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.

Laughing Death in the Face

“Remember me with smiles and laughter, for that is how I will remember you all. If you can only remember me with tears, then don’t remember me at all.”

Michael Landon, Little House on the Prairie

I am becoming quite the movie buff. My new condo is literally only five minutes from the local multiplex and I’ve discovered that going to the movies is a rather enjoyable solo activity. In fact, I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that I almost prefer going by myself. I can decide to go at the last minute, I can sit wherever I choose, no one talks to me during the feature, and if I decide to leave early, there’s no one to disappoint.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, however, I went to the movies with my sister’s family which was great fun. After purchasing our tickets, drinks, and popcorn we moved to the butter and salt station where my nephew showed me a trick he uses for making sure the butter is on all the kernels not just those on the top of the bag. He took an extra straw, put it into the bag, pushed it down near the bottom and then deftly placed it under the spout for the melted butter. As he released the warm liquid into the straw he carefully pulled the straw up through the popcorn and voilà the butter was distributed evenly throughout. Great idea!

Movie Popcorn is the Best!

The next time I ventured off to the movies I thought I’d try the new butter technique. I place the bag of popcorn under the dispenser and then positioned my straw into the bag and aligned it with the spout. It was a tight fit getting my straw in the proper position. It looked easy when my nephew did it, but eventually, I had everything in position and pulled the handle forward and began to fill the bag with rich, creamy butter. It was then I noticed the butter dispenser to my right. I wasn’t aligned with the butter. I was filling my bag of fluffy white popcorn with Vitamin B & C-Pomegranate-SoBe-Water! Yes, the entire bottom of my paper sack was filled with vitamin water!

Not to worry, I put some butter on the still fresh kernels at the top of the bag and headed into the theatre. It’s true, most of the bag was really wet and soggy almost to the point of saturation, but hey, the top third was delicious!

“If you can laugh at yourself, you are going to be fine. If you allow others to laugh with you, you will be great.”

Martin Niemoller

One day, not long after the popcorn incident I was baking brownies to take to my brother-in-law. The scent of chocolate was filling my small kitchen with the promise of deliciousness. Near the end of the baking time, I took a peek into the oven to see how they were doing. Something was very wrong. There was a pool of oil floating on the top of the semi-solid brown batter. What had I done? I reviewed the directions. I hadn’t added too much oil as I first suspected. I had omitted the egg! Quickly, I retrieved the brownies from the oven and stirred the half-baked mixture with a fork. They were still wet enough that I could easily add the eggs and then return the pan to the oven. Without hesitation, I cracked first one egg and then the other into the warm chocolatey concoction. Do you know what happens when you add eggs to something hot? They begin to cook! OMG! I began to stir frantically in an effort to combine the eggs with the brownie glob before they turned to scrambled eggs. I’ve come to terms with chocolate wine, but huevos con chocolate…I don’t think so. Never fear, I was beating those eggs hard, fast and with great determination. In the end, the only evidence of my culinary blunder was a few very small white flecks of egg marbled throughout an otherwise perfect pan of brownies.

He ate them with delight.

“Never be afraid to laugh at yourself, after all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century.”

Barry Humphries
Remember the Eggs

My late husband, Dave, would have loved those stories. Humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves and each other sustained our marriage for forty-three years. In many ways, the two of us led parallel lives. We had very different interests, attitudes, and styles, but we both loved to laugh and we considered it quite an accomplishment when we were clever enough to get the other to “fall for” one of our many jokes. Not to brag, but I “got” him most often. Laughter was a very important part of who we were as a couple and who we were…are…as individuals. For many people the trauma of loss has them questioning whether they will ever laugh again. Many people wonder if, in their grief, if it is inappropriate or unseemly to smile or laugh. Thankfully, that wasn’t my experience. Telling Dave’s stories and jokes is a way to keep his memory…and him…close and alive.

As much as I wish it were otherwise, Grief has become an omnipresent fixture in my life. It hides in the shadows and rises unexpectantly with the specter of Death, his co-conspirator, to fill me again and again with unspeakable sadness. I have learned, however, that I am pretty resilient and when I can look Death in the face and let loose with a hearty guffaw, Grief can not defeat me and Death does not win!

Finding the ability to laugh isn’t always easy. There are days when joy can remain an out-of-reach, unattainable goal, but Happiness and Laughter also live at my house where they are constantly working to keep the sadness at bay. Often when I least expect it, I’ll find a picture, or remember a funny situation, or come across an object Dave unintentionally left behind for me to discover causing me to smile, chuckle, or dissolve into fits of laughter.

“Ah! To be able to make someone I love laugh years after I’m gone, that is all the immortality I could ever ask for.”

Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me

Soon after his death, my sisters and my daughter-in-law were helping me pack Dave’s clothes for Goodwill. “What is this?” my daughter-in-law asked incredulously. The look on her face was a mixture of bewilderment, disbelief, and hilarity. Pinched between her thumb and index finger she held a piece of navy blue knit material. Suddenly, right there in the midst of this very sad task, the four of us began to roar with laughter. She was holding the remnants of a long-forgotten practical joke….her father-in-law’s rather ample…underpants with “Chick Magnet” emblazoned across the bottom.

Chick Magnet Undies

Thanks, Dave!

And…Take that Death and your little buddy Grief too!

Making Darn Good Time!

“When it’s over, I want to say all my life, I was a bride married to amazement. I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms…I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Mary Oliver, Taken from When Death Comes

The sun was shining and the sky was full of fluffy, white clouds the morning I left Michigan for Vermont. Everything was going in my favor all day. There was no line at customs, the traffic was light, and Audible was providing great entertainment. As I approached Toronto…which can be a race track or a parking lot…I decided to splurge and take the toll road. Somewhere, just east of the city, I received a message from my daughter-in-law asking how I was doing and whether I was going to drive straight through or spend the night. It was early afternoon and I was movin’ right along, so I said I thought I’d keep driving. “I’m making really great time. This road is wonderful. There’s no one else on it. I have the highway to myself.” One slight problem, I was making darn good time…but I had missed my exit and was on the wrong road! When discovered my error, I made a quick adjustment and was soon back on course.

In the months since my husband’s death, getting myself on the right road has been one of my major challenges. It’s difficult to get moving in the right direction when you’re not sure where you are, where you’re headed or where you hope to arrive. Being disoriented during grief is to be expected, but charting a course, setting goals, and creating a to-do list affects all of us no matter our age or station.

I once asked a group of children if it was possible to count all the individual grains of sand in a small jar I was holding. One little boy replied, “Yes, you could do it, but it depends on how you want to spend your life.” Great answer. One of my favorites. How do we want to spend our lives? Isn’t that the biggest question; the most difficult question; the question we continually ask ourselves even as we adjust, amend, refine and tweak our answers? After all, it’s possible to count the grains of sand, but is that what we really want to do?

“What are you doing the rest of your life, North and South and East and West of your life…”

Alan Bergman/ Marilyn Bergman/ Michel Legrand H

How we spend our lives is an ever-evolving, never-ending string of choices. Knowing that we have choices and that we are responsible for the consequences of those choices is often paralyzing. One false move and our house of cards may come tumbling down.

Quiet Water in The Adirondacks

On a simply glorious day, a few summers ago, I took my kayak out onto the quiet waters of a nearby reservoir. It was early in the day and I seemed to be totally alone. I paddled slowly around the perimeter mesmerized by the sunlight sparkling on the water droplets cascading from my paddle and smiling as I observed a family of turtles sunning themselves on a fallen log. I was soon joined by a pair of curious loons who swam close to my boat. I stopped paddling and drifted silently beside them. Within minutes an eagle circled overhead before settling into its nest. It occurred to me that at that moment, there was no place on earth that I would rather be. I also realized that all my life choices had led me to that place and time…my wise decisions as well as my mistakes, poor judgments, and total cock-ups. Each choice had played a part in bringing me to that glorious morning. That awareness was freeing, for even if I choose poorly now and again or make mistakes in judgment wonders and amazement still lie before me just waiting to be discovered.

Before the parade passes by I’m gonna get in step while there’s still time left…I wanna feel my heart coming alive again. Before the parade passes by.

Jerry Herman, When The Parade Passes By, Hello Dolly

I remember watching old black and white Westerns with my dad when I was a kid. Inevitably the hero and his pals would be stranded somewhere out on the plains. At first, they’d drink hungrily from their canteens, even pouring some water on their sweaty heads and faces, but as the journey continued…on foot by this point, since they always seemed to lose their horses for some reason or other…they would begin to ration the water only taking small sips…trying to make the water last. At this point in my life, I’m savoring the water in my canteen, sipping carefully and rationing my choices. My canteen has a finite amount of water I don’t want to waste a single drop.

Monument Valley, Utah
September 2018

In the end, how we make our choices, how we map our lives and plot our course is as individual as we are. Some may travel with a well-thought-out, elaborate itinerary, and pre-planned route confident about what lies ahead. Others want to leave plenty of space for the occasional detour, the missed exit, and the unplanned adventure.

Most of the choices we make…the miles we clock… are for every-day trips…short, routine, and seemingly insignificant…for which we need neither map nor GPS. It is these small moments…the simple choices…that eventually add up to the special moments of our lives. We must remember to delight in these as well. That big trip may be in the future…or…not…but our lives are now. How we choose to live it is up to us.

“…And the present is what your life is, and you are capable of choosing what that will be, darling citizen. So come to the pond or river of your imagination, or the harbor of your longing, and put your lips to the world. And live your life.”

Mary Oliver, Taken from Morning at Blackwater

I’m still not quite sure where I’m going, but the road has been plowed, I’ve got a full tank of gas, and  I’m making darn good time!