Every Story

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?
“Landslide” by Stevie Nicks

Where does anyone turn to answer those questions? Because I’ve a sickening feeling about the season my life’s turned into, the one about moving on without Philip. I don’t mean “moving on” as in “getting over it.” I mean life is motion and where life goes, so go I. And I don’t mean – really – “without” Philip. I’ve said much about the way he communicates with me. But I’m facing his death, the loss of his physical presence, and I’m weak in the knees once more.

I am in need of spirit, and I’m still asking myself how to find it, though I know the answer is within, not without. I’ve done enough searching to know I’m not going to find it through a go-to guru – Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and Madonna and her Kabbalah included. Don’t ask me what any of them are talking about – that they’re on TV giving the rest of us their version of spirituality is enough for me not to listen. My big turn-off to New Age “spiritualism” came after reading something or other Louise-Hay which had me walking around “affirming” over and over what I thought I wanted and having a pit in my stomach while I was doing it. Whatever I wanted wasn’t happening, and trying to convince myself that it was, wasn’t working. Then I saw Ms. Hay on a talk show. It took a few minutes of her one-size-fits-all earnestness to realize no one thing works for everyone, but when some one thing works for someone, they sure like to tell the rest of us about it.

I’ve found some sense in Eckhart Tolle’s writing. When I first saw “A New Earth” in my friend Rebecca’s yoga studio, I thought, “Another book about saving the earth? Most of us can’t even save ourselves, never mind the environment.” And while I’d jumped on the green-is-better bandwagon way before it became chic and expensive to do so, I was sick of the moral indignation that made people care more about the air quality than they did each other.

But a few years ago, when my normal depression had spiked into crisis-mode, my friend Melanie told me Eckhart Tolle was a spiritualist, not an environmentalist, so I bought “A New Earth” on CD and drove around listening to it. It made a whole lot of sense. But I didn’t come upon Tolle in a vacuum. For years I searched for some sort of spirituality through AA, A Course in Miracles and Buddhism – to name a few. Then came the years of not searching for anything at all because it was too damn hard to find something when I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for.

But the stopping was just as important as the searching. I wasn’t grasping for something any more. I wasn’t at peace, either. Tolle came into the spiritual silence I’d been in, and what he was saying was an amalgam of all that I’d practiced before, in language I could understand.

Of course, considering him a teacher made it easy to go right back into the unconscious I was trying to wake up from. Yeah, yeah, yeah, live in the now, present moment, the past is gone, life doesn’t end, etc., etc. So I’m sure I’ve already heard Tolle say, “Every story ultimately fails.” But when I heard it the other day, I stopped the CD to think about it. I’ve been thinking about it for days now, and taking what comfort I can from it. Which isn’t much at the moment, but there’s something there that feels like truth, and no matter how hard a truth is, accepting it is better than arguing with it.

That every story fails is hard to hear, but it’s not a negative assertion. Stories “fail” because they involve form, and all forms are temporary,  are disintegrating even as they’re existing. That includes “thought” forms. Meaning, like, say I think of myself as a really important artist and I create all these wonderful paintings that everyone agrees are phenomenal and then one day I wake up blind. My thought of myself as an artist takes a terrible blow – who the hell am I now? My story as important artist ends and I have to make up a new one. Or not make up one at all, and just try to be. Because every time a form dissolves – whether it’s physical or mental – it leaves an opening to God.

And I use “God” to mean whatever it is you might think is divine in life. Whatever you think is more than you are, whatever force you think there is in this world. The Divine needs space and attention, and we can’t give it that if we’re only concerned with accumulating forms that we think will show both us and the world who we are.

But stories can have truth and beauty, and that doesn’t change when the ending does. And what I mean by story is what we tell ourselves about our lives, instead of living them – the stories about the way things are or were or should be, about what any of it means. Like, So-and-So walked right past me yesterday without saying a word – she’s such a shit. Or, So-and-So walked right past me yesterday – I’m such a shit.

Maybe So-and-So didn’t see me. Maybe So-and-So is suffering and preoccupied. Maybe So-and-So really can’t stand me. What does any of that have to do with me?

