Laugh Loudest When You’re the Punchline

I headed out to the trail that I affectionately refer to as The Temple of Mud, Sweat and Blood today for the first time in months.  It’s been a difficult week so far and I was in desperate need of peace and quiet, if only for an hour.  I’ve not been able to get out on the trail in months thanks to a knee injury and won’t be doing any trail running in the foreseeable future.  Today was more of a trail hobble, with knee wrapped up and walking stick for support. I think I would have went out today even if it meant crawling along the trail.

The slowness of the pace, I hoped, would give me a chance to clear my head a bit after a rough few days. There were two unrelated deaths this week, within hours of each other, that left most of the people that I know in mourning.  I found myself coping well enough with the passings themselves, as neither was entirely unexpected (both had been battling serious health issues).  Dealing with the level of grief and emotion of the people around me just left me drained, with no recovery time or ability to bounce back.  There hasn’t been an hour without a message, call, text, or email from someone coping with these losses.

Old grief gets stirred up at times like these and it’s not going to come as a surprise that Andy’s death has been heavily on my mind this week (as it was already in my thoughts before these new losses).  I was expecting a bit of flack about my last post, so it didn’t come as a huge surprise when Andy’s friend, James, called me this week and said “So, you’ve publicly admitted that you lied to a dying man?” Looking back, I realize that I did not choose my words well or carefully and left a lot open for (mis)interpretation, particularly for someone who knows only the end of the story.  If I look at my previous post through that filter, I sound like even more of a jerk  than (I think) I actually was.  My tone was more callous than I’d intended and I can see how it could be taken badly.

After a few minutes of some very serious questions and answers, James finally summed it up with “So, you felt this intense, maddening kind of love for him that made  you want to be  a caretaker of all the broken bits of his soul?  You felt driven all along, at the urging of your goddess, to try to give him as much comfort, solace, and healing as you possibly could, even if it meant having to lie to him about your feelings and hid from him things that you thought might hurt him? Even if it meant doing so meant that you’d have to revisit some of the most painful times of your life?”  Yes, I told James, that was exactly how I felt- at last, someone gets it.  At this point, James snorted loudly into the phone and said “You are so adorable” with much the same tone and meaning that folks in the southern part of the States say “Bless your heart.” (For those not familiar, these phrases both roughly translate to “My god, you are such an idiot.”).  Then he started laughing, a cackle that would do any witch proud.

My temper frayed just a bit at that point and I demanded to know what was so funny.  “Ais, you and that idiot Andy are. I don’t think I’ve met two such stubborn, inconsolable asses in my life.”  I still wasn’t seeing the humor in this and told him so.  James went on to relate the conversation in which Andy had first told him about me.  “He was driven,” James stated, “by an overwhelming need to help you move past the things that had caused you pain. What I asked about being a caretaker of the broken bits of his soul, those were his words about you.  The things you wanted for him… he wanted those same things for you.  That was the work that he needed to finish before he died, trying to mend what was broken in you.” I ended the phone call feeling somewhat stunned and re-framing a lot of things in my head to fit this new information.

As I walked the trail yesterday, that conversation was on my mind.  Then the earworm started and I could hear Andy’s voice singing Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game” (which, hooray for piling on the irony,  is the only song I’ve ever heard Andy actually sing – maybe I should have paid more attention to the lyrics at the time).  At that point, I started laughing at the whole thing because it was the only thing that I could do, other than become an atheist.  Oh thank you Isis, Mender of the Broken, for your ‘delightful’ sense of irony and your ability to fix the fixers.  To think that Coyote makes me nervous and that I refuse to work directly with Loki because dealing with tricksters is too squicky.  Leave it to the Boss of Me (TM) make those two look like mere amateurs.  *snorts* Sweet and gentle mother goddess, my ass.

At the end of the day, I needed that laugh, that moment of not taking seriously something that was, at the time it happened, intense and difficult.  I needed too the humor to get me through this week’s losses.   One of the people who passed this week had an uncanny ability to find the humor in everything and to laugh even in her darkest hours.  In facing another diagnosis of cancer, she said this: “Own your journey and find the humor in it, especially the hard parts. Laugh through the pain, laugh through the fear, laugh loudest when you’re the punchline of the joke.”  Good advice from a wise lady.

[Author’s note: I’ve recorded James’ comments with his consent and full support.  At least I think he consented… it was hard to tell with all the snorting and guffawing that he was doing.  I think he’s probably still cackling as I write this.]


