Coming Home to Joy

When I tell my friends in Puerto Vallarta that I am returning to Minneapolis, they think I am crazy.

“The weather changes here on October 15th; I can guarantee it,” Ted, owner of the cigar shop, tells me.
“It’s like a curtain comes down on the humidity.”

“It’s paradise here in the winter,” Norma and Heather assure me at brunch.
“You will love it.”

“You have already made it through the worst part of the year,” Dee Dee says.
“And you want to go to where it’s freezing cold?”

I don’t look forward to being in the land of 10,000 icy winds and frozen windshields, but after the heat of Puerto Vallarta, the cool gray of a Minnesota winter feels good, refreshing, revitalizing.

I am exhausted from months of tossing and turning, getting up at 2 in the morning to take a cold shower, the relentless anxiety of a business just getting off the ground. Counting every penny and spending all of my savings has not been restful, no matter how many trips to the beach I make or how many new Spanish words I pick up. I am broke, and my son’s request for help with child care feels like the right answer as to what to do next.

Minnesota is like a huge comforter, soft and cozy. Or at least under my down quilted comforter, I am soft and cozy.

The day it snows, the world is transformed into a winter wonderland. It is so bright with the sun reflecting off the snow; it hurts to open your eyes. My grandsons can’t wait to get out. They dress in snow pants and boots for a romp across the yard. They build lopsided snowmen with carrot noses and don’t come in until their lips are blue.

In the late afternoon, I watch the sun slanting over the neighbor’s yard through the spreading oak tree. When it slides across the snow, it is a golden diffusion sparkling and pulsating with blue light, serene, pristine and exquisite.

I am grieving my youngest son who died a year and a half ago. I didn’t think I could live in the same city where he had lived, worked, and started his family which is why Puerto Vallarta had seemed like an option, as far away from Minneapolis as I could get.

Not long after I arrive, my best friend Liz invites me to an overnight retreat at the ARC, an ecumenical retreat center, about 45 minutes north in the woodlands. The first snow has slushed into ice, but the retreat center has three fireplaces, keeps the teapot filled, and serves lovely vegetarian meals. She is there to attend a board meeting, but I am free just to hang out and explore the woods, their expansive spiritual library, or just sit in silence in my room.

The main building looks like a large log cabin. I let myself sink into the palpable sense of tranquility. As a snack is set out, we are shown to our rooms. Each room is arranged comfortably with its own sink, bed, desk and rocking chair.

I sigh as I settle in, spreading out my books on the desk, putting my toothbrush on the sink, and draping my sweater over the rocking chair. Munching on bread and fruit, we converse quietly with guests and members who have chosen this simple rustic lifestyle away from the bright lights, fast paced traffic and congestion of the city.

I am tired of confiding to people what happened to my child and me. I understand that Minnesotans will never pry. I am free to disclose however much I want to. The sympathetic sounds that someone makes or the attempt to hide shock and dismay grate on my soul and yet, it can not, not be said.

But I am a poet and accustomed to revelation more than secrecy.

I am still on the quest for answers, and I find them everywhere, even in the heart of a stranger as we lean closer in empathy. Everyone has a story, I soon discover. Everyone has tragedy and grief somewhere in their family story and finds the courage to go on, keeping afloat their raft on the sea of life.

We gather in the small chapel for vespers. This worship service takes place in silence by candlelight as we sit in a contemplative circle. In the deepening silence, as thoughts of Sam come, I close my eyes.

It is only recently I have begun to be able to formulate words directed to the Divine. The first year after the devastating news of his death, my spiritual practice felt severed. I relied on others to pray for me.

I sit in the soothing silence and suddenly it comes to me: the promise is that there is life after death. For me. My life will go on. In ways, I have not predicted, in places I had vowed never to live.

Before dawn, we are awakened to join in the chapel again. This time there is an empty seat next to me, and I feel Sam’s presence. I weep grateful tears for the knowledge that we are still connected and part of each other that death does not keep us apart. For this moment alone, I am glad I came.

Time doesn’t heal. At any moment I can think of Sam and be right back in the darkest despair, unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But day by day, as I build a life here, I choose not to think of those shattering moments and focus instead on things to do that are creative and meaningful.

But it is when I take a writing/performance workshop that a revelation comes. As we write in short spontaneous bursts and then read aloud to the other participants, I have a sudden insight.

This story is more than just my story. It is a story, a story that I can share, a story I can tell or write about, perform or sing. I understand for the first time that my grief doesn’t have to be held close to my chest. I can share it to connect to others, to those with their own sorrows, their own challenges, their own struggle to find meaning in the midst of tragedy.

This revelation releases me in an astonishing way. I let go of my anger. It has been a long journey from the edge of the abyss to turn back to the light. But I turn, slowly I turn. I suddenly find myself with complete openness instead of anger and a bitter sense of bewilderment.

I find the jewel that I had been hoping was there under the mud, the compost. The jewel of knowing that I am not abandoned even though that is how it has felt. And most of all, the knowledge that I am learning a new way to love, beyond the physical form, beyond this life, to recognize I still have a relationship with my son.

Unconditional love is love without any conditions, including that we both be walking the earth in human form at the same time. And that I can love this way. I can let this love lead me forward to hope and joy.

Ten years ago when I moved to Minneapolis, if you had told me that I would find ways to meld my gift with my desire to be of service, I would not have believed you. Here I still am, ten years later.

That first winter, I attended a poetry reading at The Loft for the publication release of Songs Along the Way. The temperature was 20 below, and I asked my daughter-in-law to give me a ride.

