Weekly Photo Challenge: Transformation

“Loss is nothing else but change, and change is nature’s delight.” — Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor)

“I am the joy in change and movement.” – Steve Wiencek  (Milwaukee guy)


Celebrating my place in Nature has long been my way to transcend losses and feel grounded. When my husband died, it was like my identity died with him. Transitioning to a new life was very difficult, but spending time pursuing my hobby, photographing the changes in nature, certainly opened my eyes to new life all around, even in unexpected places. 

Change is the characteristic of Life. Everything is transformed, even sadness, loss and fear. There is always something new, in a new state of being, to discover. In my case, I discovered Steve, in the state of Wisconsin. 


Photography 101: Connect

The prompt says, “There are many ways to interpret this theme: from a gadget to a handshake, from a bridge to a gathering among friends. What’s yours?”  Well, I have two.  One is quite literal, and I think it’s a strong image:

connect 2“Blessed be the ties that bind….” 

If you’re a sailor, there’s nothing more important than well-connected lines.  This is concrete understanding of the physical world.  It means something right away.  Here’s one that’s a bit more intuitive:


How strong is this image?  Well, it is emotionally powerful to me.  These are my two living sisters.  We had just learned that Sarah’s husband has cancer.  I was visiting them in California.  We get together; Dharam greets Sarah with a hug, I pull out my camera.  How do you connect?  (I hugged her, too, BTW)

I Haven’t Forgotten This Day

I haven’t forgotten what we shared and how much it meant: how meeting you for the first time made me feel…

I haven’t forgotten the gift of holding you in my arms…

…or the joy of our shared laughter…

…or the sweet music we made together.

I haven’t forgotten the caring; deep, yearning, hoping for all good things for you.

He whispered these things to my heart, and I responded, “Neither have we, my darling.”

To us: many happy returns of the day. 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Reflections

This week, in a post created specifically for this challenge, show us an image that says REFLECTION. 

It could be a person who helps you see things clearly, a place you go to collect your thoughts, or an object that reminds you of your achievements. You could also go for something more literal, like a reflection in water. Or something that demonstrates both interpretations of the word.

“A person who helps you see things clearly…” 

What would you say about someone who meets you in your greatest grief, who doesn’t turn away but faces the tough questions with you, offering presence, not answers?  Someone who challenges you to pursue those questions and discover the emotions they evoke, the hopes, the fears, the identity that emerges from within…and who then asks you to decide who you want to be?  Someone who promises simply to be aware and who asks simply for your awareness? 

Steve met me 8 months after my husband of 24 years died.  I was in a state of profound transition, the fabric and framework of my homespun in complete collapse.  On our first date, we hiked around glacial terrain, enjoying the fall colors and talking.  Beside Nippersink Creek, I stopped.  I became silent.  I no longer wanted to fill the space between us with words and thoughts.  I was finally unafraid to be aware that I was with him, in a new place, with a new person, as a new life was beginning.  He sat beside me, quiet and reflective as well.  What I saw clearly was that Life is beautiful and that death does not diminish that one bit. 

Came home from work with a poem in my pocket…

Ever had one of those days?  Decidedly moody, unable to focus, liable to shed tears at any moment.  It started as I was driving in to work.  By lunch break, I had a poem scribbled on the back of a museum map in my pocket.  By afternoon break, I had texted my children just to tell them I missed their dad.  Lovely souls that they are, they reached back immediately with cyber hugs.  (thanks, kids!)  So here’s the poem – no title came with it.

What can I do?

                 — it’s October

the sumac is red and my poor, backward head

is flooding nostalgia like liquid amber. 

If I picked up guitar and a blues-country twang

                — and sang

it’d be you in the sunshine

white overalls, your shirt as blue as your eyes

walking me home from school

sweet, musky sweat

your warm, solid arm

the newness of the world in the flash of your smile

               — Hell. 

Now 35 Octobers gone

I’ve aged like a maple leaf

Fall-ing, as once for you,

now with you, in spirit

falling, scattering, lifting

like ashes in a sunbeam

like milkweed in the wind

Shouldn’t I settle in the present?  How can I?

