, on her swollen face and how old she looked, as if she were a battered wife decades in the future. She said something about all the suffering she might have been spared. Then she tenderly bend down and kissed her forehead. My mother has never looked more beautiful to me in all my life than she did at that moment. Strong, compassionate, wise and incredibly beautiful. I wanted to be like her, so I kissed my sister’s forehead, too.
Gordeeva writes about her coach, Marina, prompting her to go into the ICU room where her husband lay. “Don’t be afraid. Go talk to him. He can still hear you.” She goes in and begins to unlace his skates, a normal gesture that helps loosen her words, her tears, her emotions. I remember our priest asking me and two of my daughters if we’d like to anoint Jim with some olive oil, bathe his face, and prepare his body to be taken away. It was a relief to excuse ourselves from the people downstairs in the living room and go up to him together, to say our goodbyes together, to touch him one more time. I am so grateful someone thought of allowing us that right then. We had another opportunity to say goodbye to his body at the funeral home later when my two other children came home. By then, I could take the lead with them and encourage them to approach. I can’t remember who started humming “Amazing Grace”, but we all joined in, musical family that we are, and swayed together, arms and bodies entwined.
In the aftermath of Jim’s death, my youngest daughter and I fought frequently. I didn’t know how to talk to her, to listen to her anger directed at me and recognize that she wasn’t hateful, only grieving. Steve was the one who suggested that she was hurt, not hurtful and agreed to sit by me while we attempted an honest conversation. My instinct was to run away. I was grateful to observe someone who could be calm and present, reasonable and compassionate in the face of powerful emotions that frightened me. He is adamant about not rescuing me, but equally determined to be the best friend he can be.
I hope that I will have opportunities to be a great friend to someone in grief. I would like to be a conduit of such grace.