We had an amazing meal last night at Frontera Grill. The Manager greeted us when we sat down, our server was masterful and the food was spectacular. We started with oysters and ceviche; Anne had swordfish and I had brisket. Driving home was like being in an action movie. Cars were double and triple parking in front of restaurants and clubs - left turners were blocking intersections - it was a gauntlet just to get out of the loop.
It was a very grey morning, not as cold as Friday, when I drove over to Galter Life Center for my training session. Jessica introduced me to burpees, which I had never done before. Super hard - which the whole session was.
I don’t know why exactly, but a thread of melancholy just strung throughout the day. Maybe it was the fun of the previous night when we started talking about what a trip overseas might look like in the coming year: Paris and Brugge? Something in between as well? Maybe Lille?
It wouldn’t surprise me that even just the consideration of such a family trip might come with an emotional cost. Strangely, I had to pick up and adjust two pictures of Nora that somehow got knocked over in our living room in the afternoon.
It just feels very scattershot right now. When one of us is okay, the other is not. We can be joking one minute and convulsing in sobs the next. On Facebook, a picture memory popped up on Anne’s feed: one year ago today, Nora was performing at Chicago Waldorf with her class doing Shakespeare scenes. It was a really important moment - it sparked hope. Sitting here, one full year later, the bitter disbelief is gnawing.
“...when your child dies, you feel everything you'd expect to feel, feelings so well-documented by so many others that I won't even bother to list them here, except to say that everything that's written about mourning is all the same, and it's all the same for a reason - because there is no read deviation from the text. Sometimes you feel more of one thing and less of another, and sometimes you feel them out of order, and sometimes you feel them for a longer time or a shorter time. But the sensations are always the same.
But here's what no one says - when it's your child, a part of you, a very tiny but nonetheless unignorable part of you, also feels relief. Because finally, the moment you have been expecting, been dreading, been preparing yourself for since the day you became a parent, has come.”
This is a weird sentence to write, but I managed to recover my dreams. I think it was simply by putting a pen and small notebook next to my bed that I recalled a couple of dreams from the previous night, even when I didn’t have the energy/interest to write them down - so I’m fuzzy on the details, but certain that dreaming was happening. Honestly, I think I preferred it when I didn’t know the dreams were there. Now that I’m noticing them again, they become part of a puzzle that I don’t have the energy to figure out.
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
We’ve said to ourselves and to each other, “I don’t know how to do this.” And, of course, there is no satisfying answer to this question. In part, because it’s likely the wrong question. The “how” part is ingrained not learned: we cry, we ruminate, we laugh, we remember, we forget (only for fractions of time, never fully), we move, we sit with it - leaning into the pain as if it were a pillow of ache.
In getting deeper into the Jim McKelvey book, I came upon a chapter titled “When.” McKelvey began his adult life as an artist. He is a glassblower. The previous chapter was talking about mentors and he notes that “Every glassblower has a mentor: in fact, we all have the same one: Lino Taliapietra.” It took him 15 years to get into his two week class and during that time each student gets to ask the Maestro one question. Most of the students ask carefully prepared and complicated questions. When it came to McKelvey, he asked the best glassblower in the world how to put a simple foot on a bowl.
Putting a foot on a bowl isn’t complicated and McKelvey has done it thousands of times, but he never felt he was doing it correctly.
“Lino told me to make a bowl, which I did promptly. Then he told me to make a foot, which is simply a hot gather of glass taken directly from the furnace and shaped into a tennis ball-sized glob. I made the foot. He then told me to put the foot on the bowl, but just as I was about to let the hot foot drop onto the colder bowl, he said, ‘Wait.’ I stood there with the bowl in my left hand and the foot in my right until he gave the second half of the lesson: ‘Now.’ I let the now-slightly-less-hot foot fall and it went on perfectly. This blew my mind.
I was expecting a lesson in how, but Lino gave me a lesson in when.”
Later in the chapter:
“Schools teach how. We learn to copy what works with the emphasis always on the how and not the when. I learned how to construct complicated mathematical models, but never learned when presenting such a model was inappropriate. I learned to reason logically, but never learned when logic might offend someone. I learned contract law, but never learned when to just shake hands.”
