A locket, a box of ashes and a flu bug.

FOR LESLIE

How strange the things we do with our dead.  When Eoin died we had a five-day wake at the house, followed by the traditional funeral mass (in Irish), burial and reception.  It was such a fog, really, and mercifully so.  Leslie was cremated and the majority of her ashes were scattered at a place in Utah where Leslie enjoyed hiking and camping trips.  Very generously and sensitively, her husband put aside a portion of ashes for me and my mother posted the ashes, plus a small locket with a tiny urn inside that contains another smaller amount of her ashes.  I wore it all day today.  The box of her ashes rests in a drawer in the spare bedroom, for the time being.

It’s been a weird week.   I interviewed for a fundraising position a couple of weeks ago.  Late last week I was notified that I had the job.  I have a two-day training next week in Dublin, and if I’m lucky, enough fuel to make the commute.  Meanwhile, I also caught the flu last week and still feel a bit rough from that, and I have a box of my sister’s ashes in a drawer.

I feel anxious about the box of ashes — as if I need to do something about them, or as if by putting them inside the drawer in an unused room, I can avoid accepting that Leslie is gone, because if nothing else, those ashes are irrefutable proof that she died and I can’t call her on the phone anymore.  I really miss talking to her.  This drawer strategy isn’t working so well for me.  I thought, at first, I’d put her ashes aside for awhile until I came up with the perfect spot to scatter them. Then, I would come up with some meaningful time and ceremonious method for scattering her ashes, and some form of closure might ensue.  I may need to rethink that though.  Keeping her in the drawer doesn’t feel right.  Nothing feels right.  I miss her; and the box of ashes, no matter where I keep them whilst I inevitably procrastinate the scattering, just amplifies this feeling of longing and loss that has no simple cure.

Today I took the dogs to Ferrybank for a walk.  I was watching them play in the water and thinking about Leslie’s ashes and it suddenly struck me that I simply must make a decision and get on with the scattering.  Soon.  I haven’t decided exactly where yet, but somewhere close, somewhere I visit regularly enough so I’ll have a place to go when I need to feel close to her — somewhere I might have taken her to see if she were still alive.  I need to do it soon though.  She wouldn’t like being inside that drawer.  I don’t like it either.

 

Six

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.  

William Shakespeare, Hamlet. Act 4, Scene 5

 

Six years.

Eoin O’Nuanain. !Presente!

eoin and ciaran

Eoin (right) with his brother, Ciaran. In Derry, 2006

 

Six months.

Leslie Marie Jones. !Presente!

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Leslie (left) with my son, Alex. In Austin,  2008

The Thing is

“to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.”

Ellen Bass, from ‘Mules of Love: Poems’ 2002

Thank you for this, Professor J.

Writing the middle aged body

no makeup

“Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.”

— Helene Cixous, ‘Laugh of the Medusa’

When my sister died at the age of fifty-three — too young, too unexpected — my body marked my grief.  I visibly aged, with lines deepening upon my forehead, changes to the texture of my skin, and a ten pound weight gain that sent me into a ‘vanity panic’, the likes of which I had not experienced in years.  I want to say I’m over that now, but I’m not.  I do try to work through it; to change my way of thinking about my body as something beyond a visible surface or structure.  I try to imagine it as something more fluid that melds with, and is part of all of me — my thoughts, intellect, temperament, tastes and such forth — without specific lines of demarcation.  My body-as-me is in mourning.  The aching in my bones, the lump in my throat, the anxiety — even the clumsiness — are the physical manifestations of my grief.  All that I experience, whether it be grief, pleasure, fear or a sudden flash of brilliance, my body experiences.  Why on earth would I castigate this part of myself for something as natural and reasonable as aging and weight gain?

