I’m pleased to announce the publication of my first poetry chapbook. I hope you’ll check it out on Amazon or (better yet) at the publisher’s website, to support small business! https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/the-invisible-suitcase-by-elaine-olund/
Today in workshop: coloring back in time
In today’s Amherst Artists & Writers workshop, we finished with a prompt rooted in mindfulness and childhood memory. Here’s how it goes: you choose a few crayons from a big bowl, make sure everyone has drawing paper, and together we all breathe in the smell of the crayolas.
Now imagine you are sinking back in time, drawing with crayons, when someone’s told you to go color. You have nothing else to do, and busily you begin to draw what you would have drawn then. We have twelve minutes. Draw until you feel moved to begin writing, just noticing the feel of the crayon as you make lines and scribble—as long as you want to, you can skip writing entirely—and then write until the time is up.
…What came up for my workshoppers was wonderfully diverse in tone, ranging from wry to meditative to inspiring. I’m always blown away by how writers can take risks and write from the heart when we relax and get in front of that internal critic. Try it yourself sometime! Playing is fun, and brings out creative ideas.
Here’s what came up for me:
My mother never called anyone an asshole
Orange, I thought it was orange but the name on the label said “scarlet.”
I remember the fatter crayons they gave us in kindergarten, fat like our fingers were. I remember the way the color flowed out onto paper and everyone noticed I could draw what I saw, a gift, they said, pointing. But I just wanted to be small and unseen.
Seen, I blushed like the red crayon and inside turned cyan and chilly like the car on winter mornings on the way to school.
Seen, they said, “Oh, look how cute, she’s so shy!” And how my mother never told them to “stop talking about her as if she’s not here. She’s listening, assholes.”
(My mother never called anyone an asshole, but if she were alive now, I think she would.)
Mama got feistier and feistier as she grew older. But back when I was in Kindergarten, she was shrinking pale blue and gray and lots of black skies. There were no petal or dandelion-colored flowers blooming in her smiles. I drew her tulips and daisies and roses. I used all the crayons in the big box, sharpening them with the little sharpener to make the flowers as real as I could make them, but they were never real enough for her to feel them in her heart, it seemed.
She was blue and alone but much later, when I was all grown up and she was dying, she was brave and alone, instead. She would have called an asshole an asshole, I’m sure of it—if only she’d lived a little longer.
She was blooming like a warm summer day, right as she died back.
(I just wish she could come back.)
Today I started off writing from the prompt: “I will be happy when…” a prompt I used to just ROCK out on endlessly, and I realized I can no longer easily write to that. It made me laugh out loud.
Huh! I am happy now. Not every minute. But now. I am right now. And IN every happy minute, I am there, finally. The wall that kept the happiness slightly removed has dissolved, or mostly anyway. Old pathways persist. I am learning to sit in the sad moments, in the fearful ones, in the frustrated ones, and feel what I feel. My happiness is dependent on being awake to the joy in each day, as well as to the pain and suffering in each day.
Maybe it is:
I will be happy when I allow myself to surrender to what is. Let go of what was, and have faith in what will be.
It isn’t just about noticing the birds singing and the way the crickets are, right this minute, chirping in a way that makes me feel it is late September instead of August. Or about feeling the way the warm water flows over my hands as I rinse my dishes. It’s not about deep breathing or asanas. I mean, yes, that is part of it, noticing things, feeling things, being focused and single-minded.
(As a person whose emotions sometimes swallow her whole, this is often a challenge.)
I spent so many years, numbing myself, holding my vacation days just out of reach like a pretty sunset I kept driving towards, endlessly. Holding my happiness hostage to conditions being just right. And I did enjoy the vacations, those golden-hour weeks. Except when I worried about what would be waiting for me on my return. Except when I avoided feeling things that were other than happy. I was on vacation. It was my earned happy time. Merry-go-round.
I’m still sometimes drawn back to circling like a hawk around yesterday and tomorrow. But I’m learning.
I have what I need. I have permission to be happy NOW. Today. Even if I am worried about something or other. Even if I am very worried about bad things that are happening. Injustices. Brewing wars. Feeling powerless and doing what I can and it seeming not ever enough, not enough. Even if it’s hot and sticky outside, which I hate, and even if I can’t see some of the people I love as often as I’d like, even if I miss them a lot: I can still be happy. I don’t have to wait for the vacation or the visit or the pretty weather. Or a new president (I would like a new president though). I don’t have to wait for an agent to love my work, or for becoming certified at something or successful at anything. My happiness isn’t dependent on being a certain weight. My happiness isn’t dependent on being young. I’m not young anymore, and yet: I’ve never felt more at home in my body and the world. My happiness, I have discovered, is dependent on one thing and one thing only. Accepting what is. Even if what is IS NOT what I want. (Plus poking around to find what is sometimes a bumpy process, and yes, you can stir up an angry hornet’s nest, get stung all over, and still feel happiness again despite the welts.)
