riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


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Two Years

In honor of Kaz’s passing two years ago May 3, 2011, and since I won’t be online tomorrow, I’m reposting Mountaintop, copied below. One love.

— — —

As I continue to heal from a state of heartbrokenness, I am reminded of the phrase stated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his last speech: I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

In the context of my life this phrase means, I have known, loved, and been loved by a Good Man.

I lost this man 3 years into our relationship (before we had worked all the kinks out), 11 days after our wedding, to a horrible disease which, coupled with a devastating motorcycle accident, was simply too much to overcome.

Shortly after he passed a girlfriend said to me, “Well, at least you’ve known love.” At the time, the pain was still so fresh I couldn’t find much relief in those words. But even on my darkest days I knew on some instinctual level that she was right.

I had experienced something few people do in a lifetime, the kind of love that makes you walk on hot coals to try and save the other, the kind of love that you read about in novels, the kind of love that makes you write love letters for a year after the other dies.

For a long time, and a variety of reasons, I didn’t always feel that I deserved this love. There had been moments when I doubted or disrespected it due to immaturity and insecurity. Just as the relationship was hitting its stride, he got diagnosed with a terminal illness and everything changed overnight. As things progressed at a deliriously fast pace, a part of me began to awaken, while another part began to shut down in order for the rest of me to keep functioning.

Once he was gone, I had a volcanic eruption of heartbreak and guilt, not uncommon for the surviving spouse/caregiver/less-than-perfect partner. Though my husband had forgiven my shortcomings, I found it difficult to forgive myself. Every time I thought of a good memory, a painful one reared up in front of it, like an eclipse blocking out the sun. It took every ounce of strength to not follow him to the other side.

Another friend told me, “Just hang in there and keep breathing.” Others reassured me that one day I would feel more grateful than devastated, more happy than sad. I couldn’t imagine it, but I also didn’t give up.  He never did and wouldn’t want me to.

Now it’s been 1 year, 6 months and 9 days since I watched him take his last breath, and I can say with cautious optimism that things are better.

I am still heartbroken. I still cry. I still talk to him, write to him, ache and reach out for him. But instead of feeling like my soul has been crushed, it more often feels lifted. Instead of dwelling on all that was lost, I think more often on how to rebuild. Instead of feeling guilty for not knowing better then, I focus on being better now.

Part of this transformation is simply Time. Part of it is all the writing and healing-work I’ve been doing this past year and a half. Part of it is the continued love and support of my family and all of our friends. Part of it is Ruby, my new puppy, who literally re-awakens and strengthens my heart every day.

So, I have been to the mountaintop. And I have seen the Promised Land. I couldn’t get there with my husband, but I have looked over and know that it exists. And in the knowing is the transformation.

Obama inauguration party 1/20/09

Wedding day 4/22/11


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Daily Prompt: Turn, Turn, Turn (to Life)

In Los Angeles seasons basically vary from warm to warmer to slightly less warm to warm again. Which is to say, they are subtle. It can actually be challenging to notice the passage of time because days often look and feel the same for weeks or months at a time. One day its January something, the next it’s mid-April. Weather is an anomaly. A cloudy day is something different. A rainy day is altogether exciting and the buzz at work. The lack of weather is one less thing to worry about in the daily grind of life. But it’s also one less thing to remind us of the awesomeness of Nature.

There are seasons, however, and my favorite out here is Spring because this is when you see the most change in the seemingly changeless environment. My favorite place to witness Spring is in the desert, where the renewal of life is bolder than in the city.

This past weekend I went with some friends to Joshua Tree, not to the National Park but to the city itself. I’ve written about coming to Joshua tree with my late husband, but (other than one camping trip) we always stayed in motels. This was the first time I’ve been behind the tourist line, where the locals live and raise their children.

Joshua Tree, CA

Joshua Tree, CA

At first glance, the landscape reminds you of pictures you’ve seen of Mars. Miles upon miles of dirt, rocks and (unlike Mars) small desert shrubs. But once you go a little further, get out of the car and start walking, you discover an entire world teeming with LIFE.

desert buds

desert buds

desert fruit

desert fruit

cacti

cactus flowers

 

Desert fruit, budding flowers, rabbits, lizards, beetles, ants, snakes, pheasants… there is actually constant movement in the stillness, plentiful sounds in the quiet.

