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Month: November 2003

Darkness Falls

Darkness Falls

Literally, that is. It’s quarter to eight in the morning and we’ve only just attained the grey light of early dawn. Of course, overcast skies don’t help with that, but just as in the summer we wallow in the glorious light and the endless evenings, most of which seem to be spent around barbecues and on back decks, when winter settles in here, it sits down upon us like a broody hen, fluffing it’s feathers down around us, plopping us into darkness for these weeks on either side of the solstice.

While Patrick was really affected by the lack of light in winter — when we lived together we bought so many full-spectrum light bulbs that we used to joke about being investigated by the DEA for growing pot — the dark doesn’t make me blue. I like it. I’m not sure why … maybe it’s that because it’s dark and cold, because my garden is all asleep so I don’t feel like I should be outside doing something. I have time to write, time to think. Brood, but in the best way. When we lived in California, and I was feeling dislocated by the fact that instead of a writer I seemed to have become a corporate employee, I went to Paris alone, two years in a row, for Thanksgiving week.

I loved it, and part of what I loved was the dark and the cold. The coziness of shop lights shining onto streets dark early. The way that when you ducked into a restaurant or cafe the waiter would take your coat and you’d both comment cheerily on the cold before he’d seat you. That because it was dark, and cold, I could retreat in the evenings to the little flat I’d rented and really concentrate on my novel in a way that hadn’t seemed possible at home. It’s probably due to too much early exposure to Hemingway, but I loved my two little weeks in Paris garrets.

My stepmother Susan arrives today for the holiday, which suddenly seems to be upon us. We’re cooking for a crowd at Maryanne and Bill’s house — I’m doing the ham, Susan’s on biscuit-duty. It’s going to be weird without Patrick, but at least it will be weird for all of us together.

Things That Help

Things That Help

A weekend spent with new friends and old — people who allow me to be in exactly the space I’m in, whether that’s having a good time at a party, or getting the thousand-mile stare at the Bar and Grill because we’re sitting right where I last saw Patrick. People who say “how are you” and don’t mean it as code for “are you over it yet.” People who when I say that I currently feel like a house that’s had all the windows and doors blown out, just nod and hug me and we all keep going. Eating delicious hunks of grilled elk at Scott’s birthday party and introducing new people to the circle of friends who have saved my life these past few weeks.

Lunch with Wendy-the-Buddhist in Bozeman, who reassured me that it’s perfectly normal to find that sitting opens the channels to all sorts of emotions one might not want to have, including anger. And that you just keep sitting through it. Which doesn’t mean it goes away, it just means you sit through it.

My old flame, Gary Short, author of Flying over Sonny Liston who found me on the internet the night before Patrick’s Chicago funeral, when I was surfing around trying to find the lyrics to the hymns for the funeral program. Gary who emailed from Albania that he was weeping in the internet cafe and the old men were all staring at him. Gary who is back in the States and coming to stay with me for a week. Gary who will be here for my birthday. Gary who is such an old flame that we’ve been all the way through wild romance to heartbreak and then back somehow to deep abiding friendship. Gary who, it turns out, is actually someone who can be counted on when the chips are really really down.

And this wonderful CD by Alexi Murdoch. Thank you Matt — I cried all the way back over the pass listening to “Orange Sky” (which everyone should go over and listen to right now)… but it was good tears. The kind that help. My salvation these days has been the love of these good people here, and the only silver lining I’ve found so far, which I keep discovering again and again, is that I am not, as I once so feared, alone. That I am being sustained by and surrounded with love.

It’s My Grief and I’ll Be Pissed If I Want to Be

It’s My Grief and I’ll Be Pissed If I Want to Be

I got an email from a reader of this blog this morning, taking me to task for being angry and unkind in The Anger Problem. Oh, and for writing beautifully about being angry and unkind.

Well duh folks. I’m angry right now. I’m trying to work through it, but anger isn’t kind, anger isn’t pretty, and unfortunately Patrick’s death has, as I warned it probably would, significantly changed the tone of LivingSmall … so if you were one of those people stopping by for another nice dispatch about my happy life in my little Montana town, and what was growing in my garden, sorry, that’s over, at least for a while.

“Shame on you” my gentle reader said this morning, for putting my anger and blame out into the universe, especially since I live in a small town where these things can get back to people. Look, I’m a writer, and there will be a book out of this whole Patrick thing, and unfortunately it’s going to be a nonfiction memoir, which means I have to deal with the issue of real people who will get their feelings hurt. It’s one of the biggest challenges writers face, and in every creative writing class I’ve ever taught or taken, the issue of how do you speak the truth in the face of other people’s feelings has been the subject of endless hours of debate.

