We’ve heard it, read it, or said it:  “The only Constant is Change”. A man named Heraclitus was apparently the first to make this observation, in his writings around 500 BCE. Let that sink in, and nurture your spirit for a minute:  we’ve been stressing over changes in our lives for a while. As long as there’s breath in our lungs, change is coming: ready and welcome… or not.

A certain kind of change is particularly tricky for a lot of people; I’ll definitely include myself in the group who struggle with endings, and new beginnings. For about four straight years (I’m out of that period for the moment), the endings in my life felt like freeway pileups. Instead of twisted steel it was emotional wreckage.

When endings come – whether they’re expected or a total surprise — they can wreak havoc. The ending might be the loss of a life, a job or lifestyle; a friendship, marriage or significant relationship. It can be a choice, or something imposed on us. Even in the most positive scenarios, endings force us to adapt to new feelings and circumstances. There’s a process we go through, at our own pace, in our own way, according to what feels right for us.

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As I grow older, most aspects of Life seem to have gotten so much easier. Maybe clarity and wisdom have just made me more patient and tolerant! But change is always lurking. When a major ending turns my world upside down, I turn to survivors of life-altering shifts. I want to understand. I want to feel that All Will Be Well; that an ending will always be followed by a New Beginning. I want proof, in the version of someone else’s story. Author William Bridges and his book “Transitions” is one of my trusted guides. Not only does Bridges reassure with “Here’s why you feel what you feel,” but he describes the process without sugar-coating it. I appreciate that.

Following a big life change the body, mind, heart and spirit need a period of quiet time known as the Neutral Zone. A  friend and I were sharing stories recently about our dogs. She’d lost a beloved Huskie she’d had for 15 years and went into a months-long funk. Her adult kids immediately began urging her to get a new pup.

But Mary pushed-back; she needed time to process her loss. The Neutral Zone is essential rest, and also preparation for a New Beginning. Even if an ending feels more good than bad, it’s still disorienting: it’s detaching from what was, and preparing for what comes next. Whatever and whenever that gets revealed to us.

We’re encouraged to “roll with it”, “walk it off”, and “go with the flow” when Life’s changes upset our inner balance. But Bridges says, that isn’t enough. “…it’s important to do more than simply persevere. We need to understand what’s within us that might be undermining our resolve…” and allow it to surface in our minds and hearts. Let it tell us what we need to know, before we move on.

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My friend Josh and I were recently comparing notes on e-trading. Day-trading, to be specific. Josh spends most of his free time doing it: up an hour or two before the market opens, studying and investing. I’ve done a little of it, and have been successful on a small scale. But I’ve noticed that e-trading messes with my peace of mind. It makes me even more nervous than I already am. I told Josh that I’d swapped out morning e-trading for morning Blogging. No adrenaline rush; no financial ‘score’, but quiet, meditative mornings and no losses.

Josh had questions, so we talked a little more about Blogging. How many Posts had I written (since I began on April 27, 2019)? How many Views was I getting? Hearing my answer to question one, Josh asked, “Where the —- do you get your ideas ?!” Eyebrows raised. My response was frustratingly (for him) simple, I think:  Just by Living Life and being observant: of my own feelings, and the feelings and experiences of those around me.

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It’s true. Most of the time I write because I’m listening to, thinking about, or feeling something that needs exploring. As I get into the topic (I never know whether or not I’ll Publish until I finish), I have to feel like I’m learning something new about myself, and about Living Bravely, as I put it on my Main Page. I have to feel like what I’ve learned might be of some value to other people.

Every once in a while, however, a topic comes into my mind and heart that feels extremely personal. I write to soothe and release something that’s causing me pain; like finally digging out a thorn, gifted by the rose bush I pruned a week ago; deeply stuck and aching.

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I’ve always loved animals – especially cats and dogs. (As a kid I also had birds, rabbits, snakes, fish, lizards and wild creatures rescued and nursed back to health.)  When we moved into the house where I currently live, the large yard seemed perfect for pets: two puppies from the animal shelter; two weeks-old kittens rescued from a parking lot and a soccer field. As time goes by, of course, these spunky little creatures, full of life, mature and grow old. It’s never easy to hear, when a pet you’ve had for well over a decade tells you “it’s time to go”.

Having faced this reality with one of my cats on Wednesday of this week ( a lot of tears and a lot of tissues; a very compassionate veterinarian), I hadn’t even recovered emotionally when one of my dogs collapsed two days later. She’d been severely arthritic and now couldn’t move, whimpering in pain. Bless You, Dr. Mobile Vet: the super nice guy came that very morning.