             — in October

when you’re long gone…

The Kiss

A selection from my file marked “Widow’s Story”:

“I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I found out that he was in the same English class as my older sister, so I gave her a note to pass to him. I fastened it with a safety pin because I didn’t want her to read it. It was decorated with doodles and stuff, like a goofy schoolgirl with a crush would send. Basically, I offered to make him a cassette tape of my parents’ PDQ Bach album because I knew he was learning some of the madrigal pieces in choir and found them very funny. He sent me a note back, or spoke to me, and we agreed that I would give him that gift the next day before he got on the bus to go to the beach with the Senior class for Sneak Day. So, early on the morning of June 8, 1978, I waited outside the school near the cul de sac where the buses would board. He came bounding up to me when he saw me, and I greeted him with a big smile, handed him the tape and wished him a good day at the beach. He smiled back with his dazzling grin, thanked me and then leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. He smiled again, turned and boarded the bus. I stood dazed on the steps for a few seconds before running off to class with a secret smirk planted on my face that must have lasted days. We talked about that first kiss a lot over the years. We celebrated that kiss forever after. At first, it was the 8th of every month that we gave each other anniversary cards and letters. Then, it was the yearly Kiss Anniversary presents of Hershey’s kisses. For 29 years we did that, sharing our chocolate mementos with children and co-workers and whoever was around on that June day to hear the story.

After the kiss came the letters. In the first one he wrote me, he said, “This is the first in a series that I will affectionately call ‘Letters to Priscilla’. In 20 years, you can toss them onto the fire and say to your husband, ‘Well, they were some good after all.’ But then again, in 20 years, maybe I’ll be your husband. Wink, wink.” He wrote that letter the night of that Senior Sneak Day. The day of our first kiss. Did he know?

The energy of that June day returned to me this morning.  Lying awake beside my open window, feeling the coolness of the morning air and the promise of sunshine and heat to come, the scent of freshly-mowed grass recalled to me the old high school lawn.  A certain excitement, the world about to turn in a new direction, the feeling that my real life might just be even more wonderful than my fantasies, and the realization that finally, I didn’t want to be anyone else except the person I actually am, set that energy flowing in a trickle down my face.  This may be the path to acceptance after all.

Photo credit: my little brother, aged 7. I set the shot up for him on my Canon AE-1 (a gift from Jim) and asked him to do this favor for me so that I’d have a picture to take away to college. What 7 year old kid would take a photo of his big sister kissing her boyfriend? A sweet, generous one. Thanks, David. Always grateful.

The Man of My Dreams

A song from the past floats into my head as I’m falling asleep.  I’m a teenager, listening to one of the first albums I bought with my own money.  Barbra Streisand: A Star is Born.  It’s the end of the story.  Esther Hoffman Howard is a widow, taking the stage for the first time since the accident.  “With one more look at you…” she begins.  “I want one more look at you.”  I want one more chance to put it all together and make it make sense.

My husband Jim is in my dreams again.  But I don’t know I’m dreaming.  I can touch him.  I feel his hair, strangely coarse, actually, compared to the thick, loosely curled, soft stuff I remember.  But he’s there, in the flesh, inexplicably, and so am I.  I want answers.  How is it you’re here again, and so often?  Was I wrong when I thought you’d died?  Has there been a mistake?  Are you back for good?  Where, exactly, have you been?  Speak to me.

He begins to talk, and I hang on every word.  He is telling me the secrets of the Universe, of life and death, and I had better remember this accurately later, when I wake up.  When I wake up…does that mean that this is just a dream?  Logic gets all loose and wiggly again, and consciousness creeps back into my head.   Suddenly, I’m awake and sweating hot.  I’m in a room by an open window on a street in suburban Milwaukee.  And this doesn’t seem to make much sense, either. 

Anger. Denial. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.  What are the emotions driving these dreams?  What is my subconscious trying so hard to reconcile? I keep struggling for meaning.  I am angry, I suppose.  I deny that Jim died at the age of 47.  That was too soon.  It doesn’t fit into my perception of How Things Ought To Be.  I do not accept it.  Even now, more than four years later.  Although, even in my dreams, I know that he is dead, and that is Real. 

Enlightenment is, roughly, when you accept all that is…without the ‘you’.  Ego is inconsequential.  Acceptance, peace, wholeness.  All Is.  I guess I’m not at that point yet.  I work on it through the night.  I imagine Jim trying to help me out, but his input just confuses me.  And I’m still too involved, trying too hard to wrap my little brain around the incomprehensible.  How can I simply let it go?  Accept ambiguity.  Accept mystery.  Accept it all.  Accept.      Accept.

Why These Tears?

So I didn’t get a post in yesterday.  It was a hot, humid day at work; thunderstorms arrived just as we were leaving.  I got home at 6pm, put my feet up for a bit, made dinner, and then prepared packages for mailing for the book business.  By the time we were done, it was 9:30, and my eyes were stinging.  I closed them and fell asleep.  I’ve been musing on an issue for two days, though, and since I don’t work today (except for a voice lesson), I’m ready to give it some time and work it out in writing. 

It happened on Saturday.  I burst into tears at work. 