Essentially, it comes down to ruthlessness. At some point you have to care more about your own writing and your own work, and about telling your truth than you do about other people’s feelings. Yes, it’s selfish. All artists are selfish. If you’re not, you’ll get stopped. I’ve seen really talented writers, people with far more talent than I have, quit writing because they can’t get past worrying about what their parents will think.

The Buddhist belief in “right speech” poses an interesting problem here – and as I work on the actual memoir, the actual book that I’m hoping my agent will be able to sell and send out into the wider world, it’s an issue I’m going to have to wrestle with. Patrick and I were so close largely because, after Michael died (at two, of cancer, when I was eight and Patrick was six) and after our parents were divorced, things were very messy and uncertain for a long long time. We didn’t really have anyone else in our world that we could depend on except each other. And writing about this will be tricky, because different members of my family have radically different versions of what happened and why and who did what. I also grew up in a family in which speaking certain truths was absolutely forbidden, and still is. Part of the project Patrick and I embarked on when we moved in together five years ago was coming up with a coherent story, a story that seemed to make some objective sense, and which seemed to jibe with our actual memories. We did that, and unfortunately since he’s no longer here to carry that story with me, I’m going to have to claim it and to write it down. And there is no way to do this without hurting some people.

All I can do is to try to make it as beautiful and truthful as I can. I thought I’d done that with my novel, where I tried to tell the hardest truths I know, and which even as fiction, inspired a slew of horrified reactions. You would have though I’d taken an actual small child into the wilderness and lost her from the reactions I got — why would you want to write about that?

Because that’s what I do. I’m a writer, and one reason I started this blog was to practice my nonfiction voice, and to practice writing little essays. Essay, from the French verb “to try” … that’s what I do here … I try things out. I float ideas. I write my way through them. Mostly I try to write about the ways we can sustain one another in a dark world, but every once in a while, you also have to try to describe the exact contours and dimensions of the darkness.

Cinnamon-Chile Short Ribs

Cinnamon-Chile Short Ribs

This is in the pot-roast family of foods that are good for times when, shall we say, one’s energy levels might be uneven. When you’re having an up afternoon, you can do the cooking, then those other times of the week when you’re not feeling so swell, you can simply reheat. I adapted this from Nina Simonds book Asian Noodles — her recipe is for Cinnamon Beef Noodles, and what I wanted was something more pot-roasty.

So, here’s what I did:
I chopped up a handful of scallions, a thumb-sized hunk of ginger, a handful of garlic cloves and sauteed them in a heavy pot with two dried asian peppers. Avoid letting the garlic brown. I then added about 3 pounds of short ribs (which happened to be local and organic — kind of expensive, but on the other hand, I like to try to support my local ranchers), two star anise “stars”, two cinnamon sticks, a little bit of ground clove, a can of tomatoes, a can of chicken broth, and a big wooden spoonful of Siracha chile-garlic paste. I put the lid on and put the whole thing in the oven at 350 for about three hours, occasionally turning the short ribs over.

When the short ribs were falling apart, I added a package of swiss chard I’d put up last summer, and cooked some basmati rice. Served with a little more chopped scallion and cilantro on top, and a drizzle of sesame oil, this was delicious. And it’s been delicious all week. (I may have to freeze some though, because I’m getting a little tired of this, no matter how delicious it’s been.)

The Anger Problem

The Anger Problem

“Anger is one of the most difficult defilements to overcome … When I was a young monk I gave many sermons on anger and how to control it even as my own anger caused me to lose my temper repeatedly. I’m calling it ‘my’ anger, but that isn’t quite right. Anger would invade my mind and overwhelm me, and I let it do that despite the fact that inevitably made me feel miserable. When I was angry, I felt pain in my chest and burning in my stomach. My eyesight blurred, my reasoning was unclear, and ugly, harsh words came out of my mouth. After I calmed down, always feeling ashamed and foolish, I would reflect on the Buddha’s words about anger: ‘One should give up anger, renounce pride, and overcome all fetters. Suffering never befalls him who clings not to mind and body and is detached.’” Bhante Gunaratana, in the current issue of Tricycle Magazine.

