The other day I was filling out a workbook that I have done several times in January… called Unraveling the Year Ahead. It’s a wonderful workbook created by author, photographer and teacher Susannah Conway. This little booklet is filled with solid questions to get you to write down your reflections on the past year - release what you want to, keep what you like, and then write down your goals and aspirations for the year ahead.
It is the first year I have done this since Drew died. The first year I have felt like caring about a new year. After his death, New Year’s never really felt like New Year’s anymore. For these last three years, June 12th has been my year marker. I have measured every bit of progress, every moment of growth, and ounce of healing all based on the day he died. Dec 31st was no longer the end of my year, June 11th was.
Last night, as I finished up the part of the workbook about looking back on the past year, I realized that January - for the first time in 4 years - felt like a new year again. I am back to being able to measure my own growth as a person by looking back all the way to the previous January. And somehow… it just happened. All on it’s own… naturally. It isn’t something I forced, or something I tried to make happen. It isn’t even something I noticed that happened until weeks later.
I'm always astounded at the things nature teaches me about life and grief. This week I went for a walk at a park near my new house. It's a wilderness park, with one trail that makes a 2 mile circle surrounding a prairie. For years, this area was farmland, and the park system has now preserved it to allow the landscape to fully restore back to it's original state. For miles all around, it is now an expansive prairie, flanked by thin fingers of woodland and bogland where the ground slopes low. Mike and I first found it a few weeks ago, and it has quickly become my favorite escape since moving to Ohio two months ago.
Firstly, not many people go there, so it's easy to feel almost entirely isolated in nature while you're there, which I love. Secondly, with the time of year, all the plants have begun to die off or go dormant, with their seed pods yawning wide into the brisk winds and tossing their seeds into the breath of autumn. From the moment I first laid eyes on this place, I was completely drawn to it. With dozens of varieties of flora, even dead plants create a kaleidescope of textures and shades – from browns to tawny yellows to silvery blues. For weeks I've been feeling a pull to go back here... to feed my eyes with all the richness of seeds and grains, cattails and milkweed pods, dried leaves and rustling grasses. To be surrounded by a place where death is beautiful...Read more
I was reading an article today about grief, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. One of the things that really stuck in this article was about the platitudes people throw at you when you are grieving… mainly, “It happened for a reason”. They make the assumption that, if you became a deeper, more compassionate, better person after the loss, that this loss was somehow necessary for your evolution. Like the author, I don’t agree with this either. I want to share a small excerpt from his article, as it really resonated with me and got my gears turning:
“...But loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in some ways it’s hardened me. While loss has made me acutely aware and empathetic of the pains of others, it’s also made me more inclined to hide. I have a more cynical view of human nature and a greater impatience with people who are unfamiliar with what loss does to people…
...To say that my losses somehow had to happen in order for my gifts to grow would be to trample on the memories of all those I lost too young.
...I’m certainly not going to pretend that I’ve made it simply because I was strong enough, that I became “successful“ because I ”took responsibility.“ I think people tell others to take responsibility when they don’t want to understand….”
Every now and then, something comes along that fills you to the bones with gratitude for this totally messed up, chaotic, stressful, sometimes shitty and also amazing life.
Just moments ago, I finished up a live phone interview. I was invited to speak about grief and the healing power of creativity at DeathExpo - an annual online conference held by the End-of-Life University. It all started by going to another conference about death, in Virginia earlier this year, where I met the founder of the university. We chatted over a few drinks at the bar and after hearing about my story and my photo series on grief, she invited me to be a part of this wonderful expo. That was back in the summer, so I've been waiting a while for this event.Read more
It's been about 3 weeks since I moved to Ohio... and I finally hit my first big trigger. A few days ago, I was listening to some country music when a song called “My Texas” came on. The lyrics wandered through familiar places... Enchanted Rock, Luckenbach, and my hometown of Corpus Christi Bay. Instantly I had images flooding my mind of all the many places I've lived and laughed and loved back home. All the family and friendships that are still there. But there was more to it than that. Which is why, in an instant, I spiraled into a total fit of grief. I must have cried for over an hour. It's only now, a few days later, that I am fully realizing it to be much more than just the normal homesick feeling.
I miss my home state, where I have lived all my life. But what's more, I miss the home of my heart – the person that is no longer here. Being homesick ties so deeply into missing Drew. Not only because our life there feels far away, but because he so embodies Texas culture for me. Western boots, dance halls, guns and beer... I was a city girl when I met him. He was the one who introduced me to that true Texas culture, and I fell in love with it immediately. Now years later, I am still drinking beer, wearing my western boots, going to country dance halls and enjoy going shooting. Or at least I was until moving here.Read more
We took a trip to Pittsburgh yesterday. It was my first time to ever visit Pennsylvania. I'm not sure why, but I've wanted to visit this state since I was a kid. As we approached I was so surprised. The city itself was so beautiful... and the landscape was nothing like I'd expected – although I am not entirely sure what I expected it to be. The hills all around were steep and towering, the city itself built up within the twists and turns of the natural world. It felt inventive, and sturdy, and wonderfully adapted to the landscape. Tall, skinny houses on steep slopes. Narrow winding roads to accommodate the inclines and declines. A system of bridges to connect things amidst the two rivers that surround downtown and meet on one end.
