“Silence”: Remembering my Sister

Six years ago my sister died of breast cancer.  The last week of March was her last week of life that year.   I know that many people do not like to read depressing posts.  After all, don’t we get depressed enough just listening to the news?  Still, I need to connect to my sister this week.  So I’ll apologize to anyone looking for humor or upbeat thoughts from me this week.  I wrote this poem in the spring after she died, after frequent visits to the cemetery seeking solace from my grief.  On Friday I will go to the cemetery again, hoping the snow has melted enough so I can place flowers there.  Maybe next week will bring sunshine and warmth and hope and peace to all of us.

Silence

It is silent here in the grass
sitting by your stone.
Two pale pink roses, three white carnations
stand tall in green cone-shaped vases.

I’ve seen a rabbit here at times,
sent him scurrying away at my approach.
Could the rabbit that so often
feasted on your tender lettuce plants
have followed you here?
Do any of the same birds that sang to you
in the cool summer mornings
sing to you still?

I can feel some peace here,
though not really enough to soothe
the ache deep within my heart,
and I wonder if you are now at peace.
What I wonder mostly is where you are.
I think I should feel you with me,
should sense your spirit,
connect to you somewhere,
but I am surrounded by an emptiness
too vast to be filled.

The grass is cool and scratchy against my legs.
I absent-mindedly seek out four-leaf clovers
like we did in our childhood days,
but there are none here.
I touch the stone as I get up to leave
the way I always do,
but it’s just cold marble,
the letters reminding me of a reality
I don’t want to acknowledge.

I walk away from you,
where you rest without me by your side
as I vowed I would always be at the end.
Instead now we are both alone.

©  Barbara Flass 2005

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Spring Grief

It’s still cold here in upstate New York with piles of hard, dirty snow along the sides of the roads and a messy blanket of icy snow littered with pine cones and branches all over the front and back yards.  It’s hard to believe that spring is here and April will arrive with its promise of better things to come.

Six years ago this week was the last week of my sister’s life.  I spent the days and nights with her in the hospital watching the agony of her final days.  I thought grief had some kind of end, some point in time when reconciliation to loss would come.  It hasn’t.

I remember her doctor told me after her death that he had estimated she could live until April.  She had an idea that April would be her last month of life.  So when April 1 came, so did the end of her life.  She died from metastatic breast cancer after a five -year battle.  It seemed ironic at first, some kind of cruel April Fool’s Day joke.  I never did like April Fool’s Day, since somehow I frequently was on the receiving end of someone’s well-thought-out joke.  I always wished I could enjoy the day more, not be so uptight about it and just laugh more at the jokes, but I never was able to do it.  Now I never will.

On Friday, April 1, I will take flowers to my sister’s grave.  I will choose pink and white carnations as always and try to get the plastic cones into the hard, winter ground.  I know many people who say they visit their loved one’s grave for a while at first, but then eventually they taper off and rarely go.  I know she is not there.  I know when I go, I don’t really feel closer to her.  The emptiness is overwhelming.  But I go because I have to.  I go because I don’t know what else to do.  I don’t know how to overcome this grief.

Sedona Spirit: Red Rock Walk

Sedona Spirit:  Red Rock Walk

It’s already hot at 7 a.m.
as I step onto the trail around Red Rock.

Even the dust on the path is red.
It lifts into the air with my footsteps,
settling in between the laces of my boots
and layering onto the white of my socks.

I love this heat,
and the quiet,
and the clarity of the air,
and the western sky cloudless today,
tinted ocean blue.

My spirit here has changed,
is everchanging even now
as I walk where hundreds of years ago
soft moccasins of the ancient Anasazi caressed the red dust.

I no longer feel alone.
I am walking with spirits,
feeling their connection to earth and sky,
feeling the diminution of my body
and the elevation of my soul
as I stand at the base of the butte
4500 feet above sea level.

Some come because of the vortex,
the whirling mass of energy,
seeking spiritual awakening,
an energizing force.

I instead am calmed by the heights above me,
connected to all around me,
connected to the lizard skittering across in front of my feet
seeking the shade of the prickly pear cactus with its crimson flower,
connected  to the touch of the sun on my skin,
connected to the almost audible ancient cry echoing in the silence.

The trail circles around the base of the rock,
shaded occasionally by a pinon or a juniper pine,
and I make my way back to the beginning,
wondering if ages and ages in the future
someone will walk where I have walked
and feel my spirit
and be forever changed.

© Barbara Flass 2001

“Christie”

Christie

When the new girl came to Hampton High
I envied her.
She had china-blue eyes like the models
on the cover of Seventeen.
Her blonde hair was straight and silky
and draped over her left shoulder.
I suspect she sprayed on highlights.
Her clothes, I think, came from Abercrombie
(if they had an Abercrombie in Utah where she was from).
I thought about Utah.
It seemed remote, deserted.  I pictured it
with open spaces and white fluffy clouds and those
red buttes I saw once in a National Geographic.
The boys worshipped her.

I especially hated the way Mrs. Brown
in English literature class said to her,
“Oh, you won’t need to do this research project.
We’re almost finished with it now.”
I’m not sure who she meant by “we.”