This spring I skidded into a deep trough of grief. It was a place I needed to go, but resisted, heels dug in, fear holding me back. I clung to the past. My anxious mind flared. “What if you are never happy again?” it fretted. “What if you feel the hard things and it never stops hurting?” My suffering came when I resisted.
When I let go and finally let what I felt rise up—I discovered I was also finding joy. Lots of joy. The more I allowed those scary suppressed feelings to be seen and felt, the more joy rose in me afterward.
Joy feels like the water on your hands when you are washing the dishes and the afternoon light paints patterns on the kitchen floor on a day you have not gotten it all done. On a day when you did what you could, and felt what you felt to the best of your ability, and forgave yourself moments of confusion. Maybe I’ll never quite know myself, and what I feel, all the time? Probably not. It’s also okay to just be with not knowing.
I don’t have to figure it all out to be happy, do I?
It feels good.
This week brought the twenty-third anniversary of my mother’s death. The morning of the anniversary, I woke gently. I felt so peaceful, as if I had been rocked in my sleep. It reminded me of how I slept on the day she died.
I was a new mother then, my firstborn just five weeks old. Day and night had blurred into a fuzzy netherworld, especially given that I’d spent the past two weeks strapping my (often screaming) baby into the car, and driving back and forth between my home and my mother’s home, an hour away, crying along with the baby.
My mother was thin and fragile but was seeming to do okay despite her advanced-stage cancer diagnosis, right up until she wasn’t okay at all and was rushed to the hospital.
With that news, I strapped baby Avery into the car and drove north and stayed, in my childhood bedroom, alone in the house while my siblings made arrangements to come from much further away. My husband came up and stayed as long as he could, but work called him.
It was a hot July, and humid. Heat saps me in the best of times. Then there was the constant stickiness of sweat, mine and the baby’s; my breast milk leaks and her spit up and all the messiness of the start of life slammed up against the end of life, as each day I strapped Avery into a cotton sling slung across my body and went to the hospital, where my mother was threading in an out of consciousness, more out than in.
My mother’s last words to me were “pretty baby.” I think that was what she said.
At least that’s how I decided to interpret it.
And then my mother closed her eyes and seemed to be asleep, but it was hard to know. Hard to know what to do, so I sat by her bedside when Avery slept or nursed in her sling-nest, and I paced the room and the halls when Avery woke, fussy.
Some of the nurses scolded me. “What are you thinking,” I remember one saying. “Bringing a newborn into hospital crawling with germs?”
Now I’d tell that nurse to fuck off, doesn’t she of all people know that the baby has my immune system to protect her, and is too small to touch things herself, and she’s safe as can be, and besides, don’t you see? I need to be here. I need to be with both of these people. But back then, her scolding just set off a cascade of anxiety. There’s nothing worse than wanting to split your self in two, and that’s how I felt. Divided.
Suddenly I was summoned to a cramped room by a social worker who demanded to know how I planned to care for my mother, because there was no sense operating to fix the brain bleed; they couldn’t help her any further, and a discharge was imminent. I have no memory of what came next, but hours later or perhaps the next day, I was on a tour of the local Hospice, a gleaming new facility, baby strapped on me muttering to be fed, the Hospice lady talking on and on about pet visits while my milk let down, and my tears leaked. My body and my life seemed completely beyond my control, and I was all about control then.
The Hospice lady told me it might be days or weeks before a space became available, and that there was no way to know how soon my mother might die, but they could set up home visits. I was overcome with fear, dread, feeling completely overwhelmed.
When one of my older brothers arrived, I drove back to my home. Word came that a room had indeed miraculously opened at Hospice. Avery fell asleep, or my husband took her away and rocked her—I’m not sure which, but sprawled across the futon, I fell into the deepest, best sleep of my adult life. The sleep of an exhausted toddler. A sleep such as I had again on the twenty-third anniversary of my mother’s death.
On the day my mother died, my sleep had been broken by my husband, gently touching my shoulder, saying, “the phone, it’s your brother…”
It took a long, long while for me to figure out that I had not betrayed my mother by leaving, by taking a break. All I knew to do was hold on, when I should have let go.
I was too scared and tired to see the truth, that she needed me to be gone in order to let go. And there’s part of me now that thinks perhaps she also needed permission to let go herself. My brother told me he read psalms to her, and told her she could go. He had a faith that I did not. She let go. She went. And now, finally, I can see it was not an end at all.
I think the sweet dreamy sleep on the day of her death was her farewell, covering me like a soft blanket. I think the wash of peace on her death anniversary was her hello, her freed energy finding me, holding me for a long moment, then letting me go to live my life.
At least that’s how I decided to interpret it.
(For the dust. It makes me sneeze.)
My fifth hand is clutching a steaming mug and my sixth hand is wasting time on Facebook. My seventh and eighth hands are clasped in some kind of prayer, for forgiveness and strength, and all my other hands are clapping a rhythm to keep the rest of us on task. (Futile).
