Tuesday, May 23, 2017

#SOL17: Do Not Look Away from Life

Walker Evans, Subway Portrait, 1941, Gelatin silver print, from here.

It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long. 
                   - Walker Evans,  Many Are Called, quoted in the Afterward, p. 197.

I. 

One birthday, Rob gave me a book of photographs made by Walker Evans. He knew my love for photography and the iconic images are certainly ones I have long appreciated. The bit of advice by the artist that tops this post comes from a book of images Walker made while riding New York subways. 

It is also advice I now take to heart. 

Witnessing your husband die an early death, only sharpens Evans' words--resulting in a clarity so brilliant it is hard to look away.  

Perspectives alter. 

Evans is right--We are all not here long. We ought to make the most of it.


II.

I began reading Sheryl Sandberg's and Adam Grant's Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resistance, and Finding Joy earlier in the week. Their discussion about post-traumatic growth--the capacity to grow from trauma--resonated. They write,
...post-traumatic growth could take five different forms: finding personal strength, gaining appreciation, forming deeper relationships, discovering more meaning in life, and seeing new possibilities (p. 79).
In the bereavement group I have participated in during the last 14 months, post-traumatic growth can be seen in the women I have come to know. I want to say that these are exceptional women, but that would be a partial-truth. They are also beautifully ordinary. Perhaps like you. Certainly like me. 

In this group, I see women who find personal strength in the adversity they are experiencing, who show appreciation for dwelling in the beauty of a moment of an ordinary day, who question their lives and what they are making of their lives, and perhaps most significantly--they are women who speak of what is possible. In seeking possibility, joy unfolds. 

What I have mostly learned is that how we name what happens and re-happens to those we love and ourselves are choices we make. That we are each responsible for those choices may be the most significant understanding I have garnered during the last 20 months since Rob was first diagnosed. 

I am responsible for my own life. You are responsible for yours.


III.

Recently, I was able to join a writer's group in northern NJ.  At first I had been waitlisted and I was delighted a week ago when I received an email from the group's leader saying there was now an opening.  It's a sharp group and discussing two writers' submitted works reminded me so much of the way Rob and I supported one another for decades.  My husband was my own, personal editor.  No one read my work with a more critical eye, than Rob.  I love when others see things I simply have missed while reading. This new knowledge and perspective is such a gift. I found that to be the case last week as I listened to the other writers' discussing the texts. 

Next month, I plan to share with the group a section of the memoir I am writing. The work is based not only on my husband's death, but also on the life I am creating in the aftermath. There is a grace to knowing deep in my bones what is most essential from what is merely interesting, what is merely catchy. Chronicling Rob's death and the grief and resilience Devon and I struggle with has helped me to discern what matters from what does not.

What I want to contribute via the memoir is some of the understandings that have emerged in the journey these last two years. Grieving, writing, making art, being a single parent, connecting with other widows and so many others--all of it has helped me to not look away from life.  It's like those images Walker Evans made on the subway so many years ago when he pointed a camera at those unknowing and captured ordinary lives being lived. Each image seems to be saying, Do not look away from life. Do not.

Perhaps that is what Rob meant when he told me all those months ago to live brilliantly.  Do not look away from life.



Sunday, May 21, 2017

Teaching Writing and Tacit Knowing





Devon at 6.

I. 

The photograph above always reminds me that interests are far more important than any given direction. Devon wrote the first two lines --"Spring is here. I can play"--from dictation and with support.  He was in kindergarten and had turned 6, two months earlier. I can remember that after he finished he thought for a moment and then he drew the triangle-like shape, paying a lot of attention to darkening the edge. I was curious as to what he was creating. Then he wrote his own sentence.  

"This is A BLA hoL." (This is a black hole). 

He asked me to help him make the words correct. I showed him on another piece of paper and he then added the changes, using the red marker. 

Which statement is more interesting to you as a reader? Which statement tells you more about the mind of a child at 6? Which statement prompts you to pose questions?


II. 

I think about these lessons I learned at home with my son when I think of the many ways we attempt to teach writing to children at school.  With the CCSS's narrow stance on writing product, there are a lot of units of study being enacted in schools as if knowing the parts of a report or argument might somehow be what is most essential for being a writer. 

Yet, when I read students' writing--the product that is being developed in many classrooms I most often grow bored. The texts seem so lifeless.  Having something to say is rarely a matter of recipe and more often a matter of curiosity, stance, question, passion, and belief. Knowing what you want to say comes from being wide awake, being uncertain, and having a habit of writing. It is not from studying the parts of an argument or the sections of an expository report.  Yes, these bits of knowledge can help shape a text, but ideas are rarely generated by following steps that have been explicitly stated by someone else. 