Fire Burns

[ Trigger Warning –  This post touches on a lot of potential triggers  – including miscarriage, death of a beloved, sacrifice, bullying, rape, and self-acceptance.  I’ve intentionally avoided being graphic or emotional in talking about these things, but  there is a whole lot of potentially painful subjects mentioned in fairly quick succession, mostly, but not always, just in passing.

General note: This post, in case you didn’t guess from the above, talks about some very personal and intense experiences.  Much of this is a culmination of things I’ve touched on in my last few posts.  If you’re not interested in reading about personal experience and some associated unpleasantness, skip reading this post.

I’d ask, too, that if you feel the need to belittle, ridicule, or otherwise criticize the events and decisions described below, that you refrain from doing so in the comments.  Thoughtful comments are, as always, welcome.]

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A Thought on Self-Love

I’ve been trying since the beginning of the month to come up with a relevant post about February’s theme for the Cauldron Blog Project: Self-love, Familial love, Friendships.  Two rough drafts have been typed up and promptly deleted… one for being too similar to a recent rant (see Broken? No, Just Fabulous) and another for a little more personal and revealing than I care to be on a public blog.  So one more time with feeling…

I am, to borrow a statistical term, a bit of an outlier.  If we were plotting people on a graph of cultural averages and norms, I’d be that little dot waving at everyone else from a place nearly off the edge of the page.  I process things a little differently than most of the people around me and my perception is skewed in a different direction than most.  Sometimes this is the source of amusement for me, particularly when employers have me take work style and personality tests.  I am consistently the one person in the organization who scores into some weird or uncommon category.  Sometimes it’s less amusing, like the constant reminders that being different is neither prized or welcome by most of society.  Almost daily there are reminders that ‘different’ is only marginally tolerated.  Being the square peg that everyone is attempting to pound into a round hole with a hammer is not conducive to either happiness or self-acceptance.

One of the hard lessons that my path has taught is this:  it is utterly useless and counter-productive to keep trying to cram myself into those round but culturally acceptable holes.  Whittling the sharp corners down to smooth curves means shedding bits of who I am.  It also means losing the parts of myself that allow me to do the work that my deity requires of me, because in those sharp edges lie the gifts, tools, and strengths that are required to do Her work.   It goes from being a question of conformity to a question of spirituality.  When I was walking with Andy through his last few weeks, I  came to a place where it became necessary to decide once and for all what was more important for me – pursuing the work that I felt I was put on this planet to do or fitting into societal expectations about who I should be and what I should do.

While in the process of making that decision, self-love started to creep into my way of thinking.  In getting angry over the expectation that  I would shed integral parts of myself in order to be accepted, I started to really like, and to fight for,  those bits of myself that make me an outlier.  I realized that self-love cannot exist if I do not embrace who I am, as is, without qualifiers.  Loving the best parts of ourselves is easy.  Embracing the dark, difficult, and discomforting bits is the real challenge.  For me, unconditional self-love means that I lay claim to all of it, rather than trying to shear off those sharp angular edges that mark me as different.  I’m happier as an outlier who takes ownership of the things that make her different than I ever was trying to be the person who fit into a space that was entirely the wrong shape.

Giving Thanks

Our family celebrated an early Thanksgiving today. My mother’s sisters are in town for the week, their first pilgrimage in twenty years to visit their oldest sibling. Since my brother’s schedule is torn between four kids from two marriages, a girlfriend with two kids of her own, and a demanding work schedule, we all agreed to move our usual Thanksgiving weekend get together to coincide with the aunties’ visit. My usually quiet house has been filled with the sounds of laughter and shared stories, not to mention the perpetual nagging of the family elders about the failings of the younger members. It was a long day and I’m grateful for the relative silence that descended after my brother’s brood departed and everyone else settled in front of the television for the night.

Today was a bittersweet one for me. Before Andy’s passing, we’d made plans for him to be here this weekend, to introduce him to my family, to announce that we intended to make legal the vows that we’d already sworn to each other. It was going to be a bombshell, I admit, and it was probably unfair to unleash such a revelation upon my family who have no idea that Andy even existed. There were so many factors driving our decision to present him to my family at this gathering and if I displayed doubt, Andy had been quick to remind me that I was not facing this alone, that at the end of the day, he’d be by my side. And that was all that mattered.

