Our union 

Yesterday, I asked a friend who has experienced the grief that accompanies the loss of a spouse if she had any pearls of wisdom to share, and she shared this beautiful poem with me. How fortunate I am to have experienced this type of union during my time on earth!

Our union is like this: You feel cold, so I reach for a blanket to cover our shivering feet. / A hunger comes into your body, so I run to my garden and start digging potatoes. / You asked for a few words of comfort and guidance, and I quickly kneel by your side offering you a whole book as a gift. / You ache with loneliness one night so much you weep, and I say here is a rope, tie it around me, I will be your companion for life. -Hafiz

the light of the world

Mike and I just finished The Light of the World: A Memoir, by poet and essayist Elizabeth Alexander. The book is written in the most heartbreakingly beautiful prose I have ever had the privilege of reading, and I recommend it most wholeheartedly. Elizabeth lost her husband, Eritrean-American chef and artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, to a sudden heart attack in 2012. This tender series of vignettes is as much a celebration Ficre and Elizabeth’s extraordinary love — not just for each other but for their sons, their families of birth and choice, and their African-American culture — as it is a deeply intimate sharing of the grief that accompanies the loss of a beloved spouse.

We took turns reading the book aloud, and — more often than not — I had to cede my turn to Mike because I couldn’t read through the tears. Tears of sadness, yes, grief for myself and (even more) for Mike, whom I wouldn’t trade places with for the world. But also, tears of joy and gratitude that we’ve shared the same luminous, transformative love as Elizabeth and Ficre, a love that has touched and molded our lives as individuals and as a couple — and has rippled outward in concentric circles through lives of our families, our friends, our acquaintances, and even people we barely know. Tears of appreciation, too, for the the opportunity to have found and read this transcendent work of art and to know that its beauty will remain and touch others long after I’m gone. If something I write can make a fraction of the impact on someone else this book made on me, I’ll feel like I’ve truly accomplished something as a writer.

Ficre’s own words from a 2000 artist’s statement capture the power of art in discovering and defining oneself:

I started painting ten years ago, but I suspect I have been metaphorically doing so all my life.  When I started painting, I just did it.  I had never felt a stronger urge.  The pieces that flowed out of me were very painful and direct.  They had to do with the suffering, persecution, and subsequent psychological dilemmas I endured before and after becoming a young refugee from the Independence War (1961-1991) in my natal home of Eritrea, East Africa. Painting was the miracle, the final act of defiance through which I exorcised the pain and reclaimed my sense of place, my moral compass, and my love for life.

For Elizabeth, her medium is clearly language. Here are just a few of the passages that touched me:

How many times that day and in following days and weeks and months did I say “my husband.” My husband died unexpectedly. I just lost my husband. Lost implies we are looking, he might be found. I lost my husband. Where is he? I often wonder. As I set out on some small adventure, some new place, somewhere he does not know, I think, I must call him, think, I must tell him, think, What would he think? Think what he thinks. Know what he thinks.

Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving, and I saw the body with the soul gone.

Each of us made it possible for the other. We got something done. Each believed in the other unsurpassingly. In all marriages there is struggle and ours was no different in that regard. But we always came to the other shore, dusted off, and said, There you are, my love.

Oh my darling, where did you go? How powerfully I feel you are somewhere, but not here. You come to me in another dream with a missing tooth and an unfamiliar red jacket…Do you make friends and have companions where you are? I thought all you needed was us.

As Elizabeth moves forward with her life, she writes powerfully about her proximity to death.

Death sits in the comfortable chair in the corner of my new bedroom, smoking a cigarette. It is a he, sinuous and sleek, wearing a felt brimmed hat. He is there when I wake in the middle of the night, sitting quietly, his smoke a visible curl in the New York lights that come in between the venetian blind slats.

At first I am startled to see him. He sits so near, is so at home. But he doesn’t move toward me, he simply co-habits. And so, eventually, I return to sleep. He isn’t going anywhere, but he isn’t going to take me, either. In the morning, the chair is empty.

