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 ❤

Memories of a 4th Grade Love Note

This morning, without any clear stimulus, I was treated to the memory of a note I once received from a 4th grade classmate. The note was written on an unlined piece of pulpy paper, the kind designated for math problems, and folded into a small careful square. Above a pencil sketch of a toilet, the note read: “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” It was a decent rendering of a toilet, leaving no question about what it was, but I remember wondering about it. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have drawn a turkey?

While I may have been confused by the mixed metaphor, I treasured the note. How or whether I responded I don’t recall, but I believe I recognized it as the love note it was, not only because it was signed, “Love, Matt.” And I’d like to think I was demonstrably grateful in some way, but I’m not sure that’s true.

What’s interesting for me to think about now, especially as I conjure an image of my 4th grade self, is that I don’t remember being outwardly vulnerable enough to warrant such a specifically encouraging note. I wasn’t a victim of bullying. I wasn’t really teased at that age. In fact, I’m pretty sure I did what I could to appear immune. Was that also the same year I brought a pocket knife to school? Quite possibly.

Now, I don’t want to paint the wrong picture here. I wasn’t a bad kid. Rough around the edges, yes, but generally a rule follower and a serious student. I was also quite sad and angry a lot of the time, but I didn’t think that showed, at least not at school.

It’s funny now to consider whether my internal struggles were more transparent than I realized, at least to Matt, whose kindness registered even then, but not nearly as much as it does now. It takes a special kind of person to see what lies beneath the masks we wear, the lies we tell ourselves about who we are, the things we try not to broadcast.

And it’s true I don’t really know what Matt intended to communicate. He was obviously repeating something he’d heard and maybe he simply liked drawing toilets and was intrigued by idioms. His conscious intent doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is the memory, 41 years later, the long echo of imperfect, innocent love. And my newfound appreciation for the the note exactly as it was, the toilet especially. Because I understand now, more than I possibly could have then, that life is indeed filled with bowls of shit, including those of our own making. We persevere by not letting the turkeys get us down, it’s true. But maybe the real secret is found in small acts of kindness, in seeing what lies beneath rough exteriors and writing love notes to whomever we can.

An Early Morning Conversation about Mars

I can see Mars from my kitchen window
Which sounds like it could be a metaphor, and probably is
Except, I mean I can literally see Mars
That red skinned beacon
Out there. The speck that reminds me how small I am
And also of how impossible things might be known
First from a great distance. Then close up.
But how do we get there from here? That is the question
That keeps me up at night
 
And while I’m awake, even half-asleep
I figure, I might as well keep looking
Because we never get there by not looking
Over and out there, but also
In here. And if we don’t want to go
Someplace we’ve never been
It might be important to know why not
To understand whether we are afraid of green men
Remnants of a cartoon we once saw
Or something else
 
Isn’t it funny how we give meaning to color
Red states, blue states, people and planets
As if we are still children learning to sort a giant crayon box
Trying to make something so big
Fit into our small hands
 
We know so little for certain except that
The universe is bigger than any one of us
And we are hurtling through space at a speed we can’t match
Mightn't it be prudent then
To keep our options open
To keep our hearts opener still
To open up the too small box and smash the cardboard with our grown up feet?
 
Maybe then, we’d be able to see
What the container has keep from our view
That we’ve made a very poor bargain for certainty
And also. Maybe Mars
With the friendly green "men"
Is closer than we think

© Amanda Reilly Sayer, 2020

Hold Your Flame High

The challenge now is to hold your flame high
Without seeking to burn others
It’s tempting, I know, to singe another on the way by
Especially when you’ve clawed your way out of darkness
And they have blocked your passage
When you have been burned
Near past the point of recognition

You did not deserve that
You did not ever deserve that
But you are not the only one with scars
And you must find within you the strength
To be better than those who’ve hurt you
Because you can and you are
Not when you are set alight with vengeance
But when you light the way for everyone

If you want a new story
You must allow for a new ending.
In every hero’s journey ever told,
There comes a time to re-know the enemy
Because the enemy is who you become
When you don’t use your light well
When you can’t honor your history
Without making it a weapon

Know your anger and guard your wounds
But do not succumb to hatred or bitterness
Nor direct your rage inward
No one is asking you to offer yourself as firewood

And understand this:
The way forward is now
There is an opening now
The darkness is lit with love

© Amanda Reilly Sayer (November, 2020)

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.

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 ❤️