The butterfly or the mermaid?

Grieving people find a hundred ways to look at a butterfly, which is tricky, really, cause it's not as though they stop flying long enough for you to really see. Except for when they're printed on greeting cards.

The common idea is that the butterfly represents the beauty of the release from pain in the physical body, flesh become spirit. Death is maturity, life is pain, wings are eternal and lovely: who woulda believed this could come outta that icky caterpillar…? And so on. The butterfly shows us how our loved one shuffled off of his mortal coil.

Disabled people use butterflies a lot because they are free, nimble, they take the air easily, and their beauty is truly transcendent: beyond all our earthly understanding.

The butterfly is change, metamorphosis, radical. Worm to angel. As much as the old shape hurt to live in, I’m really sure that butterfly in the chrysalis is numb (apparently it’s a blob of mush in there for a while, neither/nor) and then awakes and stretches into exquisite pain. Not something you do unless you have to.

The butterfly’s also a symbol of the grieving person and how they are transmuted, painfully, into a beautiful creature, released from the grey shield, no longer walled inside our own home. And yes, we widows blossom spectacularly, if you wait long enough, if we can just remember that there IS a way through.

But grieving people can't change form or environment as quickly as the butterfly, and we're expected to last much longer.

And if I was to have movement -- or even "a" movement -- I needed something — an image, an icon, an avatar — with competitive color, to adore, something to look up or outward to. So I used the mermaid, even though I had to change the ending of the story (and I don't really know the NEW ending, either).


Pictureless Wednesday: Spring will come.

Mommy, why are the trees all pink?

I wouldn't call it a storm, but peculiar precipitation last night,  neither sleet nor hail, and strange conditions all morning, had left a quarter inch of ice balls fused into a layer on every tree branch. As we drove, the trees bending down in front of us, arching into our airspace, were iced with the gentlest brownish-grayish-pink. This in addition to the light dusting of sugar on everything else around, and a specially gray day.

It was a somehow natural color. Behind the pink clouds, suspended water and sunlight, itself barely visible, brought out the variety of browns in the wood: reddish brown, yellowish brown for some grasses, deep greenish on some trunks, pale brown and white on the paulownias. And an infinite variety of shades in between.

Why? Because those are buds, dear. Thanks -- I wouldn't have noticed! The red buds of some kinds of trees, invisible a few days before, were magnified by their ice shields. A tiny bit of color, invisible yesterday, was made brighter in the light refracted by water.

The small ones are cherries, the large, red maples. A few tiny Japanese maple-types in yards, usually standing sentry over a rock.

They were all around us as we drove. And then, on the way out of the play date, it was too late. The ice bits, millions, had melted off or fallen. No special effect. No photograph. Nature is always ephemeral, but it's not worth risking my life to take a picture on the road. I'm going to hang on to this place.

I kept my eyes open. A few errands later, some maples looked like they were fatter now: swollen with water as the day warmed.

I missed the picture, but I can spread the words: Spring will come. Look up outside. It's a promise.


Mermaid favicon

I am building a virtual world for you. I'm busier than I've been in years, mostly volunteer, all widow-related (plus keeping kirche, kuchen und kunder together).

But I took nearly ten hours last week — two perfectly good school days — to draw this little gravatar of a mermaid. Drawn back to art, to color, to translating what I want to something you can see. HOURS. Tinker, tinker, pixel, pick, version after version, judgment after moment after hour.

That's me, all right. Is she lovely?


More on mermaids

I use mermaids on this blog all the time, as my symbol, as a model for us, cautionary or not. My motivation: I lived in a fantasy world, and looking up to women I might be, I could find only a few, but was sure of Buffy and Ariel. Those damn red-haired toys were all over the house, four in the bathtub alone. At 8, my daughter is "over" the Disney princesses, but Ariel still enchants.

Ok, at this point, it might be more me than her.

I used two of my daughter's drawings (from age 4 or so) on little badges to give away at Camp Widow this past summer: one is at least not pink, for the menfolks. "She's so full of joy, isn't she?", asked one woman when I gave her one. (I wasn't sure if she meant my daughter or the drawing.)

