Meditations on Mortality

sweet-william-barbara-moignard

Sweet William by Barbara Moignard

 

Springtimes have needed you.
And there are stars expecting you to notice them.
From out of the past, a wave rises to meet you
the way the strains of a violin
come through an open window
just as you walk by.

~ Rainer Rilke, from the First Duino Elegy

 

There was a graveyard I visited regularly with my grandparents as a child. My grandmother would go tend the graves of loved ones (possibly her parents) while I picked Sweet William in small bunches and put on the graves without flowers. I loved the delicate beauty of the petals, their velvety texture and intricate patterns. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to pick them from the edges of the cemetery and place them on graves that seemed lonely and untended. A child’s belief that putting something pretty there would make it all better.

The cemetery was a beautiful and peaceful place to me (other than the painful annoyance of the little sticky burs that always found a way into the side of my sandals or down into my sock). The quiet stillness enthralled me as a child before death or graves held any real meaning. Visiting the cemetery was one of my favorite things to do.

It’s been a long time since those cemetery visits – I turn 46 tomorrow and I was not even school age back then – but I can remember what it was like when death was just another word that meant nothing in my mind and heart. A grown-up word that made people sad and nothing more. My child self living free and joyful without the understanding of mortality.

 

^~^~^

 

I worked as a property-sales manager for a small local cemetery from 2003 to 2005. I was responsible for all facets of the business operation – designing advertising, making product sales, solving customer issues, meeting legal requirements, overseeing burials and entombments, and maintaining good relationships with the mortuaries and their staff. I took the job expecting to be “creeped-out.” I ended up loving the place and becoming friends with the clients we served and the morticians with whom I worked.

I listened to all the personal stories of my clients and attended every funeral service on our grounds. I was a quiet presence, standing nearby at graveside or sitting in the last row of a mausoleum service, listening and watching, making sure everything was as perfect and well orchestrated as it could be. This was the respect, the care we provided to those trusting us in their final rite of passage. Honoring that trust mattered deeply to me.

Two years in the death care industry gave me a new understanding of death and dying. It also provided a glimpse of the actual job of professional body disposal carried out by morticians and cemeterians. Overall, death care is a business much like any other, but there is a level of respect and compassion present in the workers that is seldom found elsewhere.

What did I learn?

At every burial there are people crying, but their tears come for a variety of reasons – as many due to regret and self recrimination as for love and loss.

 

^~^~^

 

Twenty-two days ago a harsh, burning pain developed in my left shoulder and armpit. A random “share” on Facebook with pictures of example breasts showing cancer signs sent me to the internet to look up my symptoms. What I found there terrified me into a hospital visit…

I was in the E.R. five days after the first symptoms appeared with a swollen left breast, a “mass” of unknown origins, and a great deal of searing pain. The diagnosis was Mastitis of unknown origin, and I was given high strength antibiotics and a referral to a local surgeon.

Today – the infection is gone, the swelling has diminished, and the pain is much duller. I go for a mammogram and ultrasound tomorrow to start the diagnostic process. I am hopeful that it is something small and easily solved, prayerful the word cancer will not apply to me. I’d like a little more time, please, to experience this thing called life.

 

^~^~^

 

My first thought was that out of all the panic scenarios and insane phobias I’ve imagined in my life, out of all the ways in which I have feared dying, the thought of possible breast cancer never even crossed my mind! How like life to throw something at you from left field!

My second thought was of not wanting to leave my husband, my children, my grandchildren. Worry that I needed to teach the kids more, maybe I haven’t prepared them as well as I should have, and a myriad other things having to do with all of them being okay or not.

My third thought was the shock of realization that I might soon take my last breath, that it could end so unexpectedly, the lights go dark, and thought – emotion – feeling – sentience just STOP.

Awareness becomes the split-second adrenaline rush of panic, fight-or-flight in a state of indecision, anxiety…and then quiet. Then, thoughts of all the stupid and important things you’ll miss: McDonalds pancakes, the way a breeze feels, the way your children call you mama, sun on your skin, books on the shelves you haven’t read yet, grandbabies in your lap, poems you’ve only half-finished, snuggling beside your husband at night, the dogs always underfoot, the projects still half-done and disorganized, you and you-you-the you that is the personal I-the I that has likes and dislikes, cares, loves, needs, gives, feels…. living.

Life in all its deep complexity. The small moments and the large that make up a life….that make up your very unique and personal life.

 

^~^~^

 

You recognize the fallacy – you have been living all this time as if you were immortal, but you are not. Your specific time here is finite. There will be a last day, one day.