“All Creatures Great and Small” telegraph.co.uk

But I wasn’t ready for the reality- check he gave me. The vet watched me with my dog, trying to help her stand — her hind legs kept buckling — so he could examine her. With a kind, and sorrowful face he looked down at us and said, “This is Assisted Living. This isn’t the way you, or your dog, want to live. Am I right?” His words outed me. I’d become a Care Provider to my animals – first my cat, then my dog – not even noticing that no one was happy or thriving. Enormous energy expended, in just trying to keep them alive and comfortable. This very experienced, wise and compassionate man (Patrick) then gave me a gentle lecture about what I needed, versus what the cat and the dog needed. I know it sounds simple, but, whether you’re providing care for a loved one or a beloved pet, perspective gets skewed and boundaries get blurred; it’s partly why care providers – especially those who’re caring for family members – become crazed with emotional and physical exhaustion.

When we deeply love a person or pet whose Race is Run and it’s time to stop, the Heart is seldom clear about the exact right time to say ‘goodbye’. This week I had to accept that my own reluctance to ‘let go’ was far less important than honoring Life and its natural cycle. Even as they left my Life, my animals were gracious in their last lessons about Love.

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I love poetry, and admire all poets:  established, fledgling, and even those who’ve yet to put  their feelings into words. Reading poetry, for me, evokes the same kinds of emotions I get from almost all artistic expressions:  I intuitively understand that the Artist is hoping to reach some deeper part of me. And I submit, willingly; enthusiastically; with relief.  Poetry is like an intimate conversation between the Poet and the Reader; but one that allows the Reader to step away, take time to process and absorb, then come back. As many times as is needed, or desired. Some poetry (much of it, really) is so poignant and eternal in its power that it can’t be felt or withstood by the human heart in just one ‘dose’. Instead, it begs to be read, over and over again, as time passes and our perspectives change.

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To some, classical poetry, prose, sonnets, etc. might seem way too “dated”. Awkward speech, elusive references – so difficult to access, and find meaning in. But, like music, painting, sculpture, photography, and almost any other artistic expression you can think of, poets have their own unique ways of connecting with our hearts and minds.

Think of it this way:  in our daily experience of living, many of us have intimate friends; as well as  acquaintances, work colleagues, and a bazillion ‘superficial’ connections. Only our intimate friends might hear our innermost thoughts and feelings. In times of great loneliness and despair – or during utter jubilation — the right poet can touch , and comfort your heart in ways that even a dear friend can’t.  A poem can ‘speak’ your exact emotions as you’re searching for the words; or, searching for the courage to express them. ( Enter the mega-million dollar industry of greeting cards).

Today I was reflecting on – and trying my best not to feel discouraged by – recent horrific episodes of gun violence in the United States, which now seem to happen on a daily basis here. Exhausted by the chatter ( so much Talk, so little Action) on social media, I turned to a poem. Brace yourselves, younger readers:  it was written in 1802.

The very first line, etched in the minds and hearts of all English Literature (my undergrad) students – is so applicable as to be heart-breaking, in the context of our seemingly disconnected – from what truly matters – collective State of Being. Although this poem was written to express the writer’s despair about the Industrial Revolution in the United States – a time of huge unrest and economic upheaval for the majority of citizens – it also aptly describes our 21st century conundrums and terrors in a bold, yet tender, and deeply prescient way:

“The World is too much with us; late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we see in Nature that is ours. We’ve given our hearts away…This sea that bares her bosom to the moon; the winds that will be howling at all hours, are gathered up now like sleeping flowers. For this, for everything, we are out of tune:  it moves us not.”

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William Wordsworth continues his lamenting in this poem. I’ve only included the lines that express my own feelings of helplessness on this day, contemplating the grief that survivors of two mass shootings, in 48 hours, must be feeling.

Poetry is a quiet place to turn, when the World is too loud, too oppressive, too chaotic. It’s also a gentle reminder to reflect:  have we laid to ‘waste our powers’ and ‘given our hearts away’ in certain aspects of Life? Are we so ‘out of tune’ with Nature that its beauty and grace pale, compared to so many distractions?

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Some might tell me, “Get over it; that’s how Life is!” They might scoff at the very idea of trying to make sense of senseless acts. Clearly, there is no “sense” in random acts of hate and cruelty; that’s not the point of my reflection today. More importantly,  since Wordsworth’s 1802 poem (and even much before that), there’s plenty of evidence that human beings haven’t yet ‘given our hearts away’ as a species. I’m focusing on that today, taking comfort in a very old poet’s thoughts; hoping they’ll be shared and felt in countless ways; in ways that make a difference, as we all continue searching for words.

poet Maya Angelou, 1929-2014

It’s natural  to search for meaning, some sort of anchor or True North in all of existence, following the untimely death of someone in your family or friendship circle. It can feel like you’ve fallen off of a cliff:  arms and legs cartwheeling, trying to grab hold of something, anything, to slow down the momentum of this new reality.

