The languages we speak

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The late poet Derek Walcott wrote: “To change your language you must change your life”. I’ve thought about this statement many times over the years, and usually find that the inverse is also true – truer even: “To change your life you must change your language”. And we speak many different languages, literal and figurative, to fit our lives.

Literal language

There are the obvious ways in which this is true. For example, in the life of a migrant, you only become integrated to a limited extent without changing your language, but you can make inroads with the literal changing and adopting of another language. The more immersive it is, the more it shapes your life (so these statements work in conjunction with each other: language changes life, life changes language).

I spoke at some length with a friend about whether a language inherently contains a power structure. We were discussing that the US and UK have buckled under the weight of crumbling infrastructure and insufficient provision for managing natural disasters/bad weather. He shared that a friend in Massachusetts boasted about how her new generator switched on automatically five times that winter, leading him to ask (once again), “What is it about Americans that makes them twist the shortcomings of the place they live into things to brag about?” I always go back to the same answer: they don’t know any better. Many everyday things (for me or for him) sound futuristic to people in America (and to some extent, the UK). “Empires”, if we could call America one, crack and crumble from within. My friend wondered if the English language contains a built-in predilection for “shitty societies”. I did not agree with this statement but thought a bit about the built-in attitude of English. He posited that something in the language creates fear and anger in its speakers that is masked by arrogance.

I admit that although I have analyzed the language – and language in general – from many points of view, I had never taken it on from this angle. I have, though, thought about the imperialism and spread of language, which then gives native speakers a sense of entitlement. He posed the question: “How else to explain why both London and NYC are crappy in similar ways?” I figured it is not so much something within the language itself so much as in its ubiquity and power. (Both places driven and developed by the original British imperialist way of thinking, the dominance of English, even among large populations of immigrants who end up united by this one powerful lingua franca, contributes.) Within the language itself, though, is it a magnet for the best or most useful elements of other languages? Has it not only overtaken other languages but plundered them for its own needs? Does the dominance of English come from how and where its imperialism ended up (North America, India, other parts of Asia, Australia), in places where dominance also meant colonization and the “conquering” people staying put and taking power – as opposed to “resource grabs” like those in Africa, where French colonialism was alive and well? Could it be the result of English having such a vast and even superfluous vocabulary.. another way of dominating just by sheer volume of words? (And we can’t even say there is one “English” – its spread and ubiquity have created all kinds of variations.)

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the questions are fascinating.

The language of self-help and personal identity

Then there are increasingly less obvious languages. For example, the language of self-help: you are told to frame yourself and your issues in a new way. The frame changes perception and eventually the language used to describe that perception. That is, you are what you think. You are the language you use. This came to mind most recently when I was listening to a young colleague who is often cuttingly direct in the language she uses, and I wonder how she would respond to softer, more diplomatic language. I also note that she notices keenly when others are as direct as she is. Would she be as effective in her role if she were softer? No. But if I were as direct and abrupt as she is, it would not suit me or work for me. Each of us, thus, forms our own (kind of) language – by which we are identified and through which we craft our own identities.

The language of failure?

Similarly, in pop-self-help and some broader psychological discussion, “failure” isn’t used when something might just be a setback. Here I think of alcoholics… do we really want to say that because someone had 90 days of sobriety and then fell off the wagon that those 90 days are a loss, a waste or a step back to square one – and their attempts a “failure”? Does the language we apply imply judgment and set the groundwork or pace for the next “slip”? That is, for an alcoholic each day sober is a success, and even if they build toward longer periods of sobriety, is their success (or failure) measured cumulatively? Maybe AA or other people measure this way. But for the person dealing with it, the language needs to be more forgiving or less judgmental.

Language of experience

Maybe certain experiences we live through do not change the literal language – the words you use – but change the whole approach, so your set of sociolinguistic approaches and cues becomes different. Maybe experiences forge within you a different person, with different eyes, who can no longer speak the same language, with the same tone you once used before the experience. This is applicable in many cases, but I think in particular about consolation, grief and the expectation of it.

