Before and After

thehood copyI’m the president of my neighborhood association–which most days doesn’t mean much.  Neighborhood associations, though sanctioned by the City (of Albuquerque), don’t wield much power though the City does like to get input from us in regards to requests for waivers or zoning changes, respecting our knowledge of and concern for our particular neighborhood.

One benefit of being involved in the neighborhood association is that I get invited to participate in a variety of meetings and workshops (many many many of which I decline).  This past week, however, I attended a workshop hosted by the folks from County of Bernalillo Neighborhood Coordination office.  It was an opportunity to learn about resources that the County offers to support neighborhoods.  One of the resources we’ve been trying to tap into is the Neighborhood Enhancement Grant.

By now you’re wondering what the heck this has to do with Writing and Grief.  Be patient, it’s coming.

joining_hands_color_1_webOne of the neighborhoods that received a grant from the County used funds to support Joining Hands–a community art project that took photographers (neighbors) door-to-door to photograph people’s hands holding something important to them.  They held a variety of objects, but  common themes emerged:  water, musical instruments, rosaries, vegetables from the garden.  The project was also very healing for the neighborhood. An issue had set neighbor against neighbor and tempers were running high.  This project was interactive, and got people remembering how much they had in common.

That got me thinking about what I could do in my neighborhood, and while I like the idea of photographs, I am more interested in getting people’s stories.  Everybody has a story.  I also have an interest in oral history and documentary.  I thought what if I asked every neighbor one question…. and recorded them….

I got lots of suggestions from friends (hello Facebook!):  Can I watch? Where do you park? So how many people sleep in there? Do you have a potato? (from my smart alec friends) and Why are you here? If you could change one thing about your life what would it be? What experience has impacted your life more than anything else? Do you like your life? Are you happy? What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? What scares you? What hurts? (from my more philosophical friends)

Then a friend posted this:

Exactly what I was looking for! You can read more about Candy Chang’s  Before I die I want to…. project, and other innovative community art projects she’s spearheaded. I know I’m inspired!

Most everyone I know has suffered loss–the death of someone close, someone loved.  Maybe it wasn’t the gut-wrenching kind of loss that I experienced when my mother died (when I was just 13) but even the loss of a friend, a colleague, or even a neighbor gives you pause.  It’s  reminder that life is short.  That there are no guarantees and if you want to DO something, you need to DO it, and not put it off.

Grief is always with us and the work of grieving is to find a way to incorporate grief into our lives without letting it bog us down.  Art making, whether it’s the Before I die project or writing a memoir (or poem, essay, short story, novel) is great way to do just that.

What have have you done with your grief lately?

Posted in community art, grief

Mother’s Day Shouldn’t be About Grief

I hung my head out the window to breathe the familiar scent of Hawaii. I don’t know what it is, but even in downtown Honolulu in bumper to bumper traffic, the air smells good, a blend of ocean and green wet leaves with a hint of something floral, plumeria or lilikoi. The air is moist and has a slight salty tang, like Southern California, but in Hawaii everything is impossibly green with frequent rains that make everything smell fresh and clean.

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Me and Debby when we first moved to Hawaii

It was 2006 and it had been over 10 years since I’d visited the islands but as soon as we turned onto Kaonohi Drive everything felt familiar.  I recognized Midgi’s house right away, a low-slung dark green house nestled among thick green tropical plants. As kids Debby and I spent as much time at Midgi and Tony’s as at our own house. Not only did they have daughters the same ages as my sister and I, they had a swimming pool, and they lived just a couple blocks away.

Midgi smiled and waved, “Come on in girls!” (both in our forties, Debby and I are still “the girls”).

There was no basket of socks at the front door like Mom had, but rather a stack of shoes reminding us of the custom in Hawaii to remove ours before entering.

“Mac’s out back cleaning the pool in case you girls want a swim and I’m making sandwiches. I hope you like egg salad.”

Tony had passed away a few years earlier and Mac, Midgi’s new partner, an avid diver, had added his own touches to the house, mostly shells and sea art, but much of the house remained the same: the green glass hanging lamp in the family room, rattan swivel chairs on the lanai, the Keene print of a dark haired girl with impossibly large round eyes in the foyer, the impossibly white carpet. It felt like home.