Suddenly, so many daily things become unimportant. The core relationships in your life and the core things in your personality become everything all at once.

You realize you will not miss your job only your calling. You cannot justify money as a motivator for anything that matters only the hope, safety, opportunity it may buy.

You wonder at the speed of days, how they have passed you ticking like a rush of water over rapids. You reach to capture them, slow them, but they drip through your fingers and out of your hand. ~

 

 

Beneath the Tides of Sleep and Time

Beneath the tides of sleep and time
Strange fish are moving!    

Thomas Wolfe

freya-wave-laurie-behnen

I’ve been back in the region of my childhood for three years. There were a few times, those first years, when I came back for several months at a time  before leaving again. But, I’ve never considered that “being” here. My reality is that I left at the age of seventeen and didn’t return for twenty-seven years. Now, in my early forties, I’ve come back to a town filled with ghost-like memories of a place and its silent-voiced people that no longer exist.

The clouds still look the same overhead, floating across cow-filled pastures, an opaque-white fluff against the blue-purple outline of mountains. The same sounds of whippoorwills and crickets sing through the nights.

I stand, on my back porch, as the last light of day slips away and the crickets hum. In this growing dark moment I can pretend that the twenty-seven years hasn’t passed – I am once again here in my youth listening to the singing of the whippoorwills as they welcome the deep night.

Most of the old home places are torn down – the grass, trees, and new growth disguising the old sites. Driving by them makes memory appear a trick of false pictures. Is that really the yard we once played in and the tree I loved to climb? Erasure, the way nature reclaims its own, in spite of previous existence and the blood of memory soaking that ground.

The vast-rambling plants, grasses, and trees disguise the greater void of all who are missing. This is the saddest part. Both sets of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and all the older church members are long dead and buried. Laying flowers across bronze or beneath the shadow of granite is all I can give them. Their personalities and laughter absent from the impersonal carvings. Their formal names and date to date is all there is.

I chose this path. Each step forward, toward the new, requiring a leaving behind and stepping further away from what lived here. I remember me as a thirsting, starving soul – I was silently dying. It took the leaving to make me grow, for me to understand my true and deepest identity, for me to become the intended individual that I now am. I know this as truth within my most sacred self. I chose this path – I am my own expertly crafted story.

* / * / *

The book of me isn’t finished, but the chapter I’ve lived in this past three years is telling itself into ending. I feel it. I’m familiar with these closures that seem to come unbidden, but later prove necessary and instrumental for the next phase of my life.

Coming home has been about reconciliation with myself more than anything else. I wouldn’t have expected that, but it is often at the end of a thing that you are able to see it most clearly. My life here, as a child and teenager, provided little community or friendship. I lived in an odd isolation that it would take me years to understand.

My grandparents, favorite aunts and uncles, and the like provided a foundational concept of love; but it was many long years before I could see that at work in my becoming. The deep sense of isolation, my inability to find fulfilling relationships, or a place where I could truly “fit in” as they say would change after my leaving.

In the twenty-seven years away – time divided between Atlanta, Georgia and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina – I would find my “fitting in’” and my individual identity, expand and examine my belief systems, and develop a workable life philosophy.  It’s taken this time of coming home for me to actually see clearly who I’ve become. That I am happy with the overall picture is a surprise and a gift. Other than that, my past in this specific place holds less of value to me than I hoped it would. The past is a combination of shredded mirage-memory images.  It is the future that calls and whispers to me as a vivid-flowing movement. And, it is endings that open the doors through which the future comes.

* / * / *

My children and grandchildren are here – that is my reason for staying.  My son and daughter, both in their mid-to-late twenties, are adults living their own lives. We have grown together the past few years, each one of us helping the other or celebrating through alternate periods of trial and joy. I am proud of them and content in the knowledge that they are happy, healthy, and blessed with wonderful spouses and children.

I love my children dearly, but it is the love and desire for my grandchildren that holds me rooted in this place of thick-red clay. I enjoy being a grandma more than I could have ever imagined.  The four “babies” range from 3 to 7 years old and are a constant  treasure and blessing to me – each of them special and unique individuals that I adore.

* / * / *

I spent Saturday afternoon at work with a couple from Argentina (as they purchased a car from me). It was a wonderful visit for me and I deeply enjoyed our conversation. Lately, I drift in to thoughts of traveling overseas, even becoming an expat like Hemingway and so many others. There is something that calls me to South America and Europe – part of the artist that is enamored of these places where such long history and artistic depth lives. Just “to walk the streets” as they say . . .