I have always loved the desert for its purity, its cleansing, spiritual quality, its mystery. There is a reason so many prophets went to the desert to think and not, for example, the beach. The desert is as close as one can get to no distractions. Time seems to slow down. 24 hours feels like longer. And your mind is free to breath.

If ever one needs inspiration that even from something barren, life can grow… that life is cyclical and ever-renewing… that there is an almighty power in this universe called Nature… it is here, in the desert at springtime.

desert sunrise

desert sunrise


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A Reading List for Grief (Part 1 of 3)

If you are grieving, or even if you’re not, you might want to check out some of these books. They are all fine books on their own, but it just so happens I read them all after Kaz died. I have broken the list into three parts. Part One lists the books I read in the first 6 months (in chrono order). Part Two will list the books I read in the following year. Part Three will list some of my favorite quotes from these books, as well as what I’m reading now. I’ve included the first line from each book under the title.

A Grief Observed – C.S. Lewis

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”

This book is such a classic, someone handed it to me at Kaz’s memorial. Author C.S. Lewis describes his experience of losing his wife after her long struggle with cancer. Amazon describes it as “a beautiful and unflinchingly honest record of how even a stalwart believer can lose all sense of meaning in the universe, and how he can gradually regain his bearings.” Of course, when I read it, I related to the former not the latter, so the end of the book when he describes his renewed sense of faith annoyed me. But it is a beautiful book, very well-written and accessible. Might be interesting to read it again.

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

“Life changes fast.”

Described as “an unflinching account of the sudden loss of her husband which occurred while their only child was in a coma in a hospital, this book is considered another classic. The language is sparse, simple but expertly put together to place you in the mind of a woman who is in the midst of both a huge loss (her husband) and a huge crisis (her daughter). As she jets back and forth from NYC to Los Angeles, the story also jumps around in place and time.” Interestingly, I had the opposite reaction to this book than to A Grief Observed. I related to the end more than the beginning. It’s hard to articulate, but Didion’s writing style is both emotionally distant and emotionally powerful at the same time. I found myself unable to read more than a page or two at a time, and would have to leave the book alone for days in between.

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

“The boy’s name was Santiago.”

I had read this book before and loved it. After Kaz died, I saw it on the shelf and decided to read it again. Honestly, I think this is one you can read over and over and each time find something new. The story is about a young shepherd who decides to leave the comfort of his simple life in a small Spanish town in search of treasure in Egypt. Along the way he meets all kinds of interesting characters, falls in love and learns about himself and life. It’s not about grief, but about accepting change, following your passion and “listening to the signs” the universe gives you. Because it’s told in a parable, it doesn’t feel preachy. I found it very inspiring and meaningful when I read it the second time.

Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor E. Frankl

“This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again.”

Kaz’s best friend had recommended this book to us during the year of his illness, but neither of us read it. After he died, I decided to see what it was about. Frankl was a psychiatrist who lost his parents, brother, and pregnant wife while he was in four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. The first half of the book is about his experience in the camps. The second half is his philosophy on how he and others survived, which (put very simply) he says was a combination of luck and attitude. It’s a fascinating and surprisingly easy read. You might not agree with everything he says, but for a man to have gone through that much loss and still be able to see the positive in life, is really quite remarkable.

Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

“Sunday 1 January – 129 lbs. (but post-Christmas), alcohol units 14 (but effectively covers 2 days as 4 hours of party was on New Year’s Day), cigarettes 22, calories 5424.”

After reading those heavy books, I needed a break and read Bridget Jones’s Diary. It was highly satisfying. I laughed out loud many times. Then I watched the movie and laughed again.

If you would like to share what you read, are reading, or think we should read, please do so in the comment section.


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Looking Up

It’s been both cloudy and sunny lately in Los Angeles. I’ve become obsessed with taking pictures of the sky and trees. It seems I’m always looking up, which is interesting because I’m starting to feel more up.

LA - trees

Grief is such a strange beast. We hear about the various “stages” – Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Reconstruction, Acceptance, Hope. We hear they don’t happen for everyone, they don’t happen sequentially, there’s no set time limit, it’s all individual, there’s no roadmap, and so on. Despite these warnings, I can’t help but monitor myself to see if I can pinpoint which stage I’m in or just left. In May it will be two years since Kaz passed away.

LA - birds on pole

I know for certain I am beyond the shock and denial stage. I can also say with certainty that these stages do exist. In the first few minutes after K took his last breath, I kept feeling for his pulse and not finding it, but was still unsure what had just happened. I needed the hospice nurse to confirm it.