Trying to comfort someone who’s grieving is almost as difficult,  as I recently experienced with a friend. Words are just words. Cards and flowers are meant to express love and care, but can feel like absurd gestures when offered to a widow who was expecting another 30 years with her husband. Loss can feel like such a solitary thing, especially in Western culture. We tend to perceive the grief process as something that can never truly be felt, never fully experienced, by anyone but the closest person left behind. In my friend’s home, wooden blinds tightly covered her windows; she seldom went outside; and visitors, even friends, felt like intruders (as she later told me). As I thought about what I could, or should do as her friend – if anything – I recalled a travel experience that comforted me in its dramatic contrast.

I was in Egypt, walking with my companions through a square in Cairo, at around 10 o’clock at night. There were so many people out and about: a chaos of jostling bodies packed so closely that it almost felt intentional; a kind of slow, seductive dance that a thousand or so people were engaged in; enjoying the relative cool of the evening. One of my friends was Egyptian – totally used to this scene — who held tightly to my hand, pulling me along in the crowd as we pushed toward our destination (a coffee bar). The lights in the square were pale gold orbs on top of tall, futuristic-looking poles:  not bright enough to fully illuminate our walk, but some help in the growing dark. The lights washed the faces in the crowd in sepia tones. It was an odd, dreamy, slow-motion party filled with animated conversation in Arabic or Farsi (and probably other languages as well).

The coffee bar we were headed to was in a swank hotel on the Nile River. It felt like everyone in the square was headed there also. As we made our progress, I heard a loud, high-pitched scream: more of a wail, now that I think back on it. Knowing what can happen in large cities at night, I instantly assumed there’d been some kind of violence. I felt a little panicky. But my Egyptian friend didn’t react to the first, nor a second scream; he just kept pulling me along at the same pace. The crowd didn’t seem agitated either. I kept looking behind me, expecting some awful visual. Peoples’ bodies behind us were parting to allow what I thought might be law enforcement through.

All in black, some faces covered and some clearly visible, murky shapes of women were forging through the nighttime crowd, 2or 3 abreast. They were shrieking and crying, raising their arms above their heads. Their cries were painfully loud and visceral. The emotion vibrated in my body and made tears well in my eyes. It felt overwhelming. My friend gave a quick tug on my hand, indicating  that we should stop walking and step aside to let the women by. It seemed that at least 100 women passed us, all sobbing in the most heartfelt way. Next, a group of men came from behind the women, holding what looked like a stretcher on their shoulders. I was completely transfixed: there was a human body on the stretcher (wrapped in white cloth), and this crowd of men and women appeared to be part of a funeral procession. At 10 o’clock at night. In a crowded public square. In the middle of a sea of strangers.The grief of the mourners was not only on display, but a full-on public expression of emotional pain. The interest of the onlookers around us intensified; they began shouting out what seemed like commiseration and chanted prayers. Some tried to touch the body on the stretcher as it passed.

At the coffee bar my friends were nonchalant about what’d just happened. But I wanted and needed to talk about it; to be eased-into the idea that this was actually a very natural way for people to cope with death. As unsettling as it was, the group-catharsis I’d been a part of was also mesmerizing. I know that other cultures have similar rituals, but this one, in particular, was the most primal I’d ever witnessed: a mixture of deep sadness, surrender, release and relief. The relief came in being comforted by so many others who were physically, emotionally and spiritually ‘present’ for the mourners.

When my widowed friend finally emerged from her seclusion I spoke in a flood of words: what I’d been thinking and feeling about her, and her loss. She seemed appreciative, but reluctant to talk. When she did, for just a moment, the tears came, along with the look of “What am I going to do now??” Just as quickly, however, she changed the conversation. It made my stomach hurt, to be honest. There was still so much sadness.

Everyone processes loss differently. Sometimes just surviving the day, by carrying-on with routines, is the only option. But, might being able to let loose — to scream  and howl one’s pain to the skies – as in the crowded Cairo square, with so many people engaging with you in your despair – be a healthier way of coping, than suffering in quiet solitude? How many emotions do we feel we must endure in silence because they’re too fearsome and powerful to let loose? Why are we so reluctant to let others know the depth of our sadness, while it consumes us completely? There was community, that night in the square:   a joining of people’s hearts, in the midst of unfathomable sorrow. There’s a message in that, I believe – for all who feel alone in sadness and despair – and for those of us who stand as close as we dare, wondering what to do.