The irony here is having something to say often involves not knowing. Here, tacit knowledge is more king than pawn.  I wonder if there is room at school for such matters?

Saturday, May 20, 2017

#SOL17: The Handmade Art Book

Part of a two-page spread.

Bettina's handmade journal.

Last month, when my art journaling group met we created handmade journals using composition book covers, file folders, and wax linen to bind the books. I used white file folders and have found that these work well as pages. I also have been surprised at how well paint (acrylic and watercolor) and collage papers adhere to the folders. They really make an excellent substrate.

The book making process was complicated, yet very doable, especially as we had an excellent teacher. One of our group members, Bettina Makley, taught all of us how to create the journals. Bettina is a practicing artist and she was gracious to teach us. We had seen a journal she had made at a prior session that was held in her studio and we knew we wanted to try our hands at creating our own.

This past week, I finally started to use my journal and I must say that I am loving it. Using a journal I made by hand is special.

Note: You can see more of Bettina's forays into book making here. She is available to teach small groups if you have an interest. You can contact her through her Facebook page. She is an excellent art teacher.

Below are some of the first pages from the journal.


Journal from side view .
I created different sized pages to add interest.

Part of a two-page spread.

Part of a two-page spread.
A cut page (you can see the pages that peek out)

2 page spread background only - not sure what I'll be doing on this page - Perhaps some buildings.

Just started 2 pages.

painted woman on tissue paper and textured background

Friday, May 19, 2017

#SOL17: Newark, 20 Years Later

4th graders creating a map



2nd grade teacher reading aloud a novel
20 years ago this month, I accepted the position of the director of literacy for Newark Public Schools in New Jersey. I was in my 30s and had just finished my dissertation and would defend it that next spring. The job was somewhat overwhelming given the academic needs that seemed so prevalent, the pressure heaved upon children and staff to produce academic gains as measured on a state assessment, and the scale.  When I worked there the enrollment was about 50,000 students across 80 schools. Working with staff and students in Newark was  the most important work I would do while employed in public schools.  What I didn't understand well until today is that the years there would fundamentally change me, allow me to see whiteness in ways I simply had not and prepare me to be, perhaps, a better mom to my own son who would be born two years later. What was most important, without question, were the children and teens who populated the schools. 20 years later, I still know that to be true.

Newark was a source of love.

4th graders from NPS reading Hawthorne's The Pomegranate Seeds during a Greek Mythology unit.

Working in Newark allowed me to be a minority--as much as one white woman from Ireland might be. For the first time in my working life there were daily references to music, art, literature, food, dance, and historical and contemporary happenings that I did not understand, and needed to learn. Working in Newark and becoming friends with so many there allowed me to (un)learn some matters of race as I had been taught and to experience from others there the nature and pulse of profound joy and kindness that often were connected to community and faith.

20 years later, the published news out of Newark continues to be more desperate than kind, and often is limited to recounting dangerous situations and terrible deaths. The myriad of caring acts that more typify the different communities there are lost or under-reported. And frankly, we are all the worse for that.

I still work in Newark helping schools there to better ensure the development of fine readers and writers. It is such doable work and some days it feels a bit frustrating to know how important these learning changes could be had and to not be able to influence the public schools who seem bent on chasing academic success with products, not people. If products alone could alter performance trajectories, large scale need would no longer be an issue. In the last two years of Rob's life, before he was diagnosed with cancer, he worked with me in the city. He told me more than once that he understood why I found the place, the people, and the work so compelling.





Tuesday, May 16, 2017

#SOL17: Waxing Crescent Moon

Crescent (M.A. Reilly, Rockport, Maine, November, 2012)
I.

Earlier last week, I removed the ring that Rob had placed on my finger all those decades ago. It was done with far less ceremony than when we first married. I removed it without hesitation. Sometimes you just know when it is right. And I knew without question that Rob was gone forever.

There's death, it's aftermath, and then there are those singular events that profoundly show what has been known, yet not truly felt.

My husband is dead. I am not.
Life pulses on.

II.

The months between Rob's death and now, have revealed a new understanding of what it means to be a parent. No longer can I turn my body into Rob's and seek answers through touch. No longer can I pass parenting to Rob, knowing he will care for Dev. Now, the joys and challenges of being the only parent are all mine.

Some days it's lonely here without Rob--other days, less so.


III.

After a week, an imprint of my wedding band remains. For years I have been wearing that slender bend of a waxing crescent moon wrapped tightly around my finger.

