The meaning of a day

Well friends, here we are again. Like it or not, ready or not, this day rolls around. Another August, another anniversary. Today it is four years since my mom died, and, as in years past, I don’t really know what to do or how to mark the day. My family and some of my mom’s friends in New York have already gathered at church for a memorial mass and breakfast, an annual tradition they have created. My dad and my brother will go to the cemetery, a place I have only been once since my mother’s death.

imageAs the years pass, I find it harder to know what I should do, or even what I want to do. On the first anniversary, I took the day off and spent it on my own, wandering around the city, reading in the Vondelpark, sitting in the sun, and finally sharing the thoughts that had been rattling around my head for the previous year. In the years since, I’ve been wondering more and more about the meaning of this day. Should the day that my mom died be given any more importance than any of the days she lived? She’s more present to me on her birthday, on my own birthday, and on any number of ordinary days that I miss her, than she is today, the anniversary of the start of her absence.

One thought I’ve had consistently over the past several years is how much she’s had to miss. There are so many things that I know she would have enjoyed. Our lives go on – as they must – and a lot has happened in four years. I think about my sister’s children and how much Mom would like seeing her first granddaughter rowing with her high school team. She’d appreciate that her first grandson has become a voracious reader, and that her second granddaughter has blossomed into an academic powerhouse. She’d love helping them through their awkward but thoughtful teen years, and watching them grow into young adults.

My brother’s kids are younger, but they’re at or near the same age as the students that my mom taught for decades. Their energy and goofiness – and the youngest’s startling resemblance to my brother – would have tickled her. Even the little things, like a (widely-panned) movie adaptation of one of her favorite books; she’s had to miss that, too.

There have been less-than-wonderful moments, also a part of life. Disappointments, challenges, the deaths of neighbors and friends. These are moments when my mother’s friendship, compassion, and fierce loyalty would have been a welcome balm. She understood the importance of showing up and being present for others in need.

All day today, a line from Lori McKenna’s beautiful song “Never Die Young” has been running through my head. The song is a deeply personal, one-sided conversation with her mother, who died when McKenna was only seven years old. As an adult and a mother herself, McKenna looks around at the joy-filled activity of her home and young family and notes, “I was the one who I felt so, so sorry for, but you are the one who is gone.”

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As the day winds down on my side of the ocean, I can’t help but think that the best way to honor the death of someone you love is to just keep living as fully as possible. To be present and alert to the people around you. To give of yourself, your time, your energy. To make the most of wherever you are, and whatever you have. We’re still here, even though that often seems unfair or impossible, and our debt to those we love but no longer see is to witness and participate and enjoy this life as much as we can, for as long as we’re given.

I love you, Mom, and I miss you still. Everyday.

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No turkey, but tapas

There’s no Dutch equivalent of our American Thanksgiving, but that’s not going to stop us from celebrating with a long weekend getaway. We’re off to Madrid, so our Thanksgiving dinner will include patatas bravas instead of mashed potatoes. It won’t be a traditional meal, but living abroad has taught me that the trappings of a holiday matter a whole lot less than the person with whom you share the holiday. This year, as always, I’m grateful for my generous, patient, and loving husband, who has made this adventure abroad possible. (And who will have his patience tested by the horrible Spanish I am about to unleash on the good people of Madrid.)

Many believe that gratitude is something that can be taught, or cultivated. I don’t think it is a natural state for most of us. And in difficult or stressful times, it can seem that we have little for which to be grateful.

I’ve written many times (too many?) here about David Whyte’s remarkable book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. I return to it over and over and always find just what I need, or just what I didn’t know I needed. Here he is on gratitude:

Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing.

It isn’t about cataloguing a list of what we’re thankful for – though that never hurts – but about paying attention and being alert to the wonder in the simplest acts of our lives.

Thankfulness finds its full measure in generosity of presence, both through participation and witness. We sit at the table as part of every other person’s world while making our own world without will or effort, this is what is extraordinary and gifted, this is the essence of gratefulness, seeing to the heart of privilege. Thanksgiving happens when our sense of presence meets all other presences. Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention.

Wherever you are on Thanksgiving, whether you’re celebrating or not (or wishing you were) I hope you’ll join me in an effort to pay attention, and to cultivate a sense of presence. Although my seat at the table is far away from family and friends, I am grateful that we are all part of each others’ world.

Too much

That’s about the best I’ve got right now…it’s all just too much. Too much time has gone by since I’ve written anything here. Too much reading, discussing, worrying. Too much is happening in the world. Too much to process or to begin to understand. Too much distraction, though some of it welcome. Too much uncertainty, too much at stake. Here in Amsterdam, too much rain.

