After a busy summer, I now return to my Recapitulation Project (thanks to reader Antony/Tony for that name), that is, finding and sharing hundreds of essays and book manuscripts (previously published and not) that I have composed through the decades. Actually, that’s not quite true. I did share one piece not even a month ago, on September 12, and it might be the earliest one extant, namely the 1972 essay “This piece began . . .”
The following essay, originally a part of my journal, became the second-to-last chapter of my 2007 book, This Vast Being: A Voyage through Grief and Exaltation.
That I happen to unearth this particular essay now is, as usual, synchronous. It features my own process as I attempted to jumpstart my life while still bogged down in grief. How similar is this to the millions of others who now feel their own long buried emotional body activating in these volatile times, and yet struggle as to how to move from contemplation (or fury, or grief) to action? For that is what this morning’s post was about. And here is how I worked with these uncomfortable energies in myself way back in 2004. Hint: pay attention to dreams.
BTW: I see now that a number of my own dreams during that second year following Jeff’s death prefigured my life now, 14 years and one half a Saturn cycle later: several dreams featuring huge, many-roomed construction, one with the question start over or renovation; plus several dreams about the need for help, not being able to go it alone. Wow! Green Acres Permaculture Village.
I just went into the basement, to see if I still had the actual paintings I did of the amaryllis bud. Darn. Do not. So difficult, to know when to hold on and when to let go. I do remember at one point impulsively releasing all the paintings that I had not actually framed.
The Amaryllis Bud
I had been warned that the holidays would be difficult. Yet, to my surprise, they were not difficult; indeed Christmas near Boston with my children and grandchildren was so loving it felt like being immersed in a ten-day-long warm bath.
Prior to leaving for Boston, and without realizing its Aquarian import at the time, I had decided to give a party on the anniversary Jeff’s death. I wanted to honor both those who knew him in his short time in Bloomington and those who had helped me during my first difficult year as an isolated new widow in a brand new town. These included the postman (who wrote “deceased” on all Jeff’s bulk mail so I didn’t have to) and the law school dean (who forgave Jeff’s loan), plus neighbors, my art teacher, my handyman, etc. – all invited as Aquarian equals!
So the entire time I was in Massachusetts I was also subliminally thinking about the upcoming party, concerned that it go well. I am not a party person, and putting on this event felt strange, but something in me felt it was appropriate. Even so, integrating such a mix of people who did not know each other and barely knew me seemed daunting. Jeff’s Dad had generously volunteered to pay for it, so I decided to have the party catered, hoping that good food and service would help create an atmosphere of celebration and honoring.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, I was Granny Annie, reading to insatiably curious 3-year-old Kiera, playing on the floor with sweet baby Drew, cooking with my delightful daughter-in-law Sue, hanging out at the kitchen table with my two full-hearted sons.
Nights, however, were another matter. (As another new widow with whom I compare notes said about the holidays: “in the daytime I was fine, even organized a sing-a-long at the piano with my family one evening, but at night? I would climb in bed and wonder what I was doing there. Nothing felt real.”) So I was fine and felt loved and loving, but I also felt like an alien. My unconscious used sleeptime to continue the mysterious personal overhaul that follows the death of a soul mate.
Take this dream, for instance, one of a series having to do with structural change:
I am walking around a very large two or three story house, kind of like an old manor. I have just bought it? With Jeff? It has many large rooms, but is in dire need of renovation. I walk onto the large lawn, notice that the white paint on the whole back side of the manor house is peeling badly. It looks decrepit.
I wonder if, instead of renovating, I should raze it and start over.
An outer world situation then indicated just how ambivalent my current mood. For, upon opening the front door on my return to Bloomington, I noticed that it squeaked. Over the next few days the squeak got louder and louder, turning into an ear-curdling screech. I knew this was a perfect metaphor for my reluctance to open my door and admit people in. And of course, I fretted as to how I would direct them to the back door and avoid the screech. A dear neighbor across the street, an old man, offered to fix it. First he oiled, then greased the hinges. The door still screeched. He concluded that it must have been hung wrong. But there was no time to rehang it before the party, to be held Sunday evening, January 4, 2004, from 5 to 7 pm.
On Saturday it started to rain, and by Sunday, the water was cascading in sheets; radio and television announced road closures due to flooding and rivulets began to creep across my basement floor. I worried if any of the 35 people invited would come. The caterer was to arrive at 4 pm, but due to his restaurant basement flooding, he was an hour late. Amazingly, he and the guests all came within a minutes of each other, so I just had to tell the first people to go to the back door and all the others followed.
This initial crush in inclement weather was probably key to the party’s success. Everybody helped take food and utensils from the caterers’ hands as they ran back and forth through muck from the truck to the back door. By the time everybody was inside and dried off, our flooded basements had bonded us; food and wine flowed freely.
