Voodoo

I have a particular fondness for the work of Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross because of her model of grief, and find that regardless of how great or small the loss I’m experiencing, her model serves me well by reminding me that my reactions are normal and to be expected.

By now, most of us know the stages of grief she observed among her dying patients: shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Of course, one doesn’t have to be dying to experience these emotional and intellectual reactions to the death of something in our lives. Whether you’re in the ticket line and have someone cut in front of you or whether you’ve been diagnosed with metastatic cancer, you will most likely go through many of these reactions to a loss. The size of the loss isn’t as relevant as the fact that we can be so predictable in our responses along the path to acceptance.

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Take, for example, an event to which my husband and I found ourselves uninvited.  I discovered that several people in our family had been invited to a function from which we’d been excluded, and my first reactions were a sinking heart (“Oh, no!”) and “realizing with a start” the facts of the situation—the reactions of shock and denial. This was followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. From this example, you can see how the grief we experience over our losses, whether small or great, takes a worn path.

If you’ll think about the last reaction of shock or “Oh, no!” you had, you will probably be able to play your initial “Oh, no!” reaction forward and see how it ended in some sort of acceptance, even if only a grudging one. You may also be able to accept that nearly every “oh, no!” reaction is part of a response to loss.

Many times we don’t acknowledge our losses as we go through the day, and finally erupt by day’s end in some surprising way because we’ve been unconscious to our own suffering. I’ve found that the more aware I am of the losses I experience throughout the day and the claims I have that back up my sense of loss, the more I am able to contain myself rather than projecting my unsolved mysteries outward.

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Cheated

cheat (v.):

1. to defraud; swindle. 2. to deceive; influence by fraud. 3. to elude; deprive of something expected.

Some years ago, my husband’s grandfather died, leaving his heirs land and other property worth millions of dollars. Before his death, my husband and his granddad had walked this land that had been in the family since the Land Run, and his sweet old granddad told him, “this part will all be yours, the home place, your great-granddad’s homestead too, because I know you’ll care for it.” He put his property into a trust and retained his two most trustworthy sons to administer it.

About a year after the trust was established, my husband’s grandfather went into a nursing home. While he was there and still in his right mind, one of his two trustee sons was murdered by vagrants passing through the area. Now only one son was left, the son who later developed Alzheimer’s and could not be relied upon in any way. And then my husband’s granddad died, and the remaining sons took charge and cheated my husband out of his inheritance as we sat by helplessly, in spite of having hired attorneys and gone to court and spent four years trying to litigate our ways out of being cheated.

It’s especially painful when someone you trust, like, or even love cheats you. As King David said in Psalm 55, it doesn’t bother you as much when it’s an enemy who cheats you, but when it’s a family member or friend, someone you trust, someone you’ve gone to church with, someone who has lived under your roof or with whom you’ve been intimate–oh, my. Oh my, oh my. When one you broke bread with cheats you, one who “dips his bread with me” at the table as Judas did with Jesus, then you know you’ve been cheated.

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Everyone has been cheated or will be cheated at some point in life. Everyone has had someone else make a promise they later broke. Everyone has been on the switch end of the old bait-and-switch cheat. Everyone has felt cheated by life or the universe or circumstances, when we don’t receive what we expected, planned, or hoped for. You marry someone you thought you knew, and six years later you discover he’s had an affair. You raise your children with every value you can muster, and when you finally have an empty nest and can look forward to a comfortable retirement with your spouse, your oldest child is diagnosed with schizophrenia. You have to raise your grandchild. You get cancer. You finally retire and go on the world cruise you both always dreamed of, and your husband dies in Ireland, on the first leg of your journey. Your child is born handicapped and you learn you will always have to take care of her. Or, as actually happened to a friend of ours, the healthy kidney is mistakenly removed and the diseased one left. “You’ll have to be on dialysis unless a donor is found,” they said. At some point or another in life, everyone is cheated or feels cheated. Being cheated is loss.

Even when they haven’t actually been cheated, everyone feels cheated from time to time due to expectations. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney wrote at length about expectations, which she called “claims,” and their use by wounded folks. She said that we often have unspoken expectations and go through life imposing them on others without getting enough reality checks to discover whether or not our claims are, in fact, reasonable. What is owed is the stuff of psychology and religion.

What do you owe me? What do I owe you? What did I give you, and what must you give me in return? How do the laws of reciprocity, of sowing and reaping, apply?  Is an outcome, a hope, a dream, an expectation, a contract, a covenant something I should be attached to? Or does all attachment lead to suffering, as Buddha taught?

Can a person ever be truly free of expectations? Ought we be? Is being free of expectations a worthy goal? What do we do when we’re feeling cheated, or when we have, in fact, been cheated? What can we do afterward with our feelings of sorrow, humiliation, shame, astonishment, and anger?

April Fools

The end of March and the beginning of April have seen me in fool’s bells. My husband told me a month ago that he thought our cow was pregnant. I went and looked at her myself, being an expert on bovine pregnancy and all, and declared him mistaken. “She’s not pregnant,” said I, “because she’s not nearly as big as she was last time.”

