Grief and Miscarriage — in Quito, Ecuador

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Robert Frost

One of my first little class activities for my students is to use cut-out lines of this poem (one per student, in groups depending on the size of the class) to try to put the poem back together based on content, rhyme, and chronology. Sometimes the students vaguely remember this poem from the book The Outsiders, and it’s fun to see when that lightbulb turns on. It’s gratifying to see the students working together to figure things out like, “Oh my gosh, these lines rhyme!” or, “Maybe because this line says ‘first,’ it should be the first line!” Then we get to discuss their choices and, ultimately, the poem itself.

As I begin prep work to tutor a student this year (as I am not full-time teaching anymore), I came across the activity and poem again. Wonderful memories of first days of school flooded back. What a joy it was to teach. What a joy it was to get to know the students and form real relationships with them.

I read this poem again, and my heart is flooded with something else, too.

Grief.

One of the very beautiful things about poems is that you go into them with your own life experiences: your burdens, your hurts, your joys, your worries, your faith, yourself. To a fourteen-year-old, this poem might mean a loss of a friendship, a loss of a love interest, a loss of closeness with parents, a loss of parents’ marriage, a loss of “childhood” and the time that came with it, or even a loss of identity.

I empathize with my students. It is not easy being a teenager and navigating the relationships, the friendships, the politics, the parents, the social media. It’s completely overwhelming, and I’m glad I made it through. But I’ll never forget how hard it was.

But for me in this season of life, I think of the golden excitement of being pregnant . . .
and then not being pregnant anymore.

~

Trigger warning: Miscarriage description. Graphic.

~

Two Thursdays ago, I peed and noticed some pink color. I had just gotten home from a particularly rough city-streets-and-sidewalks bike ride, so I thought there was a chance I had exercised a little too hard. And when it was just the one instance of pink over the course of the next few days, I exhaled a huge sigh of relief. The following Sunday I went to get my blood drawn to “prove” to the insurance company here in Ecuador that I was, indeed, pregnant. My HCG levels were in the 7-week range, even though I was 10 weeks. I was a little concerned, but I knew worrying wouldn’t help anything. I tried to put it out of my mind. Then on Wednesday there was that pink color again, but more. And then the pink turned a little more red. But it was really slow, and I had zero pain. I thought maybe I had twins and I was losing one of them. I googled it, and I had all the symptoms: I was older, I had lower HCB levels, the pain was on par with a mild period.

I had hope.

Thursday came, and I was still bleeding, slowly but steadily. I decided to make an appointment with an OBGYN. I got on the phone with him directly, and he told me to go ahead and come in that evening, that he’d make room for me. My kind-hearted neighbor offered to take me, my other neighbors offered to watch my kids, and, because Steve was still at school and somewhat unreachable, I accepted the help. (I am learning to accept help. It is a work in progress. But I was incredibly thankful for the kindness of my neighbors. I will bake them bread in the near future.)

The ultrasound clearly showed an egg sac.

But it was empty. And it was an irregular shape (not perfectly round). My kind doctor told me that the baby was not in the sac and that the sac had started detaching from the uterine wall. There was a teeny tiny little shape just below the sac, and my doctor said that it might be the baby.

Such a sad little gray lump on the screen.

He measured the sac and told me it measured about 7 weeks. He drew a line to show me how big a 7-week baby would be. He then drew a line about quadruple that, and way beyond the size of the sac, to show me how big an 11-week baby would be (which on that Thursday was the size baby I was supposed to have). I learned that something had gone awry around 6 or 7 weeks and that it was just now physically manifesting in my body.

We finished up with the ultrasound, sat back down at his desk, and discussed options: pills to expedite the process, a D&C (dilation and curettage — basically a scraping of the uterine lining to get everything out), or waiting it out. I chose to wait. I had done this three times already, so I felt I knew what to expect. I knew the worst was coming. I could brace for that.

I walked back out to the waiting room and cried as I hugged my neighbor. She drove me home. Steve was then at soccer with the boys, so I texted him “Miscarriage.”

I ordered Sushi on UberEats. I enjoyed what I wanted before anyone else got home.

My 9- and 6-year-olds were very sad about the news. My two-year-old was sad because he could see that I was crying; he opened his eyes wide and said, “Awww.” It was cute, in the most devastating way.

After reading a chapter of Christopher Mouse to the boys and tucking them in, I went out to watch some Netflix with Steve.

And wait.

I didn’t have to wait long. The blood started flowing heavier and heavier. Oftentimes, shuffling back from the bathroom to watch a few more minutes of our show, I didn’t even get to the couch before I had to turn around and head back to the bathroom.

Here’s my experience with miscarriage: when it comes, you know. The bleeding becomes very heavy and there are blood clots, ranging in size from very small to two inches in diameter. It’s terrifying.

And you know that one of those clots is the fetus.

This miscarriage was so sudden, I had a difficult time managing it. And in Ecuador, the plumbing is such that you are not supposed to flush toilet paper or the toilet will clog. So all the bloody toilet paper started piling up in the little wastebasket that sits next to the toilet. Clots splashed. Blood splattered onto the toilet bowl and somehow onto the bathroom floor and wall. Blood dripped down my legs.

The word that came to mind was “massacre.”

