A Discourse On Loss

“No man is an island.” John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

As 2017 closes out its run, I struggle through the immensity of unmooring that the year has brought.  My bubble life of structure and belief in the common decency of man has suffered a knock-out punch. As a child of the sixties, I am no stranger to turmoil. However, the bouts of political insanity that rock the country strain my belief that goodness will triumph. A minority should never determine the course of the ship of state, yet this is exactly what has occurred. The loudest voice, the vilest attacks, have set adrift the progress of our nation. I am no quitter, but I despair. Even the best of fighters hangs up the gloves eventually. That sick feeling in my stomach caused by tremors beneath the bedrock of our democracy lingers. Despite the efforts to raise my voice  – the phone calls made, the petitions signed, the marches joined – those in power are not listening. I am not an island. Connected by history and inclination to the best that we can be, I mourn for us.

“Grief is a plastic surgeon.” Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me

This old year passing has brought personal loss that I did not anticipated. Two dear friends and kindred souls passed away in the fall within a month of each other. The grief rises with me each day, rides my shoulder as I clean and bake and pray. It does, as Alexie suggests, carve new patterns in the grain of life. What once was treasured together-time has morphed into pictures in an album and memories already slipping through time’s erosive hand. Although I did not take for granted the road trips, critique sessions and working lunches, I see now how fleeting those moments were.

“Sorrow floats.”  John  Irving, Hotel New Hampshire

The last twelve months have required more patience than I ever imagined I had. My mother-in-law, 96 on the cusp of 97, and my mother, 94 this coming March, suffer the ravages of physical and mental ailments. I juggle visits to the nursing home with power-of-attorney requirements and long-distance discussions with trips to the emergency room. Each day brings a new challenge, not the least of which is the knowledge and expectation that this, too, shall pass as they do. Grief isn’t finished with me yet.

I know I am not alone. The world suffers. Death visits us all. How do we find strength, hope, and grace amid the emotional debris? One source for me is books. Reading the words of others who have entered this arena gives me courage. Recognizing the vast sweep of human emotion assists in placing my own grief in perspective. Although my post this month is grim, the promise of peace rises, like Picasso’s flower in the painting “Guernica,” from the wounded heart.

A child laughs. A woman decides to run for office…and wins. The dough rises in the pan, spreading the yeasty smell of home and hearth and hospitality. Words cover the page, sometimes in abundance, but more often in quiet runs.

A new year walks beside me, buoyant and full of expectation. I must make it count.

How I Lost My Voice…And Found It Again

The day, the hour, the moment muteness descended on my writing voice crouches in the deepest corner of my heart, waiting to pounce at unexpected times. As my son’s birthday, May 27, approaches, I feel the memory uncurling, preparing to leap, determined to remind me that wounds can be dressed but some scars never heal.

Dayton Children’s Hospital, September, 1973. 11:00 a.m. A doctor I do not know explodes from his office, lifts my three-month old infant from my grasp and swings him in the air. My baby does his frog imitation, arms and legs flopping loosely, muscles limp.

“Mrs. Irvin.” The doctor frowns down at me. “You have every reason to be worried about this child.” Snap. The trajectory of my life swerves off course. My plan to raise a perfect family and write perfect stories jumps the tracks. My construct of the future collapses. I am strangled by a diagnosis so devastating, I can’t be certain I will ever speak, let alone write, again.  My son is profoundly retarded.

Profoundly, as in stunted growth, cerebral palsied limbs, a skull that fused too soon. At my side, my two-year old daughter stands, puzzled and shaky, as the tears run down my face. That day I join a subterranean society of families with children like mine. We are apart from the norm, engaged in a battle that we are destined to lose. There are few cures, limited options, pity but little empathy. After all, damaged offspring remind us all of vengeful Furies, Olympian punishment.  No matter how well I cared for myself and my child, disaster struck. When I step into this underground realm, a journey begins that will sear my soul. Writing is a luxury I no longer have time, strength or energy to pursue.

My husband and I roll the genetic dice. A third child is born, a second perfect daughter. The economic exigencies of caring for our son propel me to the workplace. I return to teaching, but my writing voice remains in lock down.  I scribble poems on napkins, story ideas on the margins of old letters. My random bursts of inspiration die in my throat. No tales emerge. I send out no submissions. Twenty years pass. In August of 1992, Scott passes away after an unsuccessful operation. My precious child is gone, my voice resting among his ashes.

One day a brochure for the Ohio Writing Project based at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, lands in my school mailbox. Proposal: Teachers as writers. Deep inside me, in that dungeon of abandoned desire, a spark ignites. I sign up for the course. I drive an hour and a half each day for six weeks to learn that I am not without talent. I fill a notebook with required writings. The concrete lid of my tomb cracks, slides free.

The following summer I scrape up money to attend the Antioch Writers Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I’ve heard good things about the instructors. They offer afternoon critique sessions. Feedback for my work. Do I dare to open my narrative mouth? Now, finally, there can be only one answer. Yes.

I was mute, unable to free myself from sorrow until I found a way to grow beyond that trauma. The teachers at OWP and AWW believed in me. Their mentoring restored my voice to me. Since those two key events, I have published stories online and in print magazines and journals across the US, in Canada and in the UK. Last fall my first novel was published. My story is a poster: it is never too late to realize a dream. As long as one person believes in your voice, you can learn to sing.

Advice is usually worthless. We each follow the demands of our inner guide. But should you ask me how to find your voice, I would suggest you start with a course or a workshop where you can explore your creativity, find mentors to nurture you and meet fellow writers to encourage you as you open your heart.

