Cups of Coffee

I am drinking cups of coffee this morning brewed from my mom-in-law’s favorite coffee maker. She died last week. In the months before she died, coffee had become very important. She faced cancer bravely, but I can see now that her fight was always a war of attrition. We had good months after her diagnosis in July. We got her out of the house to eat and shop and just drive around and look at pretty things. Still, looking back through it, I can see how her cancer made her world progressively smaller.

She was tethered to oxygen. The initial diagnosis prevented her from being able to work. It was a kind of spontaneous retirement. Her work friends were her closest friends. Not seeing them everyday made her sad. They were kind and visited as often as they could. They brought her food. They mowed her yard. They texted and called. They brought her news from the outside world to keep her connected with the places and people they shared in common. Her friends had become ranger scouts reporting back to home base.

Wearing oxygen makes every excursion into the world a pain in the ass. There are devices and straps and tubes and things that want to tangle in the spokes of the wheelchair. When you wear oxygen and use a wheelchair, you calculate your trips carefully. You do a kind of math each time. You need to commit yourself to the idea of going out. The trips became fewer — mostly doctor visits and occasional restaurants for dinner.

She handled chemotherapy like a champ but, when the cancer moved into her bones, the radiation was a much harder hit. The pains and embarrassments of cancer began to mount. Each treatment took a greater toll. Pain set in to stay.

Eventually, her house became her universe. And then her living room.

After a month or so, the pain kept her moored in her recliner. She needed  a walker to get to the bathroom. It became a struggle for her to get into the kitchen. When she could get there, she couldn’t carry anything back with her.

Cups of coffee became very important. She had to plan each one. She hated asking for help but, in her last week, asked if I might come over when I woke up just to carry a cup of coffee. Of course.

And when I carried what would be my last cup of coffee for her, I realized just how small her world had become. This was a woman born in Paris, who had grown up all over Europe and then settled in Tennessee. She treasured her childhood memories of Germany and Greece. And now, her world had become the size of a cup of coffee.

It was, for all that, I think, the best cup of coffee. As her world became smaller, my mom-in-law, my wife and my family began to appreciate smaller and smaller things. Standing where I stood in early July 2013, before our struggles began, I would have thought the shrinking of her world would be a source of inevitable pain and despair. Those were always there, but, more than anything else, we saw in her a growing appreciation for the smallest things. The smaller her world became the bigger her appreciation.

She suffered a brain hemorrhage and lasted almost two days before passing. In those last hours after the hemorrhage, she could not move or speak. She was just breathing and that was a difficult chore. I would not have thought it possible, but her world had become smaller still. Her world had become her body. Less than her body. A portion, some unseen pocket of her body where the spirit still propelled the heart and lungs to function. For most of those hours, it was impossible for us to know if she was even there with us or if her breath was just the trick of a body that hadn’t yet learned how to stop breathing.

In those moments and the moments that have come since her passing, I like to think that when her world became so incredibly, impossibly small, her appreciation and gratitude for the world grew incredibly, impossibly large. I like to imagine that, in those final, isolated moments when she was locked into herself that she felt herself swallowed by gratitude and that her capacity for amazement and wonder had become infinite.

In the very last hours of her life, we had small signs that she was still there and that she knew we were there with her. This was a mercy for us. It was a comfort for my wife. In that moment, we were her world. And we were bathed in that wash of gratitude and appreciation.

We miss her. The funeral is over. Friends and family are returning to their homes and their lives. We will develop new routines. Learn to call a new kind of life normal.

There are difficult days ahead. I am drinking coffee brewed from my mom-in-law’s favorite coffee maker. I want, every day, to appreciate each cup in the way my mom-in-law had learned to do. Having tasted that particular blend of joy, appreciation and sorrow, I don’t want to lose the richness of that kind of gratitude.


Poem About Grief

Note: I want to share this thing with you. Not because it is finished but because it needs to be outside of me. It came to me very quickly. A few words a few days ago. A sentence last night. A phrase when I woke up this morning.

I ate my breakfast. I drank my coffee. I took my daughter to school.

It was waiting for me when I found my chair. It is better, I think, for it to be on the outside of me. What I mean to say is this: I wrote this, then went for a run with a friend and, when I came back to it, it seemed more beautiful than scary.

***

Grief is the subterranean monster that has been waiting with inexorable hunger since your childhood. She is the unseen creature lurking just beneath the surface, reaching up for you with her impossibly long arms to drag you into her silent kingdom of earthworms, clattering bugs and other blind, scurrying things.