I'm always fascinated by cities built up in areas like this. Even more impressive is that this city is 400 years old. You could feel the history of this place just driving through it. There was a certain feeling of grit and determination about it. A sense of the ingenuity and adaptability it took to create. I started to consider the idea of a place like this as a metaphor for human life and all it's struggles...Read more
I'm writing this somewhere between Nashville and Louisville, on the big move from Texas to Ohio to be with Mike. We've been on the road since yesterday, and while today has been a far better day with more feelings of excitement, I wanted to share the really raw feelings I wrote out yesterday... because this is a very real and painful part of this experience of deciding to move and begin a new life with someone else....
“Somewhere near the Texas-Arkansas border, the night is inky black and the rain is beating relentlessly on the windshield. It's been pouring the entire day, enough to flood half the state. The rain, and the whole of this bizarre apacalyptic day of flooded highways, closed side roads and thundering clouds, has added an eerie chaos to my departure. A special festival of triggers in my mind about dying in a horrible rainy crash. They are thoughts that never bothered me before Drew died in an accident. Now I know, it could happen at any moment. At times like this, that really gets the best of me.
It's nearly midnight now, and I've managed to doze for an hour or so. Mike has been driving steadily through the black sheets of rain, and we're just 30 minutes from our stopping point for the night: Texarkana. This hitting of the Texas-Arkansas border appears to cause an eruption of emotions...Read more
It's Sunday afternoon as I type this, and I'm on a 4 hour layover in Denver on my way back to Texas. I have spent the past 3 days in Portland for a conference on death and dying – where I stood up for the first time and did a presentation about my story with death and how creativity has helped me. What an experience it has been. Almost a year ago now, I was invited to speak at this conference by a woman who I'd shared my photography with. Small world, she turned out to be in charge of the arts & culture section of this brand new conference called DeathOK... she wrote to me and said I was the first person she thought of inviting to speak. I decided it was meant to be, and despite me total fear of public speaking, I agreed to come out.
This was a first. A big and scary one. I've never presented anything outside of a few less-than-mediocre speeches in college. That was over ten years ago. And I totally bombed my presentations most of the time because I was so nervous. Let's just say, public speaking is NOT one of my strengths and is something I have completely avoided for the entirely of my adult life.
Until one day last year, this woman emails me, asking me to present... and I realize that I might just have something really important that I want to say for the first time. And that something... is my story. About losing both of my parents before the age of 26. About losing the man I was going to spend my life with, and this whole bullshit ride death has taken me on. Also about how creativity helped me time and time again through each of these losses. Suddenly, when presented with her request, I realized my desire to share this journey with others was finally greater than my fear of public speaking...Read more
It's been a long week. Most of my stuff has sat in storage since Drew died three years ago. And before that, probably half those boxes hadn't been opened in years. With the move to Ohio in just a few weeks, it's time to finally tackle this.
I decided that I didn't want to take any extra baggage (literally) with me on this new venture, and that means I'm opening up every last box. I'm pulling out a million different little pieces of myself from long ago... and deciding which pieces I want to keep and which I want to leave behind.
It's been emotional. To dig through my past and remember who I used to be. A lot has happened to me that isn't just the grief over my fiance. Death, alcoholism, family dystunction, abuse...I haven't had the worst life by far, but it hasn't been easy.
Revisiting the boxes reminded me of how I spent the first 25 years of my life in survival mode. There was never stability, or healthy relationships, or a feeling of safety in my world. There was never room to put down the armor and just relax into life. Not until I met Drew...Read more
It is a chilly October morning and I am listening to the wind and watching the early light steal across the sky. I want to write words that are meaningful and resonate with others who are grieving, too. I want to speak to the parts of me that others may keep hidden, even from themselves. I want to share the broken bits and the light of hope that shines between the cracks in the brokeness. I want to be eloquent and wise.
But some days, the words aren't there. Some days all I can do is speak of my direct experience with grief and loss. Some days all I can do is write what is present for me, in this moment, and hope that the words make sense.
It has been an exhausting week, though I didn't seem to accomplish much. Recently, the expectations at my workplace have made me question my capability for the job and even my desire to remain in the field in which I have worked for the past 35 years. And I have found myself searching for Stan, in the hope that he could, as he did when he was alive, ground me in the truth, help me shift my thinking and priorities, and gain a wider perspective.
But I don't know where he is.