I’ve heard others say in the beginning, they kept waiting for their loved one to return. For me, it was the opposite. For a long time, I felt like he had never left. I would tell people, “He’s here, he’s just invisible.” I cannot tell you if it was my imagination or something else, but I totally felt this to be true.

LA - cloudy sky

As time went on, this feeling started to gradually dissipate. If he was around, he wasn’t around as often. Then it felt as if he wasn’t around at all. I would beg for him to come back and be met with silence. It felt like losing him all over again, which made me angry. There was a period when I was angry all the time. Why did a man so young and in his prime have to die? Why did he have to suffer? Why couldn’t we have had more time together? The more I asked Why, the angrier I became with myself, G-d, the world.

At some point – I don’t remember when – I stopped asking Why and starting asking “Now what?” At first, this made me angry too. How dare I picture a future without him? Who was I to have a future? What kind of future was worth living anyway? The thing that kept me going was my writing. But even this was not enough to escape the perpetual cloud hanging over my heart.

Then I adopted the puppy. A few weeks later I got accepted to the Vermont residency. In Vermont I worked on my book and experienced life outside of LA and the apartment where K and I lived (and he died). After 5 weeks away, returning to LA produced the strongest culture shock I’ve felt in years. I hardly wrote anything except the blog for 4 weeks.

LA - sky

A few days ago I finally started writing again. And exercising. And feeling more like myself. I am thinking more clearly. I am more motivated, more disciplined. Dare I say it, I am feeling more hopeful.

The strange thing is that I’m also crying more now than before I went to Vermont. I seem to cry at the drop of a hat, at commercials, at songs. Sometimes I look at the dog and start crying. The other night I watched Fiddler on the Roof and bawled like a baby. I’m not sad, per se, but I have moments of extreme sadness. My mother used to cry a lot too. But I don’t think of her as a sad person either. Sometimes I wonder if the hope and forward-thinking is conflicting with other emotions. Sometimes I feel like I’m crying for both of us, for the past and the future. All I know is I keep looking up.

LA - one tree


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Looking Back

The end of the year is traditionally a time of reflection. I gave up on making “resolutions” a long time ago but I do believe in acknowledging the accomplishments of the past year, and setting goals for the New Year.

Last year around this time, I wrote some general goals on a bunch of 3×5 index cards and pinned them to the bulletin board in my home office. When I packed for the writer residency, I looked up at these cards and thought, “Wow, I actually did what I set out to do.” In truth, I did more than what was on those cards.

In 2012, I…

– Survived the first year of grief, including the anniversary of K’s seizures, hospice, our wedding and his passing.

– Took a Caribbean dance class, stepping waaaayyyy out of my comfort zone to learn traditional dances from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Cuba, Belize and Puerto Rico.

– Wrote my first book and gave it to my mentor, closest family and friends for feedback.

– Went to my first ever writer’s conference (the first professional event since K’s passing) and pitched my book to strangers and agents, in addition to learning a heck of a lot.

– Applied to at least a dozen writer residencies and competitions, got rejected by most, accepted to one, and still waiting to hear on a couple of others.

– Learned how to ride a motorcycle and took my first ride on the streets of LA.

– “Faux quit” my job (i.e. expressed the desire to but didn’t formally quit because I realized it was a mistake).

– Started this blog.

– Adopted a puppy.

– Started writing a television pilot.

– Got a leave of absence from my job in order to attend Vermont writer’s residency.

– Sent out all the Thank You cards to people who helped me and K that I didn’t have energy to send out last year.

I did all of these things despite many tears, fears and doubts. And if I can do it, you can do it too.

To those of you still in the tightest grip of grief, I encourage you to keep processing, expressing and feeling your feelings. But please don’t give up on life. Your loved one would want you to keep going, keep pursuing your dreams and aspirations, and he/she is rooting for you to succeed.

For me personally, I feel almost an obligation to live the life my husband wanted for me, to do the things he can no longer do, things we talked about but can no longer experience together (in a physical sense). I am inspired by him every day to keep trying and to not give up. It’s been challenging to say the least, but his love and strength of character carries me through.

Tomorrow, I’ll write my goals for 2013.


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Clocking in for You

Perhaps venting the fears about the upcoming residency in yesterday’s post was the answer. The comments were helpful and encouraging (thank you). Today I’m feeling less worried. Also, at last night’s celebratory dinner, T set me straight (as usual).

