Be Gentle With Yourself

Sailing_Boats_Sea_460294A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about my body—specifically about learning to love it and care for it, as one would tend a garden.

In a similar vein, this morning I read Richard Rohr’s daily contemplation, “Stream of Consciousness.”  Rohr leads us through a thought process that teaches us to reject bad thoughts (about ourselves) and to be gentle with our souls:

Imagine a river or stream. You’re sitting on the bank of this river, where boats and ships are sailing past. While the stream flows past your inner eye, I ask you to name each one of the “vessels” or thoughts floating by. For example, one of the boats could be called “my anxiety about tomorrow.” Or along comes the ship “objections to my spouse” or “I don’t do that well.” Every judgment that you pass is one of these boats. Take the time to give each one of them a name, and then let it move on.

I do this all the time—I’m a worrier. Always have been. Even as a child worry frequently kept me up at night. I love Rohr’s imagery here… as those “ships” pass through my mind, I can choose to just let them float by. It’s interesting that he says first to give each one a name. Maybe naming our worrisome thoughts can help us let go of them. But it’s also important HOW we do this:

The point is to recognize thoughts and feelings and to say, “That’s not necessary; I don’t need that.” But do it very amiably. If we learn to handle our own souls tenderly and lovingly, then we’ll be able to carry this same loving wisdom into our other relationships.

635841821484313963-2081126144_worryThat’s not necessary. It’s not necessary for me to dwell on my weight gain and my struggles with food. It’s not necessary for me to dwell on issues with family members or friends that might be stressful. What a better approach to those distractions than trying to attack them, or putting ourselves down when we let them overcome us.

I have an appointment with a cardiologist today, because of an irregular EKG at my annual physical a couple of weeks ago. Of course I’ve been worried about it, but this morning’s contemplation is helping me let that ship sail on by. That doesn’t mean I won’t go to the doctor’s office and deal with it. It just means that I won’t let it derail me. It is what it is, and worrying about it won’t help. (Easy words to say… much harder to practice, at least for me.)

You know, I don’t just worry about negative things. I worry about good stuff, too! Like the exciting book tour I’m embarking on in March. Now that the books are getting published and the events are scheduled (both wonderful accomplishments to be proud of and excited about) my “worry wart” (what my dad used to call me) brain wants me to be anxious about those events. What if not many people show up? What if I’m too nervous to do a good job reading and talking about my books? What if I don’t sell enough books at the expensive venue I rented for one event? What if too many people show up in a small bookstore and there’s not room for them to sit? (Wouldn’t that be a wonderful problem?)

Sail on by, worry boats. I’ve got good things to focus on today. And a wonderful soul and body to care for.

Books I Did NOT Write About Alzheimer’s

top-alzheimers-and-dementia-books-for-caregiversSince my first book, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, is coming out soon (release date is January 31!) and I have numerous events at which I’ll be reading and discussing the book in the coming months, I’ve begun preparing for those events a bit. I’ve chosen which excerpts from the book I might like to read at various events, but I’ve also been thinking about how much is NOT included in the book. About the questions I might be asked during discussion times—including questions for which I might not have answers.

To that end, I’ve created a list of books I DID NOT WRITE about Alzheimer’s, which might serve as resources for those wanting to read/learn more. I’m going to print the list off and give out copies at readings. This is a very short list. If you Google the topic, you’ll find dozens, possibly hundreds of other books and articles. And while you might wonder why I have not read more widely on the subject, all I can see is that I was too busy living the very personal journey with my mother.

Memoirs:

Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir by Martha Stettinius

The Living End: A Memoir of Forgiving and Forgetting by Robert Leleux

Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me (an illustrated/graphic memoir) by Sarah Leavitt
Novels:

Still Alice by Lisa Genova (movie starring Julianne Moore) “Alice” is a cognitive psychology professor at Harvard who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s….

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante (New York Times bestseller about a retired orthopedic surgeon suffering from dementia.)

