When the world opens up

A remarkable thing happened to me this past weekend.

We spent the weekend with a group of Dutchy friends in an area close to where we had had our last family vacation together with Jan.

There is a process to grief and grieving and I suppose that I had become quite an adept in avoiding certain places or things that would remind me of the past and of loss. It may sound strange, but I think a lot of my coping process lay in avoiding the painful parts and focusing on the present.

So there we were, out on a walk in the countryside, and my eldest son suddenly says: Mom, isn’t this the place where we spent our last holiday?

That last holiday was memorable, not only because it was the last one, but also because we were staying at a really nice place with a lovely view of mountains and with a road going down to the river where the kids spent a number of afternoons wading or trying to make pebbles skip on the surface of the water.

That’s not possible, I said to my eldest son.

But even as I said the words, we rounded the bend and there was a familiar sight. The same road, we had argued over taking, the same road going up to the apartments where we had rented a room.

And just like that, I was in tears.

The great thing about Dutch people is how discrete they can be and how they will let you be alone with whatever it is you need to be alone with unless you ask for company to share that moment with you.

Later that day, in a conversation with another mother, the subject of my writing came up. It is very strange to talk about your work as a writer when you feel like you aren’t one anymore. But we talked about it and about her seven year old daughter who writes small interesting stories. She asked me how long I had been writing and I told her that I had dictated my first story to my mother when I was three or four years old. She told me about her daughter doing the same thing with her. And as we talked, I realised how good it felt to be able to encourage someone–to be able to encourage a possible young writer in the art of storytelling. (It was also very lovely to meet a Mom who was keen on encouraging their child’s creativity in this way.)

In that moment, I felt a shift in myself. I don’t know how to describe it, but on the trip back, I kept thinking of the word Alive.

I also thought of the conversation I had with one of Jan’s closest friends and of how he told me about the world narrowing down when his father died and how at a certain point, the world opened up again. Different, changed, but no longer a tunnel.

I am still quite astounded by it and so I had to write it here. To mark it in some way.

Pain and loss have marked us, but we are alive and the world has opened up. We are no longer in the tunnel. I am finally allowing myself to look forward with something more than just the will to survive and to make a life.

I started writing again over the weekend. It is still raw and unfinished, but it is honest and truthful and it is science fiction.

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Where I am at and dear God, but living is painful

Liz Williams sent me a note asking me how I was doing. It came at a time when I was in the absolute pits, thinking there was really no point anymore and I just can’t do anything right, can I? That short note was like a jolt of lightning.

How can I think of giving up on life when I have been constantly lifted up these past two years?

There is a point—I don’t know what it is. Is it grief? Is it mourning? Is it guilt? I don’t know what it is, but there is a point when giving up seems like the only thing left to do.

Just let me lie down and wallow in my grief. Just go away and leave me to be miserable and lost and chaotic and forgotten. Don’t look at me because what has overcome me feels so terrible that it might touch you too.

I was like that.

For a while, I decided I wasn’t good for anyone…even for my children. I thought, if I can just make sure that my kids are in a stable and safe place, then it will be all right.

This moment of despair came in part because no matter how I tried, I just couldn’t write properly anymore. (Still can’t, btw.)

When I write, it seems my words keep turning back to sorrow. I cry. My body aches. I read the words and the words turn into tears.

That is what writing has been like for a good long while.

There is this thing about grief and loss. It’s okay to talk about it for a while, but as time passes, we start to tell ourselves this story—

“You’re grown up. You’re an adult. You’re a strong person. You can do this.”

I also started to tell myself this story:

“Your grief is so heavy and burdensome. You shouldn’t be a burden to others. You mustn’t burden those around you with your grief.“

And so, it goes like that. That story I kept telling myself.

I guess, we all need just that one person to make us face the truth of how much bullshit that story is.

Grief strikes anywhere at anytime. Sorrow has no respect for passing time.

So what if a year has passed or two years or five or even ten?

It doesn’t make loss insignificant.

Just because I still feel the pain of loss doesn’t mean I am no longer intent on living and just because I am intent on living doesn’t mean I no longer feel the pain.