The party ended way past the stated hour, closing with a toast to Jeff, while gazing at his benevolent beaming face hanging high on the living room wall, over all the family photos.
Afterwards, I walked around the empty house in a daze, amazed that the party was actually over, and that it had exceeded expectations.
Then, suddenly, I felt the urge to do ceremony. My personal ceremony. To close this first and primary year of grief in my own way, privately.
As usual, I lit a candle and called in the four directions, plus any guides that might want to come. I was now quite comfortable with doing ceremony alone, and had not even included personal objects of his on the little altar created for the occasion for many months. His presence, likewise, strong at first, had faded — until he arrived with his group during my November ceremony.
So you can imagine my surprise when I noticed, during my meditation, that again Jeff’s spirit was present! And again he seemed to be with others. There he was, serene and cheerful, still delighted to have rejoined his soul group, operating as a group mind.
Then, I experienced the most peculiar sensation: the feeling of many hands on my head, covering my head like a cap, in benediction. I got the impression that I was being told, “You did a good job.” With what? I wondered? The party? This past year? My life? Life with Jeff?
At any rate, once I came out of meditation and started to write down the experience in my journal, I began to doubt myself. I must have been making it all up, I thought, and wrote that down too.
Within days of this event, I received another dream:
I am trying to follow in the giant footsteps of a shaman. Must complete a task which is impossible, until I allow others to help me.
Meanwhile, however, I was still dealing with grief, still needing my aloneness. On New Years Eve, only days before the party, I had gone to the movie “Cold Mountain,” and on the way home, surprised myself when the keening — so prevalent during the first few months after he died, but rarer since then — that had germinated within me for the entire month of December finally erupted. There I was, driving home at night with headlights glaring into my teary eyes as I erupted into the usual howling, images of Nicole Kidman and her doomed lover swirling into images of Jeff and me.
From my journal: “Very strange. It’s like we were all one being, or that the four of us swirled into each other and the intense emotions of love and grief and loss were moving through all of us. Felt the usual protection, enveloped in an aura of love, while undergoing this.”
The next night, this dream:
I am talking with Jeff, who is in a different body. Or, not in a body, but there is a body there, representing him. It’s a male body, sort of wooden. There seems to be another spirit there too, who came with him. I am asking Jeff questions, and he is doing his best to answer. Since he is moving objects around, I ask, how is this possible? He says, offhandedly, like the answer is obvious, they use energy to move them around. Another question, maybe my last one, is about whether or not he wishes he were in a body (since I sense it would be more convenient, if he wants to work within the material dimension), and his answer seems to be ambivalent. He enjoys his freedom, but he would like to have the ease of working in this material world. I also sense that he would like to be in a body so that we could feel each other, hold each other.
An addendum to this dream: During the month of January, on several occasions I was puzzled to find fingernail clippings on the living room floor (I used to bug him about clipping his nails and leaving them lying around). I sensed that he is leaving them for me to find, since there was no other way for them to be there.
January proved to be much more difficult than December. It was not the holidays, but the anniversary of his death that got to me. I was starting Year Two without him, and felt sluggish, bogged down, my sadness and grief mirrored by a persistent low-level lung infection and by continued gloom and rain after the four inches received the weekend of his party.
(By the way, the day after the party I had called my handyman, who had been unable to come to the party, to come reinstall the door). He took one look at it, pushed up hard on the frame above the door several times, and . . . no screech! Thanks to the party, the door to my life could now open and close without squeaking.)
In mid-January, in an effort to jumpstart my stalled life, I decided to dedicate Saturday and Sunday afternoons to art, at least two hours each day. I began by drawing the amaryllis plant that a friend had brought as a gift the night of the party. My journal records how that decision then segued into the unexpected. “For the past six days I have spent two or more hours a day painting the opening of an amaryllis bud. An amazing experience. The flower grows faster at its leading end, as matter is more and more differentiated, more and more delicate. So I have to keep up with its growth . . . And I seem to be getting better at painting it as it grows. It caught me. One day I was just painting the bud, and the next day I found myself painting it again. Then again, and again, etc.”
But, I discovered, once the plant fully flowered I could not paint it. Though I tried several times, my attempts were dull and lifeless.
So, looking as usual, at events in the outer world as mirroring inner conditions, I realized that I am still a bud, that while I can now enjoy a bud’s first growth spurts, my own full flowering lies in the future, and cannot be anticipated or rushed.
Meanwhile, my artistic efforts were applauded in a dream
of being at a chaotic construction site for a huge new school. I was in one of the large four-story square pods of which it was composed, and in the middle signing up for classes. It seems to be the art department, with lots of different kinds and sizes of notebooks, paper, etc., and I must take one of each for my own.