Now, that young moon is gone and only the pale glow remains. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

#PoetryBreak: The Main Thing to Know

Grief (Cohen and Reilly, 2016)


The main thing to know
about grief is how lonely it feels,
like an empty boat moored
beneath moonlight.
Here, breath
remains the color
of silence.

When you
finally speak
grief rises
from the ground
like thunder,
like a too-angry god
so loud
you can't hear
your own wings beating.

Even now,
your heart
feels too tender,
too undone
like the bowline
that slips
from
my hand
to form
this poem.

It is in the making
that you learn
to live
again.



Tuesday, May 9, 2017

#SOL17: Hard Work

What I Meant To Say (M.A. Reilly, 5.1.2017)

Dying is such hard work, as is bearing witness and living afterwards. Before Rob's death living was not a burden, was not work.

In the weeks before death, Rob became less and less earthbound, so often staring beyond the here and now at what I did not know, could not name. We, who had been so connected across the decades, so much in one another's pocket, were no more. My husband would forget both home and name as agitation and restlessness gave way to more and more sleep.  In the days leading to death, only sharp pain would cause him to yell my name aloud. Mary Ann! The first time it happened I didn't realize he had even called my name after not saying it or any other name for days. It wasn't until my older brother pointed it out that I realized some part of Rob could still retrieve my name.

Against these dramatic changes was the knowledge that a handful of months earlier we were planning a holiday in Maine, untouched by the diagnosis of cancer and the failure of doctors and hospitals whose carelessness would alter our lives forever.

60 is too young to die.
17 is too young to be fatherless.
56 is too young to be a widow.



Thursday, May 4, 2017

#SOL17: Unfinished


(M.A. Reilly, 2017)
I.
When he died, I felt lonely, not just for his physical presence in our lives but also lonely for the incomplete picture that was my life after he left. It’s as if someone took a pair of scissors and cut out half of the photo, leaving me unfinished.  -  Michelle Steinke-Baumgard  (from here)

Another death that happens after the loss of a beloved husband or wife is the death of "us."  At first it is subtle, not rearing its medusa-like head as shock and terror, loneliness and fear abound.  But in time, that loss of us becomes more prominent, noticeable. I was reading an article by Michelle Steinke-Baumgard, Who Should You Love After Loss?, that a friend sent to me and I realized that this second year after Rob died is largely about mourning the death of us--Rob and Mary Ann, Mary Ann and Rob--and all that our names joined together represented and promised.  And it is the promised that is hardest to look in the eye and not blink, or at least tear up. But it is also those promises of a future that will not come that must be let go.

Steinke-Baumgard writes about the space necessary to learn to listen to the self you are and are becoming. She writes,

To find these new ways to feel full as an individual, I realized I had to stop hating my alone time. Instead, I needed to see my alone time as the opportunity to meet myself, listen to myself and love myself. The quiet times are when I could hear the most from deep inside and find out who I was as an individual.
Whether we have suffered one loss or another or none that feel traumatic, the sense of being unfinished is largely human and remains with us,especially if we are circumspect.  Who we are is emerging, never complete, nor consistent. Even with Rob alongside, my sense of incompleteness may have felt less noticeable, but it was nonetheless present.  The person Rob met in 1988, is not the women who held his hand as he died in 2016. I think here of Kurt Gödel and the second incompleteness theorem. We cannot prove our consistency within ourselves. I think in many ways that is the power of love. Our consistency is often shown through the gestures, words, and actions of another in relationship to self. I learned about myself through my husband and others.

II.

The space where I quibble with Steinke-Baumgard is in the idea of a self being complete. I get what she is saying about learning to listen and to love yourself and I agree with all of that.  I think she captures all of this so well. I love the silent spaces where I can write and paint. These are more solitary, than not. I don;t think that everyone who grieves needs to embrace the silence.  For some this would be an anathema and would be more harmful than helpful. If I have learned anything these last two years, it is that the path after the death of a husband is multiple and what is possible is best defined by those doing the walking.

As I read the second half of the article, I wondered what being complete means. What did Steinke-Baumgard had in mind? Being complete is offered up without definition and that is problematic as it continues a myth that 'loving one's self' is akin to completeness. Further she says that we need to be complete before beginning other relationships. I was certainly not complete when I met my husband.

She explains that,
Grief has changed you, shifted you and transformed you into a new being, and while some might see that as a negative, I see it as nothing but beautiful and amazing.
This feels wrong to me.