And ultimately, both So-and-So and I are going to die. Where’s my story then?

There’s nothing “wrong” with form – it’s our attachments that hurt us. We can enjoy the world of form – through it, we can sense the deeper joy and beauty that is as much a part of life as the terrible grief it seems easier to feel. How many times did I wear that dress before I tore it where it can’t be fixed? How many places did that car take me before it was too old and worn to do so any more? How many days, months, years, how many hours did I take joy and pleasure in  Philip before he died?

But it wasn’t enough. Philip is my child. In my story, he goes on to find work he loves and a woman he loves and they have kids and Natalie and her partner have kids and even though I’m alone I’ll always have somewhere to go and maybe I’ll let everyone else cook Christmas dinner while I sit by the tree and play with my grandkids.

But Philip went and died and half my story is gone and I feel like half of me has gone along with it. What he’s left me is that opening to the spiritual, which I can define as simply learning to see things differently. This is where it gets hard. Really hard. Because the stories we tell are to invent a self. That’s why when one of them disappears it can cause a crisis. And while in so many ways I understand this, where the fuck does that leave me with Philip? In essence, the work is no different: How do I live in the face of loss without feeling diminished?

The short answer is, one breath at a time. And while some part of me knows that, some other – bigger – part of me sees that as just words on a page.

© 2014 Denise Smyth


26 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. DragonPack
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 11:21:50

    Just words on a page. I get it. I guess I’m surviving one breath, one minute, one 5K at a time. That doesn’t eliminate the “Why bother?”… the certain knowledge that a significant portion of my story is gone. Perhaps one day it will matter. In the meantime, eh. Much love to you my friend.


    • Denise
      Mar 16, 2014 @ 20:11:56

      And so much love back to you. I think of you often – and if I’ve been silent on your blog, it’s because it’s been so hard to write, to respond. I think the two-year mark hit me, plus the change of seasons, when I prefer winter…I miss Philip. Lately, I’ve been stunned again – did this really happen? Yes, it did. It’s terrible that we’re in this together, much as I’m grateful that since this is the way it is, we are.


      • DragonPack
        Mar 17, 2014 @ 13:59:10

        I so get those moments, days, and weeks of “Did this really happen?” Sometimes I think I’m going out of my mind because I KNOW this happened, but still I wonder if this REALLY happened. Anyway, I get it. Even when you’re silent, I know you’re still there beside me on this journey. I hope you know the same. It’s not much, but it’s something.

    • Denise
      Mar 17, 2014 @ 20:37:01

      No – it is much. It is very much.


  2. anna whiston-donaldson
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 15:47:59

    One breath at a time.Sounds about right for you and for me.


  3. lensgirl53
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 16:28:22

    Denise, I have read your words and now I have to address it because I have the answer you are searching for. God is not just anything that someone devises to give meaning to their life. He is. There is a “higher power” and although it is trendy and secular for just anything goes with no real distinction between truth and myth…my God is the one who gave His only Son to die for my sins. He was born in the flesh to experience life, death, and resurrection. No other religious belief offers what my God offers. He is real in the Heavens, in the flesh, and in the spirit. He is holy and just. There are no other gods like Him. I tell you these things because you don’t have to look too far to find Him. He is right there.

    Sure you can say that Christianity is about judging and being moral..but there is a worldly perception that does not do the real faith justice. There are misunderstandings and false doctrines that are entirely to blame for what the world’s view of God is. Once you learn the character of God and experience his love and message….you will not be able to deny that He is.

    I say all these things because after my loss and through my anger and despair…my God is still the way and my faith is growing in spite of or because of what has happened. Life does go on…Jesus defeated death.There is hope in a God who loves us no matter what. In this season of Lent, I hope you will look no further than the answers in the Bible, or a nearby church that professes and affirms the Christian faith…people you trust who can answer any questions you have concerning God. I “speak” in truth and love to you because I care and know that you are searching. Another suggestion is to go see the movie “Son of God.” It tells the whole life story of Christ Jesus. It has received excellent reviews. I beg of you to do this and let me know what you thought, what your feelings….and know that I am praying for you dear friend. My heart is always grieving with yours. Much love to you always…as we tread this path that is marked out for us. xo


    • Denise
      Mar 16, 2014 @ 20:19:55

      Dale, thank you for your love and caring and for taking the time to write all that. I agree with you about the distortion of God – just saying His name sets off a fire storm. I know there’s something more, I know we’re part of something bigger. Philip is too much in touch with me for me to believe otherwise. Did you ever hear that saying – “we are spiritual beings having a human experience?” It makes me smile.