Later, the right hand will order pizza while the left opens a beer and the others will rest, their weary knuckles lined up still as the stones and shells collected along faraway hills and shores, the useless stones and shells that I tell myself I do not need in this next life.
Stones and shells held in younger palms once, stones and shells cold now, but once warm with the energy of discovery. Every stone, every shell: the most beautiful, the smoothest, the whitest, the thin-as-a-dime, translucent ones, the one black as the cold Pacific on a moonless night, the round one full of holes and light as a bite of sponge cake, the tiny snail shell spiraling the way my heart does, these last days in this home where I spent more years than any other.
(One of my sleeping hands wakes, shakes a finger at me, silently chastising me for being so impossibly sentimental. I tap it with my Ikea hammer—not even that hard, just a little tap—and then feel badly as it recoils in pain. Makes me think of the witch’s foot when the house falls on her in the Wizard of Oz.)
Back on task. My extra hands snap softly, whisper-snapping a nice quiet beat, ceremonial sort of, as I plunge my two hands into the bowl of stones and shells.
It’s a big heavy bowl, overflowing with memories—the brightest, the shiniest, the darkest, the ones dyed ugly purple-pink with my own shame. A few marbles are mixed in: a topaz one, cat’s eye, like the cat who doesn’t live here anymore. There’s a pointy triangular piece of sharp-edged sea glass and an orange gem from a Mancala game, shiny as little girls’ laughter. I have to stop. It’s time. They are only stones and shells.
Such a rattle in my heart, settling and unsettling, as I move on at last.
Broken or not?
At snack time or lunch, that was a favorite game of my daughters. One would hold up an apple slice or a Ritz cracker or shiny orange Clementine and demand of the other, “Broken or not?”
They were both pretty masterful at holding a broken cracker or piece of fruit in such a way as to camouflage its fault lines. They loved to trick each other, and trick me, too. It was so hard to tell.
Because you cannot always tell if something—or someone—is whole by merely looking, can you?
I remember in the weeks after my father died suddenly, back when I was eighteen. I’d put on lots of mascara every morning, so that I wouldn’t cry, because if I did, it would give me raccoon eyes. I didn’t want any one to know how badly I was hurting. I didn’t know what to do with it, the pain. If I started crying, I might never stop; how embarrassing that would be. No one ever taught me anything but to pretend to be okay, to deny my real feelings. It ran in the family. Schooled from birth, like Tiger Woods was with golf, I was an ace.
My dad pretended he was okay right up until he died from it. Oh, it was a heart attack that killed him, but my personal theory is that sometimes illnesses spring from—or are worsened by— the grinding stress of hiding feelings. And we are trained to hide them, for fear of being labeled ‘broken.’ Our culture demands us to be perfect parents, perfect children, perfect wives, perfect workers. To be magically ‘perfectly adjusted’ without working through grief and trauma.
I used to sometimes reflexively use the phrase, “practice makes perfect,” with my girls, mostly right about when they were supposed to do math homework or play piano or violin. They would always shoot back, “But Mom, you always say that nobody’s perfect!” And I would smile and say, of course, that’s true.
Because I’d say that, too, all the time—like when I’d drop an egg on newly mopped floor, or especially if one of them did.
Of the two old sayings, only “nobody’s perfect” rings true.
The most together-looking people can be the most broken inside. You never really know, unless you get to know someone, unless you earn their trust and confidence, and even then—they have to be open enough or broken enough to expose their hidden wounds.
Which for some people is painfully hard, or even maybe impossible without help and work.
I think the true answer to the broken or not question—as it applies to humans, not fruit or crackers— is that we’re all broken at some point, and not all breaks heal completely. Some wounds ache forever. Being gentle with each other is always a good practice. Because more of us are broken, than not.
On Christmas, I give Annalee flowers, and she tells me how
her friend’s husband shot himself, how she found his body—
she tells me how it looked, but I won’t say
At the nursing home, Jo Marie tells me her son doesn’t visit anymore
her eyes shine like marbles when she says
he plays piano, he sings, like a bird—but he won’t come to see her
Later I’m walking home alone, singing, and the sky swallows me
like I’m a lost bird, like I’m Jo Marie’s son, singing but no one can hear
I fly away into dark blue
deeper and wetter than Lake Michigan on a summer Sunday;
I’m sucked up into blue, lost in blue, blue is rippling in the wind
silky blue sky like a scarf in the breeze, tight around my neck
I can’t sing anymore, it’s so tight, but I keep flying, can’t stop,
wondering how high, until I escape the world—escape myself?
How high until I become something else
become an arrow flying straight, flying true, into blue—
graceful, locked on a path, at last—a path, at last—
a point, a target, an aim, a place to rest
I’m flailing, trying to fly through this wobbly altitude
the flowers and the bread, delivered; but me? I feel weightless, unheld—
Even gravity has slipped away