Academic:

Families Caregiving for an Aging America

Follow this link to purchase the report or download a free (PDF) copy of the report:

https://www.nap.edu/catalog/23606/families-caring-for-an-aging-america?gclid=COHjg46mptECFQ6BaQodq34A1g

 

The books on my short list aren’t included in other lists I found online, like these (for those who want to read more widely):

Top 5 Books on Alzheimer’s Disease

Recommended Reading from the Alzheimer’s Association

Top Alzheimer’s and Dementia Books for Caregivers (from the senior living blog, “A Place For Mom”

Journaling Through Advent

My friend Julie Cantrell (who happens to be an award-winning author) has been posting Advent Journal Prompts on Facebook every day since December 1. When I first started trying to participate, I was a bit overwhelmed by the depth of Julie’s words. (She should hang a shingle.) I thought I would write from her daily prompts, but quickly realized it would take an hour or more each day, and I decided not to participate at that level. I have continued to read them every day, though, and even thinking through what I might write has been helpful.

adventjournalslice1

 

Julie leads us through a journey back to our childhoods, to our happy memories, our sad memories, traumatic events, and victories. She asks us to remember who was at our side during all of these times—who cheered us on, but also who might have been jealous or not supportive at times. This might sound negative, but she goes on to encourage us to not only be thankful for the support we have received in our lives, but also to forgive those who haven’t been supportive, or who have hurt us. Although I’ve already worked through many of the “steps” she is suggesting, I did find it helpful to be reminded of my journey.

I love what Julie wrote on Day 1:

I believe every spirit was brought into this life for a reason. Your life is no accident. You are no mistake. Search your soul. Why has God really brought you here? What is your true purpose in this life? …. And then ask, am I on the right path to achieve that missions? If not, what steps can I take today to reach that goal?

I found this to be extremely helpful. Life offers so many options, including choices that can lead us off the best path for our lives. I’ve definitely strayed from that best path many times in my 65 years, and I’m sure I’ll continue to make some bad choices in the future. But focusing on what my “true purpose” in this life might be really helps.

P1010320For some people, their true purpose is revealed to them clearly—through a career, or being a parent, or a caregiver, or living a life that involves helping others. But for those of us who are artists—writers, musicians, painters, etc.—I think it’s harder to be clear about this. Making art can be a solitary pursuit, and it’s easy to feel selfish spending so many hours every week alone with our work. We don’t even have the opportunity to reach out to coworkers and maybe be the light they need in their lives, since we don’t go to an office and we don’t have coworkers. This is probably the thing I miss most about working alone. So I have to consciously reach out to find others with whom to interact. In my younger years I found these people through my children’s parents at school, soccer games, and other activities. As the children grew older and away from me, I found these people more through church activities. In recent years, I’ve found them right outside my door, in my neighbors. And also in my writing community, although we communicate more through emails and Facebook than in person. I am thankful that one of my neighbors is also a writer and has become a close friend. And I am thankful for my writing group that meets monthly, not only to critique one another’s work, but for that interaction we all crave.

In Julie’s Journal Prompt for today (December 7) she asks us to look back at challenges we have survived that we thought we wouldn’t be able to handle. And also:

What accomplishments have you achieved that you once believed were out of your reach?… Write an entry in honor of your beautiful, brave, survivor spirit. Celebrate the fact that you have already endured many of life’s greatest battles….

And then she asks, “What has kept you going through the hard times? When you felt most alone, most unloved, most afraid… what got you through to your next breath? Do you have a name for that? Would you call it God? Why or why not?”

I love that she points us in such a positive direction after a week of pretty heavy soul-searching (Journal Prompts 2-6, which I didn’t write about here). As a survivor of sexual abuse and cancer, and a daily struggler with eating disorders and depression, I can say that although sometimes it is a person—a friend, or my husband, or one of my children—who gets me through each of these hard times, at the end of the day it is God. The God of my childhood, my early adulthood, and now, of this later season of my life.