Along with my sorrow, I’ve been waging a mighty struggle with anger these past couple of weeks. Those of you who have been reading for a while may remember my blog entries on the Precepts and on nonviolence last spring as our nation was preparing to go to war. I really do believe that giving in to anger is like grabbing the Tar Baby – all it gets you is more anger, all it does is put more anger out there into the world. And goodness knows there’s enough of that.

But it’s been a mighty struggle these past weeks – Patrick’s landlord has gone out of his way to be difficult, and yesterday I discovered that although I’d spoken to him on the phone right after Patrick died, and had assured him I’d pay the October rent, and that no, I did not want him to empty the apartment and store Patrick’s belongings; after explaining that this was the second brother I’ve lost, and that as a child I’d found it very disturbing to come home and find Michael’s room cleaned out, that I’d need some time to go through Patrick’s things; after he agreed to leave Patrick’s things alone, yesterday I discovered that on October 2nd, as I was flying home to Chicago with Patrick’s ashes, this man was calling the utilities and taking valuables out of Patrick’s apartment in an attempt to take advantage of a legal loophole and attempt an eviction. I’ve been dealing with this situation since I got home, but somehow, finding out from the gas company that the day after Patrick’s Livingston funeral this guy was on the phone plotting against me was deeply upsetting. I wanted to march over there and confront him, ask him why he would be so cruel, why he would assume I wouldn’t meet Patrick’s obligations, why had he badgered me about cleaning out the apartment, why had he insisted on showing the apartment before we had it cleaned out, why he’d violated my grief and privacy like that, parading strangers through dead Patrick’s apartment? Why?

But my anger at the landlord is easy compared to my anger at the Nice Girlfriend, who turned out not to be so nice after all. The not-so-Nice Girlfriend who Patrick broke up with in early August after discovering that her ex-husband, the one who stole the bed, the one who has been known to beat up total strangers in local restaurants, the one who threatened to beat Patrick up all winter, had spent the night in her new bed. The not-so-Nice Girlfriend who broke Patrick’s heart, who caused him to spend his last six weeks on earth unable to sleep, or eat, or think straight. Who caused me to worry every morning if he was ten minutes late to pick up the dogs that he might have killed himself, and who caused him to promise me he wouldn’t do that. The not-so-Nice Girlfriend who we ran into three times that last Friday night, and who Patrick was still nice to because he loved her, and he had to work with her, and he was a nice guy. The not-so-Nice Girlfriend who, if she’d been half the girlfriend Patrick deserved, wouldn’t have broken his heart, wouldn’t have left him so unable to face his empty apartment that he offered to drive Parks out to his place ten miles up the Cokedale Road, a bad gravel road outside of town. The not-so-Nice Girlfriend who came by to bring me a check for the work Patrick had done for her, and who stood in my living room wearing her ex-husband’s wedding ring and welling up in tears, telling me how much she missed Patrick while I held my breath and gave her the bum’s rush because I didn’t even know what to do with my shock that she would wear his ring to my house.

The landlord is a piece of cake compared to her.

But as tempting as it is to lose my temper with both of these people, as much as it sometimes seems that getting all righteous and making a scene would show them, I know it wouldn’t. I grew up with a mother who loves nothing more than righteous indignation, who picked really virulent fights with my father for years and years after their divorce, who has been known to vent her righteous anger at me, to chase me through the house in order to impress upon me the sins of my character. My mother has been venting her anger pretty continuously for as long as I can remember, and it hasn’t done anything but make her an incrementally more angry and hostile person. Making a scene isn’t going to change this bully of a landlord. Making the not-so-Nice Girlfriend feel even worse than she already does about Patrick’s death isn’t going to make me feel better, or somehow magically turn back the clock and keep Patrick from getting in that car when he was in no condition to drive. Making a scene isn’t even going to make me feel any better – it’ll just make me feel even more jangly and upset than I already do.

So what’s a girl to do? The only answer I can come up with is to sit. To take refuge. To breathe in and out and have faith that all those clear-faced Buddhist teachers in the pages of Tricycle are right, that if you sit, if you breathe, if you work at being mindful, you can get to that clear space on the far side of all this anger and sorrow and heartbreak.

Of course, yesterday afternoon after the horrible insulting letter from the landlord and the terrible checks closing out Patrick’s accounts that had to be deposited, yesterday afternoon when I was racked with sobs on the livingroom floor with the dogs, I must admit that a little xanax helped with the immediate terror and sorrow. A little xanax, and then a walk along the river with Maryanne and the dogs, the sight of the Crazy Mountains in the late-afternoon sunlight and a bald eagle flying up the Yellowstone.

