Weekly Photo Challenge: Gone, But Not Forgotten

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Gone, But Not Forgotten.”

Well, this is an obvious one.  After all, I am a widow.  How can I forget the love of my life, my one and only husband, the father of my four children and the man who bought me my first Canon (an AE-1 for Christmas when I was 17)?  I am in a wonderful relationship now with a new partner, Steve, and he’s featured in many of my posts.  But Jim is my first love, the man who was beside me for 30 years, from the time I was 15.  So much of my adult formation took place in those years, even though profound change has happened since.  Shortly after Jim died, I became an empty-nester, I sold our home, and I stopped practicing evangelical Christianity.  Gone are my ‘suburban mom’ characteristics…the van, the mortgage, the disposable income, the salaried position with a Christian company in my home town, the prayer groups and Bible studies, the daily involvement with my kids.  My life is definitely different.  I am much more independent and self-reliant now.  But I haven’t forgotten how well loved I was, how dedicated Jim was to taking care of me.  As his best friend said at his memorial service, he was a Prince of a man.  And he was definitely Charming. 

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. 

Advent Day #7 – Memory

One of the most fascinating gifts of the human brain is Memory.  On my Advent countdown, this is something to open with caution.  “When faced with his past, the strongest man cries.” (from a Dan Fogelberg song)  “Memory is like the sweetest pain…” (from a James Taylor song)  The question I must ask myself when I am drawn to memory is, “Is this useful?”  I could get sucked into the morose for hours, wallowing in widowhood, motherhood, womanhood, childhood.  What would I learn?  If it brings appreciation or perspective, very well.  If it gets me ‘stuck’, then it’s not so good.  Here’s my post from two years ago:

Christmas 1982

Ever had a piece of music bring up a memory, a time and place from the past, with such clarity that you felt you were actually there?  Last night it happened.  I came home from my Memoirs class, having read my essay aloud with such a rush of nervous adrenaline that my heart was still pounding.  I decided to have  a glass of Chardonnay and listen to some of Steve’s recently acquired CDs with him.  So, I was relaxing and in “memory mode” when he put on a CD of the Tallis Scholars singing a mass by John Taverner, written around the turn of the century – the 16th century.   Oh, the flood of my heart!

I was 20 years old.  Jim and I had become engaged on my birthday over the summer.  I went back down to So. Cal. to school, to continue with my bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance.  Jim and my mother were in a Bay Area singing group together, called Renascense (or some archaic spelling pronounced ren-NAY-sense).  I came home for Christmas and was invited to one of their concerts.  I close my eyes and picture them:  Jim in his black tuxedo, ginger mustache,  the smatterings of a beard he’s grown for Rigoletto.  He is 22, teddy bear-like with twinkling blue eyes, blonde hair and a killer Italian grin.  But while he’s singing, he is an angel, mouth perfectly forming straight vowels, eyebrows imploring heaven.  He is a tenor.  His voice melts butter.   My mother is dressed in a mail order catalog nightgown, polyester, rust-colored, that has been trimmed with gold & black cord around the waist and across her bosom in an X.  Only women who have sung in choirs can imagine how absolutely ludicrous these outfits can be.  No woman looks good in a choir uniform, let alone one that has been made to look “period” on the cheap.  It is ridiculously embarrassing, but I forgive her.  She sings alto in a hooty voice that blends well.  Her quality is not stellar, but her musicianship is indispensable.

I have been so homesick away from school.  I have been staring at my diamond ring, counting the days until break.  I sit in the concert hall and look at these two people whom I love more than any others on the face of the earth, and I am so proud of them.  I’m proud of their dedication to music and their fond relationship to each other.  I admire them completely, and I am jealous.  I want to be with them; I want to be them.  I want to feel the music in my breast float to the clerestory of the church and entwine in that beautiful polyphony.  I ache for this memory.  And then the tenor line soars above the rest, and it is Jim himself, singing to me.  The recording is perfection.  I can tell that it isn’t Jim, but there are moments when it definitely could be.  My will takes over and I make it him, in my mind.   I am there, in that sanctuary, and Jim is singing to me, alive, young, vibrant with love and mystery and warmth.

Jim before his Carnegie performance – 2002

Music folds time in patterns that defy chronology.  I sail far away on its transcendent waves.  It is a grace to travel toward those we love without limits.

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…

I’m still alive

Hebba-lubbo, frebbends! (Does anyone remember the PBS show Zoom?  Ubby-Dubby language?  Anyone?  Beuller?)  Are you wondering where I’ve been?  Why I went AWOL?  Have you missed me? *looking up, fluttering my lashes*  Well, I feel a need to justify my absence anyway.  Silliness aside, I need to take time to write again. 

I am anticipating the end of the season for my job at the living history museum, Old World Wisconsin.  By the end of next month, I will need to make up those wages by doing something else.  Fortunately, my previous employer still values my skills as a proofreader, and I have been able to contract with them for some work I can do at home.  Hopefully, I will be able to pick up some new voice students as well.  I have been spending my home days working on those enterprises and helping Steve with the book business.  So, I have not been spending my home time in leisurely rambles of creative writing.  And the memory card in my camera is full, so I haven’t been taking pictures.  I have been thinking, though….

