Untended marker


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My heart is heavy with ache sometimes in the summer, when memories of my maternal grandmother are as sharp as the juicy wild berries we picked from the overgrown lots near her home.

Summer memories are a mix of sweaty neon-colored metal cups filled with root beer floats; the hum of the oscillating fan perched atop her ice box; the creaking wooden swing in her yard that made our stomachs flutter; and the bulbous concord grapes dangling from the vine on the back fence.

The deep-purple bulbs fooled us into tasting them every time and then, repulsed by the thick skin and hidden seeds, we leaned over the wooden fence and spat skin and guts into the alley before she caught us. At a certain point in the season we moved into her cool basement, where there was a chalkboard on the wall and an extensive comic book collection to keep us away from the boiling pots on the gas stove. It was canning time, when grandma magically transformed those foul grapes into sweet preserves.

Tradition is the only explanation for the basement kitchen, a standard feature in my Polish/Italian neighborhood. Although my house did not have one, the hub of many a friend’s home was the basement kitchen, often ruled by a wooden-spoon wielding matriarch who spoke little English, stood about five feet tall, and was universally feared. My grandmother was one of those diminutive matriarchs guided by family tradition.

Although grandma probably never heard of the Confucian practice of filial piety, she devoted herself to ancestor worship. She lighted votive candles in church to pray for the sick and the dead, created alters in her home for the departed, dedicated Masses on death anniversaries, and much like the canning process, once a summer we accompanied her to the cemetery to tend to the family plot.

Edged in wrought iron fencing and shrouded by a forest of mature trees, the cemetery’s clipped green lawns and upright tombstones are an anomaly to the urban ruins outside its gates. On those summer mornings, before the full heat unleashed its wrath upon the concrete and brick landscape, my grandma coaxed us into her air-conditioned Chevrolet jammed with flowers, gardening tools, and a tin of cookies and card games to keep us occupied. She navigated those winding cemetery roads that rolled past rows of tombstones and mausoleums until we reached the right spot on the hill. There, grandma spread out an old towel, kneeled, and whispered several rounds of prayer before she began gardening. I waited, swatting flies and squinting against the sun, staring up at the spaces between the branches, where blue poked through dappled green, and wondered what it was like to be under the ground, inside a box.

We talked about the people under the stones, their lives, how they died, and how we all were part of a long, interconnected network.  This is where I first learned of the concept of a “half sister.” No matter how many times grandma explained the same mother, different father thing to me, I envisioned a girl sliced own the center, her bones, muscle tissue and guts exposed. That was no kind of sister I ever wanted.

Seventeen years ago this week, my father’s funeral procession followed the curves of those same roads, past the hill where my grandmother tended to her family plot, and stopped near a massive elm so tall it poked at the clouds. It occurred to me that every stone in this place was the bookmark to a story. I fingered the anti-anxiety pills wrapped in tissue that grandma handed me at the hospital a few days earlier. “It’ll help you sleep,” she whispered. I kept them in my pocket, the inner stoic smirking at my ability to rise above pharmaceuticals. I thought about taking them during one of these long days between death and burial. Would I fall asleep and remember everything?

I stared up at that big tree over the open grave, tilting toward the heavens, bearing silent witness to an endless parade of sorrow, and remembered all those summer afternoons swatting flies while grandma planted petunias and hummed to herself.

Following the graveside service, I turned my back on that tree and the hole beneath it. I got in my car and drove away. In 17 years, I’ve never been back. I think of my grandmother and her traditions. She rests under that hill, almost seven years gone.

I’d always followed the philosophy that our legacies are in our progeny, and the things we owned and created and sometimes neglected. My father doesn’t live under that plot in the cemetery, he lives in the starry night sky he watched with interest, along the river beds where he fished, in the travel journals he kept for decades, and the silly cartoon drawings that revealed his political leanings.

I stay away with the excuse that the cemetery is in one of Detroit’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Even with an armed escort, do I want to come upon that untended marker? Would the weeds and dust trigger guilt and a sadness I’ve tucked away for 17 years? Would I feel nothing?   Would I search for pills like those rolled in the tissue paper that I ultimately threw way? Would I wonder why tradition means so little to me?