Thank you, Julie, for guiding us through what can often be a difficult season (Christmas holidays) with your wisdom and kindness. I look forward to continuing the journey.

An Apology From This Old Blogger

A few weeks ago I got a comment on my blog that said something like, “It’s great to see older people blogging.” Needless to say, I didn’t allow it to be published on my site. Instead I allowed myself to be slightly offended—why did this person think I am old? Does he know I’m only 65? Does he think 65 is old? Has he seen my picture and thinks I’m a curmudgeonly grandmother-type? Hmmph!

Barbara Crafton

Barbara Crafton

And then yesterday I read Barbara Cawthorne Crafton’s “Almost-Daily eMo” from The Geranium Farm. Although the piece was talking about an image of the Mother of God and Christ with angels, St. Francis was in the corner of the picture, and she focused on his appearance. From that she morphed into why she was having a new picture made of herself, and why we care what someone looks like—or why we want to know what someone looks like.

We really want to know what people look like. Radio announcers—you have a vision of them in your imagination, and it can be disconcerting meeting them in person. Some people only SOUND tall, dark and handsome.

Authors, too: we think we know who they are because we have read their words. We picture them in our minds, and when we see photographs of them, we’re slightly shocked. She sounds so sexy and gorgeous. How can she look like my grandmother?

One answer to this, of course, is that you may have seriously underestimated your grandmother. And the other is that the mind itself is beautiful, and far more potent in its beauty than anything the body can summon. Young people receive this news with minimal interest, but older folks are counting on it.

 Yes, I want to be considered sexy and gorgeous, and I think that my grandmother (my mother’s mother) was beautiful, and my mother—who died at 88 this past May—was gorgeous, even as a great-grandmother. I paid good money for a professional photographer to capture my best look for my author photo (which I use as a profile photo on Facebook) and I carefully screen and crop any photos before posting them. I guess I’m pretty vain, but growing up as a woman in the South teaches us to always put our best face forward. (I love the title of Southern author Shellie Rushing Tomlinson’s book, Suck In Your Stomach and Put Some Color On!)

There’s nothing wrong with caring about our physical appearance, so long as we care more about what’s on the inside. And so long as we spend as much time and energy cultivating generative lives—reaching out to others and being active in our creative lives—as we spend on our physical bodies. I think this becomes more prominent in our thinking as we get older, which is one reason I decided to put together the anthology I edited, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be (coming from Mercer University Press in March, 2017).

CourageNow that I’ve discovered Crafton’s Almost-Daily eMos, I’ve become a fan of her writing. I just ordered her book, The Courage to Grow Old (Moorehouse Publishing, 2014). As I consider what she might have to share, I glance over at the books on the turntable beside my “reading chair,” and I remember discovering—about this time two years ago—Nicholas Delbanco’s wonderful book, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age. And then I re-read my blog post about the book, “Tribal Elders and a Hopeful Genre,” and I’m delighted to see my progress since then! I was still plugging away on my novel (a six-year work in progress for which I now have a contract pending… more on that soon!) and I hadn’t even conceived of Tangles and Plaques or A Second Blooming, my two books coming out in January and March of 2017! I wrote about my sadness at not having achieved my goal of publishing a book by age 60… and now I’ll have two books by 65. Just barely, as I’ll turn 66 on March 8.

If it sounds like I’m rambling now, that’s because I am. What started as a post about physical appearance has morphed into an emotional outpouring from my “old” soul. So, if the reader who commented that he was glad to see older folks blogging is still reading my blog, please forgive me for not publishing your comment. Send me another comment, and I’ll try to be less defensive. Today this old blogger is feeling thankful to be doing what I love. Thanks for reading!

I Want More

sign_languageJust over three years ago I posted this:

Mental Health Monday: We Want More!