And she is. Mermaids are purest fantasy, not only elastic between worlds, but always moving, tantalizing, looking for something. They're determined and friendly.

I felt like I was swimming in a new world when I rediscovered parts of myself — big parts — after Gavin died. As I looked for meaning again, and tried to make daily life work, too. I'd forget myself in play with my little girl, and in the pretend world of online dating: which man should I pick? What could be more romantic, and what a way to be transformed. It was like trying on new lives, and new careers too (they always talked about work, I didn't like my job, and what an easy place for me to escape to) … It hardly mattered that in real life, they would have had to like me back. I had flowing tresses, a deep mind, knowledge of the other world, and desire.

I'm still swimming, in a way, though I'm remarried, have a new career, a new house. Maybe I'm not quite on solid ground yet. But at least I have a good brand.


Why is a widow like a mermaid?

I always say that widows are like mermaids.

After my loss, I lived half in each of two worlds: that of the living, and that of the dead.

Learning to live with loss was like learning to swim. In some ways, I could use that big tail to go further. Eventually, it felt like dancing in water: I liked the new environment with its eternal closeness, the bright colors, the dark, the intensity. Above all, its freedom.

There was something very ramped up and sexy, and yet very asexual about being a widow for a while. I had the hormonal effects but still felt tethered, though my mate was absent.

She's half natural, part wild. The mermaid never "gets." Mermaids do spend all their time longing, don't they? Especially the Little one.

I suspected that if I seduced a man (in my case, it would never be by singing), he might be dashed on the rocks and we'd both go without.

Eventually I felt more comfortable in the water than on land. Like Andersen's water maiden, I might never feel at home among again. A fish out of water. 

In Andersen’s telling, the mermaid gets her wish, losing the tail and finding legs for land, but when she presses her sought-after shoes to the blessed street, the pain is excruciating. Her two feet become just stumps of the tail God gave her. (I’m skipping over so many delicious analogies and interpretations to make my point.). In the end, Andersen's girl becomes a creature of neither land nor sea, but air. (I don't think anyone is satisfied by this ending, neither fairytale nor Hollywood. Hell, Disney even lets her dance, smiling at her happy ending.)

Something about this state of unbelonging, of airborneness, stayed even after I got my legs — after I walked on land again. And though my legs were wobbly for a bit, I wouldn't say it was true pain.

I'm not sure if I'll ever fit in again, whether I'll be transformed permanently, complacently like the Disney girl, but I'm pretty sure I won't suffer endlessly for my love (I guess this would be my second husband, if I follow my own metaphor) and the change I so wanted.

Do you want to return to the land of the living? Is swimming in grief comfortable, even luscious?


My old house, my old days

Snapshot of yard and studio slot of old house, flat and shot on hearth tiles in new house.

I found this snapshot in a pile a little while after Gavin died, doing that endless sorting of condolence cards and photos and to-do lists that widows do. I called the picture "halcyon days," using a mental tone of irony and fondness. Some griefy evenings I couldn't stop looking at it while the microwave hummed. See the view from our back porch, golden light one tolerable summer evening after hours of tilling for a new vegetable bed, and a shed whose 1000 pieces and predrilled misfit holes nearly drove us batty. Look at that past! It was pretty, and ordinary, and all that land was mine.

I'm selling the old house, the one we bought together, where I experienced boatloads of disappointment. More than that, it's hard for me to admit that I scuttled off so many dreams BEFORE Gavin died. Those are the ones I'm grieving now.

I'm some combination of steeped in sadness and serious avoidance mode, using the driving-backwards-fast, corner-cutting, curb-jumping skillz that I gained after loss, merely to survive.

Approaching the five year mark, I'm finding all kinds of others in the same year are having similar experiences: like any anniversary, all the tension is in the approach. At least, so far. Thinking about earlier losses and this house a bunch — the house we failed to build into our dream house, the one we could barely afford that is worth a bloody fortune now, where we built Kevin his perfect studio, where I went to grad school.

