Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Tools of the Trade
I really can’t say how old I was when I started hunting for strategies to keep myself going through the hard times. When I was growing up, I felt well loved by my parents. But they weren’t big on planning. I always felt that they responded kindly to my problems. But they rarely offered a long range philosophical approach that provided a template, a framework that could be a go-to mechanism when things got tough. Early on in my life, I observed them being reactive to circumstances which came at them, rather than making an effort to circumvent a problem before it landed on their heads. I knew that passive style wasn’t going to work for me.
I wanted tools at the ready, a set of techniques I could employ when life was tossing situations at me that felt too big. Some people might say that’s being a control freak but I’d call it being prepared. Whatever your definition, I found that my approach worked better for me than that of my parents. I got really serious about finding workable problem-solving tools when I became a parent. I think it’s pretty common for people to try to fix those family issues that didn’t address what they needed in their own lives. I wanted to provide more options for my kids. I wanted to give them what I had to find for myself, some concrete plans to fall back on when things got hard.
As their baby days came to an end and day care started, the expansion of their world brought with it the problems incumbent on all of us as we begin to maneuver our way through new relationships and new situations. And everything that happens in our early life seems so important. Social problems, school problems and family problems all seem to roll into one giant ball that feels overwhelming. I began trying to come up with some reliable, accessible axioms that could translate into handling almost any situation. Over time, there were three specific problem-solving tools that became part of our family’s shared experiential DNA. The first was what I referred to as the five year rule. In the midst of emotional upsets, disappointments, failures and fears, I’d abruptly interrupt whoever was having the meltdown and ask if they could remember what happened five years ago today.
That question would break the flow of feelings and invariably, despite all best efforts to retrieve the memory, no one could come up with the specific event. Then I would remind them that this current tragedy, momentous as it felt right now, would one day be the memory they’d be scrambling to find, just like they’d just done in this moment. The five year rule is still a go-to strategy for all of us which we’ve extended to family and friends over the years. I added another little piece to it called the rear view mirror.
A metaphor for the rapid passage of time, the rear view mirror is a reminder that what looms ahead will soon be behind us, often before we’ve had the opportunity to fully process the now. I’ve always found this approach truly helpful. The mystique and excitement associated with big life events and emotional traumas so often sets people up for disappointment and letdown. The five year rule creates perspective and for our little clan, has created a framework for living in your moment and recognizing them as such, just moments. Transient and ephemeral, they lose some of weight the hard stuff forces on us, knowing that they’ll disappear into the past eventually.
A concrete way of my describing this is to think of the tapestries you see in castles, where new events are sewn in a progression over time. You can actually see the unfolding of history as a continuing process of life. I think this stream is satisfying and oddly comforting.
An adjunct tactic involves that big ball theory, when all of life’s issues get piled together into what feels like an overwhelming giant ball that’s rolling right over you.
I remember reading the Greek myth of Sisyphus whose punishment was to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down so he could repeat the task over and over. I spent and still do spend time trying to talk people out from under that ball of struggles. Breaking the overwhelming into smaller manageable pieces changes the way you feel pretty fast. I like using lists for this task so you can check things off, and feel more in charge of your life, more in control of things. I highly recommend adding items like brushing your teeth or going to the bathroom as part of the process. How rewarding to start a day with an accomplishment. Seriously, whatever works to make life feel manageable can be truly liberating.
My other frequently repeated mantra in our family has always been to try finding a little beauty in every day. So much ugliness is constantly thrust into our heads by the incessant news cycle that the mental load can be unbearably oppressive. I know this plan works. The other day my two adult children were working together as they often do, to provide comfort and support to each other as they do heavy lifting in their jobs. In the middle of their time together, they took a minute to send me a text with a photo of spring blooming trees taken as they walked to a lunch break. The note said, “Look, we’re appreciating nature.” I smiled as I was supposed to, noting that they were heeding my endless reminder to look around them to find that bit of beauty. The fact is, they do it all the time and I do too.
Spring is such a wonderful season for finding that bit of natural wonder. I need to remember that though May in particular is packed with events that remind me of my loves who are now gone and for whom I will always ache, it is still packed with beauty. I have physical tools of that trade that complement my mental tactics. I’ve been spending lots of time outside in my garden, planting and weeding, coaxing all my plants to bloom and whacking away at the uninvited volunteers who show up every year. There’s so much beauty here and I’m glad that I’ve made some of it happen. This morning my biologist son and I sat out in the backyard enjoying the perfect weather. He’s a bird expert and though I can identify a fair share of feathered friends that live in, or pass through my yard, I wouldn’t have known the American redstart, the red eyed vireo, the yellow warbler, the hermit thrush and the least flycatcher by their songs and movements. But he does.
What a lovely moment to share. We were soothing ourselves together, softening the edges of the day’s tasks. In return for his avian knowledge, I’m teaching him about plants and planning a cascading garden of blooms that last for months. A nice exchange of knowledge.
The other day, I spent some time with my youngest grandson watching an anthill and playing with a few before they tickled too much and we carefully pushed them off his arms and back to their crew. The little kids are off to a good start in appreciating the joy and fascination of the natural world. They’ll need those skills even more than we do.
I’m sore from all the work and scratched up but I love all of this and need it to offset the challenges of this time. I feel Michael with me as I work in our ground and miss his company and certainly his help. But I conjure his face like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland and see his kind, loving eyes on me as I move through the space which was our little haven.
I bought a new hammock to replace our old one. The milkweed is in the ground to bring the monarchs here. I’m worrying about whether a few of my butterfly bushes have made it through the polar vortex and most especially, my tender new baby Kousa dogwood which is greening but bedraggled. If it survives next winter, I’ll have Michael’s name carved into a stone plaque placed at its base. I’m going to wait for that, remembering the five year rule and how I have a ways to go on my road. Putting my money where my mouth is, as my dad would have said. And trying to share a little beauty from my space out to the world.