I assumed there would be a small turn out. I was still disoriented, in an altered state, and raw with grief that felt like my skin of my heart had peeled away. I was surprised to watch the auditorium fill up, but despite standing room only, the seat next to me remained vacant. Was it Sam’s spirit come to comfort me? I left that reading to write my first poem since leaving Mexico.

Eight years ago if you had predicted that I would create a life I love, I would have seen a small glimmer through the fog. The Twin Cities writer’s community is a place to begin. I showed up for open mics and asked questions, attended every reading I could get to. Won a McKnight grant, published a book of poetry.

Five years ago if you had told me that I would feel joy, astounding joy that permeates my entire being, the joy of doing what I am meant to do, of using my gift and my desire and my vision, that I would heal, I would have been astonished. I would not have been able to imagine it. But joy has been gifted me.

Sam’s death is not something I got over or ever forget. If I choose to hold the moment of getting the phone call in my mind or seeing his body at the funeral home or the afternoon at the Chama River where we scattered his ashes, the visceral reaction is as potent as ever. Sharp unbearable pain shoots through my heart.

In one poem I wrote a description of my grandson,

“When he smiles, it is enough to crack the scotch-taped fissures of my heart back into shards. It is your smile, carbon copy family trait.”

These memories are enough to crack all the fissures back into shards. The fissures that I have spent the last ten years filling in with gold lacquer, painstakingly matching each surface to the other to assemble the whole.

I am a poet and poetry threw me a lifeline, a way to transform the bleak despair into something with meaning. I created a poetry performance for Día de los Muertos where I shared my anguish and told the story. I experienced moments of healing as I realized that death comes for all, death is part of the cycle of life. Death is natural.

Sam’s death is a choice he made, and I can choose the way I mourn, publically and privately.

What I learned as a writing instructor was that when I write, there are two paths. One will take me deeper and deeper into the story: what happened to me and what I feel about it. There is no end to that branch of the story. I can tell it over and over, because the emotional pull is powerful.

Or I can choose another branch: what it means, what patterns I see, where it leads me, what has been the lesson, and how I can change and transform because of it. And as the leader responsible for the circle, I deliberately choose that branch. That is what I write about and share.

When I led workshops under the funding of the grant, writing with battered women and homeless youth and heart patients and caregivers, I was writing weekly or twice weekly and choosing that path over and over again.

What does it mean to me, what did I learn, where do I find inner courage and strength, what do I still have, what are my blessings?

And I began to heal, not only enough to keep going, not only enough to be engaged with laughter and friendship and love and curiosity and pleasure, but with real joy. An inner knowing that I am where I am meant to be, that I am living my dreams, that I am connected to others in deep ways and that I love my life. I am blessed. I am grateful.

If you had told me that I would be overwhelmed with ecstatic bliss, that I would dance again under the Mexican moon, I would have been incredulous. I did not see it coming. I didn’t know it was possible.

Joy overwhelmed me the minute my plane landed in Léon, Mexico, on my way to the San Miguel de Allende’s writer conference. The warm air was a caress. The smiles on the faces of the Mexican people, the way they managed to slant their bodies to let me pass on the narrow sidewalks, the alegría that is a natural way of life despite poverty, oppression and tragedy, uplifted me.

Mingling for five days with people engaged in the love of words succored me. This was the experience I had hoped for when I fled to Puerto Vallarta, but I hadn’t been ready to receive. The inner work, the questioning and doubting and wrestling with my guilt and regret, had not yet moved me forward to another perspective.

I had worked hard, not only telling my story through poetry but attending grief counseling, connecting with a spiritual community, playing with grandsons, showing up even though part of me felt too broken to go on.

But here I was, falling in love with life again: the sensuality of being south of the border and the joy of being alive.

This joy was beyond any previous experience I have ever had. Beyond when I fell in love, when I gave birth, when I sat in a Spanish café listening to flamenco, when I celebrated with friends, when I held my first book in my hands, when I spoke my truth on stage and was held in the arms of my audience.

This joy was a state of being and from the moment I landed until I left, it grew, a blazing sun dissolving all the dark places. Perhaps more brilliant for the depth of the darkness.

I had been groping my way forward all those years, and now I emerged into light. I came home to myself after long years of wandering. Like Dorothy clicking together her ruby slippers and saying, “No place like home.”

Life moved on, disappointments, more losses, and the challenges of practicality versus art. But I know I can always return to this inner state of being.

Whenever grief or disappointment or frustration or longing knock me off-kilter, I know it is here, waiting for me, invincible, mine.

Photo Credit: DKG Images Flickr via Compfight cc

  1. Thank you for responding, Kim, it means a lot to me.
    I can picture you nodding you head.
    Eventually I realized that we each have had our hearts broken in some way, some more painfully than others, and telling our stories builds bridges between us.
    Blessings, Wendy

  2. ****and now I emerged into light***

    W O W.

    1. Beautiful, articulate, raw, flowing, memorable, identifiable.
    2. Every single word- I UNDERSTOOD, savored, nodded my head in agreement.
    3. Poetry saved me, too, when my sister was murdered
    4. Grief doesn’t die…It is only born.
    5. Words are small, powerful saviors.

    —Wendy, by telling your story to the world, you allow others to tell their story, as well.
    This is important, transformative & life-changing for people who are suffering alone.

    I am abundantly sorry about the loss of your son…but applauding you for finding light in darkness, writing, teaching, making a difference.

    Kim from Duluth, Minnesota.

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