Steve and I will soon be hitting the 5-year milestone in our relationship.  Our first date was October 4.  The evolution of our partnership has been an intense journey toward maturity, and keeping that energy going is quite a commitment.   The other day, I went back to some of our early e-mails (yes, I still haven’t deleted them) and came face-to-face with my former self: a grieving widow struggling to be a single Mom for the first time.  Yikes!  The more dramatic e-mails were the ones I exchanged with my 17-year old daughter.  Our grief, our survival, was such a strong agenda that we were hardly communicating anything besides our fears, our wants, our upset feelings.  It was very hard for us to listen to each other and be generous.  Steve stepped into that gap and calmly spoke his observations without judgment, even when my daughter’s anger was focused on his role in my life.  A metaphor that he uses is “clearing the windshield”.  We often have so much mud covering up the clarity of what life is and how we want to live it.  Steve has always come back to articulating his vision, one that he’s known since he was very young.   He’s been very patiently illustrating it over these past 5 years, and I’ve only recently felt that my windshield has been clear enough to see it. 

I have been reading a little book he gave me — Finding the Still Point: A Beginner’s Guide to Zen Meditation by John Daido Loori.  Here’s the nugget I will keep returning to:

“From birth we have been conditioned by different events and people — our teachers, parents, country, culture, neighborhood, friends, and peers.  Everything we cherish — our positions, attitudes, opinions, all of our attachments, all the things we think give our life identity — is found in our conditioning.  Now here we are, decades later, trying to live our lives out of this random programming we call “my life”.  We feel so strongly about parts of the program we are ready to die for it.  And it is all created in our own mind.

There is no escaping the fact that getting beyond this accumulated conditioning is a long process.  Thirty or forty years of programming takes time to work through.  We look at the thoughts, acknowledge them, let them go, and come back to the breath.  Day by day, we uncover what is underneath all of the conditioning.  What we discover is called freedom.  It is called human life.  It is called wisdom and compassion.  It’s the nature of all beings.”

Living freely is the reward of maturity.  Cleaning the windshield is an arduous, stinky task at times.  I am tempted to hide behind the caked-on guck and call it my safe cocoon, expecting my partner to join me there.  He will not.  Is that ungenerous?  Or the most loving thing a friend can do?  Sometimes I have a hard time deciding.  Even when he doesn’t join me there, he has waited for me to emerge.  He finds that very frustrating at times.  He would like to see me free.  He would like to see all people free, including himself.  His sadness and disappointment when we are not free shows in his face and posture.  I think of where my daughter and I used to live.  We have emerged joyfully from that place.  We know freedom.  But we are still cleaning the windshield.  There is more to be done, and the view from that one clear corner is my inspiration to continue the work. 

I am alive.  I am maturing.  I am working on my life.  And I enjoy taking time to write about it every once in a while.  Thanks for listening!

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Focus

Focus.  Concentrate.  What is important?  Who decides?  And what about the other stuff?  Again, photography acts as a metaphor for life.  How do you get the experience of your own powers of creation?  Make decisions, make art, and you know that you are making a universe.  Then, unmake it, and you’ll know what you can control and change.

Is the glass half empty?  Half full?  Is the glass solid or as liquid as its contents but moving at a different speed?  Am I half done with my life or beginning a new day?  Are the things that exist only in my memory real or not?  If they exist in my memory, have I lost them? 

I had a birthday on Wednesday, and a good cry on Thursday.  The quiet, summer afternoon transported me to another time and place.  My husband was alive, snoring in the Lazy Boy in my living room.  I had a living room – a full house with 4 bedrooms.  My oldest daughter was in her room, reading children’s books.  My son was in the yard playing with a next door neighbor.  My two youngest daughters were entwined on a bed, thumbs in their mouths, damp curls encircling their sleepy heads.  It seemed so palpable…and so untouchable.  Never again; though, yes, it was.  Once.  LOSS loomed in my brain.  A word I envisioned; I’d conjured it like the scene of that composite day.  When I focused on it, I was awash in gut pain.  It was powerful.  Over moments, the focus softened.  Its power faded.  It became a muted background of warmth, of subtle longing, a wistful smile.  There are other things in my life.  Some embryonic, some ripening.  That previous life is like the green light of a summer day.  It is there, all around.  It is not in focus, though.  It is enough.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Nostalgic

Oh, boy.  It’s a dangerous thing to invite a widow and empty-nester to post a blog on the theme Nostalgic!  Contemplating the past can lead to maudlin stretches and lots of used Kleenex, even if I don’t have a glass or two of wine first.  I don’t think that would be at all edifying to the blogging community, so I’m going to try hard to steer away from that.  I hope to write and show something that is true about a time that has come and gone. 

Life is characterized by impermanence.  Our kids don’t stay little; our loved ones don’t stay alive forever.  What we live is present moments.  If we try to hang on to them and make them more permanent or attach our happiness to them, we are in for a world of frustration.  As we get farther away from present moments, it’s hard to remember what they were really like.  We lose perspective.  That wonderful family outing…did I yell at the kids that day?  I don’t remember.  I probably lost patience at least once.  Did my kids remember that?  How did they feel?  How did they heal?  Or is it all, as my mother often puts it, ‘a merciful blur’? 