What Dogs Don’t Get …

What Dogs Don’t Get …

Sitting. Dogs don’t get meditation. Cats, they get meditation, dogs, not so much.

This morning I was on my cushion, trying to pay attention when I felt a small dog nose poke me in the back, right between my shoulderblades. So Owen poked at me a little, then went to examine the incense smoke for a moment, then tried to curl up on my crossed legs, but there wasn’t really enough room on the cushion, and he kept sliding off. Eventually, he got bored and went away. Ah, I thought. He’s learning. And tried to bring my attention back to mindfulness.

Then Raymond came in to see what was going on. Same drill, a little whining, a little licking, a little trying to curl up in front of me on the cushion. Not comfortable. A little shifting, a little more whining, some incense watching and then he gave up and went out to curl up in the dog bed under the kitchen table. I tried to bring my attention back to mindfulness.

Now, like so much lately, the dogs in my meditation space can be seen as a problem, or can be seen as just what they are, dogs in my meditation space. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Zen lately, trying to see my way through this ordeal, but it seems to me I could have gotten all bent out of shape because the dogs were “ruining” my meditation, or I could have just let the dogs be dogs and keep trying to bring my attention back to mindfulness. I went with the latter, partially because I love my dogs so it was easier not to be mad at them than to be mad at them, and partially because all affection, even if it is in the middle of my so-called meditation practice, is welcome, especially these days.

But it’d be nice if they’d sort of get with the program eventually. Maybe another dog bed in the room where I sit, so they can have their own cushion.

It’s Good to Have A Dog

It’s Good to Have A Dog

Because we can’t get delivery here in Montana, I get the Sunday New York Times a week late. It usually comes on Thursday or Friday and I save it so I have a Times to read on Sunday morning. This is what two years of one’s youth spent in Manhattan will get you — a lifetime addiction to a big fat Sunday paper.

So Sunday I was reading the Style section and there, in the Weddings, was my cousin George on his father’s vintage motorcycle with Jen, who is now his wife. It’s a really cute picture and I tossed it aside thinking “Patrick will love this.” It was a good ten minutes before I realized what I’d done. That Patrick wasn’t going to be coming by later that day, and so I had a little crying fit because I’m really quite sad right now about the whole thing.

So I’m on the couch crying and Owen, my puppy, my perfect, 35-pound French Brittany spaniel jumped up next to me and started licking my head. Licking my hands over my eyes, licking my ears, licking my head like he knows somehow that this is his job in the universe, as though his whole reason for being on the planet this time around is to save me from my sorrow. Which he did, because it’s really hard to keep crying when you have a frantic year-old dog licking your head, your hands, whatever parts of you he can get his tongue on. He licked at me until I started to giggle through my tears, and remembered that although I am sad, I am also still here, still kicking, and still loved by among others, my fabulous little dog. (So now I guess I’m going to have to learn to hunt birds for the little guy.)

Saturdays are Hard

Saturdays are Hard

Saturdays are hard. Eight Saturdays ago, Patrick didn’t show up to walk dogs … I called and couldn’t get him at his house, which was odd, but odder still was that I couldn’t get him on his cell. He always answered his cell. When I’d left him at the Bar and Grill, he’d been chatting with a woman, so I thought who knows? maybe he got lucky? Last thing he needs is his panicky sister tracking him down. But I was annoyed. After waiting until well after nine, which is weekend dog-walking time, I loaded the dogs in the car and decided to head down to Pine Creek, which is a good hike if you’re alone, because it’s pretty busy there and hence, the grizzly bear danger is fairly low. Also, should one sprain an ankle or something, you’ll be found.

Driving out of town I passed his apartment, and his truck wasn’t in front. I got that bad feeling in my stomach, but thought to myself “No, you always think he’s dead on the road. He only had four blocks to drive to get home and if anything had happened someone would have called.” I really did think that. Gave myself greif for being a worrywart. Figured maybe he’d had to go back over to Big Sky for a job — he’d been working over there a lot and there’s no cell coverage.

So off I went with the dogs to Pine Creek. It was a beautiful morning and we had a nice hike, although I was annoyed with Patrick for blowing me off like that. Pine Creek is about a mile hike or so up to a lovely waterfall — the trail winds through pine forest, and crosses the creek a couple of times. The dogs adore it because there are grouse up there and other good things to smell. The drive down and back through the Paradise Valley is enough to cheer anyone up.