I met a lovely lady from Poland last year (again, in the sales process of my real-world job) and we became immediate pals. She came to work for me for a while and we remain friends after her leaving. We talk often of a trip to Europe this coming year – she’ll take me around Poland, Germany, and maybe even Greece. I love this thought, love to contemplate this trip with a wonderful friend (who will make sure I don’t get lost since I speak not one word of German, Greek, etc.).

I have always wanted to travel overseas to these places – a longing I have often dusted off and examined, but began to take less seriously as the years passed. Thanks to my wonderful friend, Agnes, this desire is rekindled. I feel the shift in movement – in path – like a wave rushing the sand between my toes brushing the tops of my feet. Travel . . . again.

* / * / *

I’ve jumped on planes, traveled by trucks, hopped in my car and started driving – traveling throughout the United States several times. These “other places” seem to thrall my Gypsy blood – it rests awhile and then roars with rushing to movement, to travel, to seeking. Each of these trips and times in other parts of the US (often working in other regions for long periods of time) created deep changes in understanding and perspective for me. I was not the same person coming home as I was in the leaving. (I deeply believe every young person should travel for a time before settling down if at all possible!)

* / * / *

The past four months at work (day job again) have been horrific in many ways. I’ve experienced things I could in no way anticipate or expect – things that put me in a position to make some very difficult decisions. I made a decision that I felt was the “right one,” as well as the only one I being me could make following some very dark days of hurt, confusion, and serious in-depth thought. The coming weeks will bring the results of that choice and I continue to pray for wisdom moving forward and a final resolution that will bring peace.

I am coming to a cross-roads of sorts in my business life. Maybe it’s just that mid-life crises everyone jokes about! Either way, I’m giving serious thought to leaving the automotive industry – my 70-hour-weeks life’s blood for the past 7 years. I am transitioning mentally (and maybe physically). It will be interesting to see how it all turns out down where those “strange fish are moving.” I’ll keep you posted!

 

~South Carolina, January 2012

 

Artwork: Freya Wave by Laurie Behnen. To see more artwork by this artist, please visit her site at Fine Art America. Please help support this wonderful artist by visiting FAM and maybe even buying a print or notecards!

 

Epitome Filial

When you are
gone, there will be
no one to fight,
struggle, rebel against.
Instead
only the blank space
where the wall of you
once stood – the line
drawn, marked,
painted red – the fight
a devouring effort
between us. But
when you are gone —
Death will let go
that loud cackle,
slap his thigh,
and crow our names —
There will be only
the blank space
hollow-cold
empty from your leaving
against which
I push
and when you
are gone
there will be
no one to stop me
from falling.

~November, 2011

 

winter morning memory

~for my grandfather

He is waiting, sitting

quietly beside the small wood stove —

today, burning coal,

turned roaring-orange red.

Two old and wrinkled hands

hold a little girls dress,;

being warmed by the fire

that he built – kindling, coal-

stoked for good measure.

He’s been up for hours

by the time I slide from bed,

go to stand by the stove —

slip on the warm clothes.

Every winter morning —

this act of quiet love,

repeated as ritual

Until spring comes again and

the stove grows cold.

~November 2011

Ritual

Ritual
~for Julia, in memoria

On this Lily-white
silent Sunday she
combs one hundred times
the strands of pony-grey,
streaked-aged mane
of ninety-two years,
pulls it back tightly
into an outdated bun.

Liquid-blue-petal eyes
shift, stare sadly down
at purple-viened hands
lain gently across cloth,
placid in a lap
of sagging flesh
and weak-white bone.

Old Southern sighs resignation
as generations gather
around the chair
to celebrate ancient,
another birthday.

Their debt of homage
paid in presence, ordered
by size and height around
the matriarchal chair.

Time-ticks every face older
into a mist of memory
becoming dreams —
as death comes
she remembers the future–

ball gown of tangerine silk
flowing, she dances
times distorted promenade.

The children will turn,
burn old candles,
forget,
and live forward.

~Summer 2011, South Carolina
Photography Prints

Grandfather

On some other lost plane
of time you are standing
watching the years roll
like clouds forecasting
rain on a spring day.

Gray-black eyes fold tears
into memory that forgets
you. As soon as dawn comes
you watch the children
grow like strong trees,
the grandchildren grow
like deep-rooted sycamores
in the ground you plowed.

On some other lost plane
of time you are hovering
as a bright-bold presence
with a smile eating tears
of snow on a winter day.

April 2011

Self-Portrait February 2011

Sell Art Online

 

I am

a poet – grateful, artistic, eclectic, tired.
a writer – driven, but quieter than before.
an editor – always seeking, seldom finding.
a manager – sad, competitive, immersed.
a mom, a grandmother, a wife, just “me.”
a woman refusing shackles, chasing destiny.
a person seeing deeply, dreaming cynically.