Tea and grAttitude – 2015

My internal clock ticks off the last minute of sleep and, bingo, I’m awake. Others in my birth family share this early-riser phenomenon. No matter how late we stay up, the need to rise at dawn is overpowering. Padding through the silent house, I try a little socks slide on the hardwood, channel my inner child and greet Eos with joy. Then the ritual takes over.

Several actions must occur before I can move on with the day. Graycie, the cat who adopted us, follows me to the pantry. When I give the command, she sits, favors me with a nose-bump kiss and receives her treats for the day. If I forget (trust me – I try never to forget), she  torments me with leg rubs until I give her just enough cheezy tidbits to meet her requirements. Then, unless I have demanding or pre-emptive chores or appointments, I fill her water dish, consider my breakfast options (should I eat pre-writing or post?) and sprint upstairs to my writing space. Surrounded by the approving stares of authors young and old, I run my hand along the spines of my books. I pause to give a mental fistbump to my Jeremiah Healy bobblehead – part of the prize for winning the mystery contest named after him. Receiving his ghostly thumbs-up, I perch on the edge of my chair and put in my words for the day. No part of me complains. I am lighter than air and twice as exuberant. This is my passion. This is my joy.

When light fills the sky and the story takes a break, I return to the kitchen for tea and gratitude. Mine. For the gift of a new day, the grace of a fresh twenty-four, the chance to make the moment count. Many of my friends keep journals, recording faithfully the emotions and events of their days. I’ve tried to be a journaler. This endeavor always begins well but ends badly. I misplace the notebook. I forget to make an entry. I lose track of the date. Not that I don’t have a shelf of said volumes, most half-filled, bulging with notes or ticket stubs or cards attesting to my statement that I really did attend an Eagles’ concert, did once have a drink at Senor Frog’s, did meet Elizabeth Strout the year before she won the Pulitzer for Olive Kittredge. Now, see, I’m digressing, distracted by memories and thoroughly unable to maintain that intense journal frown.

Instead, I plug in my internal memory bank, still my restless muscles and listen for the voice of a character to tell me where we’re going this morning. I eat, and drink and return to that special internal place that calls me to account. Perhaps your space needs music or movement, but my writing thrives best in the quiet nest of dusk and tea and words, accompanied by the grateful beating of my writer’s heart.

Why I Decided To Like Chamber Music

I’m not a musician. Wish I were, but the truth is that particular talent eludes me. However, I do love music, all kinds of music: classical and country, rock and jazz, folk and church and norteño. While I may not be able to play the notes, I can appreciate the complexity of a composition, the talent required to create and arrange. I attend philharmonic  concerts, when time and finances permit. This past year I’ve gone to hear Emmy Lou Harris and Rodney Crowell and Madelyn Peyroux and Boz Scaggs and the Eagles. But I never choose chamber music as a preferred musical experience. At least, I didn’t…until Charleston’s Spoleto Festival.

My first attempt to become a musician began with, you guessed it, the flutophone. When I was in grade school, an elementary education required one to learn notes and the scale and to play this plastic wind instrument that resembles a clarinet. The nuns demanded daily practice. My fingers, inexperienced and inept, struggled until I mastered the damn thing. In retrospect, I probably drove the entire family (I come from a large one) half insane with my stumblings. After months of preparation, our teacher judged us proficient. Donning our school uniforms and a short cape bearing our school colors, I and my classmates rode buses to a large auditorium where all the fifth graders in the entire Youngstown area played a concert for parents. Oh, the humanity! as Newman would say.

In seventh grade, my father handed me his old saxophone and announced that I would be taking lessons. Learning to exhale enough air to power the instrument strained my abilities. The effort occupied several months, and once again I subjected the family to painful aural stimulation. My lungs quiver remembering it. Then the dentist said I needed braces and my saxophone days came to an end. No swinging jazz band for me.

Since my husband brought a piano to our marriage, I dabbled with playing. But the children were small and soon I returned to teaching. The time just wasn’t right. After the kids grew up, I bought a guitar and took lessons, intending to play for my students and fulfill a long-held fantasy of making music. But that experiment, too, fell by the way when I returned to graduate school. My bright and soaring desire to master an instrument dashed itself to pieces on the rocks of my crazy life. And my non-talent. Sigh. I drowned my disappointment in the albums of my favorite musicians. Then, an amazing thing happened. I discovered Spoleto.

 

For twenty-one days every May and the first week in June, Charleston, South Carolina, transforms itself into an arts haven, presenting dance, theater, art and music in many venues throughout the city. The chamber music concerts take place at the Dock Theater. Tickets to the concerts are affordable, the presentations are only an hour or so and the presenters demonstrate the most amazing level of personality and technical skill. Inclined to take advantage of as much art as possible and striving to be kind to the budget, the first year we attended the Festival, we chose to attend one of these presentations. Oh, glory!

The chamber concerts  introduce attendees like me to new music, explain in detail the compositions and the composers, and entertain the audience.  This past year we elected to attend two different chamber programs, and we weren’t disappointed. I fell in love with Mozart’s “Sonata in G Major,” not only for the music, but also for the explanation given by the director as he explained the three parts of the sonata in a moving and passionate address.The piece begins, the maestro explained, on a lighter, happier note but turns a little melancholy before ascending again into cheer. At least, that’s what I understood him to say. To be honest, I was swept away by the work itself, finding reflections of my own life in the composition. Music that reveals the heart…oh, my!

The discovery of beauty is, as Kahlil Gibran suggests, the reason we live. Art speaks to that anticipation, that moment of joy when we find meaning in the medium. To encounter this anew by opening myself up to a new form magnifies the experience. Which is how I came to appreciate, embrace and applaud chamber music and musicians. Bravo!