It was late afternoon, toward the end of my shift.  Families had been coming through in dribbles to look at the church.  Since it was hot, I put a chair out on the landing in front of the door so that I could catch the breeze.  Sitting there in my bustle, I suppose I made a good picture of a prim and proper church lady.  A father and his two-year old daughter wandered down the road, leaving Mom and older siblings at the General Store.  I invited them in and showed the little curly redhead the pump organ.  She liked the sound of her voice in the echoing chamber of the empty church, so I played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (a good Mozart tune) and let her sing along.  She took a look at my pin cushion balls, too, and held one until her father gently took it and handed it back.  She never left the safety of her father’s arms during the whole visit.  I walked them out of the church and settled in my chair to watch them walk back down the road, hand in hand.  She stumbled at one point, but Dad righted her gently.  That’s when I lost it.  That sudden, rising swell of heat in my nose and the burning tears tumbling down were totally unpredicted.  Why these tears?  Why now?

Driving home with Steve, I began to talk it out and answer his compassionate questions.  Where were my thoughts?  What were my emotions?  I remembered that I had been bored, hot, and feeling a bit lost and alone:  all dressed up in an empty museum, wondering how I got there.  Kind of disconnected and surreal.  That father and daughter reminded me of my late husband and our curly-haired youngest.  Seeing them walk away together triggered a sense of devastating loss.  I will never see Jim again; Emily, now 21, will never be that young again.  That manifestation of life is gone forever.  

But I knew that.  Why the tears?  Why judge that as something sad?  Obviously, I am still very attached to that particular arrangement, and perhaps not so attached to my current one.  “Attachment causes suffering.”  Somehow, I came to believe that my life as a wife and mother was very meaningful, very important, and it became a “secure” identity for me.  Not hard to imagine how that happened.  The thing is, it isn’t the Truth, wasn’t the Truth, either.  It was a temporary condition.  I enjoyed that condition, but Change is the nature of life.  Conditions always change.  One condition isn’t more meaningful or important than another.  To be able to think about every moment of life as a valuable moment is a mindset that can set me free to live happily.  I think of Hafiz, the Sufi poet, and his exuberant joy in living, not dependent on circumstances.  I get sentimental about family life, but I don’t want to be the mother of a two year old, now.  Somehow, though, that sentiment suggests that there is greater value in that particular model of life than in others, and that I am “missing out”.  It’s just not true.  It’s a kind of cultural propaganda.  Hallmark and Focus on the Family and organizations like that profit from supporting that way of thinking.  I love my children, but our life isn’t Hallmark any more.  It was, once.  It was nice, but it wasn’t the only and most important manifestation of living.  Conditions arise, conditions change.  Judging that one is “better” than the other can get me stuck and cause suffering.  That’s not to say that I can’t think critically about my life and make changes.  But I also want to be able to be happy in any situation. 

I like my tears, too.  They help me learn about myself. 

photo credit: Susan

The Rose

I think I have a pretty active dream life.  I usually remember something of my sleeping hours upon awakening.  Perhaps that indicates the level of my anxieties and neuroses; I’m not sure.  Steve says he hardly ever dreams, and he thinks it’s because he is so aware of his conscious mind while he’s awake.  Well, fine for you, then.  I blink my eyes open and forget where I am.  I need decompression time every morning.  My dreams almost always include my late husband, who has been dead almost 4 years.  It gives me a rather fluid sense of reality.  Jim is real and Steve is real, they’re just never real at the same time, in the same place.  Is that weird?  Oh, probably.  I’m getting used to it.

The other thing I do in dreamland is sing.  I wake up singing a song, or with a song stuck in my head.  This morning, it was “The Rose”, a song Bette Midler recorded some years back.  I think I learned it from one of my kid’s elementary school music programs. The line I was stuck on went like this: “Some say love, it is a river, that drowns the tender reed.  Some say love, it is a razor, that leaves your soul to bleed.  Some say love, it is a hunger, an endless aching need.  I say love, it is a flower, and you, its only seed.”

Now why in the world would something like that be dominating my waking transition?  I thought about that for a while.  Then I began to cry.  This is how I know when I’ve hit on some repressed emotion, some way that I think about myself that I don’t like to admit.  For some reason, I was associating with that tender reed, drowned in a river of love.  I was 15 when I met my husband, 21 when we married, 45 when I was widowed.  My youth was engulfed in loving him.  I don’t feel a great resonance with the bleeding soul bit.  Ah, but the hunger, the aching need; yeah, that gets to me, too.  I feel that for my kids as well.  I call it “yearning”.  I yearn for my kids all the time, no matter where they are.  It’s a visceral thing.  I once learned in a Bible study that there is a Hebrew word for God’s loving-kindness that translates to a verb form of the same word that’s used for a mother’s womb.  Womb-love.  God “wombs” us.  I “womb” my kids.  I also “womb” my dead husband.

