Kindness Comes at All Ages

Recently I read John Steinbeck on kindness, courtesy of Brain Pickings. Current events have jolted me from a complacent faith in goodness. That’s not our story anymore—or is it?

Steinbeck wrote:

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?

A bad back led to my own recent brush with kindness. My back had gone out and I could scarcely walk. One afternoon, my house a jumble, and my back even worse after a jaunt to the mailbox, it dawned on me to ask if Sophia, my neighbor’s 11 year old, might help with housework. Seemed unlikely, it was such a pretty Saturday afternoon.

She was delighted–and only had to ask her mother. Within minutes, she was at my house. She vacuumed the large house, including the flight of stairs and the edges along the baseboards in every room; swept and mopped the kitchen; tamed a paper tiger; and organized my granddaughter’s toys. She watered my wilting plants. She hugged me. She arranged a bouquet of flowers.

 

 

At the end of each task, she’d ask if she’d met my standards. I’d chuckle and nod.It turned out that this is the question her mother asks whenever Sophia says she has finished a chore at home. At my house, the only incomplete chore was that she could not   “pick up the exoskeleton of the cicada” that she found while vacuuming.

She  is not allowed to accept money for her work (in the past, she’s watched my dog when I’ve been out of town) so I come up with trades. This time, I’m going to give her a day of painting with watercolors from a class I took on painting a rainbow elephant. I’m trying to come up with a rainbow llama. Suggestions most welcome.

Meanwhile, I sense that Sophia and I simply meet each other’s standard for kindness. More kindness, please. Enough rage. More joy. More Sophia’s.She told me that she can sense peoples’ hearts. And I suppose that she sensed mine that day. Whatever it is, I am grateful for this young girl and her kind heart.

 

Saying Goodbye Again: You are Like the Rain

Last weekend in DC I saw 2 shows by 2 iconic men. First, it was Paul Simon on his farewell, “Homeward Bound” tour, where he wowed me with his musicianship and imagination on a song called, “Rene and Georgette Magritte At Home with Their Dog After the War.” Backed up by yMusic, the song is full of mystery, delicate laughter, and Simon’s eloquent hand gestures that are themselves so beautiful as to seem surreal.
Two nights later, I was at the Birchmere to hear Nils Lofgren, whose wife, Amy, comped my tickets for his nearly sold-out show. Like Simon, being in the room with Lofgren’s music fills me with joy at his virtuosity, his musicianship, his own clear love of creating something as ephemeral as
music. Nothing compares to the joy of watching a grown man blissed out in the refracted joy of playing guitar with his three  brothers, all on stage, happily jamming to an audience full of family and old friends. It was a heaven.
Then Nils played Like Rain, something he’d written as a man-child, seventeen, my son’s age. I cried. The first anniversary of another beloved son’s fentanyl overdose approaches. My sadness is unspeakable. What to do? Can anyone lessen my anguish, or my family’s? If only we could
stand together and sing.

Embrace others if you can, even at work. Let them know you share their humanity. Perhaps your heart sings a similar song. Maybe you walk the same path. No human alive has has not experienced a deep loss.

Send a note. I have never been so lonely, or so relieved to hear from friends. Nils signed my guitar: Believe. I must. What else can a body do? Believe and love. The only way out is through.

TAGS: grief, loss, Paul Simon, Nils Lofgren, music, comfort, lovingkindness, loneliness, opioids, Fentanyl, comfort the grieving

Where the Games Begin: New Art and the Dying Coral Reefs

Begin the work week with a look at where imagination, creativity, and sheer hard work can take a person. My mother, Mary Hourihan Lynch (mhlynch.com), is an accomplished artist, with a studio at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA. Every so often, I spend a Sunday there, keeping the place open, talking to visitors, and hoping to make a sale. I meet many interesting people, from Mom’s artist friends to art lovers from the world over, to tourists taking in the Washington, DC, area.

Panoramic view, Coral Reef on display, Mary Hourihan Lynch, Torpedo Factory, 3d floor

Last Sunday’s delight was a young woman who admired this piece (see below)–Coral Reef--of a dead coral reef. A bleached coral reef can be a horror: my mother has made it into something beautiful by playing with form and material. Here, she manipulates with a mastery that I still find marvelous and extraordinary. 

If only she had a 100-foot wall in a public space–Got one? Below are a few images to pique your love of the beautiful and unusual…these are all canvas stretched over wood forms that my mother builds. What an imagination!  