      I’ve put the movie in my Netflix cue. It’s not out yet – soon as it’s available, I’ll watch it. Love and peace to you, my friend. xoxoxoxoxoxoxo


  4. SusanB
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 18:21:02

    You’re in a raging river, your raft has flipped and your head dips under the white foaming water. It’s hard to breath and the current smashes you against rocks. Keep swimming, even though you’re exhausted.


    • Denise
      Mar 16, 2014 @ 20:22:01

      I have to let the tide carry me. Susan, I am exhausted. I think this two-year mark just knocked me over. Like, it’s really true. Philip isn’t coming home, and I’m feeling overwhelmed and so very hurt.

      Thank you for caring. You’ve no idea how it helps.


  5. behindthemask
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 20:42:39

    One breath at a time with people standing by your side. xo


    • Denise
      Mar 16, 2014 @ 20:23:11

      Love to you Zoe. I’ve been quiet because I’ve been feeling overwhelmed. But I read what you write and I know that you’re there.

      Something about you, Zoe – you are in my heart.


  6. afichereader
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 20:55:22

    Honestly, this is why I had to stay away from Facebook. I’m not being facetious. Everybody is constructing such stories on there. Their children and spouses and even our quirky town are all enlisted to perform and construct an identity. I want to scream, “You can lose this all tomorrow!” There is no story. There’s just this. And here you are in it. You have the gift (curse) of having already let go (by having it wrested from you). What can you do? Breathe.

    You’ve got it. It’s a terrible wisdom.


    • Denise
      Mar 16, 2014 @ 20:28:52

      Sometime around the first Christmas after Philip died, I was out with one of the only people I’d go out with. She took a picture of me and her friends, then posted it on Facebook. My mom (who is truly computer-illiterate) calls to tell me a relative saw it and said I looked “good.” Like, I was doing okay with Philip dead. And it hit me that people make up all sorts of stories. I wasn’t “okay.” I was far from it. But look at a picture, make up a story based on your need.

      “There is no story. There’s just this.” Yes – a terrible wisdom.


      • afichereader
        Mar 16, 2014 @ 21:02:26

        Oh crikey, yes. Those posted photos, as if they capture an entire story rather than a happy moment with friends. All of this “capturing” these moments and sharing these “moments.”

        And, yeah, people want you to be okay and they recite that story. That’s exhausting.

  7. jmgoyder
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 00:59:05

    You have really got me thinking on this one – thank you for your wisdom and your courage and your breath.


  8. Denise
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 20:32:46

    And thank you, for helping me breathe. Your humor (on your blog) lifts my spirits. I’m reading, even though I’ve been silent. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed again, Julie; it’s even been hard to write. I’m so lonely for Philip, yet I feel him around. But he isn’t coming home and I’m feeling so very broken again.

    Thanks for being around. xoxoxoxo


  9. Denise Hisey
    Mar 17, 2014 @ 11:06:59

    Oh Denise…my heart just aches for you.

    I was trying to think of a way to tell you something without sounding “Christian-y/ preach-y” and I read lensgirl53’s comment. She has a wonderful way with words.

    The last thing I ever want to be one of those you described “Worked for me, so of course it will work for you cuz I’ve got it all figured out” types.

    But, I wanted to add to lensgirl53’s comment that the comfort I’ve found in Christ has truly been the most real and healing. When I realized that when I finally answered the Who Am I question with I Am His, the healing, relief, and letting go could really begin to move.

    That’s not to say pain is erased, but the intensity fades to a level we can live with. The raw, oozing wound begins to scab then heal. We are left with a scar, but we can heal.

