What Matters?

Brookdale Park July 2014

Brookdale Park

“Nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind. Everything valuable has to enter you through a different opening.”
Woody Allen in “Manhattan”

Friday night I went to the dog park in Brookdale Park, a couple minutes drive from my apartment. Since it’s a couple minutes I could walk it, except the last time I did, I thought Zoe was going to burst a valve with the way she was panting. Both she and Pippin are shih-tzus – with their pushed-in faces, they don’t breathe so well when it’s warm. But I happened to meet someone I knew who gave us a ride home, which is, in itself, an entirely different post.

Brookdale Park is large and lovely, with fields and winding paths lined with trees. There’s an order to it, which my mind finds soothing – but there’s something else in me that’s restless for the mystery and terror of a wild, tangled forest. It’s hard to find a place in the park that isn’t there by design. But I found an elvish clearing with trees that stood apart from each other, their graceful tops meeting to form a lacy canopy. Watching from the path, in light that had just faded from late afternoon to early evening, I saw a fairy circle in the middle of the clearing. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a sprite flit by.

During summer, the park sometimes has Friday evening concerts. They’re held on the field where Philip used to play soccer. The field’s lost its power to overwhelm. Sometimes I visit a place full of Philip until I wring out every last drop of him. I’m grieved enough without physical reminders whacking me back to a time that can’t be. So it wasn’t the fact of the field that pissed me off about the concert that was being held there – it was the intrusion of crowds and happy music. Collective pleasure’s always been hard to abide, and never more since Philip died. But Friday night was irresistible Motown Night, so I wandered over in spite of myself and sat on the rough and itchy grass to listen.

People come to these shows to enjoy themselves. When Philip and Natalie were little, I sometimes did the same. A couple of chairs and a blanket, a warm night, my kids wandering around with everyone else’s kids. And me wondering why the hell I didn’t feel like I belonged, what it was I needed to feel the carefree ease I believed everyone else was feeling. They sat with their friends and kids and food and coolers full of whatever (supposedly non-alcoholic) thing they were drinking. That was the club I was supposed to join when we moved to Montclair, when I left the sprawling, intellectually vacuous part of Brooklyn I lived in. Montclair was supposed to be the place. The one where I’d raise my kids and meet the friends I’d have for life. But wherever I went, there I was – and it wasn’t the place that isolated me, it was the way I thought about it.

You’d think I would have felt worse on Friday, me being alone with my dogs, no one I knew in sight, sitting with memories of past summers and soccer games – but it wasn’t like that. Sure I felt separate, alone in ways I couldn’t have known before Philip died. What felt different had to do with judgment. We are all, each of us, judging everything, all the time. It’s what we do – and maybe one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves and each other is step back from those judgments and understand they are intensely personal, and therefore, not entirely true. I can’t say I wasn’t “judging” as much as I wasn’t minding whatever I was seeing. Particularly about myself – I might’ve been alone, but at least I didn’t feel freakish.

It’s not like I’ve come to some great acceptance. I’m just talking about Friday night. I’m talking about the glitter on the performers’ lapels, the dancing, the lone food tent with zeppoles and sausage-and-pepper heroes, the people who stopped to talk to me about my dogs, my gladiator sandals that drew surreptitious glances, the woman next to me who looked really neat with her flares and flannel shirt and her blanket stitched with moons and stars. It was clear her oh-so-casual “look” was deliberately chosen, like the careful way I choose whatever I’m wearing, even if it’s jeans and tees. And that’s very different from the way other people’s clothes seemed to have carelessly chosen them. But what’s it matter? What’s it matter what any of us wore or what our hair looked like or how old we were? I’d like to say I thought it didn’t matter because I realized it’s our relationships that matter, and that sounds like a deep and lofty thing to think. But what did I know of the relationships between the hundreds of people in their separate groups around their separate blankets with their separate dramas? In the end, is that the thing that really matters?

Friday night I was super-aware that we were all going to die and in the face of that, I wanted to understand what was real in the moment-to-moment shifting of my perception. If my heart seized and I realized death had me by the hand, whatever it was that mattered wasn’t going to have a damn thing to do with gladiator sandals or moon blankets. What was it, then? I watched and listened and sang and smiled, but I could not see what mattered. Maybe I couldn’t see it because was right in front of me, the way my nose was right in front of me and I couldn’t see that, either. But there was a bitty opening and some sort of knowing tried to make its way in. Stay with it Mom, Philip said; don’t make it into something. But I tried to grasp it with words and it slipped away.