I decided to move to the shower to clean myself up. But the simple act of taking off my clothes and walking one foot over to the shower proved difficult. More blood dripped onto the floor, but I made it to the shower. In the shower, though, the blood was flowing so heavily, I started to worry I was losing too much too quickly. Clots stubbornly got caught in the drain. I felt dizzy. I decided to get out of the shower and try to just lie down. I grabbed a big bath towel, squished it between my legs, and waddled out to try to find a place to lie down and get warm. I ended up on the cold wood floor with Steve trying to get blankets and pillows to keep me warm and make it more comfortable. I didn’t have a fever, so I figured it was safe to try to rest, even as the blood flowed. At a couple points, I thought I was going to throw up, so a trash can was my sleeping partner for the night. Eventually, I felt able to get into bed. With a new bath towel acting as a the world’s biggest pad, I was able to get some sleep in a bed.

In the morning, I felt like I had given birth that night: sore, tired, mentally exhausted, and dizzy at times.

But there was no newborn sleeping next to me. Just a trash can on the floor and lots of blood in the bathroom.

It is Saturday today, and I am taking breaks from writing this to go change my pad. But the blood is very slow now, just a drizzle to remind me of the massacre that’s taken place.

When I posted about my miscarriage on Instagram, several people reached out to offer condolences and to thank me for sharing.

Several of those several people were former students. It makes me well up just thinking about the fact that my students care about me. Teaching is a job that is so much more than a job. It is the potential for life-long friendships. It is the potential to make a lasting difference in lives — both teacher to student and student to teacher (Students, do you realize you make a difference in your teachers’ lives? You do. You matter, so much.) Maybe a poem like “Nothing Gold Can Stay” resonates with a student and stays with her for the rest of her life. Maybe the poem makes her realize that happiness is fleeting and that’s OK. Maybe she realizes that trying to prolong happiness with people and things is an act in futility but on some level it’s still worth it.

Life is not simply long stretches of happiness. And it’s the big lie if you think it is supposed to be. There are massacres along the way. And they suck every ounce of happiness right out of your body — maybe for a day or three or 58.

So we move on as humans, beaten in spirit and body, but not broken. When I am beaten, I look at my kids and soak in the love. I hug my husband hard and know he cares about me on a deeper level than any human alive. I accept help from kind neighbors who have become like family to me. I pray to God and know that there are better things to come. I talk to my parents and know that they love me on an ethereal level, whatever that means exactly.

Perhaps it’s true that nothing gold can stay. And that’s OK. It’s a good reminder to appreciate what we have. So go hug your people. Call your mom. Tell your teachers thanks. And do your best in this life to be the kind of human that makes a positive difference in other people’s lives.

Sending you all the love.

J.

Grief and the End of the World — in Quito, Ecuador

The sting of a fly, the Congolese say, can launch the end of the world. How simply things begin.

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

Even though we are still lumbering through this pandemic — this pandemic that all simply began with one itty bitty bat (or an itty bitty pangolin, or an itty bitty lab leak) — when I read this quote from The Poisonwood Bible, I don’t think of a global pandemic that started with one infection and led to over three and a half million deaths.

I think of my own grief.

And when I realize this thought process of mine, I feel selfish. How can I possibly think of my personal grief when people are dying every single day in every single part of the world?

So I’m selfish. Because there are so many simple things that happen in the course of a day that launch me into the thick gray fog of grief.

Lately, everything reminds me of my mom.

When I tuck my legs up on the couch to read my book, I think of how my mom would tuck her legs up the same way.

Mini emotional breakdown right there on the couch.

Washing dishes the other night, I got to thinking about how my mom would keep her house so sparkly clean all the time.

Full, heaving sobs over the sink of dirty dishes and soap suds.

I made brownies tonight and was excited to add toasted walnuts to the batter. I remember my mom first discovering the magic that is brownies with walnuts and talking to me about it, going so far as to add a bag of them with a boxed brownie mix as part of a college care package.

Overwhelming sadness and nostalgia.

I sat down at the piano tonight to sing and plunk out the chords to Toto’s “Africa” and thought of how my mom wanted so badly for me to enjoy playing piano and here I was doing just that.

Fat tears. While I’m playing “Africa.”

When I watch old episodes of Call the Midwife, I think of how my mom would have absolutely loved watching that show with me.

Just miss her so much.

Typing that just now, thinking about how silly it is to be sad from watching some random TV show — a show that my mom was never even alive to watch — a fresh spring of tears to my eyes.

How simply things begin.

And while I don’t feel like it’s the end of the world, I do feel deep surges of anguish.

It’s been 12 years since I got to hang out with my mom, watching HGTV on her couch, walking over to downtown Sunnyvale to shop at the farmers market, grabbing lattes at Peet’s Coffee and talking about hopes and dreams.

