Giving Death Space

I have yet to watch Halt and Catch Fire, but some words in a recent review of the series by Todd VanDerWerff caught my attention.

“The important thing about a TV death isn’t how it happens,” VanDerWerff writes.

“It’s not the shock of the moment. The important thing about … death comes in the aftermath. Do the characters get time to grieve, to live with that pain?

The reason the deaths on Lost and Game of Thrones are so resonant,” he contends, “is because those shows give their deaths space … what’s important isn’t the death itself but everything that unspools afterward.”

His words stayed with me because these days I frequent that space, as do many others this year, surrounded by the unspoolings of our lifetimes.

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Throughout our lives, we move in and out of that space, depending upon where we are in the trajectory of our own life events. It’s an archeological museum set in a jungle of memories that we visit in our minds – a museum where the exhibits are photographs and letters; the artifacts are gifts received and things passed down; the audio-visual components are fragments of conversations, the memory of a laugh, the reciting of a little poem written long ago and captured on a cellphone.

But what’s really on display is the magical realism of memory.

In the beginning, when the loss is fresh, the museum never seems to close. But as days and weeks pass, the museum – almost imperceptibly – starts changing its hours. It pops up unexpectedly during dark hours, like the Night Circus or Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. Or at an art gallery. Or sprinkled throughout the 65,000 hand-painted frames of Loving Vincent. 

I learned about art and books from my mother, and I like that she’s still alive in these moments, popping in for surprise visits – never staying long enough for a cup of tea or chat, but leaving an impression every bit as vivid as what I’ve always thought of as reality.

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Like dreams, these memory moments are ephemeral, yet still wickedly visceral. I’ve come to count on them in that empty stretch of space, the wake of her leaving.

And so, I decided to take my house off the market and I’m not going out as much for now. Instead I’m giving this recent death space, while staying open to surprises and marveling at what pops up to play with my mind when I least expect it.

Like this fragment of an interview with Father Greg Boyle I happened to catch today on NPR. He was asked if he was scared of death. No, he replied. Then, quoting the Dalai Lama, he explained:

“It’s not the end, it’s just a change of clothing.”

 

[all photography by me ~ from Barcelona, Seattle & Asheville]

 

 

 

The Serendipity of Shoji

I love how serendipity surprises you when you least expect it, like some mischievous little sprite waiting in the shadows for just the right moment to jump out and startle you.

A week before my mother died, as a respite from the stresses of caregiving, I booked myself into an Asian-style spa called Shoji – a nearly hidden little refuge tucked away on a mountaintop outside of Asheville, not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I didn’t know when I made my reservation that I would end up there only a few days after her death. What I did know was that my body and mind needed the healing powers of warm bubbling waters interspersed with hot, cedar scented air and cold plunges. In a primal and intuitive way, the only therapy that felt right to me was a sauna.

My son introduced me to the Finnish sauna experience last year, when I spent Christmas with him in Helsinki. Many Finns consider the sauna essential to their wellbeing, as evidenced by the ratio of one sauna for every two people in the country. [‘Sauna,’ interestingly, is the only Finnish word to make it into everyday English.]

Unaware of a Finnish-style sauna in Asheville, I headed to a quiet and reclusive Japanese mountain spa called Shoji.

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In addition to the hot sauna, there is a private hot tub and a cold plunge.

I stayed at Shoji for a couple of hours, alternating between heat and cold, air and water, pondering life and death, and the newly raw absence of my mother from my life.

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I drank tea and read a book, and let the water and sauna therapies do their transformative magic.

After a few hours, I felt more at peace and – at least temporarily – physically restored. And so I returned to Shoji each week that month until I felt ready to tackle the world on my own again.

It’s been weeks since I’ve been there now, and I hadn’t given Shoji much thought until yesterday, while looking for something else, I came across the writings of Frank Ostaseski, co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project.

“There is no separation between life and death,” he writes in his book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, “other than a small hyphen, a thin line that connects the two.

“Death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight. She helps us to discover what matters most.”

In Japanese Zen, Ostaseski went on to say, “the term shoji translates as ‘birth-death.'”

Birth … death … mother … daughter.

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I had no idea of the meaning of its name when I headed to Shoji to begin sorting out my head and heart after the death of my mother.

I only knew that, for reasons I couldn’t explain, Shoji was where I needed to be.

 

 

 

The Best Conversations

The journey through mind and memories continues….

Many weeks after my mother’s death, my heart holds a simmering stew of mixed emotions where moments of peaceful acceptance are spiced with shards of regret and seasoned with fragments of conversations that pop into my head, often when least expected.

My mother had her favorite places in Asheville – Malaprop’s Bookstore and 5 Walnut Wine Bar among them. But I think her favorite of them all was Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, pictured above.

There, over a glass of wine and a cheeseboard,

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she and I would have long discussions about the affairs of the world, my kids, and good adventures from days gone by. Although her short term memory was terrible! – as she often exclaimed in frustration – she was clear and sharp in her stories from decades past of her travels and the places we’d lived. We could (and did) talk for hours.

This past year, however, she became a little reticent about leaving her little garden apartment, even to visit her favorite places.

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When I suggested going into town together, an awkward look would pass over her face and she would say, somewhat apologetically, “How about if we just stay here?”

And so, every week I would join her in the dining room at her retirement village for lunch or dinner, and listen once again to the stories. Often we were there, still talking, after everyone else had left. She loved that.