There are things I can’t yet put words on. I might never have the deep attention and humility it would take to do so. And there are things I cannot put words on because if I do, I’ll move from possibility to ideas. Ideas return me to my mind, where I’m not going to find what I’m looking for – because when it comes to ideas, there isn’t a single one I’m going to take with me when I die.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

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Depth and Breadth

“Not everyone will understand your journey. That’s fine. It’s not their journey to make sense of. It’s yours.”

I don’t know who wrote that  – it’s the way Dee over at MourningAmyMarie started her last post. I commented on it, and when I started going on and on I cut it short because I realized I wasn’t commenting, I was posting. So thank you, Dee, because while I’ve got several posts started, this is the one I didn’t know I needed to write.

One of the things Dee wrote about was “The chirpy, self promoting, thoughtless stuff that gets posted” on Facebook. Facebook is a phenomenon I don’t pretend to understand. I have a Facebook page, and I’ve come to see its value. People from my past have gotten in touch with me through it, and they’re people I’ve been happy to hear from. And ironically enough, in the middle of writing this, someone from my JHS found me and wrote, “so many people have been looking for you.” I am too stunned by the thought that anyone remembers me – much less is looking for me – to say anything more at the moment.

Since my blog is connected to Facebook, it’s a way of letting people know when I’ve posted. I don’t use it to stay in touch otherwise – I’d rather email. But the way I am about Facebook is a reflection of the way I am in life, as it is for all of us. There are people who update others with pictures of where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing, and their friends do the same. If they weren’t doing it on Facebook, they’d be doing it some other way. It’s a broad and ongoing conversation, and it’s no mystery to me what’s bothered me about it. It’s another something everyone’s involved in that I don’t  much want to be a part of. Yet sometimes it feels like a rejection rather than a choice.

Of course, there’s a nasty, voyeuristic side to Facebook. People say awful things about each other and to each other and are glad to have an audience to play to. People will follow up on others who’ve hurt them and become outraged to see them doing well – in effect, allowing those people to hurt them more. A Facebook picture might paint a thousand words, but we are the artist. We decide what kind of lives the people in those pictures are living based on what itch we need to scratch, and we scratch and scratch and wonder why the damn scab won’t go away.

As I wrote to Dee, Facebook exposes the ugly underbelly of our collective condition. It’s not that we’re any worse than we ever were, it’s that now it’s in full view. I’ve heard about things posted on Facebook and wondered what made someone – in such a traumatic moment – even think to snap a picture? One of the worst I’d heard about was someone taking a picture of her dead child and posting it…and I’m sure that that’s not only true, but that it’s been done more than once. Is there anything we can imagine that’s not been photographed and made public? So maybe we are worse, because now we have a platform for all of it and we’re in a hurry to be the one who gets there first.

Blogging is another sort of conversation; more depth than breadth, and one I’m more comfortable with. I’m not going to understand the need to post pictures and updates any more than others might not understand my need to write a blog so intensely personal. We each have our way of wanting to be visible.

I write my blog because I’m still stunned and grasping for words to wrap around Philip’s death. It’s the only thing I know to do. There isn’t anything worse than losing a child. Take my arms, my legs, my sight, my life – not my child. But here I am. And whatever hurt before about “the world” only hurts more. I’ve said I can’t change the world, I can only change my mind about the world. I can think people cruel, stupid, vicious, angry, even evil – but what it comes down to is we’re unconscious. All of us – and either we’re trying to wake up or not. When we’re unconscious we’re driven by wanting and needing, without asking what it’s for. And it’s not either/or – waking up is a process. Jesus and Buddha were there. The rest of us have to do the work.

Which is what Philip’s asking me to do. It’s what his death is for – so I try to tune out “the world” and deal with what’s going on with me, in light of his death. I’ve talked many times about what I heard Philip say the moment I found out he was dead: “Mom, you gotta go deeper.”

When Philip first died, Phil said he wanted to carry his spirit into the world. What’s that even mean, I thought? That sounded like a plan. It was hard enough to breathe, never mind decide what my life was going to be. And I wanted no part of any plan because plans involved future, and I was determined there wouldn’t be one for me, not without Philip. But here I am, writing this blog. When I started it, I said part of the reason was to carry Philip’s spirit into the world. I don’t believe that. I don’t even like the phrase. When I wrote that I was trying to justify why I needed so badly to write all this. It was easier to say I wanted to carry Philip’s spirit into the world than to say I needed you to read what I’m writing.