Time has made things easier, and yet, at the flip of a switch, at any moment, tears can start rolling down my cheeks. I’ve accepted it. And I’ve learned some things about my own grief that might help you:

  1. Accept it for what it is and how it manifests. For me, it’s mostly tears — sometimes at inopportune times. Oh, well.
  2. Surround yourself with people who can handle it. And who care about you. The last thing you need is to be embarrassed about your grief.
  3. Don’t suppress it. I’ve found that my tears are pretty cathartic for me. Maybe they can be for you, too.
  4. Find outlets for your grief. Clearly one of mine is writing, as you know if you’ve been slinking around on my blog. Singing and playing piano is another. Reading books here and there about other humans experiencing grief has been helpful to remind me I’m not alone.
  5. Love others. Tight hugs and shared belly laughs can do wonders. But also being able to channel some of those deep, heavy emotions into love for other humans can be a boon.
  6. Do something that scares you. Perhaps a jump off a zip line tower. Or perhaps a telephone call to a dermatologist’s office to schedule an appointment — in Spanish.

This past Monday, I called a dermatologist’s office here in Quito. I was terrified. Speaking Spanish is already scary, but over the phone? I hate calling to make appointments in the States where I can speak English! But, as I mentioned, I’ve been watching old Call the Midwife episodes, and in one scene, one of the midwives is terrified to do her first solo birth. She knows that if she makes a mistake, a baby or mother could die. So when I started dialing that Ecuadorian phone number, I told myself, “NO ONE IS GOING TO DIE IF YOU MESS UP YOUR SPANISH.” And that made things a lot easier. Thank you, Call the Midwife.

But after I successfully made my appointment and got off the phone, I felt transcendent. I could fly! I could do anything! Silly, I know, but it sure put me in a happy mood.

So there you have it: a great way to deal with grief is to move to a country where you don’t know the language well and make an appointment over the phone. Let me know how it goes for you.

Until then, tuck your legs up on the couch and read a book. Or watch some BBC and have a little cry. Preferably with someone you love. Happy grieving, Friends.

I think my favorite part of this 17-year-old photo is that white-knuckled GRIP my mom has on my arm. Fierce is the love my mom had for me.

I’ve Had an Accident. So May You All.

I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Listen 8:09

Never have I resonated with this more than now. (OK, well, maybe with the exception of middle school because that was a complete nightmare of no one knowing anyone.)

I left a great job teaching English literature at a school where I was loved and admired and known by students and teachers.

I moved to another country where I barely know how to communicate with other humans.

I am now a stay-at-home Zoom Mom.

Ah, how the mighty have fallen.

So I’m at home a lot these days. And Quito has just mandated stay-at-home orders for the next four weekends. I am not in a classroom, I am not teaching, I am not making lesson plans, I am not pestering my students about what books they’re reading. As a teacher, I am not known here. At all. I feel like I’ve lost part of my identity. But while I am sad that people here don’t know me and the skills I bring to the table, something exciting is happening.

I am learning new things. New doors are opening for me. Dormant skills are bubbling to the surface. Dare I say, I am getting to know myself better. And while it’s great to feel known by others, it’s also great to know yourself.

It’s funny that we float through life just assuming we know all there is to know about ourselves. We are the only ones with full access to our own brains, after all. But it’s scary how easy it is to simply flip off the switch, darkening most of that mass inside our skulls.

I have to stop and wonder what we’re missing here. If we don’t know ourselves, how are others supposed to know us? And don’t we desperately want to be known by others?

It took a seismic shift of events for me to realize that there’s more to me than being a teacher. And I bet it’s similar for most humans. Maybe for you.

I learned something new this week about the word “accident,” all because of my 9-year-old’s Spanish project that asked him to write about “coastal accidents.” My son and I were both very confused — coastal accidents, like shipwrecks? Natural disasters on the coast? We were struggling. Finally, after a desperate email to the teacher, we realized that the word “accident” refers to how various landforms come into being. A bay, for example, is formed through the erosion of rocks. In the Spanish language, this is considered an “accident” because erosion is not intentional. But go ahead and Google “Tortuga Bay, Ecuador,” and you tell me if that looks like an “accident.” I’d visit that accident any day of the week.

What a mindset shift to think of accidents creating beauty. And though leaving the teaching profession, moving to a new country, and becoming a Zoom Mom weren’t accidents, per se, they certainly were in line with a seismic shift of events. And let’s remember that during seismic shifts when tectonic plates collide (accident!), beautiful mountains are formed.

I am reminded of W. H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen,” a poem about a man who floats through life, doing things and saying things and being things. He is “normal,” “sensible,” “proper,” “popular,” and even a “saint” — descriptors we’d probably appreciate being said about us. His life is smooth — no accidents. But when he dies, we realize — with horror — that no one even knew his name. No one even knew if he was free. Or if he was happy.

Go ahead and read the poem. Take your time.

The Unknown Citizen

W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378

This Marble Monument

Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be

One against whom there was no official complaint,

And all the reports on his conduct agree

That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,

For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.

Except for the War till the day he retired

He worked in a factory and never got fired,

But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.

Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,

For his Union reports that he paid his dues,

(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)

And our Social Psychology workers found

That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.

The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day

And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.

Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,

And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.

Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare

He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan

And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,

A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;

When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.

He was married and added five children to the population,

Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.

And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.

Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:

Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

What a truly devastating poem. To go through your entire life, doing and saying and being all the things, only to die, in the abyss of obscurity.

It’s a reminder to us to live. To live in a way that we are known to others and to ourselves. And for that to happen we might have to endure some accidents. We might have to induce some accidents.