“If you end up not writing, sleeping in, fraternizing and treating it like a vacation, then you’ll come back knowing this isn’t the profession for you. But I don’t think that will be the case.”

She also used the phrase “clocking in for you” – which I love.

This is the ultimate test really. Speaking hypothetically, when your time is your own, what do you do with it? How serious are you about your goals? Your art? Yourself? At what point, do you commit to your chosen path and declare yourself a professional (whether you get paid or not)? And if not now, when?

I’ve thought of my late husband a lot recently. He used to say, “don’t talk about it, be about it.” And he wore a bracelet that read Audentes Fortuna Iuvat… “Fortune favors the bold.”

When I think of all that he went through with his illness,  it still boggles my mind. He used to affectionately call me a “soldier” but he was the true soldier (literally, he had been in the Air Force).  Though he fell in the battle against cancer, he fought with honor and died with courage and dignity. 

Now, his widow sets off on a new frontier.

Forward, we march.


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Mother-in-Law

Last night I had a great conversation with Kaz’s mother, whom I still call my mother-in-law even though I’m a widow. She’s a lovely woman, intelligent, gentle and sweet, a former social worker who used to work with teenagers in the D.C. school system. We had met only once before Kaz got sick, but saw more of each other during the year of his illness. She helped me take care of him in the very end, and we were together when he passed away (she on one side of the bed, me on the other).

Though it was a sad and stressful time, the experience bonded us. Kaz used to tell us (together and individually) that he wanted us to keep in touch after he was gone. “It means the world to me that the two of you get along,” he would say. Privately, I promised him that I would look after her since he wouldn’t be able to. He was her only child and she was getting older.

Anyway, last night, when I was sharing with her the Vermont saga, she reminded me of a moment we shared with him the week before he went on hospice. We were having lunch in the hospital restaurant, talking about movies and television. Kaz told his Mom that I had worked in many areas: directing, writing, producing, editing. On a whim I asked him, “So, what do you think I should focus on the most?”

He thought about it a moment. “Well, I know what a control freak you are,” he said. “And the best way to have the most control is to write. I think you should focus on writing. That way you can control everything.”

“He knew how talented you are,” his Mom told me last night. “And he believed in you. So I think you’re doing exactly the right thing. You’re following your passion and dreams, and that’s exactly what he would have wanted you to do.”

Sometimes I feel like our shared experience helps keep him alive in some way. She knew him one way. I knew him in another way. Together, we remind each other of who he was, who he became, how he grew, what he believed in, what he liked and what he didn’t.

The irony is that she lost her son but gained a daughter-in-law… and I, who lost my mother 20 years ago, gained a mother-in-law. I think Kaz saw this before we did. He always had a certain wisdom, as if he could see farther down the road than the rest of us.


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Buggin’ Out

So, apparently my Vermont writer residency is not a done deal after all. I thought work had approved it but now I’m told it’s become a corporate tug-of-war between the head of my department and the head of HR. I’m blogging right now because I’m so nervous I can’t stand it. K used to call this, “buggin’ out.”

How I miss him. In moments of uncertainty, his presence always calmed me. He would distract me by making jokes, tease me about being too neurotic and “thinking too much.” All true, which is why I would always laugh.

I used to find it absolutely amazing – almost inconceivable – that he was always so chill and upbeat, so level-headed, able to see the positive in almost any situation, able to make me laugh about almost any situation. I used to feel reassured just by sitting beside him on the couch, watching TV, him bouncing my right hand in his left, ocasionally lifting it to his lips to kiss. There could have been zombies roaming the streets outside. I was safe.

Now I have the puppy, who distracts me in a different way. With her, I feel like the adult and laugh at her childish ways. With K, I used to feel like the child and he was the mature one. I looked up to him. I yearned for his approval (possibly too much) and would get terribly disappointed when I didn’t get it.

I still yearn for his approval. I want to feel like I’m doing what he would have advised me to do, like I’m making him proud. But I’m not sure.  He was so pragmatic. I am stubborn and willful. He was good with money. I seem incapable of saving, not spending. He was naturally diplomatic. I am naturally spacey. He was like an anchor. I am like a kite!

One thing is for sure. He would tell me to relax and not freak out. What will be, will be, and there’s nothing I can do about it right now. I’ll know soon enough what the verdict is. He would tell me to focus on the puppy tonight. She’s recovering from getting spayed and has been couped up inside most of the day while she mends. She’ll be very happy to see me when I get home. We’ll go for a nice stroll in the neighborhood and both get some fresh air. Maybe the skies will clear and we’ll be able to see the moon.