*with apologies to Liz for mentioning her note without permission and for my failure to reply in any way at all.

Slow small step

It has been quite a while since I wrote on this blog. My last entry was full of hope and looking forward and since then, life happened as it always does.

There have been moments when I wanted to erase myself from the world. When I wanted to give up, to just vanish, to just be no more.

My kids lost their father, their aunt and their grandfather. All within a short span of time. I lost a husband, a beloved sister and a father.

How do you write about such things? How do you help your children cope with loss when some days feel like a never-ending dream with empty spaces?

I am writing in this space because I need to remind myself that the journey has also had its beautiful moments. I need to commemorate the fact that we are here now and that my children are in a much better space than we were a year ago. I am in a much better space than I was in the preceding months of this year. I am able to sit down and write and I am able to raise my head and look to the future again.

Sometimes, I will encounter a friend or an acquaintance who hasn’t heard about our past 21 months.

How do you answer the question “How are you doing?”

I am doing as well as I can and coping as best as I can. In these past months it has meant not being on social media. It has meant limiting everything that requires energy. It has meant letting go of so many things.

I have sometimes wondered if I will be able to write again. Words seem meaningless sometimes. But here I am, writing words. I guess, this is how it is. Because I live so much in words, it won’t be real if I don’t write it.

One Sunday evening before going to bed, my youngest son told me how much he missed his father.

“I know,” I said to him. “I know exactly how you feel.”

I also know what it’s like to have to miss a father.

Moving forward means acknowledging loss and the pain of loss.

The Dutch have a great way of expressing the moment of acknowledgment: stilstaan.

A minute of silence. A moment of pondering. A time when everything falls still.

Our time has started up again. Slow small steps. We are moving forward.

Process: How we change

“. . .time stretches out. Sixty, seventy or eighty years—they pass swiftly for us, but learn to breathe as humans do and time wraps itself around you, steps to the rhythm of your being, to the pulse of the space you choose to occupy.”  -excerpt from the work in progress-

I am revising a long work that I was working on before my husband died. I don’t know yet if it will be a novella or a novel, but it was the first thing that came to mind when I thought of writing again. Those who supported the kickstarter campaign that saw us through that most difficult time have probably read the En piece. It is from that piece that this longer work grew.

Today, I am thinking of change. I think of life and loss and of how we change in our approach to art and life. A good friend said to me once that when you have faced death, there is nothing left to be afraid of. It’s a thought that echoes over and over again in my mind.

I think of fear–and of the drive to publish and once published to be noticed, to be mentioned, to be read.

But when your focus is completely shot (loss can do that to you), you can’t music, art or write. There’s just you struggling to make sense of this thing that has overcome you. For a while, I wondered if the writing died when my husband died. The possibility of being happy again, of writing again–these were things that seemed right beyond my reach. Continue reading

Updatery and such

It still continues to be busy. In some ways, it’s busier than it was. In other ways, it’s a bit more quiet. I like that I get to have alone time when I can do whatever I like but the house has its demands and there are things that need to be done.

This past month, I finished working on an essay I’d promised Maurice Broaddus. I think of the encouragement that comes to me in emails, in publications (Magnifica Angelica Superable was published on Lightspeed this month), and in conversations had with beloved ones. It may sound strange but I feel like I am coming back from a long way away.

I think of Laura telling me how deaths of those close to us change us. I think of one of our friends telling me that when his father died, the world narrowed down and became somehow sharper. Different.

I think of what it’s like to fall in-between cracks and how there is that moment between losing someone and being alive when it feels like the left behind are hovering somewhere in a place like indefinite limbo while the world goes on.

It feels just right that I am reading a Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Intelligent Rodents with my youngest son. Youngest son can read the book all by himself, but we borrowed this book expressly to read together. A bedtime ritual where he listens and imagines while I try to make the story feel as real as possible with the reading of it.

