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April is the Cruelest; Here Comes the Sun

IMG_0269Throughout April there was a nagging, guilty, prodding awareness that I had no postings here. Today, with May tiptoeing in on rays of chilled sunshine, the lines from T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland kept running through my head:

I. THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Then I realized that this April marked year three anniversary of “The Deaths” and so I  am officially letting myself off the hook. April did have a bit of a bite to her, and I only have images to offer here, not many words. sc0000e0c7And in anticipation of the warmer spring and summer to come: IMG_0244Images:  1. hibernation mandala in gouache and colored pencil on panel, 2. photo of Mom at 17, 3. chalk pastel meditation on unlined index card in anticipation of summer.

Death: Dear Archetype of Transformation

On this icy, foggy, frozen in day, I put my energies into Dad’s old moniker: Keep the clean and everything else will fall into place. I’m suspecting that this is a remnant of the Chinese Kitchen God, translated through the heart and hands of my engineer father who always had a word of wisdom, albeight practical and earthbound. Have you ever found that the best ideas come to you when your hands are in hot soapy water? My thoughts turned to a current graduate school project: my cultural self portrait.

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The creative problem given was to fashion an aesthetically cohesive self portrait using your choice of media that reflects your cultural identity, values and experience. For those familiar with the multicultural counseling acronym: ADDRESSING, you will know that the following elements are considered:

A for Age and generational influences

D for Developmental and acquired

D Disabilities

R for Religion

E for Ethnicity

S for Socioeconomic status

S for Sexual orientation

I for Indigenous heritage

N for National origin

G for Gender (1996, Hays)

Just reading through this acronym, for me, opens up perspectives of the various facets making up the unique identity and experience of any one individual.

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For my own portrait, I found that I see myself as heavily impacted by the religious and ethical values of my parents. Mom’s Catholic upbringing resulted in my lifelong education within the Catholic school system with teaching nuns figuring strongly in my learning and academic experiences. Dad’s Confucious based system of ethics was infused in so much of our homelife, this was a silent education communicated through decisions, actions and interactions of daily life. Living in a biracial household with one immigrant parent and one parent living with mental illness was isolating. It is no wonder that my support came from these value based and more or less spiritual elements. To communciate this more directly, and to accentuate the dark figure from the dark background, I surrounded her in phrases that reminded me of my parents, and places with strong personality where my parents lived or where I lived that contributed to my cultural identity.

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One thing that did startle me was the appearance of a skull as my artistic process emerged, and in particular its central placement as the face of the figure. Even though I am a person who thinks about death often, one who has experienced loss, and am currently working in a hospice program learning about art therapy with bereaved children and adolescents, I was STILL surprised to see this grinning skull appear. It rather gave me the creeps, the chills and the full on heebie jeebies. This is supposed to be a “Self Portrait” emphasis on self, note the skull face. CREEPY.

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But after reflecting and reading up on the archetype of death as transformation, I suddenly felt surprisingly good, warm, even affectionate towards my little skull faced figure. When I view death or ending as creating the space for beginning, as part of a circular cycle of life that happens rather frequently as we grow, explore, learn and change, I feel empowered rather than devastated, interested rather than in despair, hopeful and energized

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What would your cultural self portrait look like? Which archetype are you feeling resonance with these days?

Image: by me, rendered in chalk pastel on black drawing paper. words included as follows: Keep the kitchen clean, Joi de vivre, Be kind, Be kind to others, Love you lots, Eat the bitter in bitterness and become man above men. Thank you, world. Places included: Shanghai, Topeka, NYC, Riverside Drive, Chicago, The French Concession, San Francisco, Soo Chow, (and how funny I did not include NJ where I have lived so many years – I must be in denial, ha ha )

Information on the ADDRESSING Acronym : Hays, P.A. (1996) Addressing the complexities of culture and gender in counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74, 332-338.

Kiss the Joy

IMG_1787“He who binds to himself a Joy,

Does the winged life destroy;

He who kisses the Joy as it flies,

Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

William Blake

November is a weighty month for me, full of gravity, a deep cold and marble like stillness of spirit. Death is in the air, in my lungs and before my eyes. I try to blot out the sadness by keeping busy and going numb, but this is a silliness of the silliest kind.

What feels right in my soul is to say how much my family meant to me and still means to me. How I can still burst into tears at the passing thought of an everyday kindness afforded to me by my gentle father and fragile mother. How I am still trying to soften the anger at my sister so it will give way to the underlying love we shared as sisters. The heart takes its time, it takes its own good time.

I have been reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying again, ironically, finding words to live by. Being mindful of my own mortality, not in a morbid way, but as a way to bring my “monkey mind” back to center and keep in front of my eyes the things that matter. From today’s reading:

“Do I remember at every moment that I am dying, and everyone and everything else is, and so treat all beings at all times with compassion?”

When dad was too weak to move, having visions, sips of water and sucking the juice from a small chunk of watermelon, we would discourse over spiritual matters. In our spare time. All dad had was spare time. His body slowly let go and quieted down, desires at the bare minimum, and his heart slowly let go of any regrets. He was so rich in those final months and seemed more and more content to just be with his thoughts, and more and more delighted to simply be with those who chose to be with him: his family, neighbors and the dear hospice team who visited him regularly.

What do you think happens after you die, dad?

Nothing, he replied, nonplussed.

How does that make you feel?

That every moment matters.

I swore I would keep the wisdom of the things I heard and saw sitting by the deathbeds of my mom, my dad, my sister. It can be tough. Especially when my dining room table looks like this: booksf

Chasing that degree, that diploma, that license, so that I can do this…sperm…express myself with coffee beans, feathers and beads alongside others who are processing grief, death, loss, finding healing and strength in the images that emerge from within.

