Sparked by Words

Archive for August, 2018

The Terrain of the Long Road

It’s been five months since my mom died, nearly ten years since my dad passed. I’ve only started to grieve both of them, appropriate since once they decided to truly stick together (thank God for Marriage Encounter) they were rarely apart. That was well into their marriage, the first twenty-five years packed like a Molotov cocktail with vitriol and blame, the last thirty-six jammed with hand holding and secrets. Also affection, maybe love, and a charmed social appearance that fooled the world. Which meant there was no place for me until I was needed by my mother’s side after my dad died.

My mom suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, the condition from which there’s no respite and only one ultimate outcome. Long before we identified the alien craters of her brain as the vestiges of a decimating disease, I knew she also bore the scars of full throttle psychosis from childhood, a mental health condition that colored her with crazy glue and nearly destroyed me. It took years and years for me, first of hiding, then of admitting, then of sharing (too much, way too much,) to finally begin to heal. I will be seventy-years-old on Labor Day – I have only begun to understand, only begun to heal, but at least I have that.

In the 117 years since Alois Alzheimer identified the disease, they (the scientists, doctors, clinicians) have made virtually no progress in finding a cure, a prevention, or even an effective interruption in the progress of the disease. The study of why the brain constructs this weird labyrinth of reduced communicative skills and thunderous retreat to childhood has flat lined.

The newest research shows that they know next to nothing after all, and the promised cure around the bend is a long way from a pill or a plan. So much for prophecy. Instead it’s a long flat road, getting flatter as they travel, sticking needles into volunteers, taking MRI’s, prescribing pills, diets, and regimens. It’s the brain after all, the most mysterious and complex of human organs. Let us in, the scientists beg, but the brain smiles its twisted spheres and holds tight its secrets, a snarky Cheshire Cat. Drink me, it answers and grins, the key too hard to reach. It’s a long way down the rabbit hole and no easy climb back up. It hardly matters to my parents. They are both gone.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross identified five stages of grief at the loss of a loved one. They have nothing to do with me. I’m not following her order. I’m wallowing in all of them at once and more that she never mentioned. Because part of the process of grief is coming to terms with the history of yourself and the person who died.

When my father died, I had no opportunity to grieve. True grieving is, after all, a luxury. There must be time to sit on the sofa and cry all night long, to wander the back alleys looking for something more dangerous than what you’re already enduring, to drink yourself into a stupor and fall naked into someone’s bed, to kneel at a grave and keen the loss. I didn’t have that time. I had a mother whose plunge into Alzheimer’s made rubble of my time. Of me. She needed me as her legal advocate, her appointment transportation, her entertainment committee, her financial warrior, and sometimes her confidante. For while I had no time, she had all the time.

Nothing pressed on mom to get things done. Paying rent, shopping for toothpaste, washing blouses, making dinner, even bathroom assistance – it was all provided. Since the progress of her illness had been identified by her physician as much more severe than I’d realized, (remember, I said my parents had crafted a social appearance to fool the world) I’d been forced to place her in a memory care residence. Not now will I discuss the emotional massacre of removing someone from the privacy and luxury of their own home to an institution, no matter how much safer it is for them. Understand, please, that it robbed me of years of sleep, loaded me with stress as thick and dangerous as the carbs and salt in a family size pizza, deprived me of common sense decision making for my own life, and saddled me with nightmares that segued into daymares – as if I could sleep at all. That was how my time was spent – worrying, second guessing, researching, and driving all over the place because of responsibilities to mom, to my family, and to the trust that paid her expenses.

She spent her time mulling as much as her disease allowed; otherwise she allowed me to function for her. I made myself present in her life, visiting four to five times a week, four to six hours a visit, doing everything I could to make her believe that her life hadn’t changed since her husband had died. A person with Alzheimer’s cannot grieve. They cannot process information or internalize new experiences and move on, they cannot abide by Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ routine. They cannot remember. My mom asked every day when he was coming back, and every time I tried to explain and provide a spiritual reference for comfort. It didn’t stick. So she’d ask again and I’d explain again or try to distract her or simply moan.

And this is where I stand today. Finally sobbing over the deaths of my parents. For while they did not die on the same day, they both died for me when my mom passed on March 30, 2018.