Leaving my profession, moving to another country, becoming a Zoom Mom — these things propelled me to dig deeper into what I have to offer to my community, to my family, to myself.

And digging deeper, I have discovered within myself something very exciting — something that has been waiting patiently for me.

That something? It’s a book. A book that I will write.

(I’m terrified. Maybe terrified like those tectonic plates when they were inching closer to each other, knowing they were going to collide and there was nothing they could do about it.)

When people look at my life after I die, I want them to see beautiful bays and mountains, knowing the erosion and shifting of tectonic plates it took to get like that.

Because sometimes it takes an accident to create something beautiful. And to be known.

How Not to Fall to Your Death: Climbing Life with No Ropes

But once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do a move or even an entire route, it’s like a tiny door opens inside your mind, and the belief that you can do it, that you will succeed, creates a powerful positive visualization.

Mark Synnott, The Impossible Climb

Listen 7:34

I don’t know a whole lot about rock climbing. But there’s something about those granite walls and cracks and slab pitches that lures me in. I don’t need to do it; I’m happy in my platonic voyeurism of the sport. And I admire the mental keenness it takes to get from ground to peak.

The context of this quote is that climbers can fail again and again and again on one particular move, but once they complete it, they’re likely to complete it every subsequent time. Synnott mentions a certain “warrior spirit” that enables climbers to give just a little more to succeed on the move. And when they keep coming up short? He says that it could feel like an intentional fail, called “punting” in the climbing world.

I want to have a warrior spirit.

But isn’t it interesting that a whole phenomenon exists where people intentionally fail? I have to wonder what that looks like off the wall.

For the longest time, I failed at writing. Intentionally. I was an English teacher teaching writing who didn’t write — not really. And the reason I didn’t write? Funny enough, fear of failure. So let’s climb through this, rock by rock, crack by crack: I taught writing without writing myself. The fear of failure (negative feedback, judgment from colleagues and students) kept me from it. But listen: the actual failure was not “turning on the faucet” — not writing that first sentence, and then that second one, and then the third, the fourth, and on. That first sentence for me was like that move on the granite wall that the climbers just couldn’t muster the spirit to do.

It seems silly comparing a sentence to the wrinkle of granite being used as a hand hold. Sentences don’t seem quite as scary — or dangerous. But in my bubble, I felt like I was on that wall, holding on for dear life, refusing to grab that granite wrinkle. I’d rather stay frozen, splayed to the side of the wall. No progress. But a feeling of safety.

I’d rather fail than take a chance on that move.

But just like some of the great rock climbers who scale a wall only after experiencing a traumatic event (watch the documentary The Dawn Wall to see Tommy Caldwell succeed only after heartbreak), it took a traumatic event at my school to finally light that fire under me.

I recently became “email friends” with Berit Gordon, and she mentioned that teaching is an “oddly lonely endeavor.” So true. We teachers don’t get much attention or validation from our peers. What validation we do get normally comes from the students themselves, which is great, but they’re not in charge of scheduling, pay raises, tenure, etc. So when I came back to school after taking maternity leave in the spring of 2019 to my department head demoting me, I was stunned. I would no longer be teaching my beloved AP Literature class.

There’s a whole messy story behind it, but suffice it to say, I was traumatized. And even though formal apologies were later made to me and I didn’t completely lose my AP class (I taught one section; a colleague taught another), the damage had been done. To liken my teaching to climbing, for years I felt like I was basically alone on the wall, taking care of myself, making sure I was taking all the safety precautions, successfully making my way to the summit. And I felt very confident in my abilities.

But then, in the middle of being alone on the wall, someone came out of nowhere and started fiddling with my rope, unclipping it from my harness, pulling it loose from the anchor. And then I was alone again. Without a rope. Scared. I was at the point where either I needed that warrior spirit or I was going to fall to my death.

Finally (finally), I decided to write. My starting a blog and putting my writing out there for the world (reality: tens of people) to read was my way of free-soloing the rest of my climb. No ropes, just me on the wall at my most vulnerable.

And did I mention that I’d never been on this particular wall?

But I’m making it up, trying to hold on to that warrior spirit, allowing that tiny door to open inside my mind. And let me tell you, it’s freeing. I don’t need to actually climb up a mountain wall sans ropes to feel liberated from the boundaries of this world.

And that’s the beauty of the analogy. What is rock climbing for you? What is that move you just can’t let yourself do in life? And do you realize that it’s you holding yourself back, failing intentionally? It’s a harsh reality, but one that we can face. And this difficult move you’re facing — you don’t have to wait for a traumatic event to happen to force you to make it. Alex Honnold free-soloed El Capitan without just having broken up with his girlfriend (he did wonder, though, if he was in the right headspace because his previous climbing feat was a result of a bad break-up).

So make the move. And live the rest of your life believing that you can do it, that you will succeed. Meanwhile, I’ll keep tapping the keys, wondering what my next move will be. Because, remember, I haven’t been on this wall before.

And neither have you.

Last weekend, my family and I went to El Refugio retreat center up in the mountains near Quito. The rock wall beckoned us, so we climbed. That’s me on the right and my 8-year-old son Asher on the left. We both made it to the top. With ropes.
At the top of one of the mountains. We didn’t have to rock climb to get up, but it was a feat nevertheless. No ropes.