TAGS: TORPEDO FACTORY, MARY HOURIHAN LYNCH, CANVAS SCULPTURE, CORAL REEFS, GREAT BARRIER REEF

 

 

Joining the Walking Gallery of Healthcare

I’m on my way to Cinderblocks, the 5th annual patient-led gathering of The Walking Gallery of Healthcare, founded by Regina Holliday. Regina truly wears more hats than I can even imagine, and yet whenever I’ve seen her photo, she’s upright and smiling and in motion. I’m eager to meet her today, as one of the newest members of the walking gallery.

I painted my jacket, which bears these words from Dante: I found myself alone in a dark wood. 

That has been my experience of life as a person with several chronic pain problems. I am trying still to see my way out, or at least to see the beauty in bare trees and green tops, or in whichever season I happen to be. I’ll be giving a short talk tomorrow about my experience with pain, opioids, and the so-called crisis, including how the CDC changed the way it counts the numbers and so told the wrong story about what is killing so many people in our communities and homes.

For the start of my talk, I decided to write a very, very short poem. See below, and hope to see you there.

When they said  I’d have to learn to live with it (just take some Bufferens)

Are you kidding me?

Disbelief

Helpless.

Anguish.

Isolation.

You must not know what you’re talking about.

Hysterical.

Lost.

Stressed.

Hopeless.

Shame.

Stigma.

I’ll just call Dr. Google.

Aggression.

Depression.

Determination.

Frustration

Aggravation.

Someone Make This Stop.

 

TAGS: Pain, burning mouth syndrome, The Walking Gallery, Regina Holliday, Cinderblocks5, Advocacy, Patient Advocate, Opioids, CDC, Centers for Disease Control, Heroin

On the Edge: Writing Haiku (5-7-5) to Save My Soul

Like most American school kids, I learned to write haiku (i.e., 5 syllables–7 syllables–5 syllables) in third or fourth grade. It is a Japanese poetic form that, other than World War II and the Cherry Blossom Festival, represented all that I knew of Japanese culture or literature until I reached college. Compared to English formal verse, such as sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas, haiku seem like child’s play.

To counter that, here are a few examples by Japanese masters of the form.

My life,
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.
—–Masaoka Shiki

 

Don’t weep, insects–
Lovers, stars themselves,
Must part.
—–Kobayashi Issa

 

Scent of chrysanthemums…
And in Naru
All the ancient Buddhas.

—–Matsuo Basho

Basho, widely seen as the greatest among Japanese haiku masters.>

By the age of 9, I had quit haiku. By 12, I only wrote free verse. After attending one of Maryland’s earliest STEM high schools, I decided to escape what struck me then (and still does) as the drudgery of college English classes. I earned a mathematics degree: writing verse was not my problem. Calculus was. I still wrote poetry late at night, after crying rivers over algebraic forms, topology, and boys.

But about five years ago, a series of disastrous life events, including the onset of a chronic pain condition, led me back to haiku.

Living with chronic pain has meant struggling to control it before it controls me. For the first few years, I could no longer write for the love of language or story.  After spending long days writing for a consulting firm, by night, I was spent. Stress often meant that my pain was totally out of control. Since I’d failed to find relief in online yoga classes and guided meditation, haiku filled a space.

At first, I simply wrote notes on my iPhone. In fact, I still do, having composed one today during an acupuncture session:

Black lab yellow stars

my son watches from heaven

someone send him home

Eventually, I began writing haiku as affirmations of my own life: my strength, my power, my body, my beauty. And I liked the visual created when I superimposed my haiku on photographs that I took.  I had found an app called BeFunky that was easy to understand.

At first, I used handsome or striking or beautiful photographs of my own–because who sets out to shoot ugly?  When I ran out of images (never syllables, it seemed) I’d ask friends–and, in fact, some began sending me “haikuable” photos. Thus began my life as a haiku artist, creating wordworks that I call haikugram. Low risk, high gain. Here’s one of my first.

My mother, who sculpts in canvas, has a studio at The Torpedo Factory. She and several of her artist friends, who have spent years collaborating, brainstorming, and inspiring one another, have begun to face the central issues of aging: loss, grief, dying. Every so often, she’d send a friend one of my haikugram.

This is one breath, written for my son, Chad Jameson Schuster, who was 24 when he died on October 1, 2017. His life was a burst of energy and light.