I wish I could write something encouraging today about how I’ve overcome those cravings for “more” and have become a disciplined, moderate person. That would make a great fiction story. The truth isn’t as uplifting—my cravings are just as strong as they were three years ago. The only time in my life those cravings left me was a period of several months right after my car wreck, which happened about a week after that blog post. Lying in a hospital bed with a broken neck, leg, and ankle, metal satellite-looking beams sticking out of my leg, my neck in a brace and pain meds and muscle relaxers keeping me afloat, I noticed that I had no appetite. I didn’t crave anything—not carbs, not alcohol, not sweets. Three months later I had lost fifteen pounds without trying, and without exercise.  (And six months later I had gained it back.)

more1-150x150Our cravings begin in infancy, but our appetites are simple at first. We just want mother’s milk. Or formula. And our appetites are dictated by physical hunger. But as we get older we are introduced to things that tempt us to cravings that have nothing to do with physical hunger. Sugar. Simple carbs. Salt. Soft drinks. One of the most common “signs” that parents often teach their toddlers—before they can speak—is the sign for “more.”

And so the struggle continues. Yesterday morning I read this wonderful post by Father Stephen Freeman, “To Have More—Pleonexia.” Father Stephen writes about our cravings for more as an addiction, but also as a spiritual issue. And he makes it clear it’s not just about food or drink:

If the desire to have more were limited to material goods, it would, perhaps, be but a bothersome thing. However, the disease of pleonexia is spiritual and infects the whole of our lives. Pleonexia is not a disease that can be isolated to a single area of our lives. We want more of everything: more things, more sex, more food, more entertainment, ad infinitum.

These things I want more of seem to take turns, one or more of them always pushing their way to the front of the line, vying for my attention. The Church fathers talk about food/gluttony being a key passion that can affect the other areas of our lives, and sometimes I find that to be true. If I have the gluttony under control, sometimes I can get a better handle on the bigger issues, like greed, jealousy, anger, and depression. This is why the Church encourages us to fast, a practice I have always struggled with. But as I get older, I’m beginning to believe that it can help with the cravings. Even to keep the Wednesday/Friday fast (no meat, dairy, or alcohol) is a huge effort for me, and I fail at it weekly. But to have an awareness of the discipline and to even make small efforts seems to help.

So, this ends my first week of blogging without the themes, “Mental Health Monday,” “Writing on Wednesday,” and “Faith on Friday,” in several years. It’s funny, but I almost fell into those themes organically this week… creature of habit, I guess. But it did feel good to have the freedom to write about anything on any given day. We’ll see what next week brings. Thanks, always, for reading!

Mental Health Monday: People Who Need People

33112821_m1

I found this wonderful image over at Madelyn March’s blog, “A Writer’s Journal.” Another good place to go if you’re looking for a writer’s community:  https://madelynmarch.com/tag/writing-community/

 

I’m a people person. Well, sort of. I do enjoy my time alone, but it’s almost counter to my personality that I work so many hours every week alone in my office, with no one to talk to.

Imagine this: You work for an insurance company, or you’re a CPA, or maybe you sell advertising or houses, or maybe you’re a lawyer. You go into work every day, but no one else is in the office. It’s just you and your computer and maybe a coffee maker. No one to chat with during breaks. No one to discuss business problems with. No one to share successful moments with. Just when you land that new client or sell that house or solve that client’s legal problems, you turn around in your chair to high-five a colleague, and there’s no one there. That’s what it’s like to be a writer.

So whenever I find the opportunity, I get together with other writers. My monthly critique group is a hugely important venue for not only social interaction with other writers, but also an opportunity to hone my craft, to get feedback on my latest project, and to hopefully help my fellow writers with theirs. That (short) two to two-and-a-half-hour gathering feels like a lifeline for someone who works in isolation. I wrote about this a few years ago in “The Strange Pull of What You Really Love.” (writing about Hemingway)

Just when I need another writer to high-five (because of my recent book deal) here comes Wendy Reed, an author friend who lives in Birmingham, to spend the weekend with me. With my husband out of town, we would have the house to ourselves. Wendy was spending a few hours in a small town in north Mississippi on her trip over, doing some research for a book. When she arrived, we talked for three hours straight, and then made a plan for the rest of the weekend: She would work in the dining room and living room, and I’d be back in my office. But we would take breaks for snacks and meals and talk about how our work was going, and read excerpts to each other. It was magical.

