Justine and I finished the book “Little House on the Prairie” last night before bed. It’s been a fascinating read as an adult to my child, not least because I remember my father reading those books to me as a young girl. But I also have enjoyed the history lesson, one I can maybe appreciate more as a grown-up. On more than one occasion, I’ve mentioned Laura Ingall’s list of chores while trying to get Justine to simply set the table. “She helped her father build a house!” Those pioneer’s were tough folks, but they carried on to make what they thought would be a better life for their families. America has changed so much since then, so it’s been interesting to visit our history, especially (in Justine’s case) to have it told by a girl.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been delving more into my own heritage of strong American women that made a difference for themselves and others, that paved the way for the freedoms we have now. This may be the closest I ever get to homeschooling, but I’ve invited Justine into the project, introducing her to some of the foremothers I admired when I was young. Their legacy can inspire both of us.
I started with Eleanor Roosevelt…
Susan B. Anthony
We have so much to learn from those who came before. And so much to be thankful to them for.
My ears haven’t been working all week. I feel like an old lady, asking the kids to repeat themselves four or five times. I went to the Dr, on Friday, but he says it’s temporary, my eardrums are recessed due to blocked sinuses. He wrote me a prescription, but advised it was best to just let them heal on their own or with the help of a decongestant. I’ve never been so deaf before—It’s uncomfortable, strange, and the closest I’ve had to a real disability. It makes me thankful for the gift of hearing, that I’d surely taken for granted before. Also, it’s slowed me down, helped me to listen better…partly because I have to work at it.
One thing it’s allowed me to listen to is my inner voice, which has been urging me to paint, paint, paint. I had an idea a few weeks ago that I’ve been running with, starting with a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt over the New Year weekend. I’ll explain more about that project in another post, perhaps. Another thing grief (and being an artist…or maybe even, human) has taught me is that when things are going well in a certain area, enjoy it, go with it, obey it. You don’t know how long it will last. Just by observing the state of my house this week, one can see that everything else has gone to the back burner as I sit day after day at the table and paint. It’s a therapy that worked for our family during Vernon’s ordeal, why shouldn’t I be painting now? There is no argument.
Here are some paintings on paper that I made for each of us in our family to honor Vernon’s memory. We each have a different symbol that keeps his memory alive in the world for us. I wanted to solidify these things a little more for them (and myself.) Perhaps we will put them up where his portrait used to hang.
“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”—Vincent Van Gogh
Michael Faber is one of my favorite authors. He published a novel in 2014, which normally I would have jumped to get my hands on, but with everything going on with Vernon, I didn’t stop to read it. Then I came across it in my local library last weekend. I finished the 500-page book this morning, after a mere three nights. It’s a rare book that keeps me reading while I’m getting the kids ready for school and waiting in parking lots for pickup…let alone staying up late. The book is called “The Book of Strange New Things,” and it turns out that NOW was the right time to read it, not three years ago.
Basically its the story of a loving couple who are separated when the husband, Peter, a minister, takes a mission to a space station in some unknown planet as a missionary to the species who live there. Peter and his wife Bea are only able to email each other sporadically, with lags in their communication, due to distance and time. As he tries to acclimate to his new surroundings, Bea’s world is falling apart and she struggles to survive. They love each other, but they have trouble relating to what the other is experiencing. It wasn’t long before I myself felt incredibly moved by the story. I felt like the story could have been about Vernon and I (even Eva’s voice reminded me of my own)— the long goodbye we shared, living in two different proverbial planets…and his moving deeper into the strange adventure of his brain injury, when I was left alone trying to understand where he’d disappeared to, trying to remind him of US. The story also deeply resonated with me in the sense of grief after death—yearning and longing for my other half, who was clearly no where I could reach. There were other things, too, that made me gasp again and again as the story dug its way into my heart, pulling out new things for me to reflect on. To me, at this point in my life, it was the perfect novel: strangely more true than false, taking me out of my head to understand my own surreal life a little better.
Imagine getting this in a letter from your Dear Departed: “This mission has turned out very different from what I anticipated. The things I expected to have a lot of trouble with have gone astonishingly smoothly, but I feel out of my depth in other ways I never imagined. ….But what has actually tested me beyond my abilities is the gulf that has opened up between you and me. I don’t mean an emotional gulf, in that my feelings for you have changed in any way. I mean a barrier that circumstances has pushed between us. Of course, physically, we are a huge distance apart. That doesn’t help. But the main thing I’m having to confront is that our relationship, until now, has totally depended on us being together. Suddenly we’re on different paths. And your path has veered off in a frighteningly strange direction.”