Now the last line of that first verse, I will take exception to.  “You, its only seed” just sounds too exclusive and attached.  It doesn’t fit the scope of the rest of the song, either, in my opinion.  Second verse: “It’s the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance; and it’s the dream afraid of waking that never takes a chance.  It’s the one who won’t be broken, who cannot learn to give; and the soul afraid of dying who never learns to live.”  Okay, you could probably guess that verse gets to me all over (see yesterday’s post).  Although, in my case, it’s the heart that once danced, the dream that once dared, the one who gave everything already who is afraid to live again and invest all that…again.  So, here’s the key change and the big finish: “When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long, and you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong, just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows, lies the seed that with the sun’s love, in the spring becomes the rose.”   At this point, I want to give credit to Amanda McBroom who wrote these lyrics.  Good job.  I love the idea of seeds beneath the snow.  It appeals to the naturalist in me, even though we STILL don’t have any snow this winter in Wisconsin.  I love the idea of hope and new life.  And this is where I get to re-write that last line in the first verse.  The seed of love isn’t a person.  It’s LIFE, life itself.

Steve and I were talking about this yesterday as we drove out to hike the Ice Age trail.  He was urging me, again, to talk about what I want in life, how I want to live, why I want the things I might want.  “Why do you want to have land and grow food?”  I want to nurture living things; I loved raising kids.  I loved because they lived.  I want to live life loving.  Whatever I do.  It’s a cyclical thing, the flower that comes from a seed and begets more seeds that become more flowers.  Life begets love which nourishes life…and so on.  Okay, maybe this is sounding like drivel to you.  There is something going on here, though, and it’s about a flow of energy passing from living thing to living thing, and some of us call it love.  I don’t like the idea of that energy being confined to one “beloved”.  That’s where I think I’m getting stuck.  I say love, it is a flower and all of life can be its seed.

There.  Sorry Amanda, but I have re-worked your song so that it fits my dreaming and waking life a little better.  Hope you don’t mind.

Lord Have Mercy

Gospodi pomiluj.  That’s Church Slavonic for “God have mercy”, same as the Greek Kyrie eleison.  I remember learning a setting of those words in High School choir.  The entire text of the piece was just those two words, repeated over and over at increasing dynamic levels.  The suffering of the world thrown high to the ears of God.  There were moments in the opera last night (Boris Godunov) where this poignant plea rang out and reached my heart high in the upper balcony, but unlike a Puccini moment, it didn’t take full hold.  Why not?  Well, I could bicker about the staging, pointing out that the chorus milling about in the background distracted from the Holy Fool’s aria downstage left in front of the floodlight.   I could point out that the composer wasn’t really a professional and didn’t provide enough scene change music to set off these important highlights.  Others came in later (Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance) and tried to make Boris a bit more theater-ready, but the Lyric staged the original version.  But perhaps the more intriguing discussion is about the way Russian suffering compares to Italian – or Buddhist – suffering.

photo credit Dan Rest

This iconic Russian opera includes a large chorus of peasants, children, boyars (advisers), soldiers and priests.  Russia’s suffering is peopled.  By contrast, Puccini’s operas often concentrate on the suffering of one or two lovers.  You feel the depths of their grief in soaring melodies, cry with them, and feel cleansed.  (Think Butterfly, Tosca, Boheme.)  Russia’s suffering would never be so finite.  It’s pervasive.  The czar embodies this and its relentlessness drives him mad.  Well, that and hallucinations of a child he supposedly murdered.  But he cares about his people; he tries to feed them, and they still blame him for every want.  How do you find peace?

Buddhism addresses peace from the inside out.  It isn’t a peace that you could pass on to a population as their leader.  The best you could do is find it for yourself and try to be a role model.  It would be quite a challenge to maintain it as the head of a huge, suffering nation.  Would that be the Emperor of Japan’s story? Or China’s and India’s story?  Actually, the Met is currently showing Phillip Glass’s opera about Ghandi (Satyagraha).  It was simulcast in theaters this past Saturday.  Missed it, but hoping to see the encore screening December 7th.

Here’s another thought about nationalism and identity: there’s Mother Russia and the German Fatherland; what parental figure do we have connecting us to American land?  Uncle Sam?  Does that mean we are orphans?

I have to say that exploring and addressing my personal grief and suffering through Art is like taking a bitter pill with a large spoonful of glittering sugar.  Costumes, twinkly lights, gorgeously rich bass voices and sympathetic violins really take the edge off.  I appreciate the genius and consider myself enormously fortunate.   Thanks for the grace and mercy.  Oh, and I hope Erik Nelson Werner wasn’t badly hurt when he fell off the set in a hasty exit.