Last week, Bossy proved me wrong. Loud moos were heard coming from the creek bed, and our daughters ran up excitedly. “Mom, Mom!” they cried, “Bossy is mooing really loudly! What if she’s having a calf?!”

“She’s not having a calf,” sez I. “She’s probably in heat. But if she doesn’t stop, you’d better go tell Dad. Maybe she’s hurt.”

No more than 15 minutes later, the little girls were back in my office. “BOSSY HAD A BABY!” they yelled.

“No way!” I exclaimed. “I can’t have been wrong!”

But I was wrong. Several times since then I’ve been mistaken, too; mistaken about facts historical and otherwise; mistaken about which way to turn to get to where I’m going. I have been mistaken, wrong, confounded, hasty. Over-reaching, puffed up, vain, and sometimes downright pompous. I’ve been these in front of witnesses. And they have laughed.

I like being wrong when the resulting surprises are good ones. I don’t mind laughing at myself, or having others laugh at me, then. But I have to admit that there are times when I’m mistaken about something and I see my arrogance and it’s not a pretty sight.

Though I’m old enough to have been often wrong, I still think I’m right so much of the time. I must think I have lived long enough to know a pregnant cow when I see one, though (if truth be told) I have known only one pregnant cow in my entire life, and that one is Bossy.  So this month I am an April fool. I’m reminded to not take myself too very seriously, to keep a humble set of heart and mind, to smile, and to be a bit more tentative in my statements, declarations, and pontifications. To be a better listener. To demonstrate my respect for others by recognizing that they could be right!

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Personals

Fabulous cook, avid golfer and puzzle solver, lover of books, music, and film: slender, attractive widow, a retired educator, seeks man, 60-75, with whom to share laughter, conversation, etc. Metro NY/NJ.

Sensual, passionate,successful artist. Quiet beauty, mischievous spark, and heartfelt warmth. Considered fun to be around and completely real. Slender, athletic, very physical, and outdoorsy. Enjoys hiking, cross-country skiing, painting, watercolors outdoors, community activism to make the world a better place, dancing, sailing. Relaxed traveler, comfortable anywhere (Maine islands to Cornwall, Greece, Provence). Good company and good sport, enjoys busy, happy life, yet looking for special zing with warm, personable, fit and active New England area man, 55 through early 70s, for dinners, movies, and perhaps more.

Merry widow, 63. European-born, American-educated college professor/writer. Tall, fetching, sassy, postmodern. Loves excitement of city life and peacefulness of nature. Seeks Philadelphia area, energetic, accomplished man, 58-73, to share it all: arts, travel, politics, dining, and then some.

Passion, depth,generosity of heart. Journalist, sports-writer, TV reporter, active leader in national programs for at-risk youth. Considered really good-looking, sexy, slender athletic figure, self-deprecating wit. Sympathetic, upbeat, and very real. Confident, young widow, classy, good friend. Four newspapers a day [. . .] Can conquer most any hill on a bike so long as a glass of Cabernet or chocolate croissant at the finish. [. . .] Seeks big-hearted man with good mind, full laugh, social conscience–fit financially, emotionally, physically, 5’9″+, 50-68, who resides or spends time in South Florida area.

Smart and beautiful,intellectually curious and athletic. Consultant/educator–tall, slim with natural radiance. adventurous with calm, warm demeanor, genuineness of character. Expressive, affectionate, divorced, 5’8″. Laughs a lot, thinks deeply, politically liberal. Interested in social change, literature, politics, nature, beauty. Midwestern roots, international outlook, has lived abroad, [. . .] Sunday Times, The Economist.Seeks healthy/active man (59-60s) with warmth and an intellectual bent–Boston area.

Personals from the New York Review of Books all, 14 by women in this issue, only two by men.

I wondered after reading them, “are there that many lonely widows searching for intelligent male life?” I wondered why women would go looking for male companionship late in life when they could, judging by the personals section, have more success at finding a female companion and friend. Is it about sex, then? Is it about needing a man?

After reading them, I wondered, “What would my personal ad say about me, if I were to write one today?” And “what would I advertise for, if I were to write a personal ad, directed at the universe?”

Drudgery

I’ve been doing my blog reading in fits and bursts lately, as I am quite overwhelmed with drudgery and haven’t been in a frame of mind that supports much reading or writing. I notice that many of the bloggers I follow are in that same state of mind and place this time of year, too. It’s winter in more than one way: cold, barren, lead sky, frozen, hibernating, asleep. One shivers and is miserable sometimes.

trees1 by you.I hope for the spring but then try not to, because it’s good to stay in the moment and there’s much that’s good about winter. This winter has not been the winter I would have wanted, though. The winters I want have cozy fires made with seasoned wood, good books and good company, philosophical discussions and movies watched in a darkened room, from under a soft throw. A dog at my feet and one curled against my back. Mulled wine or cider. Mahler or Beethoven or Wagner.