How little I understood when I recently read Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in their Eyes how prescient two takeaway quotes would be:

“…perhaps the man’s fate, a life destroyed by tragedy and grief, provided me with a chance to reflect on my own worst fears. I’ve often caught myself feeling a certain guilty joy at the disasters of others, as if the fact that horrible things happened to other people meant that my own life would be exempt from such tragedies, as if I’d get a kind of safe-conduct based on some obtuse law of probability…” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

“I believed I understood that the reason we’re sometimes moved by another’s grief has to do with our atavistic fear that this grief may get transferred to us, too.” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

These thoughts stuck with me after reading the book, which I was reading as I consoled someone through and after the death of his mother. While being supportive and compassionate to him, I turned to someone else for my own kind of consolation, and discussed at length the particular kind of grief that punctuates the loss of one’s mother. He only realized then, as if becoming prepared for grief, how very devastating his own loss would eventually be when his mother passes away. It seems especially cruel and unusual that he didn’t have to wait long to be confronted by the potential for this grief: his mother suffered a fairly catastrophic setback only a couple of weeks later, which has not resulted in her death – but has opened the floodgates and made him see that his entire approach, logically, was flawed, that he could not control or know what the loss would mean or do to him. Sacheri’s points on how we are moved by another’s grief – because it is so close to what we ourselves may soon experience – was applicable.

And yet, language cannot contain this kind of grief, the fear (or confusion) it creates and the mirror it holds up to us and how we live and feel.

Language is equally inadequate for consolation. But in such cases, it’s less a spoken language and more a listening language: giving the time, patience and love to listen.

He “…went on to assure us there’s no Devil, no Satan, no Hell. There is—(maybe)—Heaven but it isn’t anywhere far away or anything special. And we demanded to know, why isn’t Heaven anything special? (You always hear of Heaven being so special.) And Daddy said, because Heaven is just two things: human love, and human patience. And all love is, is patience. Taking time. Focusing, and taking time. That’s love. This was disappointing to us! This was not anything we wanted to hear. We were too young to have a clue how special human love and human patience were, how rare and fleeting…” –A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

 

grief collective

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Facebook does not often give me reason to feel grateful. Today I feel grateful because I was able to reach out, with the platform’s immediacy, to an old (but not graduated-high-school-in-1977-old) and dear friend to express my condolences after a death in her immediate family, share in her angry grief and add to the vast chorus of voices chiming in with love and respect about my own memories of the loved one my friend lost.

Though vague and hazy childhood memories, the woman my friend and her family lost is branded in my brain as a strong, hard-working, straight-talking, no-nonsense woman. I didn’t know her well, but as a part of my friend’s family, I met her many times 30 or so years ago. For me to have retained clear memories of these personality traits in her, after three decades, she must have fully and indelibly embodied these attributes and, more than that, been able to make lasting impressions on all those she met in life. Seeing all the beautiful pictures my friend posted of this woman, her family and herself, all together, I felt such sadness for them, as you do for people who have disappeared too soon, but also the bittersweet feeling of joy you feel in observing a life well and fully lived.

These things also render one a bit helpless but wanting to help, reaching out in a flailing and fumbling way but reaching out nevertheless.

Grief, perhaps unlike death, and all its forms, is tough and unpredictable. As I have written before, it is those who remain on earth and in life who struggle:

“It’s this aftermath that’s hardest to know what to do with. The people who remain: how should they move on? Should they? I mean, do you ever really move on? Are you the same person after you experience a major loss and the kind of grief it visits upon you? Of course it – death and grieving – is a part of life; do you come out the “other side” dramatically changed because, in fact, your world is changed so significantly (because of these absences/losses)? Or is grief the engine of being exactly the same person you were in a changed world (and you start to “let go” or “stop grieving” only once you start to change in facing the new reality)?”

“’Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.’” -from Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter

My friend and her family have the strength of their faith to help and guide them through and to offer some kind of reason for what they are going through. But more than that, more broadly, the more we can form a loving and supportive collective, no matter how long ago our friendships flourished or how distant we are – literally or figuratively – the more we can at least be witness to the human experience in all its nuance. I won’t say it will make things easier for those left in the wake of loss, but it never hurts to reach out and offer compassion and reassurance.