14095882_10209407038166746_1365473881966335148_nAt the end of the day on Saturday we went down to Tug’s, the casual restaurant on the Mississippi River near my house, for drinks and dinner, and then walked across the street to take pictures at sunset. It felt like a celebration! Returning home we ran into my neighbor and life/writing mentor, Sally Thomason (out walking her dog) and she came over for a champagne toast to (1) my new book deal and (2) the anthology I’m editing that both she and Wendy contributed essays to. And the three of us talked “business” for another hour or two, just like we might have done at the end of a day together in the office. And I thought, “So this is what it feels like to work around other people.” (Okay, full disclosure, it was prosecco, not champagne, and my sweet husband brought it home to celebrate with me the day I got the book deal, but I wasn’t feeling well, so we decided to open it another day. I’m going to replace the bottle this afternoon and share it with him soon!)

I’m definitely a person who needs people. So now that my weekend visit with Wendy is over and it’s time to get back to work (alone) I’ll stay in touch with Wendy (and other writers) through email and Facebook, which helps me not feel so alone. And later this morning, when I’m sitting in the waiting room at the car dealer while my car is being maintenanced, I’ll find that fellowship I crave… in the pages of a good book. My current read? Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women. And I’m re-reading Wendy’s mixed-genre book, An Accidental Memoir: How I Killed Someone and Other Stories.

Hope everyone has a good week! Take care of your mental health… work hard, read a good book, relax, and find a friend to hang out with!

Mental Health Monday: Guests on Earth

guestsonearthcover_250I just finished Lee Smith’s 2014 novel, Guests on Earth, and I am in awe of her. What a masterpiece! Just a few weeks ago I did a post about her memoir, Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, which was also amazing. When I learned that her son had schizophrenia and took his own life, I wanted to read Guests on Earth, which is set mostly at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where Smith’s son was treated in the 1980s, and where her father was a patient in the 1950s. But the most prominent patient was Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her beauty and brilliance are shown throughout the novel, as her talents in dance and painting and writing are revealed, along with some complexities surrounding her marriage.

All of this is told through a fictional narrator, Evalina Toussaint, a thirteen-year-old orphan who is admitted to the hospital in 1936 and is taken under Zelda Fitzgerald’s wing. What fascinated me most about the book was the way Smith treated the “guests” (patients) at the hospital. Well, first of all the way the staff treated them in the book—with respect and kindness and none of the terrible things we might come to expect after One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But beyond that, I love the way Smith showed each patient’s flawed humanity gently, as she highlighted their talents and gifts. Whether they were struggling with depression or schizophrenia or other mental health issues, they were first and foremost valuable human beings, portrayed with elegance by the author. If you’re wondering about the title, Smith explains it in her notes at the end of the book:

The title comes from a letter Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter, Scottie, in 1940: ‘The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.’ This novel intends to examine the very thing line between sanity and insanity. Who’s ‘crazy’ and who’s not? What does that even mean? I’m especially interested in women and madness—and in the resonance between art and madness. I also want to show that very real lives are lived within these illnesses.

And she succeeds in Guests on Earth, a novel of historic, scientific, and artistic importance. I recommend it for anyone whose life has been touched by mental illness, but also anyone who loves good literature.

Faith on Friday: A Time to Grieve, Part 2

Dad Mom tombstone 2I ended my post on July 4, “A Time to Grieve,” I by saying I was no longer grieving (the death of my mother on May 22.) I was wrong. It’s not that I lied; I just didn’t recognize grief. Nor did I expect it, as I’ve said before, because of the less than perfect relationship I had with my mother, and because I really “lost her” to Alzheimer’s several years ago.

