Building from the Grief Up


Written Nov 8:
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…

Sometimes in life, we are born into a place with steep inclines and deep valleys. Other times, we are delivered to such a place somewhere along the way… by events like the death of a spouse, parent, child or other loved one. Or by some other catastrophic event.

The city was a reminder to me of our ability as humans to be adaptable. Despite the harshest of landscapes that life puts in our way, we can survive and create amazing lives. This city was also far more interesting and beautiful because of the hills and valleys that people had to work around to build it. And so I think it goes in life. Grief is the harshest landscape we will likely ever have to build the city of our hearts within. As we adapt though, we create something breathtaking. Every beautiful street in our hearts is influenced by the slopes of our grief. Each step took hard work, but work that was meaningful. We might start out in the bottom of the valley, where things feel overwhelming, but over time, we build up. We reach higher up the slopes. And eventually, we are looking down over the landscape of our grief and seeing a thing made beautiful – not in spite of the difficulties, but because of them.

Both Feet In

This past week, a friend of mine shared a story with me about a woman she recently met while out shopping for boots at a western store. As they looked through the sale rack, the woman told her how she got through the death of her husband by promising herself a new pair of cowboy boots every time she had to do something hard in relation to her grief… like going to the mortuary, or collecting his will. Eventually, she had a whole shelf of them and she wore them everywhere she went. “Even to church” she said. “I medicated myself with old western movies and cowboy boots”. My friend, who is actually a grief counselor, fully endorsed her grief medication.

This woman’s story made me smile instantly, and reminded me of my own boot story. About a month after my fiancé’s sudden death, in June of 2012, on a horrible, grief-laden, sunny afternoon in Dallas, I walked my shell-shocked self into a local western store with one specific goal. To buy a pair of boots. Not just any boots, but THE boots. Golden tan with beautiful blue inlaid wings and red hearts. Meticulous stitching and hard soles for dancing, and walking a hard road. They were boots I had swooned over for the entire length of my relationship with Drew. The ones that were “too expensive and unpractical” to ever actually buy. The boots that were too bold and showy for me.

At least… for the old me.

The widowed me though, didn’t give a shit about any of that. She didnt care about being too showy nor did she care about how expensive they were. So she walked into that western store, dropped $300 down, and walked out with the goddamn boots because she wanted them and she damn well deserved them. It felt SO GOOD. I knew right then and there, that these were the boots that were going to carry me through this mess. It was a glimmer of hope. When I walked this hard road, I would do so with wings on my feet. I would do so boldly, and proudly, and without apology to anyone. Those wings would always remind me of the pilot I love and of his zest and passion for life. They would remind me to keep on living, and that I can still be whoever I want to be.

I wore them to every art opening I showed my artwork in, I wore them to work, hell I wore them grocery shopping. Every time I put them on, it felt like wearing the essence of our love for all to see. Because we were bold. We lived and loved boldly and fearlessly together. We left no room for regrets and always walked a bit more confidently out into the world when we had each other.

The boots provided some piece of that back, some reclaiming of my own power despite everything falling apart. They gave me a way that I could say to the world (and to myself) – I am still here and dammit, I am going to choose to live. I’m not going to lie down and let this destroy me. It may take months and years to get back to living life more fully again – but until then, these boots will remind me of the promise to myself – and to him – to keep on living life.

Sure, you can see this sort of thing as silly. Or frivolous. Or a waste of money. And before he died, I did a good job of that. But when you’re down in the pit, things look very different. It’s dark down there. And pretty damned hopeless. And maybe, just maybe, a simple thing like a pair of fine-ass boots aren’t so frivolous. They reminded me that no matter how broken I felt, I could still create my own hope by the choices I made, even the seemingly small ones.

As it turns out, those boots became a symbol not just to live boldly. They became a reminder that I had the power to decide what would carry my feet through the day… and that was the first step towards knowing I had the power to choose how I would carry myself through this entire experience of living with his death. They reminded me to choose each day to try and live what’s left of this life boldly, and with both feet in.

Poetry: Let Us Dance…

Let us dance…

Let us dance in the pain.
Let us hold our heads and our hands to the skies
So that we might find our rhythm and our style.

Let us move and sway to the beat of our hearts
Let us learn to let go
To ebb and to flow with the land
With it’s twists and turns and buckles and dips

So that our souls may be free and clear
and that we may be fully present in the now of things
No matter what it brings
To experience this earthly life the way we were meant to
Let us dance in the pain.

-Sarah Treanor

Today, I am an Artist

Yesterday was a very very special day. I dropped off my very first piece of artwork to sell in a gallery. This is a piece I made last year during my 12 Months of Creativity project. I nearly packed it away in storage, but something stopped me and I realized it might be a good fit for a gallery I’d just visited down near Seguin. So it made the journey with me from Dallas down to Seguin and is now getting ready to be displayed at High Lonesome Gallery!

I spent a few hours hanging out there at the gallery talking about art and life with the owner. I’m most grateful to have a fellow artist friend around here. I was soaring when I left. All my life I’ve wanted to do this – to sell my art – to even have the chance to try… and now I’m doing it. The dream I talked about with Drew time and time again over the years, it’s happening now. And knowing that he is has and still is playing a very big part in all of this happening makes it even more beautiful.

He was my biggest fan. I’ve never had anyone believe in me and support my creative spirit so fiercely in all my life. And that changed something in me forever. I used to be someone who didn’t truly believe she could live her dreams. Oh I wanted to live my dreams, but looking back, I realize I didn’t truly believe I could have that world. And maybe even didn’t believe I deserved it. And now, I believe it. I believe in myself as fiercely as he believed in me. I don’t just believe I can have it, I know I deserve it, and I know it is mine to have. I don’t know why it had to take losing the most important person in my life to find this in myself – but here it is. He got me as far as he could, and now the rest is up to me.

So naturally, after leaving the gallery, the first place I wanted to be was with him. So I went over to the cemetery to sit a while. This place has become a sanctuary to me. It’s an old Lutheran cemetery out in the country. Small and peaceful, with a pasture of cows next door. Whenever I visit, I always give his headstone a great big hug, wrapping one arm over the top of it and leaning myself into it, resting my other hand flat on the beautiful words engraved. I always recite out loud the poem engraved there.

It may seem weird, but this is the closest I ever feel to hugging him physically now – and it always brings comfort. After a long hug, I sit down behind his headstone and lean my back against it… I always sit on the left side, leaving room for him to sit next to me. And here I talk to him, or just sit quietly with him. Yesterday I sat by him with a smile, I sat by him knowing that this one simple step was the beginning of the road that he has always wanted for me… and the road to my most authentic self. Flying was his greatest passion, and my art is mine. As I’m starting to align with what I truly want, I realize this is what it must have felt like for him when he was flying. It’s like getting to know another part of him that I never knew before. I am so grateful for this.

As I was leaving the cemetery, I looked up to see a beautiful rainbow right out over the countryside. I cried and smiled all at the same time. It could not have come at a better place or time. So many beautiful gifts to be thankful for. Nothing will ever remove the pain, and no one will ever be able to take his place in my heart. But today, my passion fills up another part of my heart, and it helps me to keep going.

A friend of mine just shared this beautiful quote from Arthur Golden with me…

“Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.” Wow. This is so completely true. I am an artist… I always have been, and I will be every day to come.