The Apple Crisp of Guilt and Grief: No Do-Overs

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I was going to make some apple crisp – being in a foreign kitchen (still), I don’t have a lot of tools or ingredients at my disposal. But apple crisp is about the easiest thing a person can make. A non-baker with a few apples, a knife, some butter and oatmeal and a bit of cinnamon and sugar has just about all he or she needs to get a crisp on. (Not unlike “we’re just two adults getting a stew on!”)

But then, someone ate the apples before I could get to the paring and spicing and throwing it all into one pan for the simple delight of apple crisp*. His loss.

Unrelated, as tangents are, referring to someone eating the apples reminds me, unfortunately, of poet William Carlos Williams and one of his most famous works, “This Is Just to Say” – on the surface, it’s about his having eaten the plums someone else was saving for him/herself. Seems more like a casual apology for infidelity and irresistible forbidden fruit. It betrays not one hint of guilt – even reveling in its duplicitous possibilities. But who knows? These things are subjective.

I have already cited William Carlos Williams and his chickens and wheelbarrows once – given our high school dislike for the guy and his work, I never would have imagined citing him at all. Yet here I am. Then I have a newfound appreciation for things that my 16-year-old mind did not fully absorb, feel or trust.

One poet feels no guilt about whatever he does, while another person feels guilt for eating an M&M or an extra helping of macaroni and cheese. One man cheats on his wife and feels nothing but feels guilty for quitting his job without telling the same wife he is otherwise deceiving. Guilt is strange, though – bubbling up like the full spectrum of emotions that we sometimes don’t even imagine we are capable of feeling. For example, I think a lot about how useless jealousy is, and while I don’t believe in it and rarely feel it – and criticize the frenzy of its violence in others – I can sometimes feel what a cruel wind-up toy jealousy is. It pokes at me sometimes but not for the same reasons it pokes others, perhaps.

A close friend who has been in my life for many years wrote to me to wish me a happy new year and shared the news that her husband passed away just before Christmas. One of her greatest takeaways from the experience of this loss was that there are no do-overs. Like a lot of people I have known, her marriage was not necessarily happy, so she had longed for freedom. But once her husband was gone – unexpectedly – she experienced a tremendous amount of guilt intertwined in her grief about not being able to do over all the negative thoughts and words she had expressed over the years. We don’t know, as I have said again and again in the last year, when we will have our last conversation with someone.

I tried to advise her not to be too hard on herself. When people die, we often reflect and are seized by guilt that is enveloped by the haze of grief that clouds the daily reality of our dealings. Daily life engenders and embodies all the resentment, negativity, selfishness, pain, hidden hurts, agendas that make it almost impossible not to succumb to some part of the… grind of daily life. All of those feelings remain intact and valid even when the other person passes on. Forgetting the validity of that will not be a true reflection of the lesson learned. There is, as I told her, another side to the “there are no do-overs” coin. A life’s bitter negativity can be reflected upon, but that same life’s guilt cannot guide it. The immediacy of not having do-overs is that it allows for honesty. These sudden losses can eventually lead to an opportunity for emotional recalibration and a place of balance.

In the aftermath, though, it is not surprise that guilt is inextricably wound up with the grief. As my friend sagely wrote, which squeezed my heart and choked me up, “I have waited for this moment for years, not understanding that with freedom comes the knowledge that it is built upon someone’s demise.”

*And for anyone keeping track or feeling a hankering for apple crisp, here’s the basic recipe I would have used:

Here’s what I would have done:

Apple crisp recipe

Apple filling:
1 kilogram of Granny Smith apples (about 6), peeled, cored, and sliced how you prefer
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Streusel/Crust:
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup uncooked oats
1/3 cup flour
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces; use a small bit to grease the baking dish.
Preheat the oven to 350°F/175°C. Lightly coat an 8-by-8-inch baking dish with butter.
Mix the apples, sugar, cinnamon in a large bowl and toss to coat. Place the apple mixture in the dish and set aside.
Use the same bowl and mix together the brown sugar, oats, flour until evenly combined. Blend in the butter with your fingertips until small clumps form (two minutes). Sprinkle the topping evenly over the apples and bake until the streusel is crispy and the apples are tender, about one hour. Let cool on a rack at least 30 minutes before serving.