My grief morphed from sadness into depression this summer. There were days when I couldn’t motivate myself to write or call a friend or do anything but sit in my recliner chair and watch re-runs of “Law and Order.” I had a couple of health issues going on—a summer cold and a pulled muscle in my lower back—but they wouldn’t have been enough alone to plunge me into a depression. I looked at my elliptical machine as I watched TV, but couldn’t motivate myself to exercise. I ate junk. I drank too much. I gained back some of the weight I had worked so hard to lose. The oppressive summer heat wasn’t helping.

How did I come to recognize this as grief? Lee Smith talked about it in her memoir, Dimestore, which I wrote about here on Wednesday. Here’s what she said:

“In 2003 I had done a lot of historical research but had barely begun a novel named On Agate Hill when Josh [her son] died. My grief—and rage—were indescribable; ‘oceanic,’ to use one doctor’s terminology. He told me that there are basically two physiological reactions to grief. Some people sleep a lot gain weight, become depressed and lethargic.” (p. 178)

Although this wasn’t Lee Smith’s reaction to grief—she had the opposite experience of being unable to sleep and eat and function and lost thirty pounds—her words here rang true to my experience this summer, during the two and a half months since my mother died.

Journeying_through_Grief_set_largeOn Wednesday I received a timely gift in the mail. Experiencing Grief is Book Two of Kenneth C. Haugk’s series, Journeying Through Grief. I wrote about Book One in my July post. In Book Two he talks about what often happens weeks or even months (sometimes years) after the loss of a loved one. After we’ve done everything that needs to be done (like yesterday, when I closed out the joint bank account I had with my mother for over ten years, to manage her finances) and we can make room in our psyches for the emotions we might have been repressing in order to function. Haugk writes about how grief affects your entire self—psychologically or emotionally, socially, spiritually, mentally, and even physically. It’s the physical aspect that is hitting me now:

Grief gets physical. It can affect your eating habits, so you might lose or gain weight. It can make it difficult to sleep or to stay awake. Grief can cause shortness of breath, frequent sighing or dizzy spells. You can experience tightness in the chest or throat, headaches, gastrointestinal pain, or sexual problems. Grief can lower your resistance to diseases.

Wow. Thankfully I haven’t been experiencing all of those symptoms, but several have been with me this summer. So what does Haugk suggest for helping one get through grief? Among his many suggestions in this book is one I did yesterday, when I drove down to Jackson and visited my mother’s grave for the first time since her funeral on May 24:

Talking to the loved one who died. Many people have told me that they found it helpful to talk to their loved one who died. They were afraid to admit it at first until they learned other people do this, too.  You could carry on a conversation with your loved one at the person’s grave, while doing the dishes, in the car, or simply by talking to his or her photograph.

For years after my father died (in 1998) my mother talked to his photograph. And she visited his grave frequently, taking a bottle of water and paper towels to clean off the tombstone and new silk flowers to replace the old ones as they faded in the hot Mississippi sun. I pictured her doing this yesterday, as I talked with Mom, Dad, Mike (my brother) and Mary Allison (my Goddaughter), whose graves are within a few feet of each other on a beautiful little hill near a comforting shade tree with a memorial bench underneath—the perfect place for talking with the dead.

Effie grave unsettled

If you’re hoping I’ll share those conversations here, forgive me, but even for a “confessional writer” like me, some things remain private. All I can say is that I felt God’s peace and love in my heart and on my face, as a merciful little breeze broke through the intense heat. It was 11 a.m. and I had just driven into town. The drought they’ve been experiencing in Jackson meant that Mom’s grave hadn’t had time to “settle” yet, so it remained an unsightly pile of dirt, with the gravestone she shares with Dad sitting to the side until it can be replaced. Maybe by my next visit to Jackson, my hometown where I still have friends and relatives. Which leads me to another helpful point in Haugk’s book, “Secondary Losses”:

Part of what makes grief so difficult is that the death of a loved one is inevitably accompanied by other losses in your life…. These are commonly called secondary losses—part of your life that turn up missing or changed because your loved one is no longer here…. Many of those losses are very obvious and emerge right away, while others might not surface until later. Here are examples of some subtle yet significant secondary losses: [I’ll just share one here.]