The exciting sense of new construction by night, however, was still being stymied by lung and sinus congestion, and the continuing sluggish feeling of no energy, and no motivation, no reason to go on. In my journal: “So, on balance, it feels like I am still in transition between the old life and the new. But that the new has more energy in it. Something about me and Jeff is keeping me stymied at some level?”
On January 17th, I dream that I am driving the car I owned when we lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, up a mountain valley. The mountain reminds me of Snow King, behind the town of Jackson.
As I go up the tracks get narrower and narrower. I end up next to the top on extremely narrow tracks, and turn the wheels to the right to keep the car from going down. Even then, I have a sense that I may have a problem with the car, backing up.
I get out, and go out on the well used-trail.
I am anxious about the trip down, and when I survey the situation, notice that the track that the back tires are on (turned to the right, at right angles to straight ahead) is so narrow that the two ends of the tires stick out over nothingness. Now I am extremely concerned that I will not turn the wheels properly to align them with the narrow track, which will mean that I will slip off the track, rather than being able to back up. I realize I need someone to help me see the back end of the car while I am trying to back it up. And actually, the situation looks impossible, whether or not someone helps me.
Again the need for help, for not thinking I have to be independent all the time, is present. But beyond that, the dream puzzled and unnerved me.
Three days later, from my journal: “I think I begin to understand that dream. It has to do with ‘coming back to earth’ after the otherworldly experiences of the past year. How do I get back down? I’m afraid of falling down. And afraid I can’t do it without help. Or can’t do it at all. The reference to my old car and our old place may have to do with the fact that these fears are those of the old me.
Then came the dream that still fuels me, and perhaps will for many many years. A very powerful dream, of which only fragments remain.
Of being with Jeff; though he is invisible, his spirit is very strong, and fills the same space that his body did. Telepathically he encourages me to hold him, to hold on, just like I always did when he was alive, using now, his spirit as a battery. In the holding on he feels as solid and substantial as when he was in body.
I am walking slowly, haltingly, groping my way, like into a void. Either I am blind or it is so dark and foggy that I can see nothing of what lies ahead. But it doesn’t matter. I am filled with his presence, loved and protected as I move into the future.
This dream was so strong it felt like it resided at the bottom of a well, at the center of a dream within a dream, a frame within a frame; or better, at the inmost core of a beating heart.
Meanwhile, rain had been followed by unusual cold. I didn’t dare expose my still-congested lungs to the cold for fear of making the situation worse. So, though my low-level physical illness was gradually clearing, since I wasn’t energized by my usual long walks, both the feeling of being stuck inside the house and the lack of desire for life persisted.
One day at the end of January I decided I had to take a step into the future, despite my depression. That even though my lungs weren’t quite healthy, and I had no real desire to do so, I still needed to get outside, and do something that was so different from my usual routine that it would shock me into another mood. I decided to go snowshoeing in the nearby state park, telling myself that even if I only did it for ten minutes it would be enough; at least I would have done that one new thing. I loaded the snowshoes in the car and drove out to Brown County. When I turned into the entrance to the park I noticed that it cost $4 per car for the day; I almost turned back, figuring it would hardly be worth it if I only stayed ten minutes.
I decided to push on through that little obstacle too, and plopped down the four bucks.
Amazingly enough, I snowshoed for 45 minutes in the trees of those gently rolling hills. Though of course I missed Jeff, as he used to love to snowshoe too, and I regretted giving away his snowshoes only a few days after he died. (Widows are warned about this tendency to immediately just give things away. The snowshoes were my one impulsive move in that direction. After that I became more circumspect, recognizing the danger of not truly knowing my own mind in the immediate shocking aftermath.)
The sun slanted through the bare branches onto stiff old pockmarked snow as I chugged along, alone but okay, growing more and more aware of the light and shadow of that silent day, my legs powerful from my daily morning Tai Chi routine, memories of snowshoeing and skiing in wild Wyoming cheering me on. It was as if I was clearing old fuzzy cobwebs out of my skull. I was that amaryllis bud, thirsty, finally given water to grow.
I came home from my little adventure tired but strangely energized. Amazingly, my lungs actually felt better! Immediately, I decided to 1. paint my study, and 2. buy and install the L-shaped desk I have wanted all my life. What better way to inaugurate my new year, my new life, my new dedication to the writing life?
My young cat-and-house-sitter agreed to be hired for these tasks. We had fun. Painting the room took a few hours, installing and putting together the desk of my dreams took most of a day.
I sit here, writing this piece, at my beautiful new desk, in a room newly painted in a warm color called “wheatfields.” The back and forth between old and new continues. I haven’t put the drawers in the desk yet, or put the hutch together that goes on top of it, and my right hand still bears traces of a burst blister from screwing in all those screws. But I have survived. And though blindfolded, and still groping, Jeff lives deep inside me, holding a bud of hope for my thriving future.