There is no cure around the bend for Alzheimer’s, only the deathly flatness of the road, like farmland tilled and plowed for hundreds of years, land made flatter and flatter as crop after crop is planted and harvested. Still growing tomatoes or corn or strawberries. Still researching and testing with no viable results.

It’s a long road ahead of me, full of trenches, crumbled surfaces, clutching mud. I face a perilous journey before I am fully able to forgive, apologize, move forward, to lay my head on their graves and know it will be OK. I am grieving now.

 

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Black and white image of grief courtesy CCO Public Domain

 

 

 

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What Beguiles You

I won! I won! I won!

Someone praised my work, mentioned my name, applauded my efforts, handed me a coupon for 40% off. And then the day ended and became the night when I couldn’t sleep, and finally the morning with nothing on my calendar. What happens next?

The feeling of nausea from too much sugar in my system. I know what causes it – the encroachment of the blahs seeping through my veins, taking the place of my life blood and replacing it with a saccharin gel I can’t live on. Run to the bathroom or crawl under the covers?

The blahs chasm after public validation. It opens before me, spiraling right to the center of the Earth, never rising back to the top. How do I avoid depression after the elation of the big win?

Wallowing in inertia hits the target pretty often. I can’t feel the power of victory all the time (hardly at all in fact) and the opposite of victory is defeat, which makes me feel like crap. Thrusts me right into the take-it-to-the-dump box. And there I am, literally down in the dumps, unable to climb out.

Victory is not a guarantee. Others are competing, others with more talent, more success, more intuitive mastery. I may try to replicate my victorious entry – a new painting, book publication, ballet recital, soccer goal (OK, I’ve never managed a soccer goal) – but the trophy already has someone else’s name etched on it. Even without reading the brass plate, I’m sure of that, or I wouldn’t feel so crappy.

When I was a kid we had the most wonderful dog in the world, a mixed breed mutt with long red fur, silky black feathers dangling from his droopy ears, and a puppy face even when full grown. Also, a loyal heart that gave love and gave love and gave love. So when I was a kid, I announced, “I’ve got the blahs,” and Patchy slathered me with kisses till I fell over laughing. And felt better.

Patchy is long gone, I am absolutely certain to the heaven he deserved, and now I have to find another anodyne to the pain of the blahs.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Success is not always public. Sometimes the most radiant success remains private, a tiny raw gem I store in the back of the closet. It’s there, I know. I choose not to share.

Public validation has a lot of calories and little substance. I’d love to autograph my book for you, when it finally gets published, hoping you don’t give it to the library book store next month.

Applause is thunderous, then it fades. I remember its sound but am not sure the audience remembers the reason they clapped.

It’s time for me to recoup. To meditate. To think about what I’m going to do next with my life. To consider what will inspire me to create.

The best strategy to parry great success is an expanse of internal quiet. Going away for a while, leaving the public fray to find solace in my internal spirit. Embracing solitude, gathering only my family and closest friends near in case I need them. Listening to the kernel of truth at the center of my soul. Praying. This pulls me out of the doldrums.

And now I’ve discovered something truly amazing.

The same strategy works just as well when I’m not savoring success but trying to recover from devastation. Which is where I am right now.

No, you may not ask what or why or how.

Please take this away for yourself: being quietly reflective is the antidote to the cacophony that beguiles you with false acclaim. Hush now, sh.

 

The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau

 

 

Like a Broken Vase

I hurried, my hip glanced the table. The vase fell.

I hurried, I spoke too soon. The person to whom I spoke was hurt by my caustic words.

I am an imperfect person. I am deeply flawed.

The only staff that keeps me standing is understanding that so is everyone else.

I take no joy in discovering their flaws, but I know I can improve my conduct.

In their weeping eyes I see the reflection that is me, the disappointment, the criticism, the judgment. Their sorrow.

And the possibility that if I wake in the morning, I can try again. To repair and apologize, to expand my view and extend my palm, to lift them so I may be lifted as well.

Like the broken vase. Even knowing the cracks in the porcelain will still show, and will deflate the value of the vase, and will ever be the flaw that makes the vase vulnerable to breaking again, still I can repair it. Or try.

In the scattered shards lies a promise to fix what is broken.

So, to that person injured by the burn of my careless words, I am truly sorry.

Sometimes it’s the only thought that lets me sleep at night. That, and prayers.