Grief is the shape inside the shadow standing in the corner of your room. That faceless familiar form, seeming so much like a person with no name. The thing tucked in that corner of the closet which reminds you somehow of an open mouth, not speaking, not moving. Preternaturally still. Patient as thunder.

It is the moment you first notice the rusty hinge of heaven and how, once seen,  you cannot unsee it ever again. How precarious the sky hangs there above your head now, no longer floating. Now pressing downward and how you realize for the first time that the sky has been falling your entire life. You just never took the time to notice. And now, there is no escape from it. The sky which has always been falling and your life which gets smaller with each passing moment.

And now how your life seems like a hallway with only one door. A long hallway, perhaps, but one that narrows and slopes slightly as you slip constantly forward, tripping toward that one single door waiting for you at the end. That door is slightly open. It stands ajar as you move closer and closer until, one day, which will be a complete surprise to you, you will stand with your hand on that door’s knob.

And now grief is like a closet overfilled with all the things you packed away, the useless things that had no place in the moment but which are now tumbling out and toppling over you. Forcing you to deal with each and every misplaced thing. How they break and bruise you and they bury you in this endless avalanche of things you thought you had forgotten, things you had set aside, things you not wanted to remember.

And now grief is sitting with you underneath a small tree on a very small hill, trembling like a leaf on a branch on that very small tree. And how you will call it meditation. Or you will call it mindfulness. Or you will call it prayer.

But it is really just you and your grief waiting for something to happen. Something different. Something without precedent.

And the sun rises. And the sun sets as it always has. And there are creatures moving underneath you, stirring in the dirt. And there are shapes inside all the shadows that lengthen and shrink as the days roll by. And the sky closer to you now that it has ever been.  And you notice how the bright traffic of clouds once so unremarkable now restlessly rearrange themselves like the furniture of your life. And how, even with your eyes closed, you can feel the stretch of that long, one door hallway as it swallows you down into mystery, deep into surprise.

And how, when you open that final doorway, all the things come down on you.

And now you understand your whole life has been a practice with gravity. The trick of holding things down. Keeping things where they belong. And now everything is floating. Everything is drifting. And you are working, once again, with groundlessness, except this time you are working with sorrow. You are working to save your life.


What Writing’s For: An Appreciation of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is the most helpful, encouraging, and honest book about writing I have ever read. I’ve read a few.bird_by_bird

Most books about writing and the creative life come across preachy. It is hard to write about the creative process without sounding either prescriptive or condescending. I often avoid both traps by embracing vague, gushing hyperbole. (See for yourself.)

Reading books about writing is so often like candy. It makes me feel happy, enthusiastic and inspired for a few minutes, maybe a day, but then the bottom falls out. The bright ideals fade, and I am left with a crippling hangover, a shock of self-doubt and a fear of the page.

Inspiration rebound syndrome afflicts most aspiring writers. Bird by Bird is the antidote.

In Bird by Bird, Lamott achieves a friendly, familiar, no-nonsense tone. She is that best friend always telling you things you need, but don’t really want, to hear. She got me writing again, and here’s why: she gave me something better than inspiration. She gave me a useful perspective.

Here’s what I learned:

  • Most people who write will never be published. I should write anyway.
  • The first draft is going to suck. Write it with love but write it quickly. Get it out and behind me so I can write the second draft. It may suck too but each draft should get better.
  • Novels aren’t built the way they are read. Stories get told in layers. They aren’t lined up in neat rows. Writing is more like painting than brick laying.
  • My writing won’t save the world, but it may save my life.

And here’s what I carry that has made my writing easier and better. Writing and publishing are separate things. You have almost no control over whether or not your writing gets published and yet the act of writing itself gives a sense of control and purpose.

Writing is a practice. You can devote yourself to the practice. You can do it everyday. You can use writing to develop a sense of mindfulness. You can use writing to teach yourself to pay attention. You can use your writing as a way to cultivate empathy with others and recognize connections between people, ideas and the choices people make.

A life spent this way is a life filled with joy, deeper awareness and purpose. Even if no one reads what you have written, they will see it in the way you live your life. You will carry this habit, this way of seeing, around with you.

You will still be frustrated and confused but you may find yourself becoming more patient and less lonely. Your writing will teach you to appreciate your life. Your writing will constantly bring you back into the company of yourself.