A woman told me that months after her mother died she realized she was also grieving the loss of her hometown. ‘My mother was the last tie to where I grew up, so I had no ‘home’ to return to. It was as if I also lost my origin, my childhood.’

I was feeling some of this myself as I planned my trip to Jackson this week, my first since I was here in May for mother’s hospitalization, death, and burial. I’ve been making monthly trips from Memphis to visit Mom in the nursing home for eight and a half years. And before that, I visited her in assisted living every two weeks for over three years. My trips to Jackson were an integral part of my life, and it just hit me this week that I no longer have a “reason” to drive down here every month. I found myself scrambling to make plans to have lunch on Thursday and Friday with friends of my parents. And then to have drinks last night with an old high school friend—one I hadn’t seen in several years. What a healing time that was, as my old friend and I talked about our mothers, our spouses, our children, our lives back in high school as compared to now, in this seminal year when we both turn sixty-five. I felt my spirits lifted by those shared experiences, and we plan to get together again on my next visit to my hometown.

My next visit. See? I won’t be abandoning Jackson, as much as I told people for years that I couldn’t wait to leave it and have never missed it. There are lots of wonderful things about this city, including the items pointed out in the article in Southern Living: “5 Things You’re Missing in Jackson, Mississippi”. I’m also missing my niece, Aubrey Leigh, and her husband and two sons, my great nephews who live in Jackson, so I’ll be back to visit them soon.

I’m leaving Jackson after lunch today with a close friend of my parents, but I won’t be headed back to Memphis yet. I’m driving down to Gulfport to spend the weekend with a dear Goddaughter and her family.  Katherine lost her mother to cancer at a young age, so her children are growing up without one of their grandmothers in their lives, something many of us take for granted. I have Godchildren (who used to live in Memphis) spread out from North Carolina to Mississippi to Alabama to Pennsylvania to Washington (state) now, and of course two children and four granddaughters in Colorado and a son in Louisiana, so travel is an integral part of my life. Fortunately, I love to travel, since it feels like bits of my heart are spread out all over the country. Next up? Denver next weekend, for two granddaughters’ birthday parties! And hopefully, I’ll be farther along in my journey through grief, healthy enough to shower those children with love from their mother and grandmother.

Mental Health Monday: A Time to Grieve

 

Mother's Day 2007, at Ridgeland Point Assisted Living Facility

Mother’s Day 2007, at Ridgeland Point Assisted Living Facility

This past Friday marked 40 days since my mother’s death on May 22. What’s the significance of 40 days? In the Orthodox Church, we pray the prayers for the departed (and read Psalms) every day for 40 days after a loved one dies. It’s very comforting, directs the heart and mind towards God and our own death, and petitions Heaven for the salvation of the departed, which is a belief held by Orthodox Christians, if not by our Protestant friends. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Meanwhile people continue to ask me “how are you doing?” My closest friends and relatives know that mine is a complex grief for several reasons. The most obvious is that I already grieved the loss of my mother a few years ago when she no longer recognized me due to Alzheimer’s disease. And then there are the issues of our mother-daughter relationship being complicated by the verbal and emotional abuse I suffered from her for most of my life. I was able to forgive her for that a few years ago, so I’m left with the choice to remember the good things about her.

She was the queen of celebrations. Every birthday, every holiday was a cause for major decorations and gifts—all handmade and very creative. She taught me how to celebrate.

She was a wonderful grandmother. Her grandchildren seem to remember mostly the good things about “Granny Effie.”