 

 

Just a thought 48

 

 

The Broken Pitcher, 1891, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Stepping Off the Boat

How do you determine what to withhold in your writing? When you have something to say it may be difficult to exercise restraint, though things unsaid can have as much value as what you choose to expose. How does your work change in revision? Do you find yourself adding more or do you approach your manuscript with a scythe?

It’s said that Torah, the Five Books of Moses, was written in black fire on white fire. The Hebrew words and the spaces that surround them were written (some believe implied) by God. It’s up to the reader to study the black words and white spaces in order to determine what God expects of His children on Earth. Rabbis, scholars, and laymen have pored over those scrolls for thousands of years, arguing interpretation and intent, spirituality and action. Passages are firmly explained, refuted by the next generation, discussed once again. Conclusions are never forgone.

The Bible is written with enormous gaps. We must imagine some passages and conversations because they aren’t in there. When God told Noah to build an ark and collect animals from all over the world, we have no idea what Noah said or thought. That part isn’t in the book, and it’s left to readers to visualize. Did he argue he was too old to build a boat, or try to beg off because of a fear of lions?

Centuries of commentary have drawn many conclusions but each new reader must determine for himself what happened within those empty spaces. Reading Torah promotes a healthy discourse about the gaps between the words. An engaged reader fills in the intentional blanks to glean details, purpose, value, and direction. The Torah reader fully immerses herself, gradually extrapolating meaning and context to apply to one’s own life. As God expects.

Kind of hard to best the Master.

When I completed my first novel, The Inlaid Table, it came in about 180,000 words. That was after culling lengthy descriptive (read boring) passages, entire chapters, and all the meaningless words (very, thing, some, nice, that, really – clutter without clarity.) I slashed the two chapters about the table’s secret journey to America during the Cold War, another about the main character’s vacillation over the trip to Poland, and the five chapters from the lost doll’s point of view. They’d all been reviewed and revised many times, and contained evocative descriptions and suspense. A few early readers loved them, but their contributions to the story were negligible. They added word count and some clever insights but not critical narrative. I cut down the book to 140,000 words by removing redundancies of all ilk (words, action, dialogue, characters) and anything that caused my attention to wane. If it didn’t tantalize the writer, what was it going to do to my poor reader? When it came down to so what, who cares? that’s when I knew I had to cut.

I also cut sections where I feel the reader can fill in with information sufficient to let the story move forward. Even if the reader fills with a scene that isn’t exactly what I envisioned, I’ll remove a section that feels like filler, or that drags the action into a dark closet.

Come read my books with an active mind. I’ll write but you must contribute as well – there are blanks. You have faith in me to craft a compelling story and I trust you to bring your intelligence to the pages. Like a puzzle with missing pieces, you’ll have to fill in the gaps. I’ll take the biggest risk by jumping into space by writing. You’ll connect by stepping off the boat as you read, paddling to stay afloat. Because I can’t do it all.

It’s the wonder of story that a writer’s solitary endeavor gets completed in the public forum. The act of writing is lonely work. I sit with pen and pad of paper or a computer on my lap and I write. Scratch scratch, tap tap.  If God can leave spaces in the labyrinth of Torah through which I must wander to determine meaning, I trust you to do the same with my meager offering.

I write The End, and hope I’ve described enough to compel you to get to those final two words. I hope to soon launch my books into the public forum. It’s noisy out there, lots of people reading and posting reviews, chatting in book clubs, and sharing opinions. Come read with me. Come write with me.

 

Painting of Noah’s Ark, 11th century, artist unknown, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

Fire California

California summer. The season of fire.

 

I live in California where it’s so dry a hot headed remark can start a fire.

 

Tragically, there are sixteen fires raging up and down this beautiful state, taking forests for tinder, buildings for ash, wildlife for collateral, lives for sacrifice.

 

My heart bellows for those who have lost their homes or businesses. My admiration soars for those who fight the infernos. My despair screeches for an end.

 

I drive my car and think about how much I’ve contributed to the environmental crisis plaguing our world. Could I have walked or ridden my bike or  stayed home? Yet I still drive. And the fires still burn. And people still suffer.

 

And California is laid waste by flame provoked by drought and heat. Fire clouds sere the sky. Fire thunder rakes the land.

 

Mercy, please.

 

Not for me. For you, for the future, for the children.

 

May the season of fire return to mere summer, hot and sunny.

 

 

Just a thought 47

 

California 2013 Rim fire image courtesy en.wikipedia.org