I thought how lucky Christie was in many ways.
If I moved away mid-year,
I would have everyone in my new school
envy me and maybe I wouldn’t have to do research reports
and maybe all the boys would fall in love with me.
But I didn’t have Christie’s blue eyes and silky hair,
so maybe it wouldn’t be so great.

It wasn’t so bad at first having Christie
there in English literature class
sitting next to David.
I knew David loved me.
But then one day I saw his eyes meet hers–
she gazed back at him with those dreamy blue eyes
and I was afraid.
Envy became hatred.

I would pull her hair out.
I would rim her perfect eyes
with black and blue circles.
But that was just a fantasy.
Instead I felt the hurt gnaw at
a spot somewhere near my heart.

When May came, we decorated for the prom
and bought pastel dresses.
Christie must have had her pick of dates, I thought.
I didn’t see her there that warm May night,
but I was wrapped in David’s arms in the semi-darkness
beneath crepe paper and revolving lights.

Graduation neared–
We were fitted for robes and we
laughed at the white and purple squares balanced
precariously on our heads.
Saturday came in warm and bright.
We lined up–jitters inside,
Crying tears of joy and fear for
endings and beginnings.
I noticed vaguely Christie’s place between
Andrea and Mark was empty.

It wasn’t until the parties were over–
when our lives changed with plans for fall–
that we found out about Christie.
Christie–the one I had envied and hated,
the beautiful cover-girl type who flirted with the boys–
had made no friends at Hampton High,
had not been asked to the prom,
had longed for the buttes of Utah
and someone to love her,
and would not go with us into our futures
when the air turned crisp
and the leaves fell from their secure places
onto the frosty ground below.

© Barbara Flass 2001

Creating a Writer’s Notebook

Many teenagers reject the idea of keeping a journal.  To them the word “journal”  is synonymous with “diary,”  something very girly and childish.  Teachers and parents should set an example by keeping a journal themselves.  Teachers have little time, I know, to do this, but writing about each day at the end of school is a great way to release the tensions and frustrations of the day and also to note successes and memorable moments.  Parents can plan their days in a notebook and then add notes throughout the day, writing down reactions to events or funny or poignant words from their children.

The best way to begin to keep a journal is to put effort into selection of a notebook.  Bookstores have sections devoted to journals.  Any student can select one that seems to fit his or her personality.  Boys who resist the idea of a journal can always find a color or design to suit them.  However, it isn’t really necessary to select a ready-made journal when you can design one yourself.  There are many ways to do this.

I took a class one summer from an established writer at a writer’s conference who began the class with a lengthy discussion of notebooks and pens. I remember wondering what difference it made what I wrote in or what pen I used.  I was soon  convinced to spend some time selecting my writing materials.  I chose a grid composition notebook and Pilot Precise V5  rolling ball pens in black.  I use the notebook not just for daily comments but for all the work on my novels.

In school I have my students create a writer’s notebook.  I like to encourage them to buy an artist’s sketchbook but a regular spiral notebook will work.  Some students need lined paper, but I think they can be more creative with blank space.  Then I encourage them to collect clippings or download images from the computer that relate to them.  (See post on Writing Workshop.)  After gluing them in randomly throughout the notebook, they will have prompts that can encourage them to begin to write.  Also they can clip words or slogans from ads that inspire them.

Many students prefer to draw rather than write, and I think art and writing belong together.  One of my favorite books about journaling is Erin O’Toole’s Create Your Own Artist’s Journal.  It is mainly a book that teaches how to sketch scenes, but along with every drawing are words that describe the artwork.  Students who are artistic are often more willing to keep a journal when they know they can also draw in it.  In class, I encouraged those students to begin with a sketch and then write about it.  They often drew ocean scenes or people or objects, using them as prompts for a story or descriptive paragraph.

I believe there are great advantages for people of all ages in keeping a journal.  It’s a record of your life, the good and the bad, the funny and sad moments, the anxieties and triumphs we all have.  So spend some time in the journal section of a bookstore.  Then also go to an office supply store and look for notebooks with plain or lined paper.  Select a special pen.  My students loved to write in colored ink, mainly because all work to be graded had to be in blue or black ink.  I just make sure they don’t use a light-colored gel pen that is hard to read.

The cover of a plain notebook or artist’s sketchbook can be decorated to reflect the writer’s personality.  Photos, colorful print ads or magazine pages can personalize the simplest notebook.

After creating the notebook, the next challenge is to create a time in the course of every day to write in it.  It needs to become a habit.  Moments slip away from us all too quickly.  Young people can benefit greatly from looking back over their journals to discover how they have changed and grown, how those events that seemed so disastrous at the time of writing turned out to be less significant as months passed and strength to handle those challenges grew.    The same is true for adults.  I look back at the journals I kept when my children were younger and see an entirely different person then than I am now.  Would I have remembered all those times without the journals?

