Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Celebrating The Day of the Dead

On Wednesday I’ll celebrate Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.  It’s not a holiday I grew up with but one I’ve borrowed from the Southwest and Mexico. And it’s become one of my favorite holidays –in part because it’s a good spiritual counterpart to Halloween. Except for the candy, October 31st doesn’t leave much for grownups.

Being scared of goblins and ghoulies lost its sway when I got old enough to lose people that I loved. The dead just aren’t scary in the same way anymore. In fact, I’d welcome a visit from many of them.  

That’s what Day of the Dead is about. There is a belief that on this day the veil separating this world and the next is thinner and so it’s a time we can be closer to those that we love
who are dead.

Day of the Dead celebration centers on rituals for remembering loved ones. We can visit them in our imagination or feel their presence. It can mean prayer or conversation, writing a letter or looking at old photos. The tradition that I use includes making an ofrenda, or altar, something as simple as putting photos and candles on the coffee table and taking time to talk about these loved ones and remember them. We also have spicy hot chocolate as a symbol of the sweet and bitter separation from those we love. 

A ritual is a way of ordering life. Whether Purim or Advent, hearing Mass or saying Kaddish, small ceremonies help us sort and reframe our memories. When someone dies the relationship doesn’t stop, it’s renegotiated, literally re-conceived. 

No, this isn’t a very American idea. Culturally our preferences are for efficiency and effectiveness; even with grief we use words like closure and process. 

I remember my frustration when I was grieving the loss of my brothers and sisters and my truly well-intentioned friends would suggest I move along in my process and they quoted (actually, misquoted) Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The simplified version of her theory lists stages: Denial--Bargaining--Anger--Depression, and Acceptance.

But it’s false to create that expectation of five discrete steps. That listing implies order, and that a person can move from point A to point B and be done. That makes grief into an emotional Monopoly game where you go around the board, collect points and get to a distinct and certain end.  This false notion of linearity is apparent when we hear people judge someone who is grieving, “Oh, she missed the anger stage”, or “He hasn’t reached acceptance yet.” 

I always thought that “losing a loved one” was a euphemism used by people who were afraid to say the words dead or died, but after losing my brother Larry I know that lost is the perfect word to describe that feeling of something just out of reach, still here, but also gone. 

Though he died years ago my feeling about my brother is that I have misplaced him; I have that sensation of knowing that my book or that letter I was just reading, are around here somewhere…if I could just remember where I left him.  

I think this is why we can be so hard on the grieving, and why we want them to go through those stages and be done with it. We love closure and things that are sealed and settled. But death and grief, for all their seeming finality, are not as final as we would like. 

So on November 1st, I’ll make cocoa and light candles; we’ll take family pictures into the living room and tell stories. And we’ll laugh. 

The root of the word grieve is heavy. We carry our dead as a cherished burden.

Death may end a life but not a relationship. Who would want to close the door on that?

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

When Love Helps Us To Change

So many gifts from the book, “The Mermaid’s Chair” by Sue Monk Kidd. I read that book ages ago—sitting on a Cape Cod beach, contemplating a relationship that felt like it was  
tearing me apart.

I had gone to that beach to pray and surrender, “What is this relationship about?” and “Why now?”.

I had loved Kidd’s earlier novels and I thought, “OK, …good beach book.” Such prophetic words.

In the novel, a woman –an artist-writer--falls in love with a monk. Not convenient, not smart, not without agony. I related to that immediately. So much for distraction from my own state of affairs.

But then this, “When a person is in need of a cataclysmic change—a whole new center in the personality—his or her psychic world will produce an infatuation—an erotic attachment—an intense ‘falling in love’. Falling in love is the oldest, most ruthless catalyst on earth.”

And then this, “We fall in love with something we are missing or seeking in ourselves.”


And then I knew where to dig.  And why this thing was happening.

With whom have you fallen in love? Does it seem to “make no sense”? Is something being reorganized in you? Does the object of your attachment—that so desirable other—have something you are missing or seeking in yourself?

More on love and relationships in "Out of the Woods--A Woman's Guide to Long-term Recovery" published by Central Recovery Press.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Comfort Food Diaries

I get caught on this hook over and over. Maybe you do too…or maybe you are a faster learner. But when I see women who are beautiful or smart or super successful, or who have a certain upper-middle class polished look and a lot of poise, I start to think...Well, …it’s actually what I don’t think:

I don’t think: “I wonder if she has ever been arrested?” or “I wonder if she drinks herself into oblivion every night?” Or “I wonder if her biggest secret is an alcohol-infused eating disorder punctuated by depression, anxiety or sex addiction?”

No, rather, I am more likely to think (yes even after 33 years of recovery) “Oh, look at her nice (hair, job, house, resume, poise) I’ll never be like that.” Yep—I am still judging the
books by the covers and comparing my insides to your outsides. Still. (Diane, stop already.)

But then I do stop cold when I pick up this new book, “The Comfort Food Diaries” by Emily Nunn. I look at the back flap first: Lots of good looks and poise and polish, and a writer-envy resume: A decade at The New Yorker, her own column, features reporter for the Chicago Tribune. And she’s writing about grief—the subtitle is “My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart.”

And then I start to read, and my book-cover judgment falls away. Emily Nunn has been everywhere you’d expect from a successful well-educated journalist, and then some. Turns out that she’s been to hell and back, and to Betty Ford in-between. She’s been an alcoholic, relationship crazy, clinically depressed, heartbreakingly devastated by her brother’s death and then loss of her fiancĂ© and that meant that he also took his young daughter who was so important to Emily. 

Envy gone, jealousy vanished. Sisterhood in full force.

It’s a great book and a surprising story. And one of the cool things is that she includes recipes. Emily can cook and she cooked her way thru addiction and cooked her way out—and she cooked her way around the country—depending on the kindness of loved ones and friends who cared for her while she cried and cooked and healed. 

This is a travel book and a food history and a story of one woman’s heartbreaking breakdown and her (literally) recipe for putting a life back together. And yes, the writing is kick-ass good because, she was, after all, a writer for the New Yorker, and that’s not nothing.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Be Kind

"Ultimately, we are all just walking each other home."

                                                                             --Ram Das