Devotion

devotion:

a:  the act of devoting <devotion of time and energy>

b  :  the fact or state of being ardently dedicated and loyal <her devotion to the cause> <filial devotion>

It’s another Tuesday afternoon, and I’m rolling my harp and gear down the hall at the Hospice unit. As I walk past an open door I can see a family in the room across from the nurse’s station. Curled on her side in the huge hospital bed is an impossibly old woman – tiny, wrinkled and weathered, wizened, and dying. Sitting at her bedside is an impossibly old man – not as wrinkled, but equally weathered. He rests his head on the bed beside his wife. He is looking into her eyes, and gently stroking her hand that lies atop the turned-down sheet. I can see his love in how he looks at her, in his delicate, soft touch. He loves her even as she leaves him, even as the life he knows with her comes to an end. I see devotion that grew and strengthened over the decades they spent together.

And so, I play for him today. I play hoping to ease the burdens of letting go, of saying goodbye. I play hoping to show that he is not alone as he walks the path of endings, that others knew and felt this pain, and told their stories of losses and leavings in these old tunes from Celtic lands. I play tunes for a breaking heart.

Towards the end of my hour on the unit, his granddaughters help him slowly shuffle down the hall to where I am playing. They find a chair and help him sit close to me. He listens so attentively, leaning towards me to hear the music. There’s a light in his eyes, a twinkle, and he smiles broadly when I finish. He looks deep into my eyes and says, “Thank you.” I look back as deeply. There are no words – the music said all that is needed.

This is why I play music, why I play the harp, why I devote my time to harp lessons, to practicing, to learning repertoire. This is why my love and my energy and my desire are all found at my harp bench. This is why I haul my harp and bench and music stand through the hospital parking deck and corridors and elevators on Tuesday afternoons. I play music for connection, and for transcendence. Today I receive both – gifts from Music, and from the ripened fruit of devotion.

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My Creative Sketchbook: Grief and Crows

Yesterday I spent time with a friend who is enduring a great loss. I came home and did this page in my sketchbook. While it won’t make my friend feel any better, my heart was a little lighter after I finished it. 





A Year Gone

No, time doesn’t heal all wounds; that’s not how it works. rather, wounds heal time – you suddenly find, after the hard work of grief, that this hard thing has made you take the hard step and you have grown. You may look more contorted, more wrinkled, more bent, more scarred. But inside the heart beats with a deeper tattoo. Grief does not depart – don’t let anyone ever convince you that it does. When you learned to walk, didn’t you fall? Didn’t it hurt? Didn’t you cry? Your legs didn’t go away, though. And grief, which gives the soul perambulation, doesn’t end. The grief gives you a new way to journey. It allows you to walk, to fly, to purchase new horizons, to see new worlds, to listen more attentively.

“After James Died” by Harry Kelley in KnitLit: Sweaters and Their Stories…And Other Writing About Knitting. Linda Roghaar and Molly Wolf. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002.

It was this day, one year ago, that I returned from my trip to Hampton Court Palace to find the email telling me that Ruth Ann died the night before. At one moment the world was sane and made sense. In the next moment, a skewed and distorted reality took its place.

This year I lived in these parallel worlds, straddling the crack that ran to the depths of my foundation. In one world, all is normal. Clocks tick, water flows downhill, and the sun rises dutifully in the east every morning. In the other world, a river of chaos roars through careening canyon walls, time refuses to move forward, and I am caught in the ever repeating loop of reading the email telling me that Ruth Ann is gone forever. There is no more sunshine. I must find a way to live in the dark.

In one world, I go to harp lessons and to recorder ensemble and to play at the hospital. I walk the dog and practice harp and knit, and resemble a normal person. In the other world, time flows backwards, and is filled with jumbled dreams of travel and temporary dwellings. Strange dream characters have malevolent purposes, and make promises that are empty lies. I awake confused and exhausted into the world that contains the all too real nightmare of Ruth Ann’s death.

Somehow, in this long year, I found a way to balance between the worlds, and survived them both. New roots grew in that sudden darkness. Signs of life are murmuring just under the surface.

I still don’t know what will break through the soil’s crust and emerge into the light, but I know it will happen. And when it does, I will call it Hope.

Turning Towards Light

Ruth Ann died five months ago. Meanwhile, the earth completed another quarter of its journey around the sun. Spring’s pastels of iris and dogwood are replaced by bold watermelon pink and purple crape myrtles, scarlet gladiolas, and orange day lilies that defy soaring heat and lack of rain. The last of the magnolia blossoms still perfume heavy summer air. The hours of light grow imperceptibly shorter each day, while the hours of night lengthen towards the darkness of winter.