I am

hungry to understand.
seeking the “why” of things.
afraid of missing something.
concerned I’ll leave something undone.

I am

one of those people who will bore you
with a poem that is nothing more than
a list of meaningless titles.

Whispering

Little girl singing soft
melodies of hatred, fueled
by conversations overheard
at the dinner table through
hiss and venom of mom and dad.

She’ll never know the wounding
burn of burning pain flowing
through her little red heart.
She doesn’t understand she is
damaged.

She is the mimic, the parrot
of parents filled with brokenness.
She is their voice speaking openly
in the next blatant generation
things grated-out in private
in the previous quieter age.

This is how we make monsters grow
in fertile fields of seeds sown
from the normalcy of lives lived
whispering the hatred of others.

October 2010

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Mom, Books, and ETV

It’s lovely outside with the fresh snow blanketing the yard and covering tree branches.  Our first snow on Christmas Day in many years according to the weather man. It was a busy, but wonderful Christmas filled with good food and much fun for everyone. Today has been quiet and peaceful after all the festivities. A good day for reflection and introspection, and a perfect time for recognizing and appreciating all the blessings in my life. It’s also a good time for general musings….

My Mom

My Mom’s birthday is tomorrow (Happy Birthday, Mom!) She’s getting pretty ancient now…oops, wait, sorry… 🙂 My mom and I have always had a difficult relationship. We’re both very headstrong, independent people and that makes for fiery exchanges at times. We do love each other even if we seldom agree on any one point. And, we do grow more in peaceful acceptance of each other as we grow older. We are not the average mom and daughter kind of people, but I think we’re both okay with that – neither of us are really “average” people anyway! We have found a relationship that works for us and we’re intimately a part of each others psyche and lives as we both mature and age. One thing we have always shared – and that she helped foster in me – is a love of books, writing, and learning.

My earliest memories of my Mom necessarily include books, journals, and letters because they are such a deep part of who she is. I was reading my Mom’s old books, magazines, and teen journals long before we really developed a relationship with one another. Mom was always an avid reader and writer. (You can read some of her work here and here.)

Reading and writing opened new educational and social avenues for me. I was brought up writing to pen-pals all over the country because Mom had pen-pals everywhere. I wanted to be like her and she allowed me that. It was a wonderful experience and helped broaden my view of the country and the people in it at a very young age. I also learned to read way above my grade level in school because she was willing to let me read books with censorship or restriction. I can still remember how happy I was when she signed the card for the town Librarian allowing me to check out “grown-up” books. I had just finished reading all the books they had for my age group (of course, it was a tiny library in a very small town!). For years, whenever I moved to a new town, the first thing I would do was find the local library and get a library card. I understood that books changed lives, opened the door to possibilities and growth, and provided wonderful entertainment…and the library meant anyone had this opportunity regardless of income or ability to purchase books. I remain an avid supporter of libraries and free books and reading programs for children to this day. That is due, in large part, to my Mom.

Mom also opened the doors to the joy of bookstores and the wonder of ETV/PBS to us. I still miss the local, private owned, “Pic-a-Book” store we frequented as a child. It was a wonderful maze of books on shelves, magazines and books stacked in piles on the floor – an absolute literary oasis! I still have happy, warm memories of our visits there! I miss Pic-a-Book, but I’m glad to see the new Hub City Bookstore filling in that sad absence for our community. ETV/PBS is another gift from Mom – I KNOW everyone in our family knows who Carl Sagan was and what he did! Old habits die hard, and I still watch PBS more often than all my other channels. Thanks, Mom.

My Mom helped me grow past the limitations of class and poverty that marked my childhood. She gave me a map for the road ahead, a way to transcend the limitations of circumstances and place…her love of reading, writing, and learning new things has been passed down through several generations now. The great-granddaughters are intelligent and precocious. Lauren, at age 6, reads everything in front of her – road signs, ad circulars, menus, building signs, the N-S-E-W of the compass on my rearview mirror (we’re going N grandma, we’re going North!). I just want to say Thanks for the gift Mom. I love you and I hope you have wonderful Birthday!

At Night the Wind Died

The summer day was spoiled with fitful storm;
At night the wind died and the soft rain dropped;
With lulling murmur, and the air was warm,
And all the tumult and the trouble stopped.

~~Celia Thaxter,The Nestling Swallows.