Ends of Friends & an Open Letter to E(xile)

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[you fit into me]
“you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye”
Margaret Atwood

I am like most other people in that I can be petty. I am also keenly aware that a blog is a highly self-indulgent activity. I want to chronicle my thoughts, my life, my frustrations – I just happen to make it public. My concerns are not monumental or particularly profound. My problems are largely luxury problems. I openly recognize and cop to that. This forum does not need to be something more – I write what I know.

Lately, the ache of losing friendship has come up again and again for me. Friendship has always been a bigger struggle and a larger emotional stumbling block for me than, for example, romantic entanglements. Romantic relationships are more cut and dry somehow. The only time one was really difficult was when it was starkly clear that “romance” should never have been a part of it. The guy in question was one of the best friends I ever had. And having had a lot of friends come and go, it always bore tremendous weight when someone “got” me in the way that a true friend did. He was one of those friends.

When this friend got into a new relationship, I was happy for him. I did not think it necessarily meant our friendship was over. We live in different countries, and our communication was limited in any case both in frequency and in terms of topics. Once the contact was so sporadic and topic-specific (almost always about a film, tv, an inside joke about something we both found funny or, usually, about baby animals – which we both found irresistibly cute), I did not imagine that he, once so stubborn and headstrong, would be with someone who was demanding enough to require him to stop talking to me. I also, without knowing the girlfriend, never imagined that someone who was undoubtedly a lovely person if he (whom I respected and believed would make good choices in this realm) decided to be with her, would be so irrationally jealous.

I have written about this before, and after several eruptions, I told him that, despite how much it hurt to cut off the friendship, knowing that I was losing something, I felt we would all have a more harmonious life if we stopped talking. This mostly happened, but of course insanely cute baby animals or funny things that only we could appreciate would sometimes occur, and he did not resist the temptation to write a few times. I then felt liberated not to resist the temptation to send him a gift. I sent it to his work address just because I did not want to stir up trouble in his home life – at all. (He took the envelope home and started up all the trouble that could have been avoided and triggered the REAL end of the friendship. Whether he secretly liked the drama or was just that thoughtless or wanted a detached way to make me really slam the door forever, I don’t know – maybe I am assigning it all too much meaning anyway.) I did not want to start talking again, I did not want to resume a friendship that was clearly over. I just wanted to make one last gesture that might make him smile and remember me – as his friend – fondly. But it turned into a psychodrama that caused me to lose respect for him, not really want to talk to him anymore at all and conclude that he is not the person I thought he was. Not that I wished him ill will. I just had no more feeling involved at all – the only feeling that had been left was this respect and friendship. But after this episode, he was as good to me as a stranger.

Lately this has disturbed me in some way. He now is a stranger – I have no idea what he is doing but still hope he is very happy. This is completely fine. But a few things came up lately that made me really miss him, despite everything.

For one, I watched the annoying film (although less annoying than I feared, and less annoying than the beginning of the film led me to think it would be), Frances Ha. In it, the main character and her best friend drift apart. Their lives take different paths, and somehow that listless sadness of not being able to turn to the person who had been one’s closest friend made an impression.

Secondly, during the summer, the young wife of one of my friends – and people that he also knew – died. I am sure he saw the news of it because it was all over the Icelandic media. But, as I have said before, there is nothing like sudden, premature and unfair death and its aftermath to make on evaluate who and what is important in life. I did question whether I had too easily let go of a friendship that was so valuable and important without trying hard enough. (I determined otherwise.)