Dad, is it worth it? I have to say that yes, it is. But only if I remember to make the moments count by stopping to eat ice cream with my daughter, actually make eye contact with my teenage son, or pick up the phone to connect to the one away at college. And to stop and shed a tear for those who have died. To remember that some day, so will I.

“Whatever we have done with our lives makes us what we are when we die. And everything, absolutely everything, counts. “

Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

post script to my fragonista friends: Today I am wearing a sample of  Sous le Vent (In the Wind) by Guerlain – the perfect atmospheric scent for these musings.

Image: my own, from Taos, NM strolling near the Mabel Luhan Dodge House

Easter Morning Stroll

photoAn Easter morning chat with my daughter made me realize that all of the holidays over the past two years have been marked by a visit to the cemetery. Seven minutes from my door to garden niche, it’s about as convenient as one could wish for. I don’t go for convenience, it truly brings me peace. I suppose it is still hard for me to imagine a holiday without Mom and Dad and even without my sister, beloved and scorned Queen of Chaos that she was to me.

I went there today, watered the purply, fragrant hydrangea I placed there about a week ago, and said an Our Father and a Hail Mary, because I know that Mom would like that. I touched the cool pink marbled surface of their plaques, realizing, for the first time that our surname, Dage, Americanized Chinese, when read backwards, spells “Egad!”  I looked at the dates on all three plaques, 2012, 2012, 2012 and  thought, well, this is fitting – Ye Gods! Egad! What are the odds for all three to depart in the same year? Funny the thoughts that strike you on a quiet, sunny Easter afternoon. Makes one yearn for a simple Easter egg hunt, a dress trimmed in lace, and white patent mary janes of years long past.

As I took a stroll around in the sunshine, I caught sight of a family grouping of gravestones, each with a different saying. My favorite, pictured above was “It’s just as easy to rejoice.”

What does rejoice really mean? To be glad, to thrive, to be well, to be in joy. I quite like that. A good thought to keep in mind, alongside the memories.

Egad! Rejoice!

 

 

Happy Birthday, Wild Thing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf she hadn’t died of metastasized lung cancer, my sister, Deborah, would have been 59 years old today. In November, on the one year anniversary of her death, I tricked myself that I had reached a completion in a cycle of mourning for her, and met that day with a sense of breathless relief, as if crossing a finish line after the last leg of a long race, ready for the ice water and heading to the showers. I felt that I was putting something behind me.

Ha ha ha!

This spring I am interning at the Mental Health Association of Essex County. One of my key assignments is to co facilitate a sibling support group for individuals with a brother or sister who is living with mental illness. My tribe. Just like me. My role in the group is not about me, and yet, thanks to my sister,  I am steeped in the experience of the group from the tips of my toes to the top of my head. Working in the group, and approaching her birthday,  I slowly caught myself going a bit numb. Averting my eyes from the obvious herd of white elephants entering the chambers of my heart, the memories of Deborah and her craziness, the ways she hurt me, the ways she hurt herself and, despite it all, how much I miss her. The missing began long before she died, when she first became ill. All that much more, then, do I miss her, truly.

So this weekend, I found myself paying a shiva call to the family of a beautiful young woman, whose vivacious and generous life seemed to end midstream, too soon, unfinished. The whole way there, I cried for my sister. In awe, in gratitude, I cried. This is what I have missed, I realized, the open grief. The loss of the one, resonated with the loss of the other, like the vibration of a bell, ringing out in concert, in sympathetic response. This is life. This is community. We share in the fullness, we stand together in the loss and in the next breath the rebuilding begins, quietly, subtly, relentlessly, as it should be. But you need to cry, you need to take those gulping sobs of oxygen in and let that river of tears flow out, to keep the cycle going.

The process of grief is what it is. It patiently waits for you to catch up, to surrender, so that you can keep going forward to what comes next.

Spring.

Happy Birthday, Deborah. I’m still pretty pissed for the havoc you caused. But I’ll get over it. I love you lots. You beautiful, wild thing.

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As a footnote: I recently became aware of the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. Since I truly believe that the more we can share about our experiences and insights, trials, tribulations and triumphs in the struggle with mental illness, I am excited to participate in this project. Read more about it here, decrease stigma, encourage wellness, and share your experiences too.

“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”  

What I See: Sage Smudge at the Cemetery

ImageToday I needed to send some sorrowful feelings up to the sky in the form of smoke. I brought back a sage and lavender smudge from the Taos Pueblo in January and today was the day. One year plus one day after my sister died. So I took it to the niche garden where Mom, Dad and Debbie’s urns are housed and lit that sucker. Image

I wasn’t fully prepared at how robustly it began to smoke and so I propped it into the center of some evergreen branches I had placed above their niches. The milky white billows were significant and satisfying. The entire hand wrapped smudge stick took about one hour to be consumed, and I was glad for the necessary pause demanded from my day to see the process through to completion. Soft delicate ash like phantom sprays of the sage fell to rest upon the stones I had placed beneath the vase. Image

IMG_3415Several times, just as the smoke seemed to quiet, the embers within the stick would glow red hot, emitting flickers of flame for brief moments. Yes, I thought, that is how grief is – you think it’s died down, that you are done, but suddenly the emotions return with a violence that stuns. Maybe I discovered some smudge medicine today, because it definitely spoke to me. The ins and outs of the embers, flames and smoke seemed to dance with me for that hour in the chilly, clear air of the afternoon. It felt good.

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