And I’m not saying I’m not keeping Philip’s spirit alive, but it’s more of a by-product than a goal, which makes it no less valuable. I’m writing for me, and if you get a sense of who Philip is through what I say, it’s because he is my muse and he’s helping me get to the truth that I’m trying so hard to recognize.

I don’t consider this blog a legacy for Philip, or for me. Much as it hurts to know Philip will live on for no one else the way he lives on with me, that’s not going to matter to me when I die. It’s now that I need to make matter, because now is where my experience is. I’m not concerned about being remembered after my death, because the only thing that’s going to matter when I die is what’s essential. And I don’t know what that is, but I bet it’s not the boxes of photos in my attic or the binders full of my writing. I know Natalie will always remember me. People who love me will remember me the way people who love Philip will remember him. Then one day they won’t because we’ll have faded into time. That’s the truth of life going on. However long I am or am not remembered after I die changes nothing.

There was an evening last week where gray, saturated clouds crowded the sky and trees danced frantically in a whirring wind. I took my dogs for a walk because if a storm was coming, I wanted to be part of it. When I reached the corner, I stopped and looked up. Philip, where are you? I asked. I’m right here, mom, he answered, like he always does. Do the clouds have something to say to me? Just watch, he said. So I watched for a while, watched one tiny puff of white cloud holding its own among the gray, and there it was again – Light vs. Dark, the unending story. And he wanted me to think about that vast, unknowable space that we can’t live without. There would be nothing if there was no space because where could anything be? But what’s it mean, I asked him? What is this? Think about it mom, he said. Just keep thinking.

Next day I saw my neighbor, a woman I haven’t spoken to often, but who’s easy to approach and quick to ask how you are. Our dogs sniffed around while we talked about the garden apartments we live in, and I was surprised to hear her say she wanted to move, that there were things about the place that were troubling her. I’d like to move back to Montclair, I told her. But here I am for now, so I try to make my apartment what I want it to be, because that’s what matters most about this place. She looked at me a moment. “You know, I saw you the other day,” she said. “I was outside, and I was really cranky about all this. You were standing across the street, looking at the sky. You looked so peaceful, so full of serenity. I watched you a while, then I went inside. And I felt better.”

I’d say that’s one hell of a by-product.

© 2014 Denise Smyth

Joie de Vivre?

I was questioning “who I am” and “what’s my nature” in my last. But look at the language – who’s the I that wants to know, and who is it she thinks she needs to know? Am I one, or am I two? More likely I’m four or eight or 73 because what what I think and what I feel seems to shift so often. So is THAT who I am, the sum of what I think and feel?

I don’t fucking know. When I’m focused, like when I’m writing, or when I’m at work, I don’t sit around pondering. I’m just doing what I’m doing. And when grief and sorrow grip me by the throat, I choke. When they loosen, I breathe easier. And the moments are as they are.

But then I’m home and gone’s the distraction between me Philip’s death, me and Natalie’s moving, me and what-all I think is wrong with me. I can’t figure out something I’m needing to know – how to live with all that’s wrong, because of course there’s something wrong. Living means suffering. Not every moment; there is nothing that’s every moment. Except if we back it up and look around at the wide world then yes, someone is suffering every moment, suffering in ways we couldn’t pretend to understand. If I take that, add to it the way life’s felt to me since I can long remember, then mix Philip’s death into it all, I find myself asking, what the fuck? Why the insistence that it’s better to be, or to have been? Sure, I can personalize it – better for me that Philip was, that Natalie is. But better for me to be? Why? And before anyone’s too appalled to keep reading, why is even asking the question enough to create revulsion and a surety that the asker is too far south of sane to be acknowledged as anything other than in deep need of help? Understand I’m not asking why it’s better to live than to commit suicide. Suicide’s not part of this equation. What I’m asking is why is it assumed that it’s better to have been than to have never been? And why, since we know we’re going to die (do we? really?) do we spend no time pondering what that means and instead equate success with how many more years medical advances give us to live? Staving off the inevitable doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

And if we went so far as to end natural death – which seems to be the goal – what would we be left with? A planet that couldn’t sustain all of us, run by a powerful elite who’d do the choosing that life/god/nature used to do for us. If you think life’s not fair now, spend a few minutes contemplating that scenario.