We (women) are judged.  We feel judged.  In turn, we judge ourselves and others. That is the message my sister shared, again and again, through countless telephone calls of self-denigration, always directing the conversation to the weight her body carried.  Always making apologies for the appearance of accumulated fat, as if the space she took up in the universe presented a repellent offence to the imagined order of the world’s landscape.  Leslie went far beyond feeling ‘dissatisfied’ with her body; she loathed it.  Adjectives Leslie used when describing her body:

Disgusting

Flabby

Huge

Enormous

In her rants (for they were rants) she chided herself for having ‘let herself go’.  She blamed her boredom, her isolation, the lack of support from the people in her life.  She talked of her hurt feelings, in particular the pain inflicted by our father’s scathing comments and judgement, and the pressures (all our lives) to conform to his (and society’s) idealized version of what a woman should look like.  She was right about all of it — the pressures, the boredom –all that was real.  She was wrong about herself though.  By medical standards Leslie carried too much weight.  That, however, did not make her ‘disgusting’, ‘enormous’ ‘ugly’ or whatever negative adjectives she used to describe her physical appearance.  Leslie’s body, in all its variations of shape and size throughout the years, was Leslie. Leslie was loved.  I loved her.  Many people loved Leslie.  And Leslie was beautiful.  Always.  I wish Leslie had lived long enough to accept herself and her beauty.  I wish she were still here to love herself fully as herself.

Leslie was wrong about herself, but she couldn’t avoid it.  Most of the women I know worry and complain about their bodies and their appearance.  The ideals and expectations of what women’s bodies represent, what they mean, how and for what purposes they are valued, detach and alienate women from their bodies and condition us to scrutinize our own and other women’s bodies in the service of an impossible and thoroughly arbitrary standard.  If, for instance, the current ideal of female beauty is a genetically blessed, slender, perfectly proportioned seventeen-year-old, possessing  the valued skin tones and facial features of the day, then even the rare few who meet that standard are already doomed to failure, regardless of their efforts to maintain it.  Bodies change, and to some degree, so do standards.  At any given time, conventionally beautiful women are like billionaires (only with less long-term security).  Sure, they exist; but not as a statistically significant representation of human bodies.  So why buy into such a ludicrously impossible standard that wrenches us away from appreciating and nurturing the bodies that we have and are?

So in the spirit of Cixous, (and no doubt to the horror of Leslie in heaven), I (im)modestly present my presently middle-aged body.  Some of its original parts are missing — a couple of tonsils, a molar, a kidney — but it seems reasonably intact.  I am blessed with strong and healthy limbs that function efficiently, if not always gracefully.  My immune system serves me well, and though as I’ve aged, I find myself less tolerant of wheat and dairy products, I have a healthy appetite and no significant digestive complaints.  There is nothing wrong with my body, yet if I stand before a full length mirror (clothed or otherwise) in less than thirty seconds my eyes will start clocking flaws.  Hereditary flaws, age flaws, bruises, bulges, bumps and my much maligned stretch marks.

new stretchmarks

And here’s the thing: It is not so much having these particularities on and of my body, but, rather, that my eyes register them and my brain interprets them as ‘flaws’.  In that instant I dupe myself into validating the fabrication of a standard to which my ‘flaws’ are measured; a standard that annuls all bodies of their particularity.  Hogwash!  If I faithfully wrote my middle-aged body, its story would have little to do with the inertia of standardized beauty, its flaws instead marking segues and ruptures in its (my) half-century’s journey in this life.

A scar on my upper lip marks my first encounter with stitches, and evokes the memory of playing ‘Batman’ with Leslie, tearing through the living room in the first house I remember living in, and splitting my lip on the coffee table.  It also reminds me of my father telling the story, again and again, of watching the emergency room doctor stitching me up, and how my eyes crossed as I tried to watch the process.  I love the scar because it is the conduit to a memory I treasure.  So too, the freckles on my shoulders — the result of a second degree sunburn acquired on a hiking trip with my father, sister and my sons.  My flesh is a travelogue of mundane scars marking clumsy accidents and a surgical one that tells of surviving cancer.  These stretch marks that I’ve vainly tried for so long to hide, reduce and wish away, merely record that  my belly had once stretched to full capacity to accommodate my first son.  Laugh lines, worry lines, loosened flesh — the body of evidence that I have lived, loved, lost, learned and experienced.  My flesh never abandoned or betrayed me.  It has faithfully transcribed my fifty-two years with an accuracy that words cannot.  Indeed without this body I could not write or speak any words at all.  I simply would not be.