It is almost midnight and the house is quiet. Michael went to bed hours ago and left Boo-Boo the cat with his chair. Taz, my Cocker Spaniel, is sleeping on my feet while Lex, my Lab, claims the rug near the Christmas Tree. Even Mr. Jitters, the rabbit,  is sleeping silent in his cage.

This is an exquisitely beautiful moment to me.  I adore this quiet peace in the dark of night when all the noise of daily living settles hushed for a few hours. I can feel my heartbeat start to slow and my stress-level begin to ease. I am able to breathe in the calmer essence of true life in this time of whispered darkness. I am uncommonly whole and content as I think about Christmas and my family.

I am looking forward to Christmas Day after a month of chaos and fatigue. My children, their spouses, and all four grandchildren will be here. My siblings plan to come if possible. I’m the eldest of four and it is seldom that we all get together. We’ve each had our own spouses, children and work schedules to contend with for years now. I hope both my brothers are able to come – if so, that makes four, and it will be our first Christmas spent together in many, long years.

Time has a way of slipping past you while you’re busy with the act of living. I love my sister and brothers dearly, but have not been as good about showing it in recent years. Sadly, the lack of attentiveness toward them is due to my flighty nature and isolationist behavior. It isn’t due to lack of love or caring for them. I just tend to get lost in me and whatever mission or project has captured my passion – the next thing I know, five years, ten years have passed. It’s an odd quirk of my personality that I recognize without knowing how to mend. (I tend to think it’s just some strange artist thing!) All the while, time moves without mercy and we all grow older and more distant from one another.

I can still remember the first time I looked into the crib at my brother, David. In memory he is the little kid arguing with me and my sister over which cartoons to watch each day at four o’clock; and then the pre-teen who went with us on vacation to Florida; and then the teenager outrunning the cops in his newest hot-rod down the back dirt roads of town – laughing and bragging, and doing it just because he could! He suffered through endless hours of  “playing school” with me and my sister before he ever started kindergarten (but, he has always been extremely smart). He was a sweet, smart, good-natured kid that was kind to everyone around him. I can still see him riding around town with my aunt and uncle, especially during his fluffy–80’s hairdo period, laughing and joking. He is now a grown man in his 30’s, with three grown children, a wonderful wife, and his own trucking company. I am very proud of him, of how intelligent he is, and his determination to make his way in the world on his terms.

My Brothers & Sister: David, Mandi, and Chris

My baby brother, Chris, is even younger. I can still see him sleeping in his crib, covered in chicken-pox spots. Such a sweet baby, so sick, and yet dealing with the pain and “feel bad” without very much screaming and crying. I held him, changed diapers, played “little mama” to him  for a time before I got married.  I remember him as that cute baby, as the little bright-eyed child who wanted to hold my babies when they were born, as the teenager who hand-made me a writing desk, and as an older teen and young adult going through his rough patches like the rest of us. He’s had more than his share of hard times, and, like his oldest sister, is usually his own worst enemy. He’s doing great in his life now though – he has a wonderful fiance that truly loves him and a wonderful son. Chris has been strong and courageous, doggedly fighting his way through the dark days into the sunny ones.  I’m very proud of who he’s become and all that he’s accomplished.

My sister, Mandi, is definitely coming for Christmas dinner. We’re close in age and have a unique bond that can only be called sisterhood. We have fought and hated each other with a passion through the years, but that was just the negative, childish side of the great love we feel for one another. We are as opposite as night and day, but exist together as the moon and sun. We would be lost if the other one wasn’t there. I have been given a rare gift in my sister that I thank God for often – she is the one person on earth who I trust with all my heart. I know that she has always and will always be a person who will love me and help me no matter what happens. I hope she knows she has that same gift in me. We will always be those little girls playing dress up and wearing high-heels to school without permission, the person on the other end of the phone when one of us needs to celebrate or cry, the one holding onto the rope that binds us during terrible fears and periods of pain…never letting go.

It’s amazing how much your vision changes in 30 years. I used to get so fed-up with being the “oldest” when we were growing up. It always meant looking after the “younger ones”  and taking care of them while mom and dad were at work or busy.  And the answer to “why” was always because you’re the oldest – I thought it was a pretty unfair punishment back in the day! Yet, here we are, thirty years later and the “younger ones” are all grown up. I sit here in the quiet darkness, sift through the memories from all those years ago, consider the good people my siblings have turned out to be and I realize how blessed I have been. I am grateful now for those times: the fun and the fights, the aggravation and the sharing, the craziness and the sanity. I am very proud of the people they’ve all become and I feel privileged to have watched it and been a part of it from the beginning. Merry Christmas Mandi, David, and Chris. I love you!