“We have the best conversations!” she would exclaim when I eventually walked her back to her little flat – even if she had done most of the talking.

She’d call a few days later to thank me for coming over and tell me how much she’d enjoyed our visit, often ending with the same words, “We have the best conversations!”

Last February, I offered to take her out for a glass of wine in celebration of my sister’s life. She started automatically to demur, but when I suggested we go to Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar, she couldn’t resist. And so we celebrated Valentine’s Day and my sister there together in the usual way – a glass of wine, some cheese, and of course – stories.

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“We have the best conversations!” she remarked on the drive back to her place in Black Mountain.

It was to be her last visit to the Book Exchange & Champagne Bar. In the weeks that followed, she became increasingly reluctant to leave her little home.

She did admit, some weeks later, that she would love one more trip there. A mischievous little girl smile of hopefulness and delight lit up her face at the very thought of it.

But somehow I didn’t have the time, or make the time. I wasn’t sure she could manage it. Nevertheless, it still bothers me greatly that I didn’t somehow work it out for her.

Second guesses and regrets are part of the pain of dealing with death, but I’ve realized that trying to mentally outwit the sharper edges of remorse is often unproductive.

Rather, the best antidote to the relentless head-tricks and mind games we put ourselves through in the wake of loss might just be an unexpected little piece of magic.

And so it was the other night when a painting in a dark corner of the old Wedge building in the River Arts District caught my eye.

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I was wandering around a friend’s studio during a reception showcasing her work that was intriguingly titled, “Accidentally On Purpose.”

Mixed media artist Jacqui Fehl is a tiny, magical creature with large grey eyes and long ropes of platinum & black dreads. She describes her paintings as “a blend of grunge, whimsy and outsider.”

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Influenced by music, lyrics, feelings, and stories, Jacqui’s art is unpredictable – playful, colorful and humorous with an appealing edge of darkness. Jacqui says her creative process is mostly intuitive; she may start out with an idea, but never really knows what the end result will be.

I’ve been a fan of her work for years.

“It is a dance of layering on, removing, covering up and revealing. I like my work to be loose, a bit flawed and not too precise or perfect.”

Kind of like my life, I thought, as I read her artist statement.

Even in the shadows, and even though it was not part of the show, I could see and feel there was something about this particular painting that was very compelling. The colors, the mood of it – it had a storytelling aura and lovely intimacy about it.

Another artist in the gallery caught me staring at it.

“You like this one?” she asked.

“Yes, I do,” I replied, unable, for some reason, to take my eyes off it. I was curious about – and drawn to – the random appearance of chairs throughout it.

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Knowing that Jacqui always gives her paintings interesting titles, I asked her if she knew what Jacqui called it.

She picked it up from the easel and in the low light of dark corner, squinted at the writing on the back of it

“The Best Conversations,” she said.

I stood there, speechless. And so she said it again, a little louder this time.

“It’s called ‘The Best Conversations.'”

A little magic, a little serendipity … remembering the many times my mother had said those exact words. My head flooded with delight – and relief. Finding this painting felt like forgiveness.

Accidentally on purpose, indeed….

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Jacqui Fehl’s delightful painting came home with me that night.

It now hangs in my little writing/breakfast room behind the kitchen –

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– just one of the many places where my mother and I often had ‘the best conversations.’

Like Mother, Like Daughter

 

I’ve been going through my mother’s old photographs. Each day I grab a handful to sort through and scan, many of which I have never seen before.

Some I will keep, some will be sent on to someone else in the family, and some will be tossed.

This one of my mother is a keeper.

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It offers a glimpse of her I hadn’t seen before – a little girl who liked to sit in rivers. It resonated immediately.

I remember getting into trouble when Eric Holzman and I – both just 6 or 7 at the time – played in a stream all afternoon while our parents were having a lawn party. When we eventually presented ourselves to the guests, naked except for knickers and completely slathered in mud, my mother was not amused.

Growing up, I often felt she was rather strict with me, more strict than she was with my older brother and sister. She seemed to be more afraid for me than she was for the others.

Which is odd, because in some ways, I had a lot of freedoms. By age nine, I walked myself a mile to school along the river and through the streets of London. At eleven, I was riding buses and trains by myself across the city to a different school. Seven years later, I was going to college in a different country. At nineteen, I moved to Paris for the summer to be a nanny. Those freedoms she encouraged and never seemed to think twice about.

She was a world traveler but I am more open-minded than she was, and even more adventurous. In retrospect, I think it was my free and creative spirit that worried her.

Times changed. She was the kind of girl who married her college sweetheart and I was a child of the sixties. She grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. I came of age during Woodstock, Haight Ashbury, and Vietnam protests. Over the years, we knocked heads many times over many things – and her criticisms always seemed to highlight the ways in which we were two very different people. Infuriating as they could be, however, and whether or not I cared to admit it, I knew these criticisms were rooted in her desire to protect me – both from others and from myself. In retrospect, I wonder if she was scared – and perhaps just a little bit intrigued by – the freedoms of my era.

Which brings me back to the photograph above. What I most like about it, is that it is a foreshadowing of the girl this little girl would eventually give birth to – one who also likes to sit in rivers. Even after her death, it weaves us one small connection closer.

The river still runs through us.

 

photograph of me by Sammy Fong.