The final, and arguably much more important thing, is that my mom’s friend in Washington state just took custody of two beautiful tiger cubs at her big-cat sanctuary. He and I used to talk incessantly like near-drunk fools about the irresistible cuteness of baby tigers. We lamented that we would never in our whole lives have access to baby tigers to touch and play with them. And here, right in my hands, is the opportunity of a lifetime to go be in the presence of two baby tigers. No one else I know would find this as significant as he would. But I can’t tell him. I am not going to be the one to break the silence because I am the one who asked for it, I enforce it and really don’t want to open communication again. It is just an unusual set of circumstances that would only matter to the two of us.

One of two baby tigers

One of two baby tigers*

So cute I could have a heart attack - baby tigers

So cute I could have a heart attack – baby tigers*

When I think of the girlfriend, it actually makes me sad to think that she hates me as much as she does without knowing me. I won’t go so far as to say I love her given how unreasonable she has been toward me – a total stranger. But if she makes him happy, I love that she is in his life even though it cost me a friend. If I were a lunatic who actually wanted something from him – as some exes do, I grant, I might understand her ire. Maybe it is unreasonable for me to think that friendship was possible.

Sometimes I want to ask her whether she never had a friend who was so important to her – on only a friendly level – that it would be like having her heart ripped out to have that friend removed from her life? I hope for her sake that she has never been through that. But I have – a handful of times. As I wrote, friendship and the loss of it has always been difficult for me – so losing the one friend with whom I could make ridiculous jokes, watch documentaries with about baby animals and joke about everything from a self-important American “journalist”, pretend characters Pedro, Jose and Esteban and “annyong” (and the new episodes of Arrested Development!) and Grizzly Man was really a devastating loss. I did not want him in any other way. I wanted him to be happy and fulfilled. The fact that he found love with someone made me immensely happy for him – and for her. Naturally I wanted him to find that kind of complete happiness somewhere and with someone – and I had no desire for that to be me.

– Annyong and off-the-hook, unlimited juice party (bad quality video)

— Timothy Treadwell in near-orgasmic state over bear poop

In truth, I realized that living with him, living in Iceland, I was stunted and unhappy – it was not a good situation when we lived together. I was depressed, and he was no happier than I was – I think he stuck with it as long as he did just because we were friends and because he felt sorry for me.

I grieve often because I lost that easy friendship – I gave it up willingly because she demanded it. I said goodbye to someone I loved (as a friend) and respected – and lost respect for him as a result – but it is stupid because I don’t have any “skin in the game”. I am not interested, I am not competing, I am not a threat. If I am the “immature teenager hiding behind my teddy bear” as she claimed, what is she so worried about? Why would someone like the image she has of me even register on her radar? She is the beloved, chosen one and he loves her – even at the cost of forsaking some friendships – which is perhaps meaningless because, happily for her, he is happy with her. That should be enough to allow her to let go of the petty and immature insecurity that drives her anger.

I offered many times to talk to her, to meet her, to let her be in on the whole thing if it would make her feel better. Maybe I have just never felt passionately enough about someone that that kind of possessiveness felt necessary. But too tight a leash eventually chokes the subject to death.

*Pictures taken from the Wild Felid Advocacy Center Facebook page, where you can go and make a donation to help take care of the big cats in their care.

Thanksgiving – a story of gain, loss and being grateful for every minute

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“Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.”
-WS Merwin, “Separation”

We are two almost middle-aged women, dressed in thick woolen socks and pajamas, immersed in a rocking party (sense the sarcasm!) – toned-down and unpopular music, coffee, knitting and girl talk about life and all its bits and pieces at my house in the middle of nowhere. Going on a once-a-year shopping outing (I hate shopping) that physically and mentally drains the soul. I engage in my standard psychological wardrobe warfare – dressing in inappropriate attire for the cold (bare legs always). The tactic works – I cannot go anywhere without an old man or woman exclaiming about the ice cold I must be suffering from (but I sneakily know that they are the ones suffering looking at me, feeling the chill run through them while I feel fine – it almost feels like a superpower, I tell you, to be able to produce those kinds of reactions!).

This is my Thanksgiving outside America. I am one of these women and the other is now a close friend who used to be my “office nemesis”. And I am so thankful for every second we are friends now.