I got back from hiking with the dogs, and did a little puttering around in the garden, then headed back out to the hammock to read. That’s where I was when I heard the front gate open, about two or so in the afternoon. I didnt’ get up, figuring it was Patrick and he’d come wandering back into the yard. No one did come back though, and the dogs were still barking up a storm, so that’s when I went up front to investigate. And that’s when Mike Fitzpatrick, the assistant coroner, came around into my side garden to give me the news.

I’m mostly doing okay, greiving, but doing okay. But Saturdays are hard. Puttering around my house on a Saturday is now overlain with this whole other shadow, which is, that that other Saturday, while I was annoyed, and hiking Pine Creek, and puttering around my house, Patrick was lying dead in that meadow off the Cokedale Road. He was being found and loaded into the ambulance and taken to the hospital and then to the funeral home. He was dead the whole time.

I used to love nothing more than puttering around my house on a Saturday, and for a while I guess, I’ll just have to live with this sort of jittery feeling about it. Like most grief-related things, I have faith that it’ll get better over time. So today I’m going to pull weeds, plant bulbs, meet Wendy-the-Buddhist and her kids at the playground, hike Pine Creek with Bill and Maryanne and a friend of theirs, then there’s an art opening tonight.I’m busy, I’m surrounded by wonderful people who love me, but it’s still hard. Saturdays are now the day when Patrick really doesn’t come through my front gate.

Adventures in Bereavement

Adventures in Bereavement

LA was wonderful. My friends Matt and Paige were the perfect, loving hosts: Paige treating my head cold with copious amounts of essential oils, Matt the same old Matt I’ve loved since we lived down the hall from one another our first year at Beloit College. We hung out with the dogs, read some scripts (Matt’s a movie producer), had dinner with other Beloit friends, and mostly just relaxed.

On Saturday afternoon, we went downtown to Aroma, a spa in Koreatown, where I was scrubbed with a thoroughness that I probably haven’t experienced since I was a very small child. After a short soak in the hot tub, and a few minutes in the sauna, I wound up on a massage table with a Korean woman scrubbing every bit of dead skin off of me with abrasive mitts (think those green scrungy things you use in the kitchen). And when I say every bit of dead skin, I mean it … I was scrubbed from head to toe (between the toes too). I was scrubbed in places that one would not necessarily think one might need exfoliation. I was scrubbed on my front, on my back, and on my sides. Then I was rubbed down, sent out for a shower, tenderly dried off, fed a glass of water, and put back on the table where I was slathered with very herbal oils, a facial mask, had my scalp scrubbed with what felt like a curry comb, and then was given perhaps the most energetic massage of my life. It was all slightly terrifying but ultimately great — and in many ways felt like a metaphor for this whole bereavement experience. Because of the language barrier, I really had no idea from moment to moment what was going to happen on that massage table (a slippery wet massage table no less) and so I had two choices — I could either resist and try to control the situation, or I could just go with it, regardless of the fact that a strange woman was gently scrubbing my breasts with an abrasive glove. So I went with it, and it was, ultimately, a good experience … strange, but good.

So, now I’m home, and back in the thick of closing up Patrick’s affairs, which continues to be not so much fun. It’s good to be home — It was great to get a break, but it’s quite wonderful to have a loving community of friends to come home to. And I did miss the dogs, and actually wound up sort of weepy Sunday night when I got home too late to pick them up from the kennel. My sorrow was abated however, when I saw the joy with which the cat greeted my dogless arrival. So, all is relatively well here on the steppes of Montana — the weather has warmed up some, but the famous Livingston winds have begun — the dog park was like a Buster Keaton movie yesterday. This weekend, if the weather holds, I have to get out and pull all the poor frozen greens out of the garden. While kale improves with a frost, two weeks of sub-freezing weather leaves one with just a pile of dead brown plants. The freeze hit so suddenly that the garden is full of dead plants caught at the end of bloom — cosmos, lettuce, kale and the poor brussel sprout that never did get a chance to send up its spike.

Winter

Winter

Winter is really here — another four inches of snow this morning, temps in the twenties since last week. I wasn’t really quite ready for this, particularly not ready for freezing dog park mornings. Patrick used to do the morning dog walk, and of the many many things I miss, having him take them on the frozen morning walk while I got to hang out in my PJs and make breakfast is one of them.

I’m off to LA for the weekend to see an old old friend from college. It’ll be good to take a break. I’m hoping to catch the Circle of Bliss show of Buddhist Meditational art at the LA County Museum of Art, but other than that, I have no plans except to sit on Matt’s couch and recharge a little bit.