So, while I wont be stripping naked and charging down the High Street to proclaim and celebrate the wonder and beauty of my body — I will give it a ‘thumbs up’ for sticking by me and being of me.  And, finally, in honour of Leslie, who left too soon to make peace with her own body, I endeavor to retrain my eyes to register stories instead of flaws in all bodies, not just my own.

Molly misses you, . . . whoever you are..

molly

On a walk through town with Aluta and Tillie, I saw a young man chasing a dog and calling after her ‘Molly!  Molly!’  But Molly was off like a flash and I watched as I saw the distance between man and dog grow longer and longer.

Fast forward twenty minutes or so, and my girl dogs and I are only a short distance from home, when who should we see dodging out of traffic, but the very same Molly.  Thinking surely her owner must still be searching for her, I took Tillie’s lead off and put it on Molly and brought her back to my place.  I phoned the local animal protection people to see if anyone had called looking for her. Nothing yet.  I left my details and Molly’s description with them and did the same with the local dog warden.  Meanwhile we wait.

I am anxious about Molly.  Molly is anxious as well.  This is not her home and she just stares at the back gait, refusing nibbles and water.  What happens if no one comes forward to claim her?  I cannot keep another dog.  Apart from living in a rented property, where two dogs is a generous concession on the part of my landlord, I am struggling like mad just to feed myself and dogs I have.  I cannot afford another pet.  So what happens?  Do I just open the back gate and leave it to Molly to find her way back to her people?  If I did that I’d worry endlessly that she’d come to harm in the traffic.  Do I surrender her to the local animal shelter?  They’re surely over-full of stray and abandoned pets as it is and won’t likely have room.  The dog warden is out of the question.  I am fully aware that if I were to do that and she was not claimed within the week, she’d be put down.

Meanwhile, Molly still stares at the gate in the back garden.

My here and now resolve is as follows.  Molly will remain my house/garden guest for today.  I will take her out walking with Tillie this evening in the direction where I first encountered her.  Perhaps she’ll be spotted, or will lead us in the direction of her home.  Someone is bound to turn up for her.  She’s a sweet, well looked after dog, and she’s missing her people.

Update:  Molly (who is actually, ‘Dolly’)  has been claimed!  We are ALL relieved.

molly2

 

The dark haired poet

writer
She’s been writing all morning.  She has a story niggling at the back of her curly head . . . Something about knee caps and shards of broken glass . . . a re-imagining of another (true, sad, painful, personal) story she heard once before.  A story told, in hushed confidence, by someone she dearly loved and sorely misses.  And though her heavy paw has hovered above the keyboard since she rose this morning, she cannot compose that first sentence.

She experiments with different styles; stream of consciousness, prose, iambic pentameter, free-verse … she tries a haiku.  Delete, delete, delete them all.  She grunts and closes her eyes for a minute.  She runs downstairs for her kitty-cat egg timer.  She sets it for five minutes and free-writes.  Here is what she comes up with:

I’madogwhocan’tsit still.  There’s a cat onmywindowsill.  Mommytookasleeping pill. Here is the page that I must fill.   Look! I found the space bar! I should be out chasing a car.  Broken glass Broken glass.  The ginger cat fell on his ass.  Broken glass.  Knee caps. Stop gaps.  Thin skin.  Embedded shards.  Permanent scars.  Symbols.  The dance of veils as  shards emerge through the years each representing a time and place locked away in her head.  It’s out. It’s examined.  It’s remembered, re-membered, removed and moved to that other place.  each time another shard, another moment.  a betrayal an argument a loss a replacement and she grows and grows and grows.  Like a puppy.  a Brown puppy. I was a brown puppy.  I’m getting off track. what about the glass?  the knee cap?  How did it happen. can women fly?  time does not.  How many minutes left.  Done.