Years ago, when I lived and worked in Iceland, I met my colleague Lóa, whom I quickly nicknamed “office nemesis” because it seemed to me that we hated each other. I tried to make polite conversation with her, but it was met with an icy shutdown (as I perceived it). She would reply but in short answers, in a tone that indicated she was not interested in saying anything more. I don’t know what I had done to her to rub her the wrong way, but clearly, despite being the same age and have various things in common, we were not going to be friends.

My dear friend Jared, who actually helped me get that job and was a colleague there (and therefore also knew Lóa), tried to tell me that Lóa is just rough on the exterior and what I perceived was not really her. I sometimes kept trying to make an effort, but it did not work.

But sometimes friendship comes in surprising and unexpected places. This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for that. All the missteps and weirdness Lóa and I experienced dissipated when we were roommates on a work trip to Stockholm. Finally this broke the ice, and we slowly built up the close friendship we have today. It is one of the rare cases when first impressions could be tossed out and reevaluated. Sometimes people are not what they appear.

I later learned that Lóa had been somewhat envious when she heard about my Thanksgiving celebrations (before we were friends) and wished she could take part. She has taken part every year since then – whether we held it at her place in Iceland, at mine in Sweden or with my family in the US. And whether I live in France or Uruguay or Australia, she will always take part in my Thanksgiving. It’s really our Thanksgiving now – a traditional (tradition being something of which she is terribly fond!).

One of my best Thanksgivings was the year when Lóa hosted at her house while I returned from Norway (where I was living at the time) and did a massive amount of cooking, inviting all kinds of international friends to the dinner. Most of my best friends were there, and it was one of the few times I had the pleasure of spending with the aforementioned Jared and his late wife, Hulda. (I am thinking of Jared with much love this year, knowing he is spending this holiday alone for the first time since Hulda’s passing earlier this year.)

His loss brings into focus the balance of loss and gain. I think with love of how I gained a lifelong friend in Lóa. But how easy it would be to lose someone important. Loss can be quick, and the finality of it never really hits home. The finality hits sometimes, but the loss is felt in waves.

Earlier this year I met a guy, Mark, who has been going through a rough time after losing his dad. I wrote to him about how it felt so empty to just write, “I am sorry about your dad.” It sounds hollow and empty, but the words are heartfelt. I felt the same helplessness when I tried to write to Jared about his loss. Mark had written that the death was a “huge, huge thing to process”. I responded that I expect that this loss – and all major losses – will be difficult and continue to be difficult, sometimes unexpectedly so. It did not really occur to me consciously until he and I discussed it what a process it really is. The idea that dying is just one moment for the person who departs, but the people who live on relive not only the death itself and its accompanying feelings of grief, anger, helplessness but also all the moments and aspects of life, the moments and memories together, which can be a form of relief and torture simultaneously.

Part of this process is facing the fact that so many unexpected questions and feelings come surging to the surface. Grief that you thought you worked through comes back months and years later. A question you never thought to ask while they lived comes back. Maybe regrets about all the things you never said. The things you never appreciated fully – or perhaps appreciated and never shared. The suddenly burning questions are a torment, knowing that even if it was an inconsequential thing you wanted to know, you realize fully that the answer is something that you can never have. Even the most “living-without-regrets” person will inevitably face up to moments of regret.

The loss also takes away something of the one who goes through it. As I told Mark, loss is accompanied by the sense of never quite being the same afterwards, feeling the same. Jared mentioned today while having his own lone-wolf Thanksgiving, “Some days I wonder if I’m really the one who died that day.” It occurred to me in searching for some words of comfort (if that is possible) that part of him did die that day, and he will never get that part back. He will never be the same again. It is not that he cannot live on and do all the things he did before – but it will always be shaded by this experience, this love, this loss. Mark also made the point that his own observation and regret after his dad passed was that anyone who meets him now loses out on the chance to know his father – both for the sake of knowing the father and for knowing him through the father’s eyes – knowing him better or knowing about him in that context. Or for Jared, the people he meets now will know him as a widower and will never have the experience of knowing him as the man who seemed to light up and come alive (even more than he already was, of course) when in his wife’s company.