Teenagers today do write a lot in the course of a day, but they use technology to do it.  There isn’t anything wrong with that.   In fact, it’s crucial to keep up with advances in technology today.  They text, e-mail, and twitter.  The problem is that those words aren’t preserved the way words are in a journal.  Those words are often about mere moments in a day that are fleeting and soon become insignificant.  Words in a journal can be revised, edited, and added to.  Journals give us all a chance to be more reflective, to slow down our thinking, to use as many words as we want.  They record our lives forever.  What a wonderful gift they are to those who come after us!

Los Angeles Vacation

A week ago my husband and I left on a trip to Thousand Oaks, California to visit my youngest daughter, son-in-law, and two granddaughters.  We always book the cheapest flight we can find on Southwest, so our flight was at 7 a.m.  We left home in the dark, driving down the Northway in a  snowstorm that was followed by sleet and then freezing rain as we drove south to the airport.   California was looking pretty great about this time, even though it had been cool and rainy there during the past week.

We flew to Burbank instead of LAX, opting for the smallest airport with perhaps less invasive screening procedures.  The baggage carousel was actually outside under a  roof  but open on the sides.  The warm air surrounded us, and when we walked out to the pick-up area, the sun blinded us.  I know that “blinded by the sun” is a cliche, but in this case it is the only way to describe the brightness that was everywhere.  The sky was a robin’s egg blue, another cliche I guess, but so perfect a color!  We were transported to another world after having spent months in upstate New York enduring a particularly harsh winter.

While in California, we accompanied my five-year-old granddaughter to school so we could see her teacher and her friends, watched her karate and gymnastics classes, and helped take care of her as she battled a stomach bug.  We rode along to our eighteen-month-old granddaughter’s music and Gymboree classes and helped take care of her as she battled bronchitis and suffered through getting two more teeth.  The weather was incredible every day and we  loved it even when we were stuck inside with sick kids.  We managed to work in a trip to the Long Beach Aquarium, definitely a great place to go, and had lunch in Malibu overlooking the ocean.

I feel like the California weather creates an entirely different way of life than the cold, snowy weather of New York.  The looser, free-er flow of clothing in California made me want to throw out the fleece tops and knit pants I had worn all winter and go for a  more relaxed look.    The open, airy homes of California made me want to lessen the clutter of my house, tear down the draperies to let in more light, and cover all the dark surfaces of the wood door frames and cabinets with a pristine white paint.  I wanted light.  I wanted a feeling of freedom.  I wanted warmth.

Our flight home arrived after midnight a week later.  The cold air blasted us as we ran for the shuttle to take us to the short-term parking lot.  At the airport, we didn’t see snow, but as we drove north, even in the darkness of night,  we could see an increase in snowbanks along the sides of the road and finally in our front yard.

The great thing about vacations is that memories linger.  I could no longer feel the warmth of the California sun, but I could still envision the sunrise over the mountains seen from the patio of my daughter’s house.  I could still feel my granddaughters’ hugs and kisses and remember the two of them sitting on the beach playing in the sand.  I could remember how their faces looked early in the morning  and how their eyes drooped in sleepiness at night.  I could remember the sound of my oldest granddaughter’s voice as she read a story to me, and how she cuddled up next to me as I read stories to her.  I could remember my youngest granddaughter’s sweet voice as she said her favorite words of “ma-ma” and “uh-oh.” I remember the look of joy on the faces of my daughter and son-in-law as they watched their children play,  pure love in their eyes.

Forty years ago I discovered that love  and that joy myself when my first daughter was born and then again when my second daughter was born.  Who knew love could be so powerful, so endless, so forgiving, so healing, so all encompassing?   I am so grateful for the experience of being a mother even now when my children are grown because what sustains me today is the gratification in knowing that they still need me, that I can still be a mother who is loved in spite of the many mistakes I have made in the past and still make today.  What we need to be as mothers is loving, not perfect.

The world is a terrifying place today to bring children into.  It’s a difficult time to raise a child with violent wars, devastating earthquakes and tsunamis, economic uncertainty, and educational chaos.  Still there is love.  There is love for our children that overrides all the negatives.  There is hope for the future in their laughter and their joy in playing with grains of sand and watching iridescent blue and orange fish serenely swim in their watery world.  So while it’s painful to be separated from my daughters and my granddaughters, I am so lucky to have them, so lucky to be able to spend any time at all with them, so lucky, so lucky, so lucky.

“Connection”

I wrote this poem ten years ago, but the feelings behind it are still true today.  I suspect that in every marriage or relationship, there are moments like these.  Don’t we all sometimes long for closer connections to others in our lives?

Connection

I listen for the sound of you at the end of the day,
the car engine beating its rumble into the cool evening air,
the clatter of the garage door opening,
the slamming of the car door
and the soft opening and shutting of the door into the house.
Doors open and you are there.
The connection is not.
Those moments, those coming-together times,
sharing, touching,
We are two shadows moving in the darkness.
Pain swirls in the air,
seeps into the soul,
and comes to rest in the heart
where it is pumped through the veins and arteries,
entering every organ until the whole body is sick with it.
Yet I listen still for your footsteps,
fill up with hope and expectation,
feed on my own hunger,
and die inside from lack of love.

© Barbara Flass 2001