As Midgi spread egg salad onto whole wheat bread we talked about our plans for Christmas, about the drive out to the North Shore where Debby and I were house-sitting for the holidays.

Debby and Midgi

Debby and Midgi

Midgi reminds me of my mom. It’s not just her brunette hair—Midgi’s hair is now salt and pepper.  Like my mom, Midgi is petite; she’s actually a couple inches shorter than my mom’s almost five feet. It’s something about her style, her bubbly personality, or maybe it’s something that women who grew up in the fifties all share, something I can’t quite define but know when I see it.  They’re younger and hipper than the generation before them, and more reserved, more “put together” than the generation who came after.

There were so many things I wanted to ask Midgi:  What did she remember most about my mom? What did they talk about? What did my mom dream about? What did she want for me? What drove her crazy? What was her favorite pizza?  But I usually get quiet when my sister is around. I don’t know if it’s because she is the older sister, or the more outgoing sister, but I let Debby take the lead.

“We’ll eat out on the deck,” Midgi said, handing us each a plate.

“Great,” Debby and I said in unison, as we often do. Sometimes one of us will lightly punch the other in the arm and say “Jinx!”

We followed her through the dining room, down the stairs, past the living room, and out the sliding glass door to the wooden deck painted the same dark green it had always been.  The view, the same one we’d had from our house overlooking Pearl Harbor from three miles up the hill.

Mac waved and said he’d join us when he finished the pool.

As soon as we sat down at the glass top café table Debby said, “Tell Midgi about your project. Don’t you have things you want to ask her?”

The project my sister was referring to was a manuscript that now, six years later, I’ve successfully defended as my dissertation, the final step towards receiving my MFA in creative writing.  Reconstructing My Mother chronicles my journey to get to know my mother who died when I was 13.  I had just begun the project; I was shy about my writing, not as confident in my project, in myself.

The sun was beating down on me. I could feel my skin burning already; I hadn’t sunscreened yet, destined, it seemed, to spend my time in Hawaii with a pink tint to my fair skin as I had when I was a child.  I felt awkward, put on the spot, not unlike when my parents would trot us out to perform dance routines for guests.  My sister loved the attention. I did not.

I didn’t want to do a formal interview over an egg salad sandwich. I wanted to take my time, process my memories, let the conversations and questions come more organically.

“I’m writing about Mom,” I said. “What do you remember most about her?”

“Oh! We had such good times!” Midgi said, laughing.  “Remember that trip to the Big Island?”

Our families had vacationed on Hawaii, the largest of the eight Hawaiian Islands, in a cabin at the Kilauea Military Camp at Volcanoes National Park. I turned ten during that trip.

“Do you remember? When we stopped for gas? Midgi, still laughing. Debby and I laughing too.

I remembered.  Four adults and four children in one small car (or maybe it only seemed small because there were eight of us!).  I remembered bike riding and bowling, and touring the island: the macadamia nut farm, Rainbow Falls, the black sand beach and the volcano.

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I remembered the five mile walk across Kilueaea’s crater, sulfery steam escaping from cracks in the land where tiny ferns grew as if it were a magical fairy forest amidst the barren volcano-scape where the lava flow left fallen trees and blackened land.

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Me (right) and my sister at Kilauea

“Those guys,” Midgi said, shaking her head. “Your mom and I asked them to get some drinks and they came back with a six pack of beer for themselves and two colas for all us girls to share!”

If I think about this story too hard I can’t help but wonder what this says about my mom and dad’s relationship. I wonder if this story is really funny at all, but I laugh. I’m probably reading too much into it.  Maybe my dad and Tony were joking around—they were always joking around.

“I remember that tandem bike. Dad trying to ride it by himself from the back seat,” Debby added. And we laughed some more.

Mac made his way around the pool slowly, quietly pulling up leaves with a net.  The plumeria trees on the side hill were dormant for winter with yellowed leaves and only a few blooms too high to pick.  Everything was more quiet than it used to be.