“Everything will be okay. Stop buggin’ out!” He said to me umpteen times, always with a smile.

So, that’s it. No more buggin’ out.


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Omens of Forever (a poem by Stephen John Kalinich)

My good friend, world-renowned poet Stephen J. Kalinich was kind enough to forward this poem to me. Enjoy and learn more about SJK here: http://www.stephenjohnkalinich.co.uk/
 
OMENS OF FOREVER
 
Omens predictions 
and exchanges
 only sorrow sees its own face
in the image
in the mirror
ignites compassion
and sacred trust
We view but through 
a dim lens
this vastness
the impeccable beauty
of a single rose
half in bloom 
among thorns
grand eloquence shines
etched in each sharp deep cut
of blood freshly drawn
with quiet gestures
we hold on to transparent 
fleeting clouds
until
the symphonic culminates
where the end is near
and we face our limitation
idle disconnected
 grow jaded 
while the quartets 
the cellos 
violins violas play
the final chords
while poets quote phrases
that do not really capture
what this living is
 fragile existence 
has had its evening
goes into forever stillness
 and weeps
for questions 
are never answered
and only wisdom 
watches 
rescinds its invitation
vacillates 
between here 
and far away
for death is always 
here in everything
and the derelicts  
need no words 
disguised 
a hand reaches 
out to you
 that you do not touch
goodbye
goodbye
chills you 
to the gut
kills you 
vile circumstance
suffers long
why do we behold 
for such a brief 
glory 
what 
one may never find  
a meaning
in the howl of the 
vagabond 
on Alameda
the call of the wild
gives up its soul 
but not without 
a might struggle
oh divine justice
to be a part 
of the madness
and the triumph
to transcend physicality
to go quickly into
the eternal without fear
or  hesitation 
holding the last fragments
of this sweet journey
in a grace 
we never quite understand
I want to blend into it
become a part of the tapestry.
 
Stephen John Kalinich
C.2012

Thanks, Stevie! xoxo


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Spirit Guide

My puppy Ruby is only 4 months old and still discovering the world. Today, on our morning walk she discovered birds – specifically, pigeons. She’s actually seen them before but today was the first time she really noticed one. As she leapt in the air, wagging her tail, yelping with excitement, I laughed – and a stranger waiting at the bus stop nearby also laughed.

The pigeon of Ruby’s affection seemed hardly fazed. It didn’t fly away. It simply hopped a step or two out of Ruby’s reach, which of course made her even more frenetic.

I thought of Kaz. It doesn’t take much for me to think of him, especially around Ruby. I keep wishing we could be enjoying moments like this together, not to mention raising her together. I know for sure he would be better at disciplining at her. And she would have been daddy’s little girl.

But the pigeon made me think of him in another way too.

A few weeks after he passed, his best friend was going through some family issues and missing him. One night, he decided to walk to a local playground to be alone and think. While he was sitting on a swing, a crow flew down beside him and started “ca-cawing” to him loudly and repeatedly. “I felt like it was Kaz trying to tell me something,” he later told me.

On the one year anniversary of Kaz’s passing, I went back to Joshua Tree National Park, one of our favorite getaway spots. It was the first time I had been there without him and rather emotional. After a good cry, I sat on a rock and just looked out at the desert, remembering past trips there together.

Then I noticed a yellow and black bird about 20 feet in front of me and only a few feet above the ground, flying in circles. Once it had my attention, it began to gradually rise higher and higher, in a continuous circular motion, until it seemed to literally disappear into the sun.

At the time, I felt certain that I had just received a sign from Kaz. The bird was yellow and black, the colors of the Pittsburgh Steelers, his favorite football team second to the Redskins (he was from Washington D.C.). It seemed to both appear from nowhere and disappear into thin air. And after seeing it, I felt reassured, like I was not alone.

I should add that I’m not a particularly religious person, and neither was Kaz. He once sent me this quote in an email: “Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.” – Arthur C. Clarke

But we did feel spiritual and would often discuss various spiritual interpretations.

That said, I’m quite sure he would find these bird encounters funny.

I don’t know if what his best friend and I encountered was “real” or imagined, but there are many civilizations throughout the world who believe animals are part of our spiritual teachers and guides. Perhaps it’s up to the individual who experiences them.

Have you ever experienced an “animal spirit”? Do you think they’re possible?