Here in the U.S., June is “Pride Month”. This Community for sure  has cause to celebrate but, also obvious and factual reasons to believe that ‘the work’ hasn’t even really begun, and will not allow much rest. I’m certain that the headlines in my city, reporting ongoing injustice and violence toward human beings whose lifestyles are considered offensive, are not exclusive to where I live. I wonder, however, if a month dedicated to marginalized (and often demonized) human beings is impactful, in increasing awareness and changing minds. I used to include the word ‘tolerance’ — next to awareness (compassion, and love). But tolerance, for me, just isn’t a strong enough “ask”. I even wonder about that word, as though permission is sought, or needed for being true to one’s Self.

When I was just a child, homosexuality was not exceptional. Both of my parents were literary nerds, and Oscar Wilde was a featured favorite in our household. My father had male friends who were gay; and, my parents’ dinner parties drew male and female same-sex couples. I can still recall that, during one such party, a guest had brought Mapplethorpe’s recent coffee table book, which buzzed in the conversation all evening ! I suppose this upbringing was more European than WASP: I didn’t ‘register’ people-in-the-process-of-being-themselves as anything more than ‘different’ from my parents. It was only when I grew older that I realized the pain, the fear, and the legitimate threat experienced by non-heterosexuals.

As I mentioned in one of my previous Posts (“The Legacy of Suicide”), my mother took her own life when I was 10 years old. When I was about to turn 12, my father re-married. I adored my new step-brother Jeff immediately. He was just a year younger than me, an only-child and a bit spoiled by my step-mother. He was brilliant in math and science, and possessed a dry wit before he’d even entered the ‘ironic’ teenage years.

As we grew into those years, we remained very close. It was only when he left California to pursue his first graduate degree did I feel things between us change. When he returned, Jeff had an ‘edge’:  wary, cynical; not just witty, but sarcastic and almost mean. Unhappy. One evening in early September we were all gathered at the family home, celebrating my birthday (I was turning 30, I think). The champagne flowed freely; the house and yard reverberated with laughter. Suddenly, my step-brother shot out of the front door (I was standing on the porch with friends) and announced he was leaving the gathering. He had tears in his eyes. Jeff tried to brush past me but I grabbed him, looked deeply into his eyes and demanded to know what had happened. He told me, “I just came-out to Mother and Daddy!”. It was a punch to the gut (How did I not see this??), but I held on to him – or tried to. He wrenched away and I went inside to search for my parents.

Jeff’s life after that night took him to places – physically (he went to another out-of-state university for his PhD), and emotionally — where I could no longer connect easily with him. To his credit, when he was in town he’d always suggest a get-together. But in our parents’ home, in his mother’s presence, things were pretty horrible. As I later learned, my father had accepted Jeff’s lifestyle, but my step-mother had turned bitter, resentful and vicious. Jeff’s choice, as she saw it, had deprived her of her own anticipated future as a grandmother. It was a terrible, divisive, painful wedge in our lives.

What happened after that I can only describe as Jeff’s slow descent into a kind of ‘hell’. He ultimately married a man he seemed to truly love. But Jeff became a heavy smoker, drinker and drug-user. The only time he seemed in high spirits was while ‘high’. I remained close to him, but my love was not enough. He felt he’d betrayed his mother, and she was doing nothing to convince him otherwise.

When Jeff was in his mid-40’s, he developed an aggressive lung cancer that eventually spread to his liver and brain. He called me on the phone, to tell me when they’d first found it in his lung. He begged me not to tell our parents; he expected even more anger and recriminations from his mother. When he became critically ill, our parents thought it had all happened in less than 6 months. But Jeff had been nurturing deep sadness, confusion, and dis-ease for over 10 years. I know that, in the end, my step-mother realized the mistake she’d made. She herself connected the dots:  Jeff’s despair and decline, with how she’d responded to his sexuality – punishing him, as a profound disappointment — for years. He just wasn’t the kind of person to give his mother ‘the middle finger’ and get on with his life. So he got on with his death.

Pride Month, if it’s the best we can do in the meantime, is “ok” with me. But I know I’m not the only one who’s lost someone I love, because they just couldn’t take the pressure of trying to live and love outside The Mainstream. In my view, a ‘Month’ is just “ok”, but not in any way enough to support our fellow human beings in feeling whole, happy, and cherished.