Everyone with an opinion and an internet connection has weighed in on the results of the US election, and what might happen next. Some of it has been honest, clear-headed, and helpful; some not. I don’t think adding my still-forming thoughts to the ever-growing body of commentary would benefit anyone. I will say that experiencing the election from overseas has been unexpectedly hard.

Weeks before the election, we planned to join friends at the Kurhaus Hotel in Den Haag for the traditional “Who’s the President?” Breakfast. Allowing for the time difference with the US, the party starts at 5am Wednesday with wall-to-wall CNN coverage and a buffet of bacon, eggs, and donuts. Lots of donuts. We had a lovely dinner the night before with our friends, complete with American flag table decorations. Total strangers approached us to express their concerns about the election and to ask who we voted for. We stayed overnight in the Kurhaus and I went to bed hopeful, but, (if I’m honest), worried.

The alarm woke us at 4:15 and we were in the ballroom by 5am, joining several hundred expats, military personnel, and some Dutch journalists. I took one look at the numbers on CNN and thought, “This is not good. It’s too close.” And the morning got worse from there. Over the course of the next few hours, it slowly dawned on everyone in the room (and most/many expats lean Democrat) that we were at the worst party ever. Inexplicably, there was a band at this event – five 20-somethings in suits playing standards and light jazz. I think we heard “The Girl from Ipanema” at least twice – a song I hate under the best of circumstances. I remarked to a friend that this must be what it felt like to listen to the orchestra play as the Titanic sunk.

Just after John Podesta told the Hillary supporters in New York to go home and go to bed, we called an end to our party, as well. Instead of going to bed, it was off to work (it was 8am, after all), where I had a day of commiserating with my 2 American colleagues, fighting with a Swedish coworker about vote rigging, and generally trying to make sense of America. Which I’ve been doing ever since.

Dutch people often ask us what we miss about America. Other than my family and friends, there’s really not much. It’s not like we live in rural China – most of what we want or need we can find here. (Although my dear husband does miss free refills on his Diet Coke.) But as we learn more about the plans of the President-Elect, I do miss being in the US, if for no other reason than to have something to DO, some collective action I can be part of. It is hard to know how to be effective from so far away. We are still homeowners and registered voters in Massachusetts, and we still have a voice. We can stay informed and be ready to act. We can make calls to our representatives – who are, thank God, progressive liberals like Elizabeth Warren, who are already doing what I’d want my reps to do.

But I can’t help feeling like I should be doing more. If I was in the US, my work or my friends or my church would offer opportunities for discussion, for protest, for action. Instead I feel a bit adrift, absorbing information and opinions, wanting to be useful but not sure how. (Suggestions welcome.)

In the end, I think we will need to get comfortable with “too much”.  In response to our worries we should offer each other too much support. In response to uncertainty there should be too much information, too much truth-telling. Threats to anyone’s civil rights or liberties should be met with too much protest. How I contribute to this from such a distance is unclear, but for now, may there be too much conversation, too much thinking, too much reading, too much solidarity.

Will the circle be unbroken?

Back in early March, shortly after I revived this blog, I wrote something called, “Why now, and why here (Part 1)”. I talked about why I chose Amsterdam for this adventure of ours. I spoke about the connection I’ve long felt with the Dutch, and the reasons, both practical and silly, that brought me here. That covered the “why here”. As for the “why now”, I sort of cryptically deflected it for another time.

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Wedding day, May 2004

What I was skirting around was having to connect our move to the death of my mother on August 5, 2014. Maybe I wasn’t ready to make the connection, or to talk about it in a public space. To be fair, one didn’t directly lead to the other. I had been talking about moving abroad for some time, and my mother was supportive and excited for us, encouraging us to make our plans regardless of her health.

They say that you’re not supposed to make any big life decisions in the year after a significant loss. Well, I blew that one. Instead of following the common wisdom, I took off, alone at first, to a place where I had no community, no support. I also had no triggers; my mother had never been here and there was little to remind me of her.

Maybe I was trying to outrun my grief. Maybe, in the face of loss and the regret that inevitably comes with it, I felt a greater urgency to do something that I had always dreamed of doing – no time to waste. I’ll admit I haven’t really given it much thought. There’s time to figure it out, if I’m so inclined: “grief is real and loss is for life, as long as life. In any case, I’m not sure it matters.

What follows is a bit of patchwork (an analogy my mom would have appreciated) written inconsistently over the past year. Although I’ve tried to piece it together in a way that might make sense, it is, like all handmade things, imperfect.

I’m sending this out, with great love and childish hope, to my mom and all those we love but no longer see.


On the day my mom died, a friend who had recently lost her mother sent me an email. In it, she shared a quote from an essay that Laurie Anderson wrote for Rolling Stone about the death of Lou Reed, her partner of more than 20 years. It said simply, “I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.”

