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


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. lensgirl53
    Jul 28, 2014 @ 23:42:15

    Death is the changer of perspective. We learn a painful lot!

    Hugs wrapping around you, friend.


    • Denise
      Aug 01, 2014 @ 20:19:28

      Dale, I was just reading backwards on your blog and I realized I missed Brandon’s birthday. I’m so sorry – for all of it. Hugs and blessings to you, dear friend. I wish I’d sent this on his day.

      Yes, death changes us. It’s a stunning thing to face. It’s inevitable, yet it’s like a dream. Living is a dream – I think as we die, that’s what it seems like. I can die – anyone can die – in a second. We know this. So how to live in the face of that? We are, aren’t we? I don’t know, Dale. Sometimes I’m just confused and angry. And helpless, you know? We have to live with this and I’m having a tantrum at the moment.


      • lensgirl53
        Aug 02, 2014 @ 06:39:01

        It is okay, Denise, your hug was meant for today. It sustains me to know you care. I wish we could have “met” for other reasons…but here we are. I know the tantrums you talk about, I have them myself. xoxoxo

  2. Denise Hisey
    Jul 30, 2014 @ 23:31:08

    Denise, your deep and intriguing thoughts always touch my heart. I admire that you share when you are struggling, right in the moment. You are brave and strong. So strong.


    • Denise
      Aug 01, 2014 @ 20:22:18

      I sure don’t feel strong. I wish I knew what you were seeing. I think what most helps me deal with this is writing. I don’t know how people who suffer stand it without some way to talk about it. What we suffer doesn’t “go away.”

      I think you’re the strong one – you’ve a happy spirit. I feel so gloomy – and there you are, a light along the way. xoxoxo


      • Denise Hisey
        Aug 04, 2014 @ 21:02:45

        When I was in the darkest, gloomiest places I didn’t feel strong either. I thought I would break, or fall apart, for sure. But my therapist told me feeling the feelings is being strong. If we weren’t strong, we couldn’t feel our feelings.
        I haven’t always been a ‘happy spirit’. I definitely had several years when I didn’t think I’d ever see light again.

        It is a great joy to think you think I’m a light. One of my ambitions is to help others through their dark times by sharing my story.

        You, my friend, are strong to me because you are sharing your struggles in the midst of them. I was not able to do that. I admire that of you very much. You are more of a light to others than you realize. Perhaps one day, in hindsight, you will see how you’ve blazed a trail of your own. xxoo

  3. kind reader
    Jul 31, 2014 @ 22:09:05

    I hear you. What does matter? Why are we doing anything? I think Philip’s right. Why make everything into “something”? It isn’t. Nothing is.


    • Denise
      Aug 01, 2014 @ 20:24:07

      You sound so Zen – and therefore, soothing. Don’t make it into something. Just breathe and let it be. Which means trying to shut my mind up. You know…you’ve just made me think I should meditate. Just a few minutes a day, try to quiet down.

      Thank you.


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