She was a supportive “helpmate” to my father, who was very well-loved and successful in many arenas—including sports, religion, and the business world. In retrospect, I believe she set aside some of her own desires and pursuits in order to support his careers, especially as he became a hero of sorts in the world of running and marathon competitions.

jtg_book_1_coverAnd so now I’m left with only a little paperwork to wrap up her financial affairs, since she no longer owned property, and with those memories. This morning I looked again at the brochure I received from the good people at the church she and my father helped establish in the 1950s in Jackson, Mississippi—Covenant Presbyterian—titled “A Time To Grieve: Journeying Through Grief,” Book One, by Kenneth C. Haugk. The accompanying letter from the church’s “Stephen Minister and Grief Ministry Chairman,” Mary Lewis, says that more brochures will follow. It’s really a nice way to reach out, especially considering I haven’t been a member there since the early 1970s. The brochure is well-written, and addresses many issues that the bereaved might be facing. I found this section especially on point:

Quality of the Relationship

Some relationships are very close, others distant; some are amazingly harmonious, others fraught with conflict. The quality of our relationship with a person will affect our grief when he or she dies. It’s often said that the closer we were emotionally to the deceased person the greater our grief. While that is certainly true, it’s also true that a strained relationship can make grief more difficult…. The death of an abusive parent or spouse can result in feelings or relief rather than loss.

I think I would have felt that relief when Mother died, except that I already went through those emotions a few years ago when she lost most of her mental capacities to Alzheimer’s. She became sweeter. She “forgot” how to be mean to me or to speak ill of others. That was a relief. As a result I found the ability (by God’s grace) to forgive her and to begin to love her more. And so I truly mourned—I wept and I wailed—when she died.

Papaw and Granny EffieAnd so today I am no long grieving. I am at peace. And I pray that she is, too. I picture her in Heaven with my father.

When I look at the last picture I have of them together (from about twenty years ago, before my father’s life was cut short by lung cancer, and before the plaques and tangles had begun their devastating work on my mother’s brain) I cry tears of joy. And I ask them to pray for me and for their grandchildren.

Faith on Friday: No Fasting!

no-fasting-zoneOrthodox Christians—those who make some effort to keep the fasts of the Church throughout the year (including no meat, dairy, fish, or alcohol on Wednesdays and Fridays) look forward to the few “fast free” weeks on our calendar. Like this week—the week after Pentecost. As you know if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, I struggle to embrace the Church’s rules for fasting. But I have recently made a small effort with the Wednesday-Friday fast. Even abstaining from meat OR dairy OR alcohol on those days is a bit of an ascetic struggle for me. It’s not so much that I’m a glutton or a drunk—although I’ve been both of those things at times—as it is that I don’t like to follow rules. I like to be in charge of myself. To have at least the illusion of control of my life. (And I do realize that it’s mostly an illusion.)

So when I realized this week was fast-free, I must admit that I’ve been enjoying it a bit more than usual. Like today, when I have plans to go to my favorite restaurant with a Goddaughter who is visiting from out of town. I’ll have a cocktail and fish, and I might even enjoy them a bit more because of having denied myself those pleasures on several Wednesdays and Fridays recently.

If this still sounds like a bunch of silly rules to those of you who have never followed a religious fast, try thinking of it in terms of fasting and feasting, and the contrast they bring to our lives. What if it was Christmas every week? Do children whose parents buy them toys every day or every week enjoy Christmas or birthdays as much? Do they get used to receiving these treats as ordinary, making them less special on days of celebration?

I was thinking about my own childhood recently, and how it was a treat to eat out at a restaurant. And fast food chains like McDonald’s didn’t have drive-thrus until the 1970s. Today many families with small children use fast food restaurants and drive-thrus on a daily basis. It is no longer a special treat because it has become commonplace.

I can remember the years I did work hard to keep the fast during Great Lent, and I admit that the food and drink on Pascha (Easter) tasted better than usual. Maybe our bodies need these cycles as much as our psyches do.

So, if you’re Orthodox and you keep the fast, I hope you are enjoying this fast-free week. And if you’re not, maybe I shed some light on this ancient practice and how it fits into our spiritual, physical and emotional lives. Have a great weekend!

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