In fact, the best haiku rely on close observations of nature, woven into the most elemental truths of human experience. They are a very short form of verse and are quite challenging to write. Haiku must cut, from the first line or image to the central line, which links two opposing thoughts or images, ideas and moments.

Today, however, the 5-7-5 rule is not so much in force unless one prefers it. As it happens, the Japanese count a phonetic sound called on  that approximates English syllabic counts, but not quite. Some English-speaking writers now define haiku as, “A short poem to be recited in one breath.”

(What does one do with a person like Michael Phelps, an Olympic swimmer whose one-breath could outlast the rest of us mere mortals by minutes, not seconds?)

Since writing my haikugram, I’ve found lots to celebrate, mostly an unusual chance to inspire others, and encourage them to write. A long-ago college friend who, like me, has a chronic pain condition, saw my haiku on a creativity website we both follow. He decided to try writing them, and asked me to coach him. Eventually, he added his to photos. Today, his haiku are far better than mine, and often brilliant in their marriage of human and natural experience.

Another friend, a fabulous fiction writer and editor of a large feature magazine, surprised me with news that he, too, is writing haiku. For years, he has been unable to write fiction, overtaken by his work as an editor and teacher. But haiku, which can be written in an hour, or nuzzled around all day in one’s brain, seem manageable. A challenge worth completing.

My most haiku-able moment came when I set out to teach haiku writing during a special event at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The program, Evenings at the Edge was a chance to celebrate the newly reopened gallery, one that had been my favorite since high school. The night I attended was to volunteer for a group called Split this Rock, a group that aims to get poets more involved in public life and policy, especially by working with the next generation of poets.

Chalkboard haiku, spur of the moment haiku in my kitchen

In addition to areas designated for spoken word poetry, music, and gallery gazing, a room was set aside for people to write haiku. Haiku were to be written on special cards and then posted on a wall. The rules were that haiku were to be anonymous and could not feature any political commentary. Tough to do in Washington, DC.

I had volunteered to coach others. Many visitors sat down with a sigh, perplexed at what they were to do. When I said, “Haiku, you know, 5-7-5,” their eyes would spark, and they’d say, “Oh, I did that in elementary school!”

Heads would bow and pens, crayons or color pencils would fly across the notecards.

At one point, a handsome young man sat down at the table across from me and, although he remembered the form, could not think of a thing to write. He attributed this to his being “tech minded” and “a computer guy.”

Lenten roses in my yard, 2-27-18, photo by Pat Sislen

“No excuse,” I teased. “I’ve got a math degree.”

He looked at my graying hair, I know, and smiled.

“Okay, then what I can write about?”

I asked him what he’d seen on his way to the event from his office.

“Snow, icy parking lots, icy roads, lots of traffic,” he said. “It was dark outside, and it was cold, cold, cold. I am ready for spring.”

“Spring,” he said, and looked at his haiku notecard, bowed his head, and began to write. A few moments later, he looked at me and said, “I’ve got something.”

My son, 16, joined me at On the Edge with Split this Rock

He read, “The brevity of life/A flower blossoms.”

It was a one-breath haiku and it was, I knew immediately, a marvel. And yet I knew if he flipped the two lines, it would be an even greater marvel of a haiku. I asked if he’d try flipping the lines and see how it sounded. So he did, reading it aloud once more.

We were silent.

My other lefty, 23, Split this Rock

He looked at me again and said, “I see what you did there. I see what you just did. You and me, we just wrote a haiku.”

“I didn’t write that, you did, I just suggested you reverse the order. That is an amazing haiku. You have to hang it on the wall,” I said. Perhaps I commanded.

“I can’t believe it, I wrote a poem. I did it. You got me to write a poem. I just wrote a haiku. Thank you! Thank you!” He jumped from his seat, joy emanating from him.

Image by Bo Mackison

I saw what I did there. Did you? I became more than myself by helping someone else become more. That sensation was astonishing, and it carried my spirit for a few weeks. After a long break in which I’ve felt incapable of writing anything at all, I am writing.

Here I am. Do you see what I just did? I am writing.

Please comment. Let me know that you are here, write a haiku. I’ll answer.

 

 

 

 

KEY WORDS: HAIKU, JAPANESE FORM, ON THE EDGE, SPLIT THIS ROCK, HAIKUGRAM, LIFELONG LEARNER, LIFELONG LEARNING, NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, EAST WING, WASHINGTON, DC

Who Has the Words for Sorrow?