Despair and Geraniums in Quito, Ecuador

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” From Dream Work

Listen 5:37

Such a heavy word, despair.

Such a heavy, sad, hopeless, lonely word.

Tell me about your despair, Friend, and I will tell you mine.

Out earlier today on the important errand of getting still-warm, 22-cent croissants from my local bakery, I walked past a driveway with its gate open, a rare occurrence here in the city. When I slowed my gait to peek inside, what I saw for only a couple of seconds was a cute little cottage with red geraniums in the window box planters. Immediately, grief welled up inside of me.

My mom lives in that cottage with the red geraniums in the window box planters. Every morning (early), she sits out in her front-yard garden under the fig tree and drinks her coffee, reads her Bible, and thanks God for the day she’ll be spending with her grandkids. She finishes her coffee, takes another look at the mountains, and heads inside to make a bite to eat for breakfast. She sits at her little table with her bowl of oatmeal and fresh fruit, and through the always-open window she watches birds hop around the new feeder she bought last weekend (she was giddy as Steve hung it for her). Soon, I arrive with my boys in tow. (I have her gate key. I have her door key. And she has mine. Visits are rarely planned.) She scoops up Memphis as the other two boys hug her legs. I walk over to the kitchen counter to grind coffee beans for my cuppa. The morning could not be any more gorgeous. Birds are singing, sun is shining, puffy white clouds contrast the blue sky. As my coffee brews in Mom’s French press, we chat about our day. Mom needs to go to the market, as do I, so we decide to go together for our fresh-fruit-and-veggie haul. We’ll swing by my apartment, drop the kiddos off with Steve, and leisurely browse the produce.

Mundane, really, but so beautiful.

I started daydreaming about the type of house my mom would buy down the street or around the corner from us back when we lived in Michigan. But she said she needed to work a little bit more to be able to support herself through retirement. And we didn’t have kids yet.

We moved to Florida in 2008, and before we had time to feel settled in our new house enough for me to start thinking about where my mom would live, I got a call from my mom’s good friend telling me that she was in the hospital. Mom had gone in for her routine colonoscopy (that she had been dreading and putting off) and had stayed because the cancer was so bad that surgery was the only — and immediate — option.

Cancer was not a part of the plan.

But this new plan dictated that less than a year after her diagnosis, my mom would pass away.

Processing the death of the person who cared so much about my mundane life?

I’m still processing. So as I walk by the cottage with the red geraniums in the window boxes, I grieve all over again.

And to add a little cruelty to it all is that graffitied on the outside wall of my apartment compound is the word “CANCER.”

My mom was supposed to be here, in Quito. She was going to retire and move to wherever my family was. A huge perk of being an only child, I thought, was that I and my kids would get my mom 100%. She’d live in a cute little cottage with red geraniums in window boxes. She’d have a little front-yard garden with a fig tree and a swing. She’d sit out every morning with her coffee and Bible and thank God for the day she’d be spending with her daughter, her son-in-law, and, most of all, her grandkids. We’d interrupt whatever routines she had, and she’d love it. We’d have coffee together and chat about nothing at all. Maybe we’d go to the market.

Mundane and beautiful and too good to be true.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you about mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
. . .
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

My family doesn’t include my mom anymore — not on this physical earth, anyway — but Oliver reminds me that the world offers itself to me. The red geraniums, the fig tree, the mountains, and the birds? They are my family, too. I thank God for them. And I thank God that he gets to spend the day with my mom.

All’s Not Well in Paradise. And That’s OK.

It was necessary, and the necessary was always possible.

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Listen 8:23

It was a rough week. Necessary, but rough.

School was in full grind: Steve working all hours of the day; the boys logging on and off and on and off and on and off Zoom; me washing so many dishes.

I got a mango rash all over the right side of my face. Apparently, mangos have urushiol oil in them, the same oil in poison oak and ivy.

Trivial things, yes. But as you know (because you are a human), it’s those trivial things that add up to make you want to bang your (red, puffy, itchy) face into a wall.

These necessary kinds of weeks happen to the best of us. And dealing with them is tough. Because more than likely, the things happening to us are a result of choices we’ve made, which makes the dealing with the emotions part of it a little trickier.

Steve chose to go back to teaching. (Granted, he didn’t know it would be in the midst of a pandemic.) We chose for the boys to go to school, and that means virtual right now. We chose to live without a dishwasher. And my rash? I’ve known I’m allergic to mango since a trip to Costa Rica in 1997. And yet I wasn’t careful about washing my hands after handling mangos. My fault. Lesson learned. Well, I guess we’ll see in another 23 years.

So here’s the catch: We get mad at these stupid little things happening in our lives that are caused completely by us, or we get mad at these stupid little things happening in our lives that are completely outside of our sphere of control. Either way, are we justified in getting angry or sad or tired or or or?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that it was a rough week. I got angry. I was sad at times. Tired. And when I start thinking about these emotions and why I’m having them I start thinking that surely I can’t be justified in feeling these things because my complaints are rather trivial and mostly a result of my own choices and there are so many people out there dealing with legitimate hardship and I better just slap a smile on my face and START A GRATITUDE JOURNAL BECAUSE THAT WILL FIX EVERYTHING.