She yawns and shakes out her curls.  The dark haired poet looks over what she’s written.  Perhaps a short nap, a ride in the car, a romp in the park, a poop on the grass will bring the story closer.  With her fat paw-pad, she presses ‘save’, then shuts down the computer.  She completes three circles at the foot of the bed and lies down.  Shiny shards of broken glass dancing inside her curly, dreaming head.

To the Library

st patrics1

I don’t want to go out.  I force myself to go out. Otherwise I would keep myself sequestered in the (not really) safety of my little house, away from the imagined gaze of other people, the clatter inside my head of their (also imagined) judgement.  Since the loss — before the loss, really, but to a lesser extent — I stay indoors, obedient to a paranoia that fastens me; this nonsensical delusion that every element of pain, grief, guilt and confusion that I feel is somehow emblazoned in every movement I make, visible throughout the entire surface of my body, right down to the clothes I’m wearing.  But I force myself to go out.  In my anonymous dress, sensible shoes, and a crocheted pullover, too heavy for this weather, I tread, one heavy leg after the other, into town.

My destination is the library.  In the two years since I moved to this town, I’ve never visited the library.  I am not even entirely sure how to get there, but have a vague recollection that it’ s located somewhere near the opera house.  I walk up Roches Road, past St Peter’s Square … the air is so thick and hot.  My chest feels tight and I cannot determine if it’s the heavy weather or a low-level state of panic at finding myself out of my safety zone.  I turn left at St Peter’s Square and notice I’m going in the direction of the High Street — which I want to avoid — people there.  Don’t want to see people.  Midway, I find a small lane-way on the right.  I follow it.  There are shops and a small café along the right side of the lane, and a row of narrow Victorian era terrace houses to the left.  I’m intrigued  by the houses, imagining myself living on this tiny lane in one of those houses, so close to the town centre.  I do this often; look at houses on any given street and imagine myself chopping vegetables in the kitchen, my cat lounging on a nearby chair.  In these ‘other house’ lives, my world is colourful, cheerful, safe and serene — as if a simple change of venue would annul my hurts, regrets and this struggle to feel safe in the now.

The lane I travel  leads through to Mallin Street.  I walk past the opera house.  At the end of the street stands the library, a large, narrow, glass paneled structure, only recently built.  As I walk through the main entrance, my mouth goes dry.  My heart thumps wildly in my chest, my hands tingle and I feel my head begin to swim. I am scarcely inside the building when the panic completely overtakes me.  I turn around and hastily walk out the door.  Panting for breath, I hurry back past the opera house and towards the lane.

Everything appears slanted.  The sun seems unbearably bright.  As I carry on further, I notice a group of kittens skittering in and out through an iron gate. Curiosity gradually eclipses anxiety and I make my way towards the gate.  The kittens, obviously feral, scamper away to the thick undergrowth beyond the gate.  I peer inside and find the ruins of a Church surrounded by gravestones, some so worn down they could easily be mistaken for rocks, all partially hidden by tall weeds, brambles and lilacs in full, fragrant bloom.  In the catch of the gate, an absurdly shiny padlock hangs seductively open.  I lift the padlock off and hang it on the gate’s railing.  As I enter, cats and kittens scramble every which way, one hissing her displeasure at my trespassing, as she darts away with the others.