I live in a precarious balance between light and darkness. Daylight hours of walking, music, knitting, and being encircled in the kindness of friends brings laughter, peace, and grounding among the living. Quiet nights bring reflection and sadness. In daylight, when I remember to breathe slowly and appreciate the fragility of all that I love, grace and gratitude can guide my way. Darker nights assail me with futility, with knowing all will be lost in the end, and leave me relieved to see the sunrise.

Someone had just passed away when I arrived at the Hospice unit last Tuesday. Family had not made it to the bedside before the patient’s final breath. I had unpacked my harp and was playing in the hallway outside this hospital room when the family arrived in a rush of heartbreak and weeping.  Once inside the room a young girl began keening,”No, no, no….I don’t want her to be dead.”

I kept playing. I kept fingers moving on the harp strings while her sobs crescendoed into wailing that echoed down the hallways with desperate cries of “No, no, no….come back, come back.” I hoped that Music could in some way comfort her fear and ease her pain, could in some way say to this family, “The world has felt this grief, and created these tunes to stand beside you on this hard journey.”

I’ve thought about this young girl all week. Thought about how she was able to scream her pain and give voice to the same words I mouthed so quietly to myself when I found out Ruth Ann was dead: No, no, no. . . . Come back, come back. . . . I don’t want you to be dead. And I see how these are everybody’s words, everybody’s desperate desire. The price of love is that we will tumble down in seemingly endless eddies of grief and fear when the ones we love leave us behind on this suddenly empty and lonely earth.

When I was twenty-something, I thought the Buddhist concept of non-attachment meant that we were not supposed to love, not supposed to care. That we were supposed to walk blasély through the world, indifferent to who and what it offered to us. Life and love and loss teach a different translation: that we must care about, and love, all that the world offers with all our heart, but with open hands. Open hands that do not clutch and grab at what is passing from them. Open hands that allow the heartbreak of endings. And open hands that once empty, are willing receptacles for approaching, as-yet-unknown joys.

In the heat and glare of a July day, darkness grows, and winter approaches. But today I remember that it is in the darkness of December, and the cold depths of winter, that the earth again turns towards light.

 

To Everything There Is A Season

The season of tulips is over:

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The season of irises begins:

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March’s wood hyacinths are fading away:

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While the Dianthus burst forth into the heat of May:

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The airy clouds of dogwood blossoms brown and fade:

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Becoming litter on the ground:

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While maple leaves unfurl into summer, creating welcome shade:

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The gifts of each season pass, but are unerringly replaced by the gifts of the next season. Every morning walk tells me this is so. Every morning walk should assure me that the passing of the season of Ruth Ann in my life will be followed by gifts of the next season, gifts as yet unimagined and unknown.

But the shape and weight of the emptiness left by her death continue to confound me. My meager tendrils of faith in the turning world struggle to take root and grow. Trusting that a new season will quietly tiptoe into my life and astound me with its beauty requires moment-by-moment suspension of disbelief.

My favorite television show is Call the Midwife. Last Sunday’s episode closed with these words:

Invisible wounds are the hardest to heal, for their closure depends upon the love of others, and patience, understanding and the tender gift of time.

I am blessed with the love of others. My own patience and understanding for my hurting heart are in short supply. But the tender gift of time arrives of its own accord, without requirements of belief, faith or consent.  And so, I act “as if” the passing of grief and the return of joy are inevitable, even while faith and trust remain out of reach. And every morning I step out the door, and keep walking.

By Way of Sorrow

I’ve avoided writing this post since four days into my trip to London, and for the last two months. I landed in London on Tuesday, February 18th. On Friday, just after visiting Hampton Court Palace, I read the e-mail my friend Jeanette said was the hardest she ever had to write, the one telling me that our friend and my soul-sister Ruth Ann died early Thursday morning.

Ruth Ann had lung surgery two weeks earlier. She told me not to come see her in the hospital – she didn’t want me picking up some nasty illness before my trip. She came through surgery like a champ, and was home recuperating and doing well. I thought the time for any potential problems was over, and that her only challenge was to slowly and steadily regain her strength and stamina. I thought that I would see her and tell her all about my trip once I was home. Some unseen, unknown, undiagnosed complication caused her to hemorrhage, and changed everything.

It was easy to do blog posts while I was in London. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I made myself leave the house every day and go see at least one of the sites on my London list. Getting to and spending time in interesting places was a much-needed distraction. Picking out which photos to post and writing some breezy description of where I’d been that day helped fill up what had become long, grief-filled evenings and sleepless nights.

But once home, there was only one thing that I could possibly write about. And to write about Ruth Ann’s death would make it far too real, and more than I could bear. This grief has been so physical, so heavy to carry. Breathing takes such an expenditure of energy, energy that seems lost and gone forever, just like Ruth Ann. It’s taken every bit of this time to believe and accept that my soul-sister no longer lives on this Earth and that I will never again gaze into her eyes and heart. It’s taken every bit of this time to wrap my heart around this emptiness.

