life just bounces

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There aren’t many people who read this or even people in my life who will know who Mark E. Smith was. He died at age 60. Surprised it did not happen earlier. But my god, could I ever have imagined how influential The Fall would be to me … since I was 12/13? How vast the influence of people who have been in my life who also felt that The Fall meant something to them?

It’s sad and inevitable.

Gone away: 23 May

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Today would have been my uncle’s birthday – my uncle who died last year in November. As with all losses and the mourning that follows, it has been rough, especially for my mom, his sister. I’ve written various bits about the loss and all the things you lose along with the person (the shared memory, or, as my mom put it the other day, “I was the person who had him in my life the longest of anyone alive” – in a sense this is true. As the older sister, she was there, 1.5 years old, when he came into the world, and with both of their parents gone, she is the only one who was there, and up close, for the rest of his life).

But in losing someone like him, we gain a deeper appreciation for who he was, and more than that, for what he taught without even trying. As I wrote at the time of his death: “the man collected everyone who came into his life, from “stray” people, to new friends, to ex-wives and ex-wives’ future families to new loves and their families and friends” – and this is always the thing about him that stuck with me during his life and now “post-life”. Perhaps because it is the thing I aspire to most. I find that somehow he was able to make it work, but I just encounter the most stubborn and traditional of barriers. I touched on the thought the other day: why are we so territorial and stingy with our love and acceptance?

Sure, I am a dyed-in-the-wool misanthrope, a come-to-life Oscar the Grouch (my hero, my idol), but it’s not actually who I am inside. Like my uncle, I am curious and my capacity for wanting to love people and show them compassion is boundless. When a former partner, who became a close friend, moved on and met the woman he has hitherto spent his life with, I was elated for him, but I lost the friendship because she was too jealous about its continuing to exist. When I got twisted into a mercifully brief emotional vise earlier this year, I swiftly got over the disappointment of it and thought we’d be friends – I tried to at least leave the door open to friendship on his terms but got burned by the partner/ex-partner/who knows now what she is/was because that became a question mark. Those details don’t really matter – I understand why these people got jealous, angry, irritated, upset. I just don’t think they had to – I have at least as much care and compassion for them as for the other party (the ones I actually knew directly). They have no way of knowing this and probably would not care because I guess there’s some intoxication or self-righteousness to be had in directing hatred or frustration toward perceived threats or annoyances. And all I can think is: I am sorry. I don’t think that holding onto hostility – or feeling hostile in any sustained way at all – is a way to live.

That is not to say I never get annoyed or hostile (often reactions to feeling hurt). But these things mend, and I look at situations and people (even virtual strangers) to see the good in all of them, to see what they must have gone through or experienced. If I could, I would be like my uncle and “collect” these people, too, into a distant but extended kind of network of people – like-minded or not, I am sure that if someone I cared about, even remotely or briefly, loved these people, they must be remarkable in some way. I’d venture to guess we all have a lot more in common than not.

Confronting mortality – both one’s own (and one’s own brushes with death) and others (so many losses, some obvious, some hidden) – it has always seemed ludicrous to be so insular and self-absorbed about love and particularly about welcoming and accepting people into your heart. My uncle, may he rest in cycling adventures and untold numbers of over-the-top characters and events on whatever plane he travels now – today, his birthday – and for all eternity, managed to live this challenge and invite others to live in this way too.

He taught by example, sure, but I really wish he were still here to ask him how he did it.

Photo (c) 2006 John/Johnny Grim used under Creative Commons license.

It is still raining in Tokyo

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As I fell asleep last night the meteorologist on Al Jazeera English stated, “It is *still* raining in Tokyo.” A deliberate pause and emphasis on “still”. I was half asleep, but it is amazing how a simple statement like, “It is still raining in Tokyo” immediately jolts vivid memories into the active mind.

I was suddenly walking in a downpour in Tokyo, perhaps the only one on the busy street without an umbrella. It was September, hot and even more humid.

