Convergent Losses, Invisible Strings

John Lennon reminded us that life happens when we’re busy making other plans. Today, I was similarly reminded that life continues, even when we’re busy grieving the loss of it; that love is both the foundation of grief and the way through it. 

Lisa and I agreed to meet at a beach halfway between where we each live. I’d walked the same stretch of beach countless times and thought I knew roughly what to expect, anticipation stacked loosely by experience. I was right to predict the easy rhythm of conversation with an old friend, the gentle acknowledgement of Lisa’s past and pending losses, my own healing grief. But I could not have imagined the surprise to come, or the feelings evoked.

After walking, talking, and letting the low-tide expanse fill our hollow places, we were greeted by a yellow lab and two women sitting on a bench near the parking lot. The dog calmly approached and honored me with several mature dog kisses, deliberate and measured. She then turned to Lisa, offering her a similar greeting. “What a sweetie,” I called to the women on the bench. “I recently lost my dog.” They smiled, understanding. 

We briefly chatted about some related details – how old my dog was when she died, how old their dog is now, where we all live – before one of the women added that this was originally her son’s dog. She pointed to the memory plaque behind her on the bench, “This bench is in memory of my son.” We could see he died from melanoma when he was only 37 years old. “Wear sunscreen,” she added.

Turning back to the dog, the woman smiled and said, “This is Chapin.” Lisa and I looked at each other, mouths open, before I explained, “That was my dog’s name too! She was also a yellow lab.” What are the chances?

Now, I believe in coincidence. I don’t think EVERYthing is a sign or filled with special meaning. As Freud famously said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” But some things feel like signs. Or at least feel bigger than what is immediately apparent, which is sometimes pretty big already. This was one of those times. Not only because I felt my Chapin’s love in the other Chapin’s kisses, even before I knew they shared a name. But because the random meeting of mostly unrelated humans revealed an otherwise hidden connection – shared loss and deep love. And what’s bigger? Except to recognize and share in the vulnerability of being present to it.

Lisa had earlier said she was due to get home where her mother, awaiting another cancer treatment, was taking care of Lisa’s nearly blind dog. Still, we lingered in the parking lot, first with our new friends, then with each other. I’d brought Lisa a painting to borrow, a painting I hoped would offer soothing energy for her and her family during a challenging time. We looked at it together for a bit, then hugged goodbye.

It was only after we parted that I felt overcome, washed through by a feeling hard to name. My eyes filled as I pulled away from Chapin Beach and remained so as I drove along the beach access road, but my vision was sharp enough to notice the other Chapin and her two companions walking along the beach in the distance. I stopped briefly to take a picture, a visual reminder of the threads that had briefly connected us: grief, love, dogs, and the beach they were named after. I was newly overwhelmed by another wave of feeling, more expansive than the low tide beach, something like the inhalation of clouds, lifting my grief like a helium filled balloon.

So many of the best things are difficult to explain and seem reduced by the telling. Such moments of gnosis are rare, or at least they have been for me, even as I am aware I’ve been long searching for that very thing – the palpable awareness of something bigger that lives in and connects everything, the invisible strings made visible.

Though I miss my dear Chapin. And Lisa grieves the loss of her baby, just as the woman on the bench still cries for her lost son. Although I wonder, as we all do, how to go on after losing and whether love is worth the price. I feel the tug of so many seen and unseen connections, and know I am held in their braided net. And that is enough to keep me daring, heart open, to love again and deeper still.

Wish You Were Here

16×20 acrylic on repurposed canvas

There is a story about this painting, but I’m not quite ready to tell it. Or maybe I just don’t know how to tell it well, so I’ll let the image stand as it is. I’m also aware that the story about this painting is unfinished, perhaps the reason it can’t yet be shared. Which got me thinking about our stories more generally. When and with whom we choose to tell them. And how we manage the ending…

I welcome your thoughts ❤

In Grief, Love

I started this painting on the afternoon of January 6th, while unbeknownst to me violence was unfolding in the U.S. Capitol. I “finished” it the next morning, moving it out of a much uglier stage. Although I’m not sure I’ve moved it far enough out of “ugliness,” I also know it’s good to sit with it all, that the truth of a moment doesn’t always appear beautiful in the ways we’ve known. And also, that ugliness and beauty are mostly ideas and relative to their context. Art is not always visually appealing; movement doesn’t always feel good. My paintings don’t usually name themselves when they aren’t finished, but this one did, so maybe it is.

More living, less dying

Chapin, age 13.5

In the hiatus of favored things
Pain evident in your gait and change of habits
We feared the worst, prepared for the end 

Until suddenly, again, you trotted along the beach
Delighted in old crab shells and seaweed
Then later begged to climb into bed with us,
   Something you’d not done for months
And earlier, chewed on a long discarded bone
Nestled between forgotten toys
Remnants of your younger days

These things seem small, maybe 
But I know they are the sum of everything
Evidence of more living, less dying

And so it is, for all of us
Times of grace, even joy
Smiling into salty waves and leaning into the day
   while knowing. That final day will come

© Amanda Reilly Sayer, 2019

If you liked this, you might enjoy an earlier poem about Chapin here.

Freedom: The other side of loss

Freedom, 16×38 on plywood

Change can be difficult and is often filled with associated grief, but freedom can also be found in the process of letting go. Major life transitions offer a special opportunity to find freedom in change, but it’s easier said than done depending on the details.

We just sold our house. And truthfully, nothing about the related details over the last months have felt close to positive, except the knowledge that we would eventually conclude the stressful parts and be another step closer to our goals – a simpler life, fewer possessions, reduced financial obligations, to name a few.

Anticipated freedom on my mind, I noticed the plywood board sitting on the side of the road – FREE in bold marker written across the surface. Instead of unwanted junk, I saw a new canvas for the old house paint I’d not yet discarded. This idea was so compelling, I actually turned the car around to retrieve the board after initially passing it by.

I’d already made two other paintings with house paint, which turned out to be highly therapeutic, as well as productive. See an example here. But those paintings were made on canvases already in my possession, the benefit of using them more immediately obvious.

In the middle of a move, the last thing anyone needs is to accrue anything new. Nevertheless, I found myself putting the board in my car, unable to resist the symbolic reference and the therapeutic value of a new creative project to soothe me between the packed boxes.

Although I understood FREE would be erased by whatever painting I made, I imagined I’d know freedom in the layers of the painting. I was right.

Freedom is a mindset, not only a consequence of release from unwanted circumstances. Freedom is found any time we allow ourselves to move beyond preconditioned responses. Freedom comes when we let go of expectations.

I am free. You are free.

A different kind of love letter*


You’re watching me
From your blanketed perch
The spot we’ve made for you
On the left side of the couch

I’m in the kitchen
The reason
Your interest is keen

But I pretend your attention
Is something like love

Something like
The way I love you
Which feels like held breath
And fills my empty spaces

Even as I know
You’re merely calculating
A piece of carrot?
A slice of cucumber, maybe?

Weighing the likelihood
Of a treat against
The comfort of the couch

There was a time
When you watched
From up close
And only
Pressed against my leg
Or with a nose in my lap

Ever optimistic
No matter how many times
I never
Shared my dinner

You’re more discerning now
Better trained perhaps
Or maybe just tired
Aware of your aching body
As I am

You see
I watch you, too

And I feel my heart ache
Each time I imagine
Your side of the couch
Without you. Watching me

© Amanda Reilly Sayer, 2019

* In honor of my dear Chapin, 13 years old today ❤️