This makes it work very much worth doing.

Find Bird by Bird in a library near you.

What books have helped you understand why so many of us bother writing?

 

 

 


Temporary

My mom-in-law died very early Sunday morning. She had been sick with lung cancer and all the sordid complications, pains and harrassments that come with the disease. When diagnosed in July 2013, the doctors guessed she might have 5 months. She lived 9. Eight of those months were pretty good.

When my family realized how short our time together was going to be, we learned how to be very honest with ourselves and each other. If we needed something, we learned how to ask. If we wanted something done, we did it with little delay. We cried and worried a lot at first, but soon found ourselves laughing as much as we were crying and then laughing more often than crying.

When we hurt feelings, we quickly apologized. We said I love you more often and practiced patience and humility when foundering in painful or embarrassing situations.

My mom-in-law had been sick and, when she died, was about to be become even sicker. Her passing was a strange kind of mercy.

If you listen, life carries strange echoes.

I was away from home the day my wife’s mom got the first diagnosis. My wife called, and I drove home as quickly as I could.

I was away from home the day my wife got the call that her mom had suffered a sudden, unexpected brain hemorrhage. She called, and I drove home as quickly as I could.

Both of those drives were the most awful miles. Having had my wife’s voice with all of her pain and grief in my ear, I felt right there with her and yet, I had to cross 150 miles of interstate to be with her. I often live divorced from the realities of time and distance. Feeling both between us made me afraid and bit frantic.

And yet, both of those awful drives were a kind of mindful meditation. Both times, I was pressed forward by two inescapable realizations.

Everything we build, develop or make with our own efforts and our own energies is temporary. No matter how important or useful or beautiful, everything we call our life is temporary. This is terrifying, but it is also comforting.

Being temporary and recognizing our temporariness frees us to understand a greater truth. We are not here for ourselves. Our lives do not really belong to us.

It doesn’t matter what church you go to or which way you say your prayers. We are here for one reason. All of us. We are here to help each other be brave in the face of our own individual temporariness. We are here to comfort, to encourage and to remind each other to practice our lives with openness. There is always sadness. There is always fear. There is always discouragement.

Uncertainty is not an aberrant state. Uncertainty cannot be avoided. Uncertainty is our lives. We can help each other work with uncertainty so that it is not a source of fear or pain.

There is beauty and confidence and assurance waiting in uncertainty. We are here to remind each other and to help each other practice remembering.


I’m Still Here

For anyone watching this space, I just want you to know I’m still here. I am in one of those mad seasons of life where free moments are few and fleeting. I’ve been writing on other projects and having a pretty good time of it lately. I won’t say more than that just yet. I don’t want to jinx things.

I do want to say a word of thanks to my wife, Michelle, who is very many things to me. She recently put me back on a productive path by mentioning a simple fact I too often overlook: good stories are always about people.

I have a tendency in all things to get swept up by the ideas, the vivid impulse, the vibrant language,  the rich image. Good stories are about people, the conflicts between people and the conflicts inside them. We cannot hope to write satisfying stories unless we take the time to know the people who live inside our stories. We cannot hope to understand the stories we are trying to tell until we understand not only what each person wants but why they believe they want it.

I’m still here, stacking up words and enjoying the peculiar shapes the mind invents when it is free to play.

There is a lot of joy in this kind of life. A lot of drudgery and a lot of frustration but mostly a lot of joy.

I’m still here. Still feeling grateful.

 


An Orange in a Tree

My six year old daughter heard somewhere that the Chinese have an ancient tradition of placing an orange in a tree as a way of making a wish. If the orange stays in the tree overnight, the wish will be granted. If the orange falls out from the tree, the wish will not come to pass.

I haven’t yet taken the time to research this to figure out what she’s talking about. I don’t want to know. I think the idea is perfectly beautiful and, of course, perfectly doomed to fail.

She has a stuffed dog she calls Mudge. My daughter, my wife, Mudge and I live in a house with four real, honest-to-gosh dogs. We feed them, groom them, pet them and generally love them. You probably know where this is going.

My daughter decided that she wanted Mudge to be a real dog so that Mudge could have real dog experiences. She wanted Mudge to eat when fed, to wag when groomed, and to bask in the pleasantness that comes with being generally loved.

Her plan was simple. She put an orange in a tree. This morning as we left for school, she locked Mudge in her room. “If Mudge becomes a real dog while we are gone, I don’t want him getting lost or getting scared by the other dogs.” Very practical. She is a planner like her mother.