In my memory I see my mom and Midgi sitting at the pool’s edge, their feet dangling in the water. Lynn and I are doing handstands in the shallow end, Debby and Pam stretched out on towels tanning.  Or maybe we kids are playing Marco Polo or practicing our cannon balls, the dogs chasing us around the pool, barking, nipping at our heels.  My dad and Tony are drinking beer—Tony randomly scooping up of us girls who’s out of the water, dropping us back in.  Everyone is laughing

Debby and Midgi and I laughed but there was a part of me that was feeling sad. I felt like Mom should have been with us reminiscing, telling stories around the swimming pool.

When you lose a mother at the age of 13, special times or certain days are always tinged with sadness.  At least that’s the way it is for me.  Mother’s Day is one of those days.  It doesn’t help that companies like Hallmark and 1-800 Flowers inundate us with reminders on television and in newspapers, restaurants advertise Mother’s Day brunches.  Even the grocery stores tout their special steaks and flowers just for mom. Some days I’m okay with it.  I smile to myself and remember my mother fondly.  But other times it feels like a plot to remind me of what I don’t have.

What I know now is that grieving is not about “getting over” a loss, grieving is learning to live with the loss, remembering the person you’ve lost, keeping that person in your life in some way, talking about your loved one, telling stories.  You don’t go through five stages, you go through a hundred, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes backwards.  You learn to live with grief; you make it your friend.

Mother’s Day shouldn’t be about grief, but for me no matter how often I remind myself to celebrate my mother’s life, there’s always a part of me that is sad.

Last year’s Mother’s Day was especially emotional.  It was the day after graduating from Graduate School.  I walked across the stage wearing an ugly black polyester gown and a funny hat, I picked up a mock diploma, and was “hooded” by my committee chair, a process that sounds medieval.  I was surrounded by close friends from my MFA program and professors who had been my mentors. My sister Debby (who now lives in Chicago) and my good friend Ralph (who lives in San Diego) cheered me from the audience.  It was a good day.

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My committee chair “hooding” me

I had much to celebrate:  I finished that dissertation, I learned a lot about literature and writing, and I grew as a person during grad school.  I have great friends and family near and far who are celebrating with me.  I have a nice little house, a cute little car, and two cats.  But still…. There is something missing, something always missing, and the question, what would my mom think of me now? always lingers.


Originally published on 40 Plus Woman, May 12,2012

Posted in grief | 1 Comment

The I Am Poem

CIMG2888A few weeks back at the Children’s Grief Center, my co-facilitator and I did an I Am poem exercise.  It’s an easy exercise to do, with a template that includes a list of phrases, starting with I am…  (which repeats) and other phrases such as “I wonder…” and “I hear…” etc.  As always, it is not required to follow the template line by line, and if one line inspires you to write more, and another doesn’t inspire you at all, then go with your gut.

One reason this is a good exercise is that it allows participants to think about who they are, especially in the aftermath of loss.

Here’s my version:

I am a writer of prose, not poems. Poems scare me. Sentences and paragraphs give me more options and stories help me connect with myself and others.

I wonder about a lot of things like What’s the point? What am I doing? Why?

I hear the clock ticking and it makes me nervous.

I want to do great things. I want to publish my book, write another book, teach. I want to be near the ocean again, to feel sand in my shoes, to duck seagulls and feel the fog on my face.

I am a California girl at heart.

I pretend I have my shit together but I don’t (sometimes). I feel like I’ll never grow up and I worry that I will and I will be boring.

I cry when I am sad and I cry when I am mad and that makes me mad and then I cry more.

I am crazy.

I understand a lot of things. That some things take time, that things happen for a reason, that we do the best we can with what we have, with what we know and (sometimes) I say Bullshit!

I dream of a day when these things don’t perplex me, but that could mean that there is no longer a point to this.

I try my best. I try to do good. I try to improve at least my tiny portion of the world. I hope it is enough. I hope that I am enough.

I am a writer. Of prose, not poems.

*  *  *

If you’d like to do your own I Am poem, here’s an online template where you can do your own.

Posted in creative writing, grief

Writing or Therapy?

A friend recently shared this article from Creative Nonfiction with me, “Writing Memoir and Writing for Therapy: an Inquiry on the Functions of Reflection,” by Tara DaPra. Great read for anyone writing memoir, especially in response to loss (or other trauma):

On the first day of “Introduction to Literary Nonfiction,” the instructor, a graduate student, introduced herself and made an announcement: “This class is not therapy.” Afterward, I went to her office hours in a panic. “But I find writing very therapeutic,” I said. “Am I doing something wrong?”