And while time may lessen the avalanche of diverse and unpredictable emotion, the mundane bits of life will keep the wound from completely healing. Random things like receiving mail in the deceased’s name – constant small reminders, the lifetime of things that they left behind. All the things you don’t think of until you have to go through it.

As I told Mark, and probably said to Jared while struggling to find words, there is no cookie cutter approach or reaction to death…. It is incredibly complex and is a “life event” that makes an indelible and lifelong impression – or varying impressions over time – on you. I have never understood the people who say things like “Get over it” or something that is gentler but along the same lines. Time is like a mask at times – sometimes there will be periods where the grief is not in the forefront of the mind or heart. But then years could pass and some little thing will suddenly hit and stir it up anew.

It’s Thanksgiving – and I have spent so much time in the last year thinking about untimely loss and grief – other people’s and my own – so it was not my intention to spend Thanksgiving night rambling about its complexities and heartaches. But there is no better time to reflect on letting go of pettiness (for example, the year Lóa and I spent as “office enemies”, which is, in hindsight, petty) and embracing real meaning and loving and living fully before you don’t have the ability to do either any more.

It is only too late if you are dead

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“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
― Doris Lessing

Nobel laureate Doris Lessing and creative pioneer Lou Reed both died recently. I think of this Lessing quote and the way Reed lived his life – unapologetically, his own way – and continue to realize the value of doing whatever it is you want to, are meant to, dream of doing – right now – regardless of whether the circumstances are ideal. (They never are, really. Meaning they always are. Any time is as good as any other.) We can make excuses forever – excuses will stop us in our tracks, hold us back, but all that happens is a life of regret about the things we never dared to try. That’s not to say I have always been completely faithful to the idea of jumping when the urge struck.  I am as cautious and fearful as anyone else – just about different things.

People tell me all the time that they wanted to do X or Y but that “now it’s too late” – followed by a litany of other reasons why. “I’m too old.” “It will take too long.” “I am working all day.” “It’s too far away.” “I am not smart enough.” But this idea that just because something was not done and completed at a specific point in time, like it is now out of reach forever, is complete bullshit. Nothing is too late. It is only too late if you are dead.

That is not to say it (whatever “it” is) won’t be the most difficult thing you ever did or tried to do. Even if you give this nebulous “it” your all, there is no guarantee of success. Obviously if you are 45 and think you can compete in the Olympics against 20-year-old athletes, maybe you are deluded – but does that mean you should not strive for that goal anyway just to push yourself to see how far you can go, even if you don’t compete in the Olympics? This is an extreme example. Most of us are not setting our sights on such accomplishments. Most of us are wishing for a new job, a promotion, a different educational experience, a move abroad, learning a language… and none of these things is anywhere near impossible.

It is a story I have told and written about before but choose to repeat to make a point. Around the time I had decided to move to Iceland, I found myself sometimes racked with doubt. I did not really have a plan – was I making a big mistake? As the day of my move drew nearer, though, I grew surer that I would hate myself if I did not at least try. One afternoon, I ran into a man (a former colleague with whom both my dad and I had worked when we were colleagues) I had known. I knew, via my dad, that this man had recently been diagnosed with fairly advanced cancer for which there were very few treatment options. When I had seen this many only a matter of months earlier, he had been vibrant and alive, and suddenly here he was before me, a shell of his former physical self. In that moment, it struck me vividly – he had talked almost daily at the office about his retirement countdown, looking forward to sailing around the world (his big retirement plan). Everything hinged on this magic number, magic day, “When I retire…”. Now he was not even going to make it to retirement. That encounter cemented my decision for me – it is not possible to live in this “I will do X when…” way. Yes, sometimes real, tangible circumstances delay our plans, but for the most part, when you have your moment, as frightening as it is, what is more frightening than not taking the risk? What is the alternative? Everything is a risk, and life continually postponed and planned out is not living. A more “convenient time” and “the right moment” may not come to pass.