After school, she was in a rush to get home and check on the orange. I explained that she might want to dial back her expectations a little bit and that I had never known or heard of a stuffed animal coming to life for any reason but particularly not from placing an orange in a tree.

“We’ll have to see,” she told me, which was not really fair. That’s usually my line.

When we pulled into the driveway, I could already see the outcome of her hopes. The orange had fallen out of the tree.

“Oh man,” she said, genuinely disappointed. There was such sweetness in that voice and a little bit of disbelief. “I thought it would work. Let’s go inside.”

We got inside, greeted by four enthusiastically happy dogs. “Come on. Let’s check,” she said. “Just to be sure.”

She strode down the hall, opened her bedroom door a bit and peered inside. “Mudge?”

She listened for an answer. Hearing none, she opened the door completely and walked to her bed where Mudge lay exactly as she had left him.

She shrugged. She nodded. “We’ll try again in the Spring,” she told me.

“Sure.” I nodded.

My daughter will have her heart broken a hundred thousand times. The world can be mean and petty. Sometimes there isn’t enough magic in it. I know how she feels.

And yet, there is something inside of us, all three of us, that does not die with the disappointment. We will try again in the spring. These are the words of someone who is relentlessly optimistic. My daughter, myself, my family. It is the way we choose to live our life.

Sometimes you hope for things that are never going to happen.

Sometimes you make plans for the impossible.

Sometimes you put an orange up in a tree because someone told you that the Chinese did the exact same thing thousands of years ago. Maybe they. Maybe they didn’t. It doesn’t really matter. If it doesn’t work, we can try again next spring.

 

 


Underneath the Words: Thoughts on Flash Fiction

I haven’t written much the past few weeks. I’ve been pulled a lot of different directions and very, very tired. When I get this way, my mind has a hard time locking down on specific thoughts or ideas. I’ve been at a loss for what to say in this blog space. I’ve been at loss for what to say on the pages I show no one.

And then, tonight I sit, find a song that hits a particular, specific mood, loop that song on continuous play and start typing.

This, it turns out, is my favorite way to write. I often start with a mood, a song that amplifies that mood and one single, starting sentence. Then I start typing. Sometimes, worthwhile things happen.

I feel conflicted about sharing that writing here. Much of this work is basically flash fiction, a quick sketch of story that telegraphs more than it tells. Its pretty much all I feel like doing lately. Fragments. Feints. The intentionally unfinished detritus of a crowded mind.

But that’s not what this blog is supposed to be about. I had wanted this blog to be a place for clarity. Things learned and understood.

I may set up a special place here to park this stuff. Just to get it out there. I might start an entirely different place to push this stuff so it doesn’t jumble up the Ubiquitous. Quotidian. conversation.

Not sure what I’ll do. Either way, the short, quick work is healthful. Like sweeping sticks out of a gutter. Or pulling the long, wretched hairs out of bathtub drain. Sometimes weird. Often unpleasant, fascinatingly so. But they make the words move easier. They help what comes next.

And so, perhaps flash fiction is like house keeping. No one wants to watch you dust your shelves and fluff your pillows but they can always tell when you haven’t been doing it.

BTW, tonight’s song: “Make Them Wonder” by Lily Holbrook. Tonight’s opening line: “She isn’t a witch, though she is desperate to become one.” Just in case you are wondering.

 

 


Excellence Inspires Excellence

I watch the Winter Olympics, and I feel like writing.

I see the forceful, elegant, laser-focused precision of speed skaters and feel like writing.

I see the massively brave lugers hurtling just beneath the edge of disaster, one twinge or tickle away from catastrophe. I feel like writing.

Its the audacious, reckless freedom of snowboarders. The tightly-controlled strength and artistry of ice skaters. The ability of  skiers to lean in when their brains should be telling them to lean back. The relentless endurance of cross-country skiers.

It all makes me feel like writing.

The truth is this happens all the time. It happens when I watch So You Think You Can Dance. It happens when I watch The Voice. Excellence inspires excellence.

I notice excellence and I feel grateful. I am grateful not only for the performance they have shared. I am grateful to have glimpsed the thousand previous unseen performances hiding inside that one moment of public brilliance. I am grateful when I can see the shape of all those early mornings, late nights. The bruises and cuts and frustrations. The satisfactions delayed. The sacrifice of normal life to achieve something extraordinary.