But you know what? I believe in a God that gives grace. And I think that same God would want us to give ourselves some grace. Grace to allow ourselves to feel justified in our pain. So as I sit in my rocking chair out on my porch molding a frozen bag of peas into my right eye socket, cheek bone, and chin, I think about how emotions — even the negative ones — are a necessary part of life.

And I also think of the things in my life that are not trivial. The things that hit harder than a “rough week.” Losing my beautiful, best-friend mom over ten years ago. She never got to meet her grandkids. It hangs on me like a shroud. Losing my fiercely loyal dad four years ago. He met and spent time with my first two boys and loved them unconditionally. The boys are already forgetting him.

They say that high altitude living practically sucks the moisture out of your body. So I try to drink lots of water here in Quito, where I live at over 9,000 feet.

But what happens when it feels like your very vital essence is being sucked out of you?

[No one-size-fits-all answer here.]

There are a few things that help me:

  • getting outside, walking, being in nature
  • reading a fantastic book
  • baking bread
  • cleaning the kitchen (yes, yes, I get it: the kitchen is both a source of pain AND of therapy — maybe there’s something to that combo)

And sometimes doing all of those things doesn’t scrub through to the bright, shiny happiness.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Why?

Because life is necessary. And while I don’t believe that we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past” (poor Gatsby), I do know that the past is absolutely a part of our lives. It should be acknowledged. Dealt with if necessary. Learned from.

Acknowledging and dealing with and learning from our past — these might not be necessary for life, but they sure are helpful in living an authentic life and having authentic relationships.

Life is necessary. And because it’s necessary, it’s possible. Maybe not happy all the time.