Which is stronger, death sitting in the corner, or life in New York City? Death, or my teenage sons, sleeping profoundly in the next room, growing overnight? “I love plans!” my new friend Esther exults, and so do I, for nowadays I feel like plans are all that stands between me and the end of my life. I’m not going to die overnight because next Wednesday, I am going with Esther to see an auction of nineteenth-century American documents at Swann Galleries. I’m not going to die tonight because I already took the chicken out of the freezer and Simon loves roast chicken and rice for dinner, and I promised him I would make it. I’m not going to die tonight because on Saturday Farah and I are bundling up and going for a walk against the blustery winds along the river, to continue the conversation we began almost thirty years ago when we were both in graduate school, before I even knew my beloved Ficre.

I’ve already revisited this passage repeatedly and expect I’ll continue to do so as I contemplate my own proximity to death and the tenuous hold I have on life. I’m making plans, too. I feel quite certain I’ll be able to make it to the joint birthday celebration Mike and I have planned with our friends on June 18 (an outdoor screening of Indiana Jones in a Culver City park), and on a little getaway to Topanga Canyon the following weekend for Mike’s 32nd, and probably to the 4th of July get-together at the Merendino/Williams pad in Pasadena. But the flight we booked to Nashville for Kate and Rob’s wedding in October? Death may have come for me by then, and my plans aren’t going to stop him.

on being present

This week, my friend, Kate and her fiancé, Rob, were in town. We shared many hours of meaningful conversation (one-on-one, the four of us, and with groups of mutual friends) that touched me deeply. They were the types of conversations that plunge far beneath the surface and plumb the depths of human connection. 

During a conversation early in Kate’s stay, she asked if we’ve been talking a lot with our steady stream of visitors and with each other about my diagnosis/prognosis — or if our conversations over recent weeks have dwelt primarily on other subjects. The question prompted Mike and me to think about this, and we concluded that — after our initial, difficult series of conversations with our closest friends and family — most of our conversations have had nothing at all to do with cancer, or with life and death, per se. I wondered aloud if that was a good or bad thing and whether it indicates avoidance or denial on any level. In further conversations on the subject, Mike and I reached the conclusion that the profound moments can’t be sought or forced. They have to come about organically and authentically. 

A couple days later, Mike sent me the below excerpt from this beautiful post:

I’m not insisting that we be brimming with hope — it’s OK not to be optimistic. Buddhist teachings say, you know, feeling that you have to maintain hope can wear you out, so just be present… The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here, and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world — because it will not be healed without that. That [is] what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.

The quote comes from A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke wherein Buddhist scholar and philosopher Joanna Macy finds solace in the poetry of Rilke following the death of her husband. 

Rilke writes:

The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.

I’ve ordered the book and look forward to sharing more of Macy and Rilke’s insights — and Rilke’s poems — in future posts. 

In the meantime, Mike and I have committed to simply being present — to showing up each day open to grief, love, joy and whatever else presents itself.

Thank you, Kate and Rob, for a beautiful week. We will cherish it forever.

radiant, even in darkness

this poem was sent to me by a dear friend and mentor who has been a guiding light and inspiration for me in recent weeks.  its evocative imagery and hopeful message touched me so deeply.

MOTHER WISDOM SPEAKS
(by Christine Lore Webber)

Some of you I will hollow out.
I will make you a cave.
I will carve you so deep the stars will shine in your darkness.
You will be a bowl.
You will be the cup in the rock collecting rain.

I will hollow you with knives.
I will not do this to make you clean.
I will not do this to make you pure.
You are clean already.
You are pure already.

I will do this because the world needs the hollowness of you
I will do this for that space that you will be.
I wlll do this because you must be large.
A passage.
People will find their way through you.
A bowl.
People will eat from you
And their hunger will not weaken them unto death.
A cup to catch the sacred rain.

My daughter, do not cry.  Do not be afraid.
Nothing you need will be lost.
I am shaping you.
I am making you ready.

Light will blow in your hollowing.
You will be filled with light.
Your bones will shine.
The round, open center of you will be radiant.
I will call you Brilliant One.
I will call you Daughter Who is Wise.
I will call you Transformed.

my aspiration is to accept with grace the hollowing of myself that has been brought about by cancer.  and to have the strength and courage to allow myself to be filled back up in ways i didn’t even know were possible.  and to emerge transformed: a passage via which others can find a light in their darkness.

thank you to all those who have made me believe this is possible.  i owe you a debt of gratitude i can never repay.