Crushing and cruising – Lazy man food – Sesame noodle prawn salad

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Salad that brings haunting memories to life

Salad that brings haunting memories to life

The lazy man food that is a cold salad of some sort has traveled with me through life from the potluck culture of America (and especially my university, The Evergreen State College). I cannot count how many of these salads I made during those few years – you would think that I would never do it again, considering how often it was required of me in those years. I have one particular memory of having made both of the salads I made tonight (tomato green bean and mozzarella and the sesame noodle with prawns, as shown below). I was taking a “field trip” to Victoria, British Columbia with a couple of classmates and our Russian teacher (who was in the US for a year or half a year or something). Our class consisted of three other students and me – and one of those students, a Polish woman, could not attend. Thus, I did all this cooking, all the driving and off the four of us went. I got the worst, most brutal sunburn of my life on that excursion – on the ferry from Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria on a deceptively overcast day. I also realized the perilous depths of my propensity for seasickness. The one guy in my class, a nice guy apart from his hopeless, shameless and relentless flirtation (presumably one factor that may have led to the demise of his marriage), talked me through the seasickness very sweetly, talking, telling me stories, trying to distract me by singing Marlene Dietrich’s “Lili Marlene”. “Crush” is not something compatible with my aloof, indifferent personality and often laissez-faire attitude toward pretty much everything. But he is one of the few people who caused me to feel the real ache of crushing on someone who is completely out of reach.

It was on the trip home from what was a beautiful day in Victoria that we stopped to have a picnic of sorts and ate these lazy salads. We contentedly sang together the rest of the way back to Olympia. We started off with songs we all knew (the Russian songs we were learning in class, for example) and moved on to the entire Cowboy Junkies’ catalog (although by the end of that I was the only one singing since no one else knew the songs).

Usually songs capture moments and events in a way that vividly awaken a hear-taste-touch-smell-feel sensory overload that cannot be replicated in any other way, as though you have been transplanted back into that moment. In this case, though, it is a noodle salad taking me back. I briefly relive the beauty and ache of that day – and then my memory shuffles through a few other memories of that year, those characters, the prickly, painful moments that shine a bright light on my awkwardness during that period. I cannot call it anything other than “trying too hard”. I tried so hard to be likeable that I am fairly sure I wasn’t. I kept giving and volunteering and twisting myself into someone I wasn’t and someone I did not even like. I remember spending a lot of money buying gifts for these people (the Russian class, among others), somehow imagining that that would make me more endearing, memorable? It didn’t, of course. I actually lost touch with all these people within a year of the course ending. The other girl in the course, with whom I thought I was close friends, was apparently bullied by her boyfriend not to be friends with me (or anyone who might encourage her to think for herself). The instructor went back to Russia. The flirtatious guy went on with his studies, I suppose, got divorced (maybe remarried and divorced after?) – but I did not really keep up. (We briefly connected on Facebook before he disappeared from there.)

Reflecting on this – thanks to my noodle salad – it’s interesting to compare how people so often meet their life partners in college. I cannot even begin to imagine. (Scarier still that people who meet in high school manage to pair off. To each his/her own. I get it but at the same time don’t get it.)

Interested in making your own salad – whether or not it ends up being inextricably linked to stirring and sharp memories, made while eating it – follow the recipe below.

Sesame noodle salad with prawns

A large package of Asian egg noodles or four packages of instant ramen noodles
One packet of seasoning from a ramen packet
1/3 cup rice vinegar
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 clove of minced garlic
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Cooked prawns (as many as desired)
Chopped green onions

Mix all ingredients together (other than noodles, prawns and green onions). Cook the noodles according to instructions (or very slightly undercook them, as they will soak up more of the dressing). Cool the noodles, rinsing under cold water. Drain well. Mix the dressing into the noodle and refrigerate for a few hours. Cook the prawns, chop the green onion, toss into the noodle mix. Refrigerate overnight if desired as it helps flavors develop. Or eat immediately.

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.

Just in time to boycott Twitter; instead, watching tearjerkers

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