Going over our home with an agent yesterday reminds me of all the dreams I dropped long ago. Losing a spouse young is the death of so many futures, so many opportunities, but I hadn't taken those seriously. Now I can't forget the ideas I had of being a business genius, a gardener of the too lush (we had a huge lot), of being parents easily, of accepting so much together without the rest of the world butting in.

Infertility chopped away at us, then cancer butted in really hard, feet first, so it would hurt the most.

Nostalgia IS a disease. Look at the light… I thought I could conquer all those weeds (I did push back a huge bed of English ivy, hundreds of square feet). I remember, now, what life was like before I was a parent: a long garden day, working till the last glimmer of the sun fell, then taking a shower without interruption, going to bed whenever I felt like it. We used to make real dinners. Gavin did all the cooking, I hope you understand how this affected the bargains I made…

I'm reminded of our inertias and disappointments as a couple. I thought he was handy. He thought I had no ambitions. Maybe I thought that, too. Either way, we barely painted the walls, never fixed the catastrophic kitchen, and the weeds coexisted with the plants I liked and the ones he liked, happily or not, but sharing soil for years. A year after I've moved out, the weeds have taken over everything again, and that annoying shed is the perfect studio we built for him, and for me, that we opened just before his diagnosis and so, has lain mostly fallow too.

I made a lot of compromises those 15 years, but holding my breath the whole time: it's taken me this long to find out how much that hurt and how my true grain runs.

Avoidance and bitterness are crappy tools to use in the new future. I'm hoping I got some kind of discount on the midlife crisis when I got the grief and single parenting package. I can't afford to be macho and insist that losing futures is no big deal. I should still have a few futures left!

Here's to what's next, and being brave enough to see the golden light of tomorrow.


C.S. Lewis on Courage

Brehms Het Leven der Dieren Zoogdieren Orde 4 Leeuw (Felis leo capensis)
By A. E. Brehm [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I may be the only one who puts resolutions into place during the last few weeks of the old year, but I've committed to spending more time in my so-called "real life" and less time online. I've been reshuffling activity between my online identities, including one under my real name that's professional and focused, and this blog has suffered the past few weeks. I'm working on one very large project for widowed folks though, so have no fear: I'm still here. There's just more going on behind the scenes than any of us are used to. But here's one thought from the last few weeks that I thought I'd share.

My daughter and I have been reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and C.S. Lewis is truly one of the great writers -- not just for A Grief Observed, to which nearly all widowed folks are referred -- a previous generation's Year of Magical Thinking, but one that endures. 

Lion is a vivid, brief, rich story, deeply moral, a highly original (even now!) illustration of the battle between good and evil, the one I *so* do not want to believe in. But this is the page that speaks to me as I am now, brimming over with the telling of Gavin's last months: 
Peter did not feel very brave; indeed, he felt he was going to be sick. But that made no difference to what he had to do. He rushed straight up to the monster and aimed a slash of his sword at its side.
Because widowed people -- universally -- complain about being called "brave." We have no choice about it, but are pushed by circumstances, sadly beyond control, to do what others see, perhaps, as exceptional. We'd so much rather not be brave that to be called brave is heard as an insult.

And caregiving a loved one -- for me, living with a husband who was literally dying before me, in front of my eyes, and twisting and turning together with the changes that were sent our way -- is an act of sickening duty. Yes, I'd take each step forward, quickly and from love, but as I realized what was required, any time there was a pause, I'd freeze and half-step backward. There wasn't any way to breathe as I lunged ahead. No way to say "yes" to the job, to being his companion, to finally, letting him leave me behind (or was it the other way around?).

No one volunteers for this. Those that do -- who work in hospice, who make a life from caring for humans in this stage of transition -- must not feel ill at it.

But the rest of us find our compassion choked, a bit, by the forward motion and how little resistance we're able to put to it. And we run through, because the only way out is through, perhaps sometimes we're ill as we go (does everyone puke while they're having a baby? I did -- it's not unusual -- why isn't it part of our image of this dramatic change of life?) but we can't stop for long, and most of us get through, and then, finally we can breathe once more. 

And then you get to grief. And grief, at least, is a part of life. But more on that anon.


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