This year, having seen so much loss, especially in very unexpected places, it hit home for me again. Plans, to some extent, mock us. When confronted by loss, even the loss of people in the periphery with whom we are not directly close, it can shock us and create emotional turmoil by stirring up so much self-reflection that normal daily life does not provoke. It reminds us both to hold on to what we have and let go of limitations simultaneously.

Worry overtakes

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I had one of those days recently that just made everything seem so hopeless. Such days happen. I want to give them a name. Like “Snickerdoodle Days” – harkening back to the days when all I had to think about was passing my driver’s licensing test, school and listening to new music with friends. And baking snickerdoodles every weekend, of course. Back in the end of the 1980s or the early 1990s. Listening to “Harold and Joe” in the tail-end of the goodness of The Cure’s musical career. I reminisce clearly about this song, playing on a mix tape from my friend Gary as I crossed the field from the main campus to the “vocational building” for my ill-fated drafting class. Or just, in general, “…it was acceptable in the 80s… it was acceptable at the time…” (Calvin Harris).

Sometimes, if I have a drink – since I don’t drink – I become quite emotional. Feelings wash over me in a way that convinces me that I would be one of those “sad drunks”.

I am thinking of the verb “to miss” – against the term “to be missing”. I read something that stated “I am just missing Bob in Skype”, which was unclear. We’re back to the challenge of how to phrase it when you want to state that you miss someone versus what you should state when you want to say that something is missing/not there/lacking. Does “I am just missing Bob in Skype” mean that he is not signed in (and you miss talking to him)? Or is this missing him in the sense that he is missing, e.g. he never subscribed to Skype and you are missing him from your contact list? Like a missing child, a missing puzzle piece – something that is not there versus something that you have a sentimental sense of loss for. The sense of loss and the idea of losing people and of murder – I recently published the recipe for some vanilla cupcakes filled with cherry “blood” filling and some candy knives as decoration – this rushes to mind. All the loss, untimely and senseless, as described below, or the ideas of murder – e.g, a former colleague who was accused of murdering a neighbor in their common parking garage. I don’t ultimately know what happened there, but it is still the loss of a life – both the victim and potentially that of the former colleague.

I have recently moved my blog to a new platform (the brilliant WordPress). I had been using MyOpera because it was handy – I worked at Opera for so long, it seemed like a smart idea to just use the community blog… but I always had the nagging feeling in my mind that it would one day meet its demise. Like most things – it was too altruistic an effort – and a real effort – to maintain such a community – for a company that is increasingly profit obsessed. I moved the whole thing over, but I don’t know that I love the layout/theme I chose. But it will do for now. Ideally I would get the whole thing set up and designed for my own domains, but I am just time-challenged. MyOpera was never ideal – quite ugly and no one had ever heard of it. My new choice is still a wee bit ugly, but at least WordPress is hardly going to collapse. Either way, my choice is a little bit ugly. Not unlike the whole Wolf Eel idea.

This year has been such an empty, gray space. It started with major change, but has just felt like a daily grind, churning through the abyss of dull daily life with the accompanying annoyances – but they have been frequent. Since the start of the year, there have been so many deaths, illnesses, big changes – so much unexpected and unpleasant change. I go through so much of my own completely ON my own – and then become so completely overwhelmed by the issues affecting other people – the suicide of a young former colleague (a new mother), the death of a friend’s young wife, the death of a former colleague’s young child – and then the catastrophic illness of another former colleague and an accident that nearly took the life of a family friend (he fell off a ladder when he was home alone). Or the murder accusation about the former colleague, mentioned in an earlier post about cupcakes. “Murder Tonight in the Trailer Park” by the Cowboy Junkies springs to mind, only it’s murder tonight in the parking lot, not trailer park, in this case. And then I think further on loss – not personal but to the artistic community – the recent death of Lou Reed. And I think then of how much of an impact Lou Reed and his creativity had, how much they contributed. Stream of consciousness.

Not to add the upcoming, somewhat sudden, voluntary deployment abroad of my brother – military. Worry.

The nature of worry springs to mind. Worry overtakes me so easily.