    I encourage you to consider this: the love you feel for Philip is only a fraction of the love Christ has for you.


    • Denise
      Mar 17, 2014 @ 20:35:25

      You are making me cry; that last line is a knockout.

      I look to other people for comfort, to see how they deal with what they’ve suffered. What I meant – and I think you know this – is that preachy, crowd-gathering thing, and the language that goes with it. You are talking to me as a person who cares – that’s such a different thing.

      It’s almost like I can sense how you feel, but I can’t seem to get there, if that’s the way to say it. I’m just too grieved and in that way, I feel terribly alone. That’s where I am now and I have to work through it. As I keep saying, one breath at a time. It’s stunned me again that Philip’s dead, much as I feel him all around.

      Thank you. You’ve given something to think about.


      • Denise Hisey
        Mar 18, 2014 @ 22:17:44

        Denise, yes I do think I get what you’re saying. And maybe it’s okay to still feel stunned about Philip being dead. It has to be the most shocking thing a mom can take in. That goes against every fiber of our bodies, that our children would die before us.
        The fact that you put one foot in front of the other every day is testament that you are moving forward. Maybe two forward and one back sometimes, but you are doing it. Keep hanging on for your daughter, and for you too.

  10. Anne Whitaker
    Mar 18, 2014 @ 07:50:48

    Hi Denise
    I have read your two recent posts, including the one which contains this quote and which you reblogged and shared:

    .”…In her memoir, Lucky, Alice Sebold said, “No one can pull anyone back from anywhere. You save yourself or you remain unsaved.”….”

    It is hard to know how to respond to you: not because I don’t want to, but because I really want to say something which is at least a little helpful, and not fatuous, trite – or too easy. I have not gone through the agony of losing a child. But in 2001 I lost my health, energy, and a successful career as a consequence of a prolonged family crisis involving a young person which came just at the outset of menopause. It took me seven years fully to recover my energy, and ten years to return to part-time work again. So I know what it is like to be struggling to save myself, for a long, long time when I never knew if I’d ever recover or return to the person I once was.

    I did – and I have. What saved me? Loving support; faith – where help came from sources I had never until then believed existed; reading and writing – the only two things I could actually DO, so I kept on doing them all the way through! And – sheer bloody minded determination that I hadn’t travelled this far, gone through the things I had in my life, in order to give up – no matter how awful I sometimes felt.

    I think despite all the help we may have, Sebold is right. At core, in crisis we are wrestling in the depths with our own soul to save ourselves. Just keep going, Denise. Do what you can, and just keep going….


    • Denise
      Mar 25, 2014 @ 04:50:50

      I agree with you – Sebold is right. Life’s always been emotionally difficult for me. And I used to think that there was nothing “wrong” with my circumstances. No ill health, no tragedies; just deep depression and an inability to understand what what so hard for me. And I’ve written about that in the year before Philip died, I was beginning to make peace with being alive. Then he died, and talk about tragedy. I’ve never known more that it’s up to me to save myself – people care and it matters. But there’s a place in me that I’ve discovered through his death, and no one can touch it. It’s mine, and right now, it’s full of a sorrow that often feels unbearable. And if sorrow’s the other side of joy, or peace, I suppose if I ever feel it, I’ll know no one can touch that, either.

      Thank you, as always, for your kind and thoughtful comment.


  11. Susan
    Mar 24, 2014 @ 21:56:31

    It doesn’t get easier. I feel like it’s getting worse for me. I still don’t believe it, and yes I ask why? Why him? Why me? I can’t sleep, I cry myself to sleep. I can’t breath! It hurts too much.
    And just because time passes it hurts no less. I miss him so much just as much as you miss Philip. I wish I can touch him one more time, strike his hair on more time, one more time…I didn’t get to tell him goodbye.
    Grieve as long as you want,


  12. Denise
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 04:55:03

    Thing about time is it the more it goes on, the more you realize they’re gone. Sometimes it leaves me speechless. Like Harlan Ellison’s, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” I can’t think of a better way to say it.


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