Andy was not by my side today but I still could feel the peaceful presence of him, the same feeling I’d experienced the last time I saw him. It was both painful and comforting, feeling that he’d kept his promise as best he could, that he was still watching over me, keeping me from being alone. I chopped five pounds of onions today in a pathetic attempt to cover the fact that I needed very desperately to cry for awhile. Finding a quiet, isolated place to grieve is difficult when you’re in a house full of people, especially a group of people who have the best of intentions and insist in helping with every problem, even those that require introspection and solitude. So I chopped every last onion in the house and gave myself to cry as much as I needed to and to shout (at least in my own head) all those things that I wanted to say… that life was cruel, that I hated having been given the gift of seeing the beauty of someone only to have them taken away (for the umpteenth time in my life), that I wanted everyone to leave me alone to my grief and stop expecting me to act like life was wonderful. Never mind that I’ve steadfastly refused to even say Andy’s name to anyone in my family; I wanted still wanted them to give me space and let my private grief be allowed to find expression. At the end of chopping a half dozen large onions and three bunches of spring onions, I felt better and started to believe the whispering in my brain that kept repeating “You are not alone. You are loved.”

This feeling persisted throughout the day. It felt to me that he was there, watchful and encouraging. Even in the midst of large family gatherings, I often feel alone and isolated, as if I don’t quite belong with the group (it would take a lifetime of blogging to explain the reasons for that!). Today, I felt content with being a part of things instead of the usual anxiety of feeling like a bug under a microscope. My heart and mind were calm for a change and as much as the word is over-used, zen would describe the hours that followed crying over chopped onions.

When it came time for our family’s annual dinner game of “What Are You Thankful For”, I prepared myself to list the usual… family, spirituality, health, friends, enough abundance to not want. Then one of my aunts decided to throw her own rule into this round of sharing: no one was allowed to repeat what someone had already said. By the time the questioning had come around to me, all of my answers had been taken. My brother poked me in the ribs and teased me about being thankful for only having to cook for everyone once a year. Since I love to cook for other people, I’d be thankful for the opportunity to do it more often, actually. Instead, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and said “I’m thankful for getting to spend time with my friend Andy before he passed away.”

There… I’ve done it. I’ve said his name in the presence of not just one family member, but an entire gathering of them. My mother gave me a look that spoke volumes. Who was this Andy person? Why haven’t you mentioned him before? What’s this about a friend dying? You never told me a word about this. I live under your roof and you kept this from me. What else are you not telling me?

Everyone else accepted this with murmurs of sympathy, but no questions, no inquiries about it, no probing into who this person might have been to me. Perhaps the questions will come later in a less public forum. I’m fairly certain that my mother will ask… or spend many hours telling the rest of the family that she just doesn’t know me anymore and that I hide things from her. Our relationship is sometimes a little difficult, she depends too much on me and I withdraw further from her when she leans. There’s much about Andy that I won’t tell her. I haven’t yet decided just how much I will say to her. Sometimes, less is more with my family. Yet my silence is broken and I answered the “thankful” question with the only honest answer I could muster at that moment. I am thankful for the time spent with him. I wish he could have been here with us today, but in a way, he was there, bestowing in me a confidence that I could face whatever might come and survive stronger than I’d been before. If there has been a lesson in knowing Andy, it is the knowledge that I can experience heartbreak and still feel strong and loved. For that I’m the most thankful.

Now at the end of the day, my mind is still calm and centered. Even as I’ve written this blog, my thoughts have been clear and focused on a single issue. Not my family, not myself, not even Andy. No, the only burning question in my mind is “what am I going to do with five pounds of chopped onions?”

Not According to Plan

A few long weeks ago, I heard from an old college acquaintance, asking if I cared to have lunch with him while he was in town. We’d done a poor job of staying in touch over the years and “in town” was now 500 miles away for me and four times that for him. By a fateful twist, I’d made plans to be in our shared former city the week that he’d planned to be there. I hadn’t seen Andy in several years and agreed to meet for lunch to catch up. If things went as they usually did, I’d see him again in a few years with a handful of emails exchanged in the intervening years.

We met for lunch, but that’s when things stopped going as planned. Seeing him, it became readily apparent that he was ill. It took several subsequent conversations for him to admit that he was suffering from advanced CNS lymphoma and that the prognosis was quite grim. He’d already put his life in order, taken care of all the little details, and was quite ready to pass whenever the gods saw fit to take him. He’d asked to meet to say goodbye and to say things that he’d been afraid to say.

Andy had been trying hard to isolate himself over the last few months in a misguided attempt to spare his friends and family the pain of seeing his declining health and inevitable passing. Yet, we began to talk and email everyday. Life threw a couple of surprises at us, not the least of which was an affection that quickly bloomed into something more precious. Neither of us had intended to deepen the relationship beyond what it had always been, yet it happened in spite of our intentions. We’d both isolated ourselves for a long time, nursing old heartbreaks and fearful of exposing tender scars to potential new pain. Still, we found ourselves making plans to spend whatever remaining time he had together.