Do you find writing therapeutic?  Do you worry that it get’s in the way of the story?  How do you move beyond the therapeutic into the making of art?  Do you have to?  Lots of interesting things to think about.

Posted in creative writing, grief

Letter to Dad

Dad with a Hot DogThe other day at the Children’s Grief Center (where I volunteer as a bereavement group facilitator for  young adults 18-25) we wrote letters to the person we lost. I participate in these activities partly because they are useful for me, but more importantly more than just companioning someone through their grief, I see my role as a model,   to let my young adults know that this is what grief looks like seven years down the road (in the case of my dad), or 35 years down the road (in the case of my mother).  We don’t “get over” it, we get through the worst of it and the rest we learn to carry it with us. Grief is not a giant whale we are dragging behind us** and it is not a thick blanket taking us down but rather it is something we learn to tuck  into a pocket or a purse, something we can take out every now and again.  We can turn it over, run our fingers along its edge, we’ll cry and sometimes we’ll laugh and either way it’s ok.

I used a template from the binder of activities at the Grief Center and so here is the letter I wrote:

Dear Dad,

I remember when you… were healthy and happy and played tennis.

The hardest part about your death for me is…that now I am an orphan, even though it seems silly to say that at my age.

It would have been nice if… you hadn’t been an alcoholic, hadn’t smoked, had eaten healthy food, exercised, and paid your taxes.  Seventy-three didn’t have to be old and you didn’ t have to leave such a mess.

I’m really sorry for….not reaching out to you as much as I could have. Maybe it’s because it hurt too much to watch you slowly kill yourself.

My best time with you was….that day you and me and Jean went to Skyline Drive to see the Fall colors. It was fun. You were carefree and I thought we would be okay.  I thought YOU would be okay.

If you were here right now, I would…. tell you I love you and tell you to hire a maid and a tax accountant.

Thank you for…. putting me through college–all the way to grad school. And thank you for trying your best. I always knew that you loved me and I loved you.

Love, Jennifer

**this is a reference to The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith, one of my favorite memoirs about grief.

Posted in grief | 1 Comment

Grief is….

Grief is an emotion that is the natural response to a loss.  But this simple definition doesn’t really describe what grief is, how it feels, and in my  mind, how it changes over time. I believe we always carry grief with us, but it’s not always a heavy burden.  Sometimes it feels like a bag of rocks we are dragging along with us, sometimes it’s shrouded over us like a wet blanket, and sometimes we are carry it tucked in the back pocket of our jeans.

I believe writing about our grief can help us understand our loss, and live with the loss.

“As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer’s long hair in water. I knew the weight was there, but it didn’t touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn’t stop.”

~Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible

What is grief to you?

Posted in creative writing, grief

January 2013: New creative writing class

Writing Grief: a creative writing journey

Tuesdays, 6:30 pm – 8:30 pm

January 8, 2013 to March 12, 2013

at The Source, 1111 Carlisle Ave. SE, Albuquerque NM

Creative writing teachers Merimee Moffitt and Jennifer Simpson will companion students through 10 weeks of in- and out-of class writing exercises designed to turn the human experience of loss into a story or essay.  We will also critique our in-progress work in class in a workshop format and we’ll use published essays and stories as models and inspiration, looking at specific aspects of craft including: image, characterization, plot, and building scenes with dialog, summary, and reflection.

Designed for writers of all levels.

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Tuesdays, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm, January 8 to March 12, 2013

at The Source for Creating Sacredness, 1111 Carlisle Ave. SE, Albuquerque, NM

A note–this is not intended to be a group therapy class, but rather a supportive space to WRITE about our grief, and craft those stories.

Cost:  $250 (ask about scholarship availability if money is a deterrent)

PREPAY AND SAVE!
pay in full before the first class January 8 and save $100

Each participant will also receive a one-on-one 1/2 hour-long consultation with an instructor regarding their essay or story.

NOTE:  We’ll be donating 10% of our net proceeds to the Children’s Grief Center of Albuquerque.

Stay in touch and subscribe to our mailing list–>

(We’ll let you know about this class, and other classes in the future, and may send the occasional email sharing information about literature and grief)
Posted in creative writing