Perhaps it is because I am a mom to our son who is now just 18 or that I love Rob and was loved so deeply and was nevertheless incomplete. There are pieces of myself that have not been transformed. There is a bedrock sense of self that has been shaken, but not broken. My fierce sense of love and protection of Devon was present before and after Rob died. My love for other people and interests I have had continue to exist. My sense of social justice is ever present--a commitment that has not eroded. I carry with me a belief in possibility and hope still remains.  I have a deep commitment to understand and love other--to become as Maxine Greene has penned, (other)wise. Yes, this loss shifts so much and leaves open new definitions of self, but there is something essential that also remains. To love and have loved one man for 28 years, shapes a psyche and a soul and even though Rob has died his touch and presence still (in)forms me.

III.

We are all unfinished. Whether we suffer the loss of a spouse's death or not, we remain unfinished. As scary as that may feel it is more truth than not.



Wednesday, May 3, 2017

#SOL17: Grey

Me turning to look at Rob while we were on holiday in Montana.
I.

Imagine a grey screen descending--separating you from everything that defines your life.  Can you see it?  Feel it? Life is a perpetual stormy day. When you look from where you are standing what surrounds you, (in)forms you is just a bit duller; less bright. It's as if you were wearing dark sunglasses in the fog.

That is what life feels like 14 months after Rob's death. We are socked in, fuzzy, less clear or lively as we were before--before the diagnosis and staph infections and surgeries and treatments and mishaps and death.


II.

For a moment tonight I imagined what our home would feel like if Rob were alive--if he had not died--if he had somehow beat the cancer and staph infections. Spring would be glorious and we would be taking note of the changes. We would all be so excited with Devon nearing high school graduation and then off to the very college he wanted to attend.  Rob would have applauded Devon's acceptance into Stevens Institute of Technology to study computer engineering. My husband was a science geek at heart. He would have been so proud of his son and so delighted about the course of study Devon would be undertaking. Knowing Rob, he would have wanted to attend as well.

But, we had other plans for that time.


III.

Rob and I were determined to start a new chapter in our marriage when Devon went off to college. Yes, we would feel that empty nest feeling and given our love for our son and how much we enjoy being with him, we would have felt great sadness. But, we also knew that we wanted some time together. Just us. We were together for a decade before adopting Devon.  We wanted some time alone.

During the early stages of Rob's illness (the first few weeks) he told me he wanted to renew our wedding vows--this time with people we loved present. He had even picked out rings. We had talked about taking small trips here and there; seeing America from the side roads, and even after paralysis set in, Rob asked me to research vans that could be driven using hands, not feet. Less than 6 weeks later he would die.

Our initial plan as we continued to work together in our company, was to spend a week out of every month traveling. We knew we could organize work so that we had a week to play most every month. Now that cannot happen, will not happen. And nothing I say here or do can change that ending.


IV.

Everything these days is less shiny.  Some moments, I miss my husband more than all the words I know can express. When do you think I will feel like I am fully living? When do you think the grey will grow thin and transparent?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

#SOL17: The Power of Love

From my art journal (2017)


I.

A month after my son turned 17, his father died.  Even now, 14 months later it still feels surreal to write the word, died. I wondered then how my son would navigate through life without his father. Would he be okay? What would this loss do to him? How might it shape him? A friend told me that Rob and I had filled Devon with so much love that it would last him a life time. There was such comfort in that thought.

I have only recently realized that Rob also filled me with love, enough frankly, to last my lifetime. It was that strength that I  tapped into during these last two years. A strength born from the love we made between us. Knowing with certainty that I have loved and been loved centers me.


II.

Today love is more powerful than loss; more powerful than sorrow and doubt. Love finds expression and strength in the everyday acts that now comprise my life. Making dinner for my son. Taking a walk and listening to the birds chatter. Planting flowers.  Finding joy in the spread of paint on a page. Writing daily. Working with children and teachers. Spending time with family and friends.

When sorrow comes and it will, when I am reminded of this loss, when I feel unbound and adrift, I want to remember that deep within is a well of love my husband gave to me every day for half of my life.

That well is overflowing.

Monday, May 1, 2017

#Poetry Break: Grief Has a Sound

A Man from Cape May on New Years Day. Many years ago.




The wind
that New Year's Day
reckless and wild
found us 190 miles from home
huddled at the Cape May lookout
where we watched others
who had gathered too
to watch the sea.

Then nothing bad
was known
firsthand.
We dreamed of futures
and held them up
like bright bits of flame
that warmed our too-cold hands
on that first January night.

Years later I would know
that grief has a sound
more howl than holler,
like the sea wind set loose
reckless and wild
a lamentation
now known
by heart.