Brookfield Zoo dolphin show, August 1991.  Jim (RIP), Emily, Josh, Becca and Susan (bride to be in 3 weeks!).

Brookfield Zoo dolphin show, August 1991. Jim (RIP), Emily, Josh, Becca and Susan (bride to be in 3 weeks!).

In my current life, I see a lot of families on outings with their children, since I work at two different family museums.  Families interact in all sorts of ways.  I try to look at them with compassion and tolerance remembering what I can about how challenging it is to raise 4 kids at one time.  The important thing is to BE KIND in the present moment.  With your kids or someone else’s.  If the world is to be a good place to live, it’s important that all 7 billion of us humans remember to BE KIND.  And this is not a glib solution.  If you think deeply about being kind, you’ll see that it is a profound power in the universe.   BE KIND to your fellow humans.  BE KIND to every living thing.  BE KIND to yourself first, and feel what that is like.  It is peace.  It is well-being and health.  It is life.  Don’t settle for feeling nostalgic about a time when you felt the world was a kinder place to live.  Make it a kinder place to live this very moment by acting kindly!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Change

Pema Chodron writes in a book called “Comfortable With Uncertainty”:

According to the Buddha, the lives of all beings are marked by three characteristics: impermanence, egolessness, and suffering or dissatisfaction.  Recognizing these qualities to be real and true in our own experience helps us to relax with things as they are.  The first mark is impermanence.  That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and changing, is the first mark of existence.  We don’t have to be mystics or physicists to know this.  Yet at the level of personal experience, we resist this basic fact.  It means that life isn’t always going to go our way.  It mean’s there’s loss as well as gain.  And we don’t like that.  …We experience impermanence at the every day level as frustration.  We use our daily activity as a shield against the fundamental ambiguity of our situation, expending tremendous energy trying to ward off impermanence and death. …The Buddhist teachings aspire to set us free from this limited way of relating to impermanence.  They encourage us to relax gradually and wholeheartedly into the ordinary and obvious truth of change.”

 

Much of my life and energy of the past 10 years has been spent trying to cope with change, as I watched my husband’s health deteriorate and my children grow from an innocent childhood into a difficult adulthood.  Five years ago, my husband died at the age of 47.  In my most agonizing moments of wrestling with impermanence, I would take myself for a walk.  Two blocks from my house was a place I liked to call “my prairie”.  It was a place where “relaxing gradually and wholeheartedly into the ordinary and obvious truth of change” came naturally.  At that time, I’d never heard of Pema Chodron and knew very little about Buddhism.  But I could see change all around as leaves turned color, decayed, and returned to the soil where new shoots would eventually spring.  Cloud formations came and went, as did the warmth of the sun.  Paths mown in the prairie grass grew indistinct and were redirected.  Small animal carcases seemed to melt into a puddle of fur and bones until even those were carried off or disappeared.  Change was constant and friendly, not the scary beast I was beating from my front door every day.  

“My prairie” became a very special sanctuary to me.  This is where I went on September 11, 2001 to think.  This is where I went when I returned to my old neighborhood after moving in with Steve in 2011.  This is where I will wander following the Bridal Shower my daughter’s best friend is throwing for her in June.  I bring myself and all my changes into this sanctuary, and I feel immediately embraced by the bigger changes of the Universe in its course.  All the impermanence, egolessness and suffering of my life seems to settle down into just What Is when I am here.  I feel at peace.  It is my pleasure to introduce you to my picture of Change…

change  

Weekly Photo Challenge: Kiss

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.

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 in 1980.

January 7, 1984

January 7, 1984

July 3, 1992.  Recovering from open heart surgery.  Mom tries to kiss it better.

July 3, 1992. Recovering from open heart surgery. Mom tries to kiss it better.

December 2008.  Eyes wide open.

December 2008. Eyes wide open.

The Kiss.  What a photo challenge!  How do you participate in a kiss and take a picture at the same time?  Or if you’re not participating in the kiss, why are you photographing it?   Are staged kisses different from spontaneous ones?  Should kisses be documented, or should they be private?  How many kiss photographs do I even have in digital format?

Well, that last one became the deciding factor.  I have others in hard copy of my kids being kissed: as babies, on birthdays, at graduation and that kind of thing.  I even have one of Hershey’s kisses that my husband arranged on the floor in a heart for the anniversary of our first kiss.  These few tell a timely story, though.  Five years ago today was the last day I kissed my husband.  It was the day after Valentine’s Day.  We went out to dinner at a local bar & grill, came home and watched TV, kissed each other good night and fell asleep holding hands.  He never woke up.  The clue to ‘why?’ is in the third photo.  What’s different about the fourth photo?  Different guy…and my eyes are open.  Thirty years with Jim, full of youth and fairy tale and children and love and kisses, and I was often dreamy and often afraid.  Four years with Steve, and I’m learning to face things, be aware, and take greater responsibility.  Intimacy is even better when you’re fully awake.  IMHO.