church

I sit cross-legged among the weeds, taking slow, even breaths as my eyes scan over the church and across the graveyard.  Tears begin to roll down my face, but I do not fight them.  I simply allow them to fall.  The panic subsides, as does the shame that accompanies it.  I stay still and continue to slowly breathe.  Calm washes over me.  It seems so bitterly fitting that I should find solace among the ancient dead and feral cats.  Now calmer, I further take in my surroundings.  I curse myself for not having my camera.  So many wonderful captures to be had here; the shadows of leaning headstones, the play of light through the ruin’s arches. . . I make a silent vow to return early the following morning with my camera and a bit of cat food.  I find myself suddenly struck with feelings of gratitude.  I feel grateful for the courage that allowed me to venture out today; grateful for the heat of the sun on my skin; and grateful for the panic attack that brought me here to discover this place. As I rise to leave I silently thank the cats, the foliage and the dead below the ground for their hospitality.  I return the lock to the gate, pushing it upwards just enough to look secured, but not enough for the lock to catch.  Hopefully, it will still be accessible when I return in the morning.

stones

The Silent Months

leslie and heidi I have been reading (re-reading), Latifa al Zayyat’s The Search: Personal Papers; a fragmented autobiography spanning decades of her life.  The book comprises a series of false starts; sections that are left unfinished and unresolved, up until the last (completed) chapter that recounts her imprisonment under Sadat in the early 1970’s.  Her unfinished sections mark moments in her life unsettled and silenced by trauma; bereavement, her first imprisonment, marriage and divorce, Each of these silences are then picked up as the loose threads of her story that are finally incorporated in the prison narrative of her final chapter.

I revisited The Search because recently I’ve been trying to come to terms with and break a silence I have kept for the past five months since Leslie died. For five months I have scarcely left my home, except to walk the dogs or buy groceries.  I have scarcely spoken to another human being, but especially have not spoken to my family or my friends who knew me before Leslie died.  And the longer it continues, the harder it gets to make that first gesture of contact.  I do not talk. I do not write.  I just drift in silence from one day to the next.  I feel like three-quarters of who I am has been gouged out of me, and what is left is this muted shrieking that I dare not let out for fear it will swallow me completely.

I miss Leslie so much and I want to talk about her, because it’s Leslie that sticks in my throat; along with my grief.  My grief is not so hard to explain, really. My sister suddenly fell sick and died.  I am angry, shocked, sad, confused, guilty, in denial and I want her back.  That is grief in a nutshell.  I want to talk about Leslie, but I do not know to whom, and it does not help that I’ve erected this imaginary wall between myself and my family.  I think I have it in my head that they (particularly my mother, step mother and Leslie’s husband) have their own grief to contend with and for me to talk about mine feels somewhat self-indulgent.  Then, there’s the guilt I feel over my months of silence….

Today I Skyped with my son, Ian, for the first time in months.  I was nervous about it, but it was alright.  I think (I’m pretty sure) he understood how losing her has affected me.  I promised him I’d call his brothers, and I will.  Still, I struggle with reaching out, but I’ll try to push that anxiety aside and get on with it.  I think the time has come to bring down my wall and reconnect with my tribe.  This silence does me no favours.

On a more positive note, I am taking steps to care better for myself.  I’ve sworn off sugar, caffeine, cigarettes and various other evils — all of which I’ve done to ridiculous excess since Leslie died.  It dawned on me that destroying my body won’t bring her back to me, though it might hasten my joining her.  Instead I think it better to try to get stronger despite the grief, think of her, remember her and of course, talk about her.  I’ll probably be doing a lot of that.

 

 

A Open Letter to Ireland

Note to self: stop being a whiny bitch (at least in this respect)

unshavedmouse

 

Dear Whiny Bitches,

How’ve you been? I am good. Let’s talk about that recent survey. You know the one? Recently something called the Good Country Index released a survey stating that Ireland was the “best” country in the world. Now, there’s a been a lot of confusion on this so first of all let’s just clarify that the survey was not necessarily the best place in the world to live, the survey was actually trying to measure which countries contribute most to the welfare of humanity (in stuff like global aid, peace-keeping, diplomacy, fighting climate change and so on) and which countries are dragging everyone else down. Now, I’ll admit I was surprised that we got the number one spot, not stunned, but surprised. But sure, we do give a lot of money to overseas aid and we’ve been involved in UN Peacekeeping missions since the early sixties so…

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