This winter has not been so. It is only all about bad news every day on the news, fools running our country from both sides of the political aisle and pretending that the common-sense way one runs one’s own household is not the way we’re supposed to run our country. And then I think, “But maybe most of America is living just like that: to excess, in the red, on credit, living beyond their means, borrowing money right and left, and selling their birthrights for a mess of pottage.” Maybe so. But not this woman. Not this household, this family.

I keep my head down and plod along.

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Plodding Along

It is tax time. We’ve just come through four years of such a bad economic downturn that we lay awake nights and wondered when we would go bankrupt, when we’d have to tell our employees that they would have no jobs, when we would have to pass the grief on to them and their wives and children. I had thought, before this, that the experiences we’d already had, including that of losing a child, would be the most grueling in our lives. I was mistaken about that. Having everything you’ve worked for your entire adult life threatened, and your ability to provide for your children and the children of employees you love and appreciate—that will suck the air right out of you. That will make anxiety flood you and wash you along day after day after day.

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But I keep my head down and plod along, ever in harness, ever doing my duty, ever and always Doing The Right Thing, even if with a bad attitude: Do you see me, God? Do you see me, plodding along? Is this what I was born for? This small life of clod-breaking? And why didn’t You warn me that the happiest days would be the ones when my children were still children, still babes playing in the dirt, building villages with sticks and rocks and blocks, sprawling all brown-legged among the Legos and breast-feeding their baby dolls and teddy bears as their daddy and I chuckled. You never said how much harder it would get, the older they grew. How much harder I would get, how much older I would grow.

And I had just finished reading my friend Deb’s blog and about how she broke down and cried at the pharmacy the other day, and about the shocked looks of concern on the pharmacist’s faces, and had been sitting with that, putting myself in her place, feeling the empathy flow out toward her and being what I know so many of us are for her and one another, a silent, spiritual presence standing just behind her and each other, a comforting hand on the shoulder, a sympathetic smile, knowing that tomorrow or next week it may well be one of us, crying at the pharmacy or bank or dry cleaner. And I had just finished that when anger over a stupid and slavish school project for our twins erupted between my husband and me, and he said something unkind that, for this one time, pierced me to my heart like a well-aimed javelin and came out the other side.

I found myself sobbing at my desk, sobbing and crying and feeling the deepest and darkest winter of my entire lifetime. And snot ran down my face and it was over the fucking cardboard windows on the fucking colonial houses we had to make with (for) our twin daughters at their fucking wonderful school where the fucking projects are fucking never-ending. And yes, I should be grateful every day that we have the money for private education and access to excellent schools, and that we are able-bodied and have a good vehicle to drive them in, and can afford clothing, food, and clean water and a wonderful house. And all that. And I am grateful. But I wonder: when does the stress ever end? When does the doing and meeting of deadlines and always having one… more… fucking… thing to do ever END?

I thought, “When you’re dead.” That’s when it ends.

I Am Not a Victim of My Own Life

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But around 4:00 this morning I came wide awake after dreaming that my child was dying. She was skin and bones and within hours or days of dying, and she was small and black, like my daughter Olivia had been, and she had open sores on her back and along her spine. She was just lying out in the yard, and I had put her there for dying, and when it was clear that she was nearly unconscious and almost dead, I had finally gone to get her and was carrying her off-handedly in one arm, and doing something like sipping tea or coffee with the other, and talking with others as though a dying child wasn’t really in my arms at all. And her eyes rolled back inside her head and I saw myself being so uninvolved over this dying child, and I knew even in my dream that she was me, some aspect of me that I was indifferently letting die.

I thought to myself, once awake, “You’re not a victim. You don’t have to be so weighed under all this stress, all these many things to do. You can take some action. And you need to.”

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And so this morning after dropping the kids at school and starting my work day, I sat down and began to work with a sober determination to clear my desk of all the odious tasks I have to do as a small business owner and householder and hearthkeeper. The tasks of the business owner, especially, are the worst for they all involve bookkeeping and accounting, tax work and bean counting for which I am the least suited and which has provided many an hour of anguish and loathing because I know I am a slave. I was brought to the doorway of my master’s house and an awl put through my ear lobe in His service and I know exactly what I am doing and why. And I hate it every single day because I am human and part of the human race and there’s not a person alive who doesn’t have to do one thing or many things that he doesn’t want to do. We all have to do that.

But I, I was going to be energetic and smart and I was going to clear my desk of this crap, by God. And so I did. I cleared it and began to feel good about how I was not going to be kicked around by my goddamn job any more, and I was going to get to the bottom of this pile of I Hate This.

And so I did. And then I opened the mail, and there it was: an audit notice from one of our state agencies that has to conduct routine annual audits. I was back in hell, having to locate and organize and submit records and have this auditor meet with me and take up more of my time, doing what I most hate in life and what I loathe and what makes me breathless with anxiety and a slavish kind of keeping-my-head-down and plodding-along, like an ox pulling a plow in a storm.

And I laughed out loud.

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