Since coming home I’ve tried to keep showing up for all the things that fill my life, if only because I know that Ruth Ann would not want me to lose one moment of life or connection or music in my grieving for her. And so, I walk. I knit. I practice. I show up for yoga class and the Hospice unit and harp lessons and ensemble rehearsals. I spend time with still-living friends who love me and care for my aching heart. But I’ve not written a word, in either my private journal or my blog.

In the two months since Ruth Ann died, the Earth turned towards the Sun. The hours of darkness shrink, and light beckons. The oaks and maples unfurl new green leaves against a china-blue sky. Shade returns to the world. White and pink clouds of dogwood blossoms arch over the neighborhood streets. The scent of confederate jasmine hangs in the air. White azalea blossoms mound like snowdrifts, and offer backdrop for the crimson, lavender and pink azaleas that compete for attention. A sudden burst of red on green bursts into song as the cardinal perches in the cedar tree beside my driveway.

It’s Easter Sunday, the day to celebrate resurrection and redemption. Easter does not erase the pain of Ruth Ann’s passing, but it reminds me that life emerges from darkness, and that we are all offered resurrection. I breathe out gratitude for beauty that still fills this world, and for the hope that is promised this day. And that’s a start.

Death and Life

My friend with pancreatic cancer died this afternoon. I did not get to go play my harp for her again. A nasty cold kept me away the past ten days. It seemed unfair to inflict sore throat, fever and sinus congestion on someone who is already dying. Enough is enough.

I am sad that I did not get to see her again, and grateful that she is no longer suffering.

The turning cogwheel of my world is missing more and more teeth: my dad, Leo, Bettie, Patti, Ruth, John, and now Roxann. Yet, “the big wheel keeps on turnin’, ” missing teeth and all, and life rolls on.

The life that rolled on tonight was the end-of-semester Recorder Ensemble concert. Again we had more people in the audience than we had playing on stage, and many members of the audience were not related to any of the recorder players . . . I guess our fame is spreading.

This semester’s music was the most challenging I’ve played since joining the ensemble five years ago. For many of the pieces I was the solo soprano amongst the flock of altos, tenors and basses.

Tonight, for the first time, I can say that I am happy with how I played in a concert. My stomach remained in its assigned place instead of in my throat, and my hair-trigger adrenal glands did not surprise me with a sudden overdose of adrenaline. While I was not note perfect on every piece, I never lost the flow of the music, never lost the beat, and never lost the joy of playing.

Tonight, with my friend’s death heavy in my heart, I am grateful to still be in this silly old world, even with all its missing pieces. I’m grateful to be able to play music, grateful to be able to still walk among the trees and beneath the stars and with the friends who remain close by my side. I’m grateful to be able to say, “I’m happy with how I played tonight,” and to go to sleep with a satisfied mind.

Enduring Impermanence

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

I do not like this state of affairs one bit.

My teacher’s husband was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It has already metastasized to his liver. My dear friend just lost one cousin to stroke as she helped his brother with his chemotherapy appointment. A long-time friend, five years younger than me, is near the end of her fight with the stage four pancreatic cancer diagnosed six months ago.

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

Everything in the outer world that fills my heart with joy hangs by the slimmest of threads, ready to end in nothingness. The people I love, and the people who create the places and things I love to do are so fragile compared to entropy’s onward march to oblivion. How does one tender heart hold both love and loss in equal measure?

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

When it gets this ugly inside my head, I head to the ocean, head to the solace of the sea. Sitting on sand beside blue-green water, breathing to the rhythm of wave in, wave out, impermanence does not frighten me. Each wave breaks on shore in its own fashion, unique and separate for one brief moment, and then dissolves back to ocean’s depths. Light dances, each sparkle on the water existing for barely a second, yet the air shimmers like diamonds.

With only an eye-blink the scene changes. The water darkens from blue-green to turquoise. A cloud scuds across the sun and the ocean is cobalt. A line of pelicans glides overhead, wings motionless, and disappears into gray dots on the eastern horizon. The retreating tide exposes sand that moments ago was sea floor. Here, impermanence creates beauty that quiets my thoughts and soothes my soul.

Back home, it’s the impermanence of chlorophyl that creates the world of color in which I walk each morning.  Trees glow with garnet, topaz, and carnelian in morning light. With each night more green disappears; with each morning fewer jeweled leaves adorn the trees. I walk on carpets of color that crunch and crackle under my feet. Impermanence brings beauty once again.