And that’s ok.

~~~

Tasting the Earth
James Oppenheim


In a dark hour, tasting the Earth.

As I lay on my couch in the muffled night, and the rain lashed at my window,
And my forsaken heart would give me no rest, no pause and no peace,
Though I turned my face far from the wailing of my bereavement…
Then I said: I will eat of this sorrow to its last shred,
I will take it unto me utterly,
I will see if I be not strong enough to contain it…
What do I fear? Discomfort?
How can it hurt me, this bitterness?


The miracle, then!
Turning toward it, and giving up to it,
I found it deeper than my own self…
O dark great mother-globe so close beneath me…
It was she with her inexhaustable grief,
Ages of blood-drenched jungles, and the smoking of craters, and the roar of tempests,
And moan of the forsaken seas,
It was she with the hills beginning to walk in the shapes of the dark-hearted animals,
It was she risen, dashing away tears and praying to dumb skies, in the pomp-crumbling tragedy of man…
It was she, container of all griefs, and the buried dust of broken hearts,
Cry of the christs and the lovers and the child-stripped mothers,
And ambition gone down to defeat, and the battle overborne,
And the dreams that have no waking…

My heart became her ancient heart:
On the food of the strong I fed, on dark strange life itself:
Wisdom-giving and sombre with the unremitting love of ages…

There was dank soil in my mouth,
And bitter sea on my lips,
In a dark hour, tasting the Earth.

A Quito rainbow. Look closely, and you can see it’s a double.

Stuff! And Other Foibles.

“The seashore teemed with no weeds, no crabs, no crayfish, no coral, no pebbles, no rocks.” –Yann Martel, Life of Pi

I finally read Life of Pi. (Interesting side-note: The novel was published on September 11, 2001.) While not my favorite, I did quite enjoy it. When I came across this sentence, I had to do a double-take. How can a seashore teem with . . . nothing? I was immediately drawn to the paradoxical statement. And the sentence proceeds to list six different objects that aren’t there. With a “no” in front of each object, the effect on the reader is overwhelming. With the absence of a coordinating conjunction between the objects (asyndeton, for the Literary Prude English Teachers of America), the six objects overwhelm, yes, but also come at the reader like rapid fire.

So why does Martel want to overwhelm us with loss? And as a fiction writer, why draw attention to what is not in the scene? How do we write using good imagery when we’re not describing what’s actually in the scene? Well, I don’t think Martel is concerned as much with imagery as he is with emotional reaction. In this particular scene, a storm has just blown through the island, taking most everything with it. Perhaps Martel wanted to emphasize the effect of losing everything? And to a seashore, losing things like weeds, crabs, crayfish, coral, pebbles, and rocks might seem like everything.

How might the seashore be feeling about this loss?

Without seeming indifferent to environmental issues, I’m not particularly compelled by the idea of a seashore temporarily losing these things. I am, however, quite compelled by the idea of how this sentence applies to us. When storms blow through our lives and leave us with nothing, how are we still teeming? What does it mean? Is it healthy? Good? Bad?

Read any self-help literature these days, and it’s teeming with tips on how to minimize our lives. I did a quick search on Goodreads using the word “minimal,” and 100 pages of results came back. Minimalism as a way of life is quite popular. I’d like to say that I adhere to the philosophy (on a very small scale) in my own home. I purge on a regular basis, and I am mindful not to become emotionally attached to my things. I’ve read Marie Kondo’s book Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up, and I’ve watched all the episodes of Tidying Up on Netflix. In other words, I’m a pro.

OK, not so much a pro, but I’m trying!

Before my mom passed away, she hired a moving company to pack up her entire apartment into boxes and move them to my house. She split living her final days between my home in Florida and her cousin’s home in Tennessee. My husband and I took some of her things and fixed up the guest bedroom for her — we wanted her to feel comfortable and “at home” as much as possible. And I think she was as comfortable as she could have been as she lived the last of her life.

But let me tell you, nothing prepares you for the loss of your mother. Martel captures the scope of it when he says “To lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you.” It is very, very difficult to sustain life without the sun.

And yet.

My life went on. Not only that, I had to take care of the rest of the boxes of my mom’s stuff sitting in our garage. It was at that point that I realized that I couldn’t allow myself to form an emotional connection to my mom’s stuff. My mom was gone, and her stuff wasn’t going to bring her back. And while my mom loved me, her stuff did not — and would not ever — love me.

I lost my mom. And then I got rid of nearly all of her things.

And yet.

My life went on. With less stuff.

When my dad died 7 years after my mom, I had to go through all of his belongings as well. I picked just a few things to keep, but the bulk of it had to go. So my husband and I set up a “poor-man’s” estate sale at his home and let strangers pick through his stuff. It was humbling, sad, and exhausting. I resonated again with Martel’s words in Life of Pi: “To lose your father is to lose the one whose guidance and help you seek, who supports you like a tree trunk supports its branches.” (For more about how I dealt with the loss of my parents, read this post.)

Resiliency is a fascinating thing. Nature has plenty of examples of it: natural forest fires, hurricanes, earthquakes. Given time, nature takes its course and the forests that were burned down reseed, the earth that was ravaged by hurricanes dries out, the fault lines exacerbated by earthquakes fill back in. Nature taking its course doesn’t mean that things go back to exactly the way they were before or that the land is necessarily better for it. But nature is pretty good at healing itself.

And I think humans are, too.

It’s interesting that after a storm hits, people come together. In 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. I was 7 years old, living in California, and what I most remember about it all was neighbors gathering in my garage eating together because my dad had a camping stove. It was awesome! To me, it felt like a party! (To my mom, not so much. Her china cabinet fell over, and every dish except one shattered. She cried.)

When Hurricane Irma hit in Florida in 2017, I wasn’t naively thinking there would be a “party” in my garage over a camping stove (we didn’t have one at the time, but after that hurricane, we bought one), but the neighbors came together to help each other out. There was a lot of destruction, flooding, and power loss, but what I remember most was the kindness.

So when Martel writes the “seashore teemed,” perhaps he wanted us to understand how overwhelming loss can be. Or perhaps he wanted us to realize just how much we will always still have left in us — even after experiencing great loss. Perhaps he was reinforcing the idea that we don’t need “things” in our lives as much as we think we do. Yes, the seashore teemed with the absence of all of the things.

But the seashore still teemed. And “teemed” is an action verb.

There was action.

There was movement.

There was hope.

And just as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reminds us, “The tide rises, the tide falls.” Life will continue. Healing may need to happen, and it may take time, but life will continue. Take a minute, listen to the ocean in your head, and read his poem:

“The tide rises, the tide falls, 

The twilight darkens, the curlew calls; 

Along the sea-sands damp and brown 

The traveller hastens toward the town, 

      And the tide rises, the tide falls. 

Darkness settles on roofs and walls, 

But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls; 

The little waves, with their soft, white hands, 

Efface the footprints in the sands, 

      And the tide rises, the tide falls. 

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls 

Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls; 

The day returns, but nevermore 

Returns the traveller to the shore, 

      And the tide rises, the tide falls.”