It turns out that Faber’s own wife passed away shortly before the book was published. For Eva—the dedication of all his books. She’d had cancer for six years, but she had insisted during that time that he finish the book. When I read that, I understood why the book had met me on such a profound level: he was writing about dying and the grief of separation, even though the story seems to be about something else. I also found out that after her death three years ago, he published a book of grief poems about her. I ordered it yesterday— can’t wait to read it.
“Books are the mirrors of the soul.” —Virginia Woolf
Somehow I got the kids both to school in record time with very little complaining. It’s the first day back to school after what seems like a very long Christmas break. And it was raining!
We love rain and the stormy skies—despite being a rare hydrating treat, this weather makes us all think of England, recalling tangible elements of a different world that once was ours. I love mornings like this, even pre-coffee. Morning routine, ridiculous in its start-time is good for us all…a different kind of ‘togetherness,’ where everyone quickly finds their role and sticks to it more or less. We’ve come a long way since school started in August. It took me months to find the groove. Then again, Vernon was dying those first weeks of school, and this little break was drama-free, other than a couple bouts of cold.
On the way back to my car after dropping Justine, I reached into the pocket of the puffer coat, which hadn’t worn since November’s trip to England, and found a few coins. How fitting! England is staying with me this morning.
So in light of that, I’ll share something I wrote there that I don’t believe I’ve posted here yet…I’ve kind of been meaning to anyway.
I’ve got you in my pocket
A little piece of flint, smooth on one side, rough on the other
that I found on a beach Kent…
where we never ever were together.
A broken shell that looks like a pigeon
if I hold it up to the light just right
A Union Jack pin for our daughter’s first grade backpack.
Pockets get worn, jackets outgrown,
fragments of fluff, chipped bits of stone.
The anchors lines are fraying—
whatever ties you to the earth.
Soon there will be no substance
but what I carry in my heart.
(An Alien Landscape—actually, I am the alien here. Ramsgate, UK)
“Becoming is better than being” —Carol S. Dweck
I love this grey, wet weather—such a treat in Southern California. It does slow us down though. And then we’ve all had colds, which also slow us down. All during the last week of school holiday. Actually, it has been nice to relax into this no-pressure time. So much for starting the new year with a bang…more like a ka-choo! At any rate, we are still in exhale-mode.
I’ve written here before about Growth Mindset…but at the time, I was probably referring to ways that Vernon might grow his brain back. In the end, it was clear that he had a very fixed mind that literally could not learn. But I want to challenge my own mindsets, so that my own brain might grow. It may not grow back, but it can grow forward! To get a better handle on it, I’ve been reading the book Mindset by Carol S Dweck and thinking about my perceived strengths and weakness. Maybe that’s why, that almost on a whim yesterday, I not only signed myself up for a photography class at the local college but signed Maki up too. (I did ask him first!) I figure it’s something that will make both of us smarter and more able, and its something we can do together. We both need to keep learning, it doesn’t matter if we are thirty years apart.
I feel that is something I miss, coming back into the next chapter of life: After Vernon. At least while taking care of him, I was learning as I went. I didn’t like it, but it kept me engaged in something I thought was positive and important,—even strangely fulfilling. People used to tell me I was a good advocate for him, and sometimes I was even called a good caregiver, but those are things I learned to do because I had no choice but to practice them. In time, I gained confidence, but the skill wasn’t a natural talent…it was a developed one. My brain changed. Now I can’t look to Vernon’s health as a reason for growth and learning. But I can look at the kids—I can certainly learn to be a better mother. I can look further into the things that interest me, and I can develop them. I can learn to work better on the areas that hold me back. And hopefully this will all dovetail into my career, complimenting all the bits and pieces of stuff that it has always been filled with. Or maybe it will change it entirely. It’s a messy path, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be successful. I just need to keep learning how to do it!
There is much to look forward to. Many challenges…mostly in my own mind. Here’s to learning, being teachable, getting better with time…for all of us!
Recently, Maki had a real upswing in his guitar playing. Suddenly after years of simply noodling around on the instrument and practicing off and on, he could sit down and teach himself several songs in a row. He was also writing his own music and recording it. I asked him: “What changed? You used to not seem very interested. Now you are playing guitar all the time.”
He shrugged: “I finally knew enough to really enjoy it.”
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” —George Bernard Shaw