(I think it’s important to point out here that my mother wouldn’t have had the slightest idea who Lou Reed was, to say nothing of Laurie Anderson. Her musical tastes ran more to Lionel Ritchie and the Bee-Gees. But hey, nobody’s perfect.)

Women in waders. Fly fishing in North Carolina, May 2010

Women in waders. Fly fishing in North Carolina, May 2010

This single sentence from Anderson’s beautiful reflection was like a life buoy thrown to me just as the sea was rising. My mom had been sick for a long time, and as her health declined we had the frank, tearful conversations that I imagine most families have in these situations. Still, the knowledge of her illness and her worsening condition remained abstract, almost up to the very moment of her death. How can we ever prepare ourselves for such loss?

There are parts of that day and the days that followed that have blurred. Even in grief – perhaps especially in grief – our brains find ways of protecting us from ourselves. Other parts of the day are crystal-clear; I could close my eyes right now and reconstruct every sensation, if not for the fact that it still hurts so much to do it.

What I both remember and find comfort in reliving is the outpouring of support that my mom’s death inspired. One after the other, friends, neighbors, former students, quilters, and teachers shared memories. Remarkably, almost everyone remembered the first time they met my mother. There was story after story of her suggesting that someone join a parent’s group, or take a sewing class, or contribute to a gift for a retiring teacher. Stories of invitation, of welcome, of encouraging someone to do more than they thought they could.

Of course, what she was really doing was inviting people into the circle of her love.

Life inside that circle was remarkable. My mom was generous with her time and her attention. She knew how to listen. She was creative and artistic. Affectionate. Curious. She was a loyal friend who would go well out of her way for others. She did not give up on people. She sacrificed – or at least delayed – her own ambitions in order to care for her family.

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The Budapest stop of our European adventure, October 2012

This is not to say that life inside the circle was always easy. While the circle of love may not have had conditions, it did have – how shall we say? – standards.  There was a way that things were to be done, and this was non-negotiable. My mother had high expectations for those around her. To do a poor job on a school assignment, for example, would be disrespectful to ourselves and to the teacher who assigned the work. Whether it was homework or household chores, there was no greater sin inside the circle than doing a “half-assed job”.

And the flip side of my mother’s fierce loyalty was that she could hold a grudge like no other. I suspect she went to her grave still angry at my high-school boyfriend for breaking up with me. In 1993.

I’ll pause here to say that trying to explain the heart of who my mother was in a few paragraphs is a fool’s errand – the ultimate half-assed job. If you knew her, you’ll know that nothing I can say will properly capture her. Edna St. Vincent Millay gets it right in her poem Dirge Without Music:

“A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,

A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the

love,—

They are gone.”

I’m not sure that there is a purpose to death at all, but I’m willing to entertain the thought that the purpose is, perhaps, the release of love. And I’ll consider it only because in the days following my mother’s death, I felt held and lifted and comforted by the love that came back from the circle she had created over so many years. My mother had stepped out of the circle. And so we all had to move that much closer to each other. And it was her love that allowed us do it.


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God, my mom would have hated this picture. I love it. Unknown location and date.

In a wonderfully honest new book of essays, Meghan Daum writes, “Most of us have unconscious disbeliefs about our lives, facts that we accept at face value but that still cause us to gasp just a little when they pass through our minds at certain angles.” The first thing on her list is the same as mine: that my mother is dead. A year has passed and this fact seems no more believable today than it did on the day of her death. My most common thought in the first few days of her absence was a befuddled, “…but she was just right here…”. As one might remark about a missing set of house keys.

That thought has by now largely passed, but I’m not sure what’s taken its place. I can say that everything about this year has been surprising. Nothing is linear. Progression is followed by regression. The fact that I moved to Europe a mere six months after my mother’s death has no doubt made the grieving process more complicated. In the early weeks after my arrival, loneliness was common. I was fine for long stretches, then found myself ambushed by grief, unable to share or manage it.

I was – am? – vulnerable in ways I could not have anticipated. And what you cannot anticipate or imagine, you cannot defend against. I have done things that are selfish and thoughtless and inexcusable, even when viewed through a generous lens of grief. I’ve had moments where I was unrecognizable to myself. And while some of those moments are shameful to me, and hurtful to others, I honestly don’t think I could have expected my heart to have protected me, broken as it was.

And the love that I want to believe was released in that hospital room? The love that closed around those of us left in the ragged circle in the days after my mom’s death? What of that? What happens to it in the months – years? – after its release? Will it become harder to call to mind, harder to feel? Does it become diffuse, stretching to reach everyone as they need it, each in their turn? Or can it continue to grow, to expand, both for and through those my mother loved, and who loved her? Could it be that it is endless? Could it be so?