After my son Chad died, so many people wrote me and noted that they simply had “no words.” Others hugged me and said the same thing. What they had, I know, was love, for Chad, my family, and me. I understood just what they meant, for I had no words either, and no way to express the depth of sorrow, regret, and longing created by his death. As someone somewhere wrote, an entire chapter has been torn from the book of our family. It will never be rewritten.

The other day, I went into the basement to put in a load of laundry. When the kids were growing up, the boys were relegated to the basement, where they could fart, yell, make a mess, and create walls of Axe without causing me too much distress. I was home alone, trying to recover from a double whammy of the flu and then pneumonia.

And yet it seemed that someone else had been there. I don’t know why it felt this way, as if the doors had suddenly been closed, or the curtains pulled shut. I had an overwhelming sense that Chad was right next to me, and that if I could only turn my vision just so, I would be able to see him again, and hold him, and tell him how beloved he was, and how we missed him. I would be able to tell him to be at peace, and that it would be okay, that he could rest.

But I could not seem to turn. Instead, I cried. I tried to make myself laugh, remembering the time we had an earthquake and the two of us—Chad, over six-feet tall!–thought we should seek shelter in the bathtub. Times I heard him singing to himself. Times between times.

I cannot draw Chad, so I draw birds, flowers, an owl or two. Anything that for a moment feels like the words I wanted to say and never could.

 

 

Key words:

Chad Jameson, grieving, compassion, sympathy, what to say, loss of a child, support, saying goodbye, grief

What Does The Giraffe Say?

Since Ian turned 16 on 11/27/17, thought I’d brighten things up my drawing my favorite creature (a giraffe), and that little bird (aka, dodomommy).

Enjoy. As e.e. cummings wrote: it takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

Forsythia in flower, November 27, 2017

Or as Mother Nature has long told us, expect the unexpected. It may be a tiny beauty, or something terrible. Be glad that you are above ground.¥

 

 

Tags: birthday, giraffe, dodomommy, forsythia, November, quotatons, e.e. cummings, poetry, artwork

When Chad Was 24, Grief Came Home

My son, Chad Jameson, was a fearless and loving man. He would have done anything for anyone. But he was not able to do what his own soul needed to end an addiction that he battled for a decade.

On Sunday, October 1, he died in a “recovery home” in Annapolis. He was 24. He would have turned 25 on October 7.

If all the people who loved Chad had been able to bottle that love as a cure, he would have been healed and come home again. In fact, any person facing any addiction would have been healed, and no one would have been left to suffer.

And Chad would have been able to come home at last, steady and smart. He’d have banged open our front door and smiled, then grazed through every cupboard in the house and the fridge, eating all food he could find (so long as he need not cook it).

He’d find his little brother, Ian, to wrestle him or arm wrestle or talk so fast I couldn’t understand their words. They would always smile and laugh.

If Gigi, my 3-year old granddaughter were around, he would play with her–or any other child–and make them laugh and feel special and beloved, because Chad himself was still an 11-year old boy, so desperate for the love that vanished when he was three and his mother died in a car crash. How I wish I’d loved him more.

He was so smart and sweet. When he was about four, he heard something about Israel on the radio and said, “Israel? Is Israel real?” He loved the play of words.

I always thought or hoped that when he “hit bottom,” he would come into his own, and touch the lives of children with joy. Instead, may the lives touched by his short life, by his love and, sadly, by his dying, be strengthened. May then know that there is no shame in asking for help. That medication saves lives. That addiction is a disease.

Every life is more than its actions. Every life is the Light it brings to us all.

Please God, let Chad fly at last as the brilliant star dust from which he came, and when we look into the dark and are afraid, let that fearless kid who tried swimming across the ocean to get to Europe that time he was 4 turn his face to home, so that his laughter might lift these heavy hearts. I was not ready for goodbye, nor were any of the broken spirits here, with the holes in our lives. Let his bright Light shine in us and on us. For the ones we love are never far from us. Call their names, pray to them, sing their favorite songs, whisper–they will always come.

I Art, Or Am I?

Years of writing about aging–and what  Judith Peres calls the “vicissitudes of aging” — taught me that age as a number, a construct, a device. With a degree in math and a poet’s sensibilities, I have cruised through time, thinking that it did not quite apply to me. Or to anyone, really. We would all somehow carry on along this blue planet, our mortal coil. Despite sorrows and losses, we could hold each other up, and forever was one more convenient imaginary number. I could split that, too….