My friend is not yet so close to death that time has lost its meaning. Her hours are long. Her days drag on even longer, the monotony broken by visits from friends and hospice nurses, and from the nodding off that the narcotics deliver in place of real sleep. She bears the pain better than the boredom. An active life that six months ago was filled with career, travel, and a vivacious social life is pared down to a narrow path between recliner, bathroom and hospital bed.

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

I brought my harp to her house and played for her today.

I’ve not played for one specific person at their bedside before. My hospital harping is in the hallway – I don’t have direct patient contact. I play there with the intention and hope that Music will bring ease to whoever might be troubled, be it their body, heart, or soul, but without knowing if or how patients are affected.

My friend was tucked up in her recliner, staring at the muted television when I arrived. As I set up my harp and bench, I told her that she did not have to do anything – no applause or conversation – but drift with the music as much as she was able. I played my favorite Celtic tunes, the ones I know by heart – tunes that echo joy and heartbreak, tunes that remember journeys and leave-takings and lands and people lost or left far behind: Aran Boat Song, Skye Boat Song, Loch Broom, Glentain Glas, Inisheer, and more.

What my friend Kristin calls the “harp magic” did its work. Despite my own uncertainties and fumbled notes, her breathing deepened and she slept, deep restful sleep. When she awoke an hour later, she whispered one word: “soothing.” I told her I would come and play again if she liked. “Yes,” she said. “Please play again.”

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be. Impermanence marks every wave, every turning leaf, every breath, every life. My friend is dying. But today Music, the mystery wave that exists without form or substance, lives and works her magic. Today Music allows us both to endure impermanence. My friend finds moments of comfort and ease, and I find joy in and gratitude for sharing these moments with her.

Goodnight, Dad

My dad died thirteen years ago today. Playing my harp at the hospice unit today was a good way to be present with my memories of him. A kind man stopped and with tears in his eyes, thanked me for playing. Perhaps I was closing a circle, perhaps I was the stranger easing his grieving heart, just as a stranger eased my dad’s passing.

This afternoon I worked on a new harp tune I’m learning, Brother James’ Air. Tonight I went to the recorder ensemble rehearsal. Playing harp and playing recorder are things that would have made my dad happy for me, had I done them while he was still alive. He loved music, and he gave his love of music to me.

I can’t ask for a better legacy.

Time For A Change

January 2007 began with my brother-in-law dying of leukemia. In March I took my soul-brother off the ventilator and held his hand as his spirit flew off to see what happens next. As the year continued, two work colleagues left this earth, along with a dear man who mentored me early in my career.

Later that spring, my oldest cat began throwing up blood, a symptom of the lymphoma that was supposed to have killed her six years ago, and she had to be put down. In August my cairn terrier’s diabetes became too brittle to be controlled by insulin injections, and Skylar joined Arrow on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge.

In October my surviving cat Willow developed uncontrolled vomiting, which resulted in exploratory surgery, followed by a month of keeping her alive at home by four-times-a-day forced nutrition through a feeding tube.

The first week in November, Willow went upstairs still connected to her feeding tube, and came back downstairs without it. She decided that enough was enough and used her time alone to pull it out. On the way home from the vet, a speeding car ran a red light and hit me broadside as I was making a left turn. By the time my sweet old ’93 Volvo wagon stopped spinning, headlight and tail light covers popped off and were strewn in the roadway, every piece of plastic on the inside of the car shattered, and the rear axle snapped in two. The legendary Volvo frame was so bent that once the fireman forced the rear hatch open, the entire car skewed so that neither side doors nor rear hatch could be closed again.

So 2007 ended with my car dying to save me and my cat – we both emerged shaken and bruised, but we walked away basically unharmed.

At the end of 2007, the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles decided that those of us who had old, three-digit license plates had to be issued new four-digit license plates. I’d had the same plate for at least 20 years, and I wasn’t looking forward to having to memorize a new tag number. But when I opened the package with the new tag, I knew that I’d have no problem remembering it. This is what the DMV decided I needed that crazy year:

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Turns out there was big public outrage about plates being issued with that particular combination of letters. The DMV ended that tag run and offered to replace the existing tags of anyone who was offended. But I loved my new license plate. It completely and thoroughly summed up surviving 2007.

But now, 2007 feels well behind me. Now, in 2013, it’s time for a change. I’ve thought about a personalized license plate for the last couple of years, but when tag renewal time rolled around, I talked myself out of the extra expense. Thanks to refinancing the mortgage, last month I had a little extra cash in my checking account, and I decided to take the plunge. The new tag arrived yesterday evening, and I braved the latest horde of mosquitoes to install it.

Here’s what my car will be sporting for the next few years:

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My old tag reminded me of everyone I lost that long year, and all that I survived. My new tag makes me giggle. I like the change.