It may not be the most inspirational, hope-filled, happy poem. And, yes, it does seem that the “traveller” in the poem dies. But the commentary on nature is clear: it goes on. And as natural beings, so do we. We’ll deal with loss — and even we won’t live forever — but we’re resilient and can pick ourselves up and move one. And though I don’t have my parents living this life with me, I do have a wonderful husband and three wonderful sons. My life?

It’s teeming.

Mush! And Other Lessons From a Dog

“He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken.” –Jack London, The Call of the Wild

So many great “life quotes” in a book about a dog. I’ll be honest: I decided to read this book because when my husband handed it to me, he told me that it’s really good . . . and only 62 pages. I’m a little behind on my Goodreads reading challenge of 50 books a year, so a short book is right up my alley. I’ll tell you, it’s refreshing to read a book in a day. I definitely recommend it! And, wow — the vocabulary was on point. (I would recommend the book to humans who are serious about upping their vocabulary. And students: SAT test prep much?)

Interestingly, this sentence comes on page six of the book. Two great things about this: (1) London dives right into the action — already Buck has been stolen and handed over to greedy gold-diggers — and (2) the reader is under no illusion that this is going to be a happy story. I, for one, appreciate that.

As soon as I read this sentence, I knew I wanted to use it as the inspiration for a blog post. It screams, Life advice! Take heed! Listen up! Being “beaten” isn’t exactly inspiring, and it’s certainly not a place people want to be. But when we look at the rest of the sentence, we can see that being “broken” is worse. Taking a quick look at structure, we see that the two clauses are joined in two ways: a semicolon and a coordinating conjunction (not recommended by The Literary Prude English Teachers of America). But I like it. There is a punctuation mark connecting the ideas. And there is a conjunction connecting the ideas.

Such a strong connection. Let’s dive in.

I think I can speak for most of us here when I say it’s not enjoyable to run a race just to be beaten. We want to win! Or at least we want to beat someone else! When I ran track in high school (my main event was the mile; occasionally I’d run the 800), I knew I wasn’t going to be the winner coming around that fourth lap, but I also knew I wasn’t going to be last. In fact, I’d probably beat most of the other girls running, and that was enough for me. There was a certain pleasure to burn past girls and leave them in my dust. (Some might say “It was a pleasure to burn.”) If I came in last every single time I ran the race, I might realize that perhaps the mile wasn’t my event. Maybe I should try triple jump. But even beating some of the runners, I realized that I wasn’t good enough to pursue track at the collegiate level. And so I moved on from my “track career.” Buck quickly realizes his limitations when it comes to a man with a club. He realizes that a man with a club is not beatable.

But I’ll say this: there is a unique perspective we get when we’re getting beaten. Maybe someone is ahead of us, or maybe someone is above us, but we see what it looks like and experience what it feels like in that position. And if we come out of it still alive, well, we’ve come out of a learning experience! Now we know some things:

  • When you see a fist descending down upon you, move.
  • When you see a spear hurling at you through the air, duck.
  • When you see someone about to grab the last Tickle-Me-Elmo on Black Friday, dive in front of her, throwing an elbow if needed.

You get the idea. Being in a “loser” position definitely helps us understand how to get into the “winner” position.

Ah, if only it were that easy. Just like Buck coming across a man with a club, there are certain situations where we’re going to be beaten. Every. Time. It doesn’t matter how hard we try or how much we work.

We will still fail. Someone or something will beat us.

And sometimes it’s life.

When I was 26 — happily married, happily working, happily living — I got a call from one of my mom’s friends telling me that my mom was in the hospital recovering from surgery. I knew my mom was going in for a colonoscopy, but I was really confused that all of a sudden she was recovering from surgery. And even more confused that she hadn’t called me (she lived in California; I lived in Florida). Come to find that doctors discovered cancer, and they had to act fast. I felt like a trap door had opened underneath me and that I was falling into darkness. Her prognosis was a year, give or take a few months.

14 months later, she died.

I remember telling my husband that my mom was like my anchor, and without her, I felt like I was floating farther and farther away into dark waters. Falling through darkness, floating in dark waters, I felt disoriented. Life was fuzzy, and everything seemed distorted.

I felt broken.

But I pulled myself up with God’s help (just another reason I believe in God — I don’t think I would have gotten through that experience without feeling loved by a good God). And I re-calibrated my life. I now had to figure out how to live (and be happy) without my mom. I was beaten (she was gone); but I wasn’t broken.

It took some time, but I got to a point of really loving life again. I knew it’s what she wanted for me, so I took it upon myself to take a disciplined approach to happiness. I focused on the blessings in my life, I took time to appreciate the people in my life, and I was mindful of the beauty in nature around me.

So when my dad died of cancer seven years later, I just became bitter. I felt broken again, but in a different way. I couldn’t understand how both of my parents were taken from me. And while my mom was my confidante, my anchor, my best friend, my dad was the one in my corner, yelling at me to beat the bastards (his language, not mine). He believed in me to a fault. He would take my side in all situations without knowing any details. If I disliked someone, he hated them. I remember in elementary school coming home and telling him about this girl who was annoying me, and he actually said that if it was really a problem, he’d have to beat her up. Luckily, my dad wasn’t actually violent and would never actually beat up a seven-year-old, but you better believe I felt like I could conquer the world with him on my side.

But now he was gone, too. I felt so alone. I didn’t have brothers or sisters to commiserate with me. It was just me.

It is amazing to me how resilient a human can be. I made it my mission once again to seek happiness in life. I realized once again that even though I felt broken, I wasn’t. I understood on a very practical level that dwelling on the sadness and unfairness of it all would make my life stagnate. And as our friend Einstein says, “It is the same with people as it is with riding a bike. Only when moving can one comfortably maintain one’s balance.”

And moving through life is a privilege. Not everyone gets to do it. I like to remind myself that even when life is not going the way I’d like it to go, I’m alive. Walt Whitman’s poem “O Me! O Life!” touches on the concept of living through all the struggles of life because at the end of the day we all have a purpose. Do yourself a solid, and actually take time to read through the poem. Read it all, and read it slowly:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,

Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

                                       Answer.

That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

So we keep going — because we’re not broken, and because it’s our imperative to contribute something to this life. For Buck, it means to mush, or basically march through the snow. For us, it’s the same concept. Keep mushing, keep moving.

I am still sad about the loss of my parents. It’s something I deal with on a daily basis, and it’s especially painful when dealing with difficult people in life. I don’t have my mom saying, “It’s OK, honey; just hang in there; I’m sorry those people are treating you that way.” And I don’t have my dad yelling, “THOSE SHITHEADS! No one treats my daughter that way!”

I’ll end with this: to experience the heights, we must experience the depths. How much greater is the view on top of the mountain after we’ve done the work to climb up from the valley? It’s been a great reminder for me as I traverse the ups and downs of life. I hope it’s a good reminder for you, too.

We might be beaten. But we’re not broken.