He came to visit on Friday, flying across the country to be there for me on an important day. Always full of surprises, he came with a friend and asked if I would consider a hand fasting until we could “make it legal”. Friday was a very good day, one that I could never have predicted a few weeks ago. We were hand fasted in a quiet park among the oak and holly trees on a perfect autumn afternoon. The smile never left his face in the few hours that he was here and in spite of an uncertain future, we were both happy.

The plan was that he would take care of some personal business and return here in mid-November to stay… for good. Whatever came our way, we’d find a way to cope with it. It was important to him to be near me and for me, the only thing that mattered that this dear sweet man not go through life alone. We made plans, knowing that they might be short-lived or change rapidly without notice. We both knew there wouldn’t be a happily ever after, but as he’d put it, we were both content to have a “happily right now”.

Andy passed away Saturday afternoon. According to his friend, the flight back had been rough. Andy suffered from seizures as a result of his illness and had a mild one while traveling. Sometime during the drive home from the airport, he slipped into unconsciousness and never woke again. I had not planned to mourn for him, yet I grieve his loss in ways that I didn’t think was possible.

Nothing has gone as planned lately and I will blatantly disregard Andy’s plan to slip away with no fanfare, no funeral service, not even an obituary. He wanted to pass quietly and unnoticed. However, I will celebrate his life and ask my friends to celebrate with me and honor his memory by burning a white candle for him. Andy was 36 years old, an elementary school teacher who served as a volunteer fire-fighter and literacy advocate. His own troubles never took priority and he could always be counted on for kind words, a genuine smile, and a helping hand. A once bright light has been extinguished and the world is a little bit darker for it. He will be missed.

On Doing Nothing

Life teaches us so many lessons and one of the most difficult for me has been learning to do nothing. No, I don’t mean that I need lessons on being a couch potato and using the remote control on a Sunday afternoon (I manage that very well on my own!). What I’m talking about is inaction in the face of something that causes every fiber of your being to scream “Do something, dammit!!!”

This lesson came up recently on a forum that I regularly visit, when someone else was desperately wanting to help an ill co-worker whose condition was supposed to be a secret from everyone (including the person wanting to help). My sage advice was that sometimes the hardest and only thing to be done is nothing at all… just wait and see and let the actions of the person who you want to help dictate your next step.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but once again, life has handed me one of those “let’s see if you can practice what you preach” orders. An old acquaintance recently resurfaced in my life and it truly felt like rediscovering a long lost friend. We have a lot in common, he and I, more than I remembered or would have given him credit for. In getting to know him again (it’s been 15 years since we “hung out”), I realize that he’s one of the few people who have always accepted me as is, even the strange and unusual bits of me that most people don’t get. In short, he’s been a friend whose on-again, off-again presence I never really appreciated.
We’ve talked more in the last two weeks than in the last decade. What he won’t talk about in any detail, however, is that he’s ill. Not he has a bad cold ill, but terminally ill. When I saw him recently for the first time, the shadow of death was already upon him. It’s one of those strange and unusual aspects of me… I can sometimes see when someone’s close to death, even if they appear outwardly healthy. And Death is most assuredly stalking Andy and he knows it. He refuses to go into detail, but from what he has shared, it’s a fairly safe assumption that he has a brain tumor that’s getting progressively worse. He won’t say exactly what’s going on, only glosses over it, and tells me that it’s not for me to worry over.

Here’s where every fiber of my being screams “Do something, Aisling!” I’m a healer and my patron deity demands of me that I help when it’s asked of me. I can’t cure him, but I can certainly help to ease his pain and give comfort. I can do something, dammit, something to help him through this… healings, prayers, holding his hand, making tea, being a shoulder to cry on.

My friend does not want my help. “Don’t even think about a healing and don’t try to help, Aisling. I’m not dead yet and if I need your help then, I’ll let you know.” (All said with a silly grin, poking slight fun at another of my strange and unusual talents, mediumship). So, I get to sit on my hands and wait patiently for what? For my friend to die. He’s ready to let go of this life; I’m not ready for him to go yet. I never will be. Yet, because he has asked it, I will not take healing actions on his behalf. It is my friend’s wish, perhaps one of the last that I’ll be able to grant for him. That far outweighs my own need to “do something.”