And here’s the thing. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete or a world-class dancer or an astonishing singer to feel the draw. There is something inside of you that wants expression. There is something inside that wants you to commit. There is something excellent that wants to get out.

When I watch the Winter Olympics, I am not watching only the beauty of that one, rare performance. I am watching the urgent, inspiring beauty of a lifetime commitment.

You have it. I have it. It is time for us to get started.


My Pursuit of Paperlessness

Earlier today, I glimpsed my paperless future. I had two documents to sign, scan and send to a colleague. Scanning documents is a pain in the ass. Filing or destroying the paper copies of those scanned documents is a pain in the ass. Dealing with paper in general, is… you guessed it, a pain in the ass.

I don’t like dealing with paper. This is probably a shocking confession coming from a librarian. After all, aren’t librarians the people charged with organizing the world’s paper? Not this guy. I have a different gift. I’m really good at find papers but not so great at filing them. My gift for search probably comes from having spent so much time in my life looking.

Don’t get upset. Paper books are still wonderful and lovely and charming and delicious and all that. I’m talking about the Other Papers. The not-wonderful, unlovely, uncharming paper that comes from spending 40-50 hours a week inside an office. I’m talking about time sheets, travel authorizations, requests for funding, subscription approval forms and any number of other administrivial paper.

I have an aversion to all of this paper. I am cultivating this aversion. I am training my team to believe I have a killer allergy to the use of paper in the workplace. Occasionally, when someone hands me a piece of paper that requires some small action on my part, I like to yell, “”It burns! It burns!” and wave the paper around like the flag of my discontent.

There is a better, more productive and mature path. I glimpsed that path today. Those two documents needed my signature but I really didn’t want to print, sign, scan, email then file.

Here’s what I did instead.

  1. Open electronic copies of the source documents (one an Excel spreadsheet; the other a Word document)
  2. Complete as much as possible onscreen.
  3. Save the document as PDFs to the Dropbox folder on my computer.
  4. Open the documents in the Dropbox app on my iPad.
  5. Push copies of those documents from the Dropbox app to the iAnnotate PDF app.
  6. Sign and date the document in iAnnotate with blue digital ink.
  7. Push a copy of each signed document back to the Dropbox app as a flattened PDF named the same as the original so that the document is updated rather than replicated.
  8.  Move to the permanent storage file on my computer.
  9. Email and done.

Okay, so I do acknowledge that typing all of this out into 9 easy steps does seem a bit more complex than just print, sign, scan and email. I promise it is a million times easier for me and I don’t have to deal with a paper copy and I don’t have to worry about document retention policies and I don’t have to worry about misfiling since it resides on my computer and will get indexed for search. The whole process takes about three minutes. The process of print, sign, scan, email, file/destory takes at least 5 minutes.

Today’s scenario started with digital source documents. I’m not always so lucky. In cases where someone hands me a paper document that needs my attention, I reach for the Scanner Pro app, which uses the iPad camera to take an image of a document and then turns that image into PDF which can be batched automatically to a designated folder in Dropbox.

Dropbox is the common thread that makes these workflows possible. I really like Dropbox, but that’s a paean for another time. Today felt like a long overdue step toward something I’ve always known was possible but hadn’t really bothered to try. It just gets better and better.


The Man in the Basement: A Few Words About Writing

A few words tonight just to prime the pump and remember how the engine feels when it is running. How easy it is to step aside and let days go by without writing. And yet, there is always a part of me somewhere inside that continues writing, like a man locked in a basement with only one window and a broken staircase. There is no help for him. There is no rescue. Keep throwing him food. Open the window when you can to let fresh air in. Let him continue his work undisturbed. Open the door. Give him light. Remind him there are many rooms in this house.

He will continue his writing, but maybe he will not feel so frantic when he knows that someone up there has remembered him and knows what he is doing. This makes it easier for him to believe there is a point to it. That he isn’t just a thing caught in a room that does not touch the world. Let him send his words up from time to time. Admire them. Let him know they matter. It makes no difference. He will continue writing all the same, but when the frantic verve has gone out, the words take on a better shape. He is doing the only thing he is able to do. And then, the words have a point. They connect to things.

I wrote a piece of flash fiction tonight. I expected to post it here just for fun, but I’m going to keep it safe for a while. There is a glint of something inside it I want to play with.

The man in the basement. Even when I’m not writing, he is writing. I need to protect him from despair.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 670 other followers