This is not the post I meant to write. I started to write about the way I judge myself by the amount of friends I don’t have and the lack of  traveling and other experiences which I should, by my age, have had. At 56, I should have a better life resume. It’s an old trope, one that’s gotten worse since I put myself on Match. Match is a compilation of people advertising themselves. I’ve spent some time reading through profiles, and it’s exhausting. Who’s sailed the world, climbed mountains, eaten exotic food, taught yoga in the Andes, completed multiple triathlons (all at the same time!), while running one of the largest corporations in the world – does anyone out there breathe? Are these the things that matter – who’s done the most and with who and how many ?

That’s when I start with, “What the hell do I have to offer anyone?” This is Match.com, for Chrissake. I’m supposed to “match” the joie de vivre of every other profile, of everyone who’s just lovin’ life and wantin’ more and wantin’ some special someone to do their wantin’ with. I am not that girl. Who’d want someone who hasn’t accumulated the totally awesome experiences that everyone else my age seems to have accumulated? Reading the profiles on Match, I’m sure there’s a big fucking party going  on somewhere that I most definitely have not been invited to.

Understand this is not a Match.com thing. Match only brought it to the surface. These are some of the things I’ve suffered about for years, these are things I can’t seem to figure out. Am I supposed to change, to be gregarious and extroverted? Like that’s better than what’s so? Is any of this my nature? Do I accept, do I resist? My life is what it is. Am I seriously going to decide what I’m worth based on how many times I’ve gotten on an airplane?

Here are the facts:

I don’t have a large group of friends. I have several close friends, none who know each other. The only group I have any connection with is my writing group – and while I know it’d be good for me to get back there, I’ve gone exactly twice since Philip died. I haven’t traveled a lot. I’ve been to Italy once, I’ve been to parts of the U.S. I don’t climb mountains or jump out of airplanes. I don’t play sports, I don’t exercise regularly. I do NOT follow politics. I’d rather read in my living room than on the beach, and I’d rather write more than anything. The rest of it is story, and since I’ve yet to meet a happy ending that felt real, you can bet your ass you won’t find one here, either.

How’s that sound for a profile??

Then there’s this. I know a couple – let’s call them X and Y – who have a lot of money and who are very socially active. And I love ‘em – they’re not pretentious, nor are they boring. They’re two really good people with lives utterly different from mine. More normal, I think – and I don’t mean because I’ve lost a child and they haven’t. They just seem mostly happy, have lots of friends, have careers, have combined and separate interests and they really like each other.

So this weekend, Fourth of July. They were going to the beach, they were having a houseful of people. I mean, it’s a holiday – isn’t that what people do? Me – I woke up Friday relieved to have a whole day of nothing to do so I could putter around my apartment. Yesterday I managed to get myself out for a couple hours in the morning to sit with some friends at a table in the local Farmer’s Market. Then I spent two and a half hours with my grief counselor. Today I was supposed to have dinner with Kirsten, who’s now sick. No worries. I’ve been in all day and now I’ll be in through the night. And I can’t figure out why I feel like something’s wrong with me because I’m not with a houseful of people when that’s the exact last thing I’d want to be doing anyway.

I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating. Decades ago, when I was in my 20s, I’d gone to meet my friend Gerard on St. Mark’s Place, in the health food store where he worked. He introduced me to a friend of his, and we chatted for a few minutes while waiting for Gerard to close up. After we spoke – and we weren’t speaking in any particular depth – she told me this was going to be a life of spiritual awakening for me. I was thrilled. I imagined that meant some great path to peace was going to make itself known to me and when it did, well…finally, I’d be happy, I’d walk through this world in a different way.

So time has come, and yes – I do walk through the world in a different way. The big secret is it’s not about being happy. It’s about facing death. And far worse than facing my own, is facing Philip’s. This is what I lose sight of when I’m wondering about all the parties that I’m not invited to, or why I don’t want to hang out at the beach, or what’s the exact number of friends I have or what the word “friend” really means. Truth is I have the same distaste as Phillip Lopate for what he calls, “…the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live…the stylization of this private condition into a bullying social ritual.”

I’m getting damn sick of my own song. Maybe instead of questioning my worth based on my age and the amount of things I’ve not done, I’ll question what I could possibly want from someone at any age who still thinks those are things that matter.

© 2014 Denise Smyth