I Need a Technicolor Coat

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”

Probably not…Sigmund Freud

As a student, I struggled with the use of symbolism. I understood the concept but just couldn’t seem to recognize it in the text. If by some miracle I did realize that the author was using that technique I seldom had a clue what it meant or what message was hidden there. How reassuring when in a master’s level seminar, after the class had spent over an hour prying all the possible symbolic meanings from The Old Man and The Sea our professor warned, “Remember don’t get too caught up in symbolism. Sometimes it’s just about a fishing trip.”

Ducks at Chip-a-Waters Park, 2020

Shortly after my mother died, I began to have a reoccurring dream. It returned night after night. In the dream, I’d grab my computer or my phone and in panic and terror, I would plead a desperate warning: “Don’t delete the program! Be careful. Don’t hit the wrong key. Don’t delete the program! Just don’t delete the program.”

If dreams are merely stories we tell our unconscious selves why did I keep repeating this one? Knowing my struggle with symbolism I surprised myself by how quickly I came to understand the message of this nighttime vision. It seemed obvious. The program I didn’t want to delete was my mother.

The dream returned when Dave died.

It came again last week.

I woke myself up in the middle of the night, grabbed my cellphone and had it in my hands trying to find which keys I needed to push when I realized that I was once again in the dream and there was nothing I could do to keep the program from self-deleting. The symbolism had changed only slightly. It was not my mother or my husband I was trying to keep from slipping away; it was my life as it had been before COVID-19 snatched it from my grasp.

I recalled the dream the next morning when I was fully awake and had to admit that in many ways I am right back in the early stages of grief. This time, of course, I’m not alone with my private pain. This time the entire world is collectively grieving. Each of us, whether we acknowledge it or not is in one of Katherine Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief…denial, anger, bargaining, depression or acceptance.

Being sequestered in my home, I see grief being manifested in the roller coaster ride of posts on social media. Friends share silly videos, humorous graphics, and uplifting messages of hope one minute and posts full of anger and frustration the next. I feel it in my own life too. I am often filled with fury and despair at the calamitous situation in which we find ourselves. At other times, I am nearly paralyzed with sadness; my eyes welling with tears and a lump in my throat that I am unable to swallow away. I am overcome with the mirrored emotions of fear and apprehension, and yet, when I notice small green shoots poking through the pebbles reaching for the sun or watch the Mourning Doves build a nest in the big pine tree I also feel a sense of calm acceptance of things as they are. Grieving is a complicated business.

“In times of grief and sorrow, I will hold you and rock you and take your grief and make it my own. When you cry I cry and when you hurt I hurt. And together we will try to hold back the floods of tears and despair and make it through the potholed street of life”

Nicolas Sparks, The Notebook

As we walk this unfamiliar valley together…at a distance of six feet…we are aware of our interdependence and connectedness. We are all in this journey together…holding each other’s sorrow, listening to each other’s story, and taking turns soothing each other’s bouts of fear and distress. Instead of bringing brownies, lasagna, or pots of soup to assist those in mourning as is our normal custom, we are supported by courageous strangers who perform the unseen but necessary tasks that keep us fed, safe, and secure. Our hearts are full when we consider all the simple kindnesses that grace our lives on a daily basis. We worry and pray together for all of those on the frontlines doing battle on our behalf. It’s such a paradox that as we hunker-down, flatten the curve, and stay inside we are alone and yet the world entire is walking the same crowded path.

Recently, the songs of the early morning birds crept into that space between dream and waking as I tried to squeeze a few more minutes of sleep from what had been a restless night. As I slipped into my dreams once again, as often happens in dreams, one of the birds began to speak to me, “Follow me”, he said in his little bird language which amazingly I had no trouble understanding. “Follow me and everything will be all right.” I watched as the wee fellow flew into a dark, narrow cave. “Don’t be afraid,” he continued to chirp. “Follow me.” I took a deep breath and began to follow. I hadn’t gone far when, although still surrounded by impenetrable darkness, I could see sunlight bouncing off the walls ahead. Then, as in any good third-grade story…I woke up.