 

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string of beads

A string of beads has a thread running through all the beads, keeping them together. What we need is a thread too—of sanity and stability. Because when you have a thread, even though each bead is separate, they hang together. When we have the teachings in us, stabilizing us, there’s a thread to keep our life together that prevents us from falling apart.

The thing is, either it’s clear and I write about it, or it is not clear and I write about it anyway. Sometimes I slip into a space so uncertain I cannot articulate what I’m experiencing. It’s as if I’ve pushed a mute button.

The past few months have been a blur of work, party planning, various other need-it-yesterday obligations, extreme heat and humidity, broken plans, insomnia, extreme exercise, and some really big steps outside my comfort zone. These beads of my life rattled and bounced on a string that stretched ever tighter. In the past week the frayed string snapped. That I didn’t totally fall to pieces is a testament to my faith and spiritual practice.

Sure, I hurt inside. When I don’t hurt I feel utter emptiness. I catch myself wrapping myself in false dressings, then embarrassed at the attempts, rip them away and start anew.

“You are going through a major energy shift,” I’m told by one who sees and feels things. Energy shifts feel like rides at amusement parks. Sudden rapid acceleration followed by jerking turns and clunky stops. Then the waiting, the interminable waiting. This seems unexpected considering all the accomplishments of late: I’ve had freelance work almost all summer. I trained for a 5K obstacle race and completed it. I’ve taken on some long and challenging bike rides. I helped plan and execute Girl from the West’s graduation party. I kept up with all my volunteer obligations and met all deadlines. I made a number of new friends. Shouldn’t I be elated?

Inside I’m shredded by terrible anxiety and an almost unyielding drive to take on something even more difficult (like a 12-mile obstacle race). All year I’ve pushed myself into situations (hello, class reunion) and people (those who will challenge me, who doubt my ability and I feel I must prove them wrong) who I’d otherwise avoid like a mosquito-infested swamp.

Something in me tired of being sequestered in an empty office, of interacting with the world almost exclusively by computer. I joined more groups, said yes to every invitation, and now? I cannot stand to be alone. I’ve nearly abandoned most of my social media accounts, remaining loyal only to this blog and Facebook.

I think about how on the physical level, with running and boot camp training and bike riding long miles I endured the physical pain of sore muscles for the goal of getting stronger.  I thought it would be the same on an emotional level. The thing is, even inflamed tissue responds to ice and anti-inflammatory pills. How do you build emotional strength? When you bear through the discomfort of situations you want to avoid. When you march through the pain of doing the right thing, even if it feels terrible. Nothing but time, self-discipline, and patience can heal emotional pain.

I’ve been told I live life with so much intensity. That such a quality either grabs people or turns them away. I’m drawn to and attract others who do the same, which almost always leads to trouble of some kind or other. A friend told me she’s disappointed in me because I continue to deny who I am to please others and in the process I end up hurting people because they view me as a game-player. I do not see myself that way. But, for the first time I think I understand how that could be the way I seem to others. In the process of this growth I lost that new friend, someone who could have been a nice addition to my life, but my inner battle to be who I am against who others think I should be, sent me running, hands over head as if bombs were bursting overhead, into my hidey hole. Is there anything worse than being accused of something you cannot even understand or see that you have done?

I’ve had some great, high moments. I’ve earned the respect of people I admire. I can take pride in those moments because I was honoring my true self. But it’s the humbling, raw moments that stay with me, when I’m called on my BS, my lies exposed.  I’m scared. What am I supposed to do with a “big energy shift”? Invent something? Save baby rabbits? Trade my life for the monastery?

Here’s the thing. I need to get back out there and not retreat into that hidey-hole, which is my habit. I need to be my best self, put forth my best effort, and rebuild that string, bead by bead. All is not lost as it feels on the inside. I’m just focusing on one particular bead lost, and not on all the collected ones I’ve earned right there at my feet.

They also hold value.

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