There is death in this book. In the past two nights, two of the intelligent rodents have died. Pratchett doesn’t turn away from those deaths. Rather he lays it on the page, factual and clear. It happened. A rat died. We stand still for a moment, thinking on that death and then Pratchett moves us onward–the story continues. It’s not that the death doesn’t matter. It does, but life goes on and characters move forward and think about what happens next.

On some days, it’s a dilemma. How to make it so that a child doesn’t sink into the quagmire of sorrow and despair.

Tearing a book out of Pratchett’s page, I acknowledge my child’s sorrow. It’s sad and it’s a terrible thing, but tomorrow is a promise. Let’s think about what we want to do tomorrow. Where do you want to go? What do you want to see? What about next week? What about next month? What about next year?

I understand very well that grief doesn’t ever go away. That grief is not a neat and orderly process but it comes in waves and flags and sometimes at the most inconvenient and untidy of moments. It is as it is. There is no changing the reality. But we go on. We hang together. And then, I find myself thankful and glad that I can still be here for my children.

You don’t get over it

I am reading a book about grief and grieving children. Sometimes I think that with the passage of time, we will get over it. If I am strong enough. If I am cheerful enough. If I keep a positive outlook and greet everyday with a gung-ho attitude…we will reach a space where we are no longer grieving.

For a while, I hated the idea that my children were without a father. My first impulse being to do something, to find something–to reach out and fill up that gap. But slowly, I am coming to recognise that there is no filling up that gap because it is already filled. My kids are not without a father.

Yesterday, I learned that one of my friends had lost his father in a brutal wrenching away of life. This friend was 19 years old when it happened.

I told him about my youngest son weeping over the fact that he could no longer recall the sound of his father’s voice.

“It’s okay,” my friend said. ( Youngest son was listening in as we were talking on skype.)

“Your memory becomes a bit vague. You forget how he sounded. Sometimes, you don’t remember what he looked like. But you look at photos and you remember the feeling. The feeling is the most important thing.”

It dawned on me then that no matter his physical absence, their father will always be present with us. He is here in our memories and in the feelings that we have when we think or talk about him.

I think of conversations I’ve had with the kids–about boats and distant shores and rowing together.

My kids are not fatherless. Their Dad is always with us. In memories and in the feeling.

Process: Fire and Life and Story

Wrote 1647 words to the wip yesterday.

Worked on that story that I let lie for a long long time.

I am sitting at my writing desk–butt in chair, eyes to the screen. I plan to write and I plan to keep on writing.

I think of conversations had with friends about the writer’s life and the act of writing. I think of stories and I think of fire and I think of how what is twisted and cold and hateful will always try to kill what is warm and passionate and alive.

Fire and life.

I think of how we come to story from many different backgrounds. Half-scared out of our skins because to write story is to bare yourself to the world. It is to make yourself vulnerable and open to possible derision, to possible shaming, to possible rejection, to possible pain. And yet, we keep doing it. Again and again and again.

While sorting through the business of paperwork and thinking through how I should go on, I told the accountant who was helping me to deal with the finance side of stuff that I was working on my first novel. She smiled and told me that it’s a rare writer who is able to make a living off of their writing. I know this. I know this very well.

Still, I write.

I write because stories are life. They remind me of hope and joy and of the passion that is so vital to life. I know what it’s like to walk in this world carrying worlds inside my body–to have that feeling of knowing a place that is beyond the space my physical self occupies.

 

Story is a fire. It is my job to open the door, to make the fire so inviting that the reader can’t help but come in. It is my job to make the world I carry inside me become just as real to the reader as it is to me.

There is enough killing hatred in the world. There are enough people who populate the world with killing words and killing deeds.

Words have power. (Fantasy reminds us of this.)

I write to remember that the world is filled with infinite possibilities, that there is still hope, that we have the power to change, that we can change ourselves and the world around us.

Blow fire into your story.  Keep hold of your hope. Be contagious.

Work in Progress

Someone asked me how my experience of loss would affect the work in progress. I remember saying that I didn’t know. Would I have more death in my work? Would sorrow be more present? Would my characters change? In what way would the world and the characters occupying that world be changed?