My body differs and jolts me with its own realities. It contains time, no matter how I count it. These bones are no longer 18, nor these eyes, no matter what BuzzFeed or some Facebook quiz calculates of my vision. 

Watercolor Pencil: Testing my Hand

Ditto for my hearing: my grandmother was right when she urged me to “turn down that caterwauling.” I have said something similar when one-too-many Kendrick Lamar tunes has blasted through some speaker in my house.

Even Bruce Springsteen is my father’s age. And when I refrain from Dancing in the Dark in my orchestra seats at the Walter Kerr theater come November, my Verified Seats will be in the handicapped area, thanks (I guess?) to several autoimmune conditions that flare at strange times and make walking and breathing a challenge.

Bruce, RFK, August 1985

HOWEVER, I am the daughter and granddaughter and descendant of so many strong women (and men, but it is the women I knew best) who gave up homes, families, opportunities…for reasons I cannot presume to know, but assume must have been to better their lives.  Have I done the same? Not often enough, but I pray and hope and think that I have raised strong people.

And I, too, persist, though I no longer think I will last so long as my paternal grandmother, whom my kids knew as Meme, who lived into her nineties. Or some of my mother’s relatives, who managed the same. They had some grit that I have scattered elsewhere in the course of this living. Perhaps I will gather it again.

Whatever or wherever that grit is, I am now beyond half done this life, for that is how the years add up. And the blues may be simply knowing that I have so much yet to learn, and yet not done. I am not ever going to be ready red hats and purple sparkles. More like my hero, Bonnie Raitt, whose website has this to say of her newest album, Dig in Deep:

 … Bonnie Raitt continues to personify what it means to stay creative, adventurous, and daring over the course of a legendary career. “I’m feeling pretty charged, and the band and I are at the top of our game,” she says. “This period of my life is more exciting and vital than I was expecting, and for that I’m really grateful. At this point, I have a lot less to prove and hey, if you’re not going to ‘Dig In Deep’ now, what’s the point?”

Bonnie Raitt Owns the Stage in DC, July 2017

How can I feel half done here, with so much yet to do? For instance, how will I roam around Annapolis on 9/19 for the SketchCrawl when I’ve just learned to draw?  My mother, artist  Mary Lynch, works five days each week in her studio at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. What some people call a Muse she has described as a monkey on her back. She says she has no time to waste. She and Bonnie Raitt are about he same age, too. Like Bonnie, my mother is not playing a game, she’s not dabbling. She digs deep and creates objects that have not ever been made before.

Still Life with Fruit

For my 55th birthday, she gave me a portable easel, which Ian, my 15-year old, set up for me just last night. I have watched it most of the day, and worked at a small watercolor for a friend.

Portable Easel Awaits Artist

How to paint something large, when I have only learned to do small things? There is only today. Only these hands. This moment. Here I go. What will you learn, old friends and new? What’s stopping you? What motivates you? I’d love to know. Share your ideas in the comments. Let’s go. 

Wild-Eyed Poets and Basketball Stars

My father is a lifelong “wild-eyed sports fan.” A native Washingtonian, his childhood revolved around the Senators. One year, he bolted across home plate to shake Roy Sievers’ hand as Sievers crossed home plate after scoring a walk-off home run for the Washington Senators.

I’ve written a few short articles in The Washington Post about Dad’s near-legendary sports-triumphs: the time he sneaked into the White House, along with the Championship Washington Bullets, and had hot dogs with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. His longing to see his beloved Nationals take a pennant, or the World Series continues to keep him moving.

And there is the love he and my sister and I have for going to  Bruce Springsteen shows. Even Dad stands for the legendary encores, and the lights-up tent-revival sing-along of Born to Run and Thunder Road.

A bookworm, too, in his retirement, Dad has developed a callous on his elbow where it rests on his favorite reading perch, the porch swing of his house. Because I am a writer, he has always passed along must-read books and suggested writers.

For years, he has plied me with dog-eared copies of Sports Illustrated as proof that the greatest writers in any medium are sportswriters (my favorites include George Plimpton and his Miami Notebooks and just about anything by  Frank Deford).   Like Dad, I’m sure that at the top of their game, sportswriters are our true poets and storytellers–not, by the way, content creators.

The most recent addition to that list may be new-to-me novelist and sportswriter, Jack McCallum. His Summer 2017 profile of Tom Meschery, poet, teacher, and former NBA star. Check out Meschery’s blog on sports, literature, and news. But first, grab SI, find a porch or imagine one, and swing for a moment as you read.