Once again, the symbolism seemed quite clear to me. My feathered buddy was telling me that as we enter this time of tremendous uncertainty and yes, grief, we should remember that there is the promise of light up ahead. Spring is here and summer is coming and even in the midst of great sorrow, fear, and disappointment there will flowers blooming, trees leafing out, and moments of great joy.

Hey…I’m finally getting good at this symbolism stuff, however, in case the universe is wondering, I’m perfectly happy to simply savor a night of deep, peaceful uninterrupted sleep.

Please be safe, be well, and do what you can to flatten the curve.

Feeling All the Feels

Ice Cream with Papa…Chocolate

One Spring day my first grade class walked all the way from the elementary school to the ice cream stand several long blocks away. It seemed like miles for my short little legs. I walked to the window, paid my money, and took two quick licks.

Ice Cream with Papa

Then watched as the ice cream fell from my cone to the middle of the street. As I watched the vanilla deliciousness melt away I was heartbroken. I still remember the pain of that loss. The ice cream had sprinkles.

Throughout our lives we all encounter sadness, disappointment and loss. Grief is the natural response to losing what is important to us. When a loved one dies, a relationship ends, a job is lost, we suffer chronic illness, our plans are dashed…or we simply watch ice cream melt on the pavement…we can be assured that some degree of sorrow, despair, and grief will soon follow.

I knew that anger was one of the stages of grief, but I thought that meant that I would be angry with my husband for not taking better care of himself or angry with the universe for placing me in this unwelcome and unwanted position. Nope, I could have had those feelings, but in all honesty, I didn’t. Instead, I find that I have a very short fuse with just about everything else. This reaction has taken me completely by surprise.

Inferno
Based on sculpture by Brian Jungen, AGO, July 2019

I’m angry about things that make sense. I’m also angry about things that only, maybe, kinda make sense and I’m angry too, about things that rationally, make no sense whatsoever. It’s as though I’ve been blowing all my emotions into a balloon that’s stretched taut and just about to burst. It’s the finality and the frustration of loss that has been filling that balloon. Once the ice cream is on the blacktop there’s no way it’s going back in the cone. The exasperation of that moment has to go somewhere, so it is transmuted into anger. There’s a fair amount of jealousy that’s trying to find release too. A six year old watching her classmates blissfully licking ice cream is a case in point. Sadness, frustration and jealousy are all swirling around together pushing at the sides of that expanding latex sphere.

Recently, I saw Billy Elliott The Musical in Stratford, Ontario. In one scene, Billy is consumed with anger and frustration. He channels his distress into dance as a way to…as my mom used to say…get the mad out.

Billy Elliot, The Musical…Angry Dance Live at the 2009 Tony Awards with Elton John

Just as everyone experiences loss and grief, no one escapes feelings of anger. Even Jesus was filled with righteous indignation. We’ve been taught to keep our emotions under control, but it is important that wherever they originate…the deep despair of death, the myriad minor daily exasperations, or watching ice cream puddle at your feet…to feel all the feels. It’s not healthy to deny or suppress anger. Bottled anger often destroys the vessel that contains it. Might as well look it in the eye and name it. Don’t be afraid to feel the heat and energy of it. Let it wash over you and wallow in it for a spell. Know it for what it is. Then find a way to let the air out of the balloon. Channel that power into a form of positive expression and find a way to get the mad out that doesn’t involve kicking the cat, breaking the dishes, or giving yourself another reason to be angry.

“We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” 

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

My short fuse won’t last forever, but it will probably come again. When it does I’ll be ready for it, recognize it, and then like Billy, maybe I can transform it into something creative, beautiful and perhaps…after a satisfyingly inappropriate gesticulation or two… it will lead me back to wholeness.