A very dear friend of mine told me during one of our conversations that when she went through deep loss, she looked for the gift her loved ones had left for her to find. Looking is a painful process. So is letting go. So is moving forward.

Let go. Step forward. Change.

Our lives have changed drastically. Beyond the empty spaces, room has opened up for us and we are exploring and coming to terms with this new territory that is our life after loss.

Yesterday, I returned to working on Flight of the Body Cartographer. I understand better now how loss can touch me, can touch those I love, can change me, can change the shape and the contour of the world.

Looking back, I think there was still a lot in the wip that was rather vague or undefined. It felt to me like the draft of a draft even though it also felt in parts as if it was already complete.

Going back to the work yesterday, I understood the dissatisfaction I had felt with what I’d written down in the past.

During a visit, one of my husband’s friends said to me: after loss, the world narrows down. Colours are sharper. Your focus shifts and changes for a while. Then the world widens up, it’s still the same world, but different.

I think he was very right.

Like story, life is also a work in progress.

Today

altar

Some years ago, I lost a very dear friend. In memory of her, I wrote a remembrance of gains and losses. I think of gains and losses today because I am remembering.

I think of how life after loss is similar to a losing one’s way in the dark. Familiar things become unfamiliar, one becomes disoriented, and for a while, it is like traveling or walking inside a dream.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. Inside the cocoon I built for myself, the world went on and I couldn’t care less. I remember my sister scolding me when she got here and how I felt like I had reverted to my teenage years. After my sister went home, the world felt very strange. At times, it was as if my kids and I were siblings.

When word of my sister’s passing came to me, I felt as if the world caved in.

I think that if it were not for the steady and constant presence of one of our family friends, our family boat would have capsized and sunk. I was that lost.

But, we had counselling and regular visits from municipality assigned coaches. Slowly and surely, we got back–we are still getting back to our feet.

Yesterday, my coach told me that I seemed like a much different woman from the woman she met for the first time six months ago.

You are stronger now, she said. You are more present.

I can feel it too. I still don’t like going to the graveyard. Maybe in time, it will be easier. For now, I have a regular rite of remembering.  I refresh the flowers in the little vase, I put new trinkets in their corner. I tell them the little bird dropped by to say hello. The vase is from one of my lovely students, the flowers I picked up on impulse at the garden centre.  The shells are in remembrance of beach walks and beach visits.

I am thankful for the time I spent with both of you. I am thankful that I loved you. I am thankful I knew you. I am thankful for the lessons I learned while walking with you. I am thankful I have the memory of you to enrich me.

Light a candle. I remember.

What it’s like

Today, someone asked me what it feels like.

“I mean, you lost your husband and then now you’ve lost your sister.”

How do you put into words what it feels like to lose the other half of your heart?  She was always there–my sister. In the darkest periods of my life, I hang onto the thought that my sister was always there. She was witness to my wildest dreams and imaginings and she was the person I confided in the most in times of deep despair. She loved me steadfastly even when she didn’t agree with the choices I made and even when it grieved her to see me walk away from the path that was familiar to us both.

I have a memory of my elder sister from when we were in grade school. Back then, going to school meant climbing down the mountain path to the gravelled road and then a 10-15 minute hike to the central school. I was always slow back then and a little bit of a spoiled child.

(My sister, being much quicker on her feet always was at least a few feet in front of me. )
In this memory, my sister has reached the bend in the mountain path–a couple of meters down from home. I am still at the top of the path. It had rained in the night and the path was a bit slippery and being the scaredy-cat that I was, I wanted my sister to come back and help me down the slippery slope. She, on the other hand, was already impatient to go to school because the first bell had already rung.

I remember my sister telling me to hurry up and I remember crouching there and crying for her to come get me.

Finally, she came marching back up the mountain slope. I still remember the look on her face.

Regardless of how aggravated she was, she helped me down from the top of the slope. She held my hand until we got to a place where the earth was less slippery.

My heart aches.

I have so many memories. Of stories shared in the dark of night after the lights went out–of listening for the crunch of gravel outside our bedroom window–of running up and down the mountainside.

There are not enough words to say what it’s like.