This grieving process may be more a matter of when than how. When do we say yes to the invitation and when do we say no; when do we allow ourselves to sink into the despair of it and when do find the strength to put the despair aside. Maybe it’s about when am I rather than how am I.
Dan Pink wrote a whole book about this called “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.” There is so much evidence that peak performers are masters at knowing how to create a cadence of performance. They don’t run until they are spent, they don’t practice until their fingers bleed. They sprint and rest. As Pink writes, “Breaks are not a sign of sloth but a sign of strength.”
Anne and I talked about this over a breakfast of hash with smoked pork, onions, peppers, bacon and carrots. Our breaks aren’t about breaking, they are about defending our strength. This is so hard. Unspeakably difficult. But we have each other and you. In the words of Nora Leonard, “You can do this.”
“The awareness of the ambiguity of one's highest achievements - as well as one's deepest failures - is a definite symptom of maturity.”
My college adviser, Ron Miller, was an ex Jesuit priest who left the order to marry and have kids. He introduced me to the work of Paul Tillich. This morning I was listening to a podcast that my former colleague Travis had recommended to me and it contained a lecture on Tillich. Paul Tilich was a German-American philosopher and theologian whose most popular book was called “The Courage to Be.” The quote above definitely speaks to me and gives me some semblance of hope that I am maturing. In age and experience, I’ve come to be far more skeptical of my personal successes and failures - which don’t belong at either end of a spectrum, but are intertwined like rope laces throughout our days, months and years.
I long ago gave up the idea of finding some single organizing principle of understanding life, but in doing so I also stopped looking. In the days after Nora died, just barely breathing in the bleakness of the loss - I started to sense a need to start looking again. It’s almost like Nora lit the candle again - and although I know I’ll never reach the flame, I’m drawn to it. Hearing the professor talk about Tillich, I remembered one of the passages that very much spoke to me. When thinking in the larger terms, I was always frustrated by people who were absolutists because I was a creature of the modern world. I was a relativist. In the words of an old Second City scene, “I mean, I’ve read Les Miz.” But Tillich negates the arguments swiftly and beautifully:
“The law of love is the ultimate law because it is the negation of law; it is absolute because it concerns everything concrete. The paradox of final revelation, overcoming the conflict between absolutism and relativism, is love.”
So, yes. If the law is love - it doesn’t matter if it’s absolute or relative - love is the root of everything.
To be guided by love first, feels right to me. It’s an organizing principle for living your life with meaning and purpose. It expresses your values in the tangible actions that fill your day.
I’m still not used to this new rhythm: the one where the weekends are only for Anne and myself; where the weekdays aren’t concerned with either making breakfasts and lunches or stuffing an overnight bag and making sure we have the right medical supplies for the week. This cadence of caretaking and caregiving that dominated our lives for almost one full year. Snap. Gone.
Although it has been over six months, the new pattern is just starting to take hold and it literally grabs me each morning as a I grab for my winter coat. It’s impossible to unnotice it. I mark the sadness and complete the morning ritual. Kiss Anne goodbye, pet Benchley on the head, grab my backpack and head out the door to work. I carry her with me in all those actions. Sometimes it’s a balm, sometimes it’s a metric for how I keep going in the wake of this devastation.
“Faith includes both an immediate awareness of something unconditional and the courage to take the risk of uncertainty upon itself. Faith says "Yes" in spite of the anxiety of "No."
I got an email from the Manager of Clinical Operations Hematology/Oncology at Advocate Children’s Hospital. She saw me speak a few weeks back at the Coleman Foundation and is interested in our program. We also got contacted by the owner of a number of eldercare homes in Minnesota. He saw my talk on improv and caregiving for the NIC conference a couple of years back and he’d like us to train 180 of his caregivers. We’re putting together the proposal for Lurie this week. All of this is fantastic, but there are barriers. The biggest barrier is scarcity - of time and money. The hospital systems have money, but they don’t have the time. The eldercare group can carve out the time, they just don’t have the money. We’re working on finding ways to get time and money, but it speaks to what I think is a misalignment in our values in this country.
In the McKelvey book, he outlines how credit card vendors charge small businesses a higher rate on their transactions than large businesses. How much? The credit card vendors profit margin from small business was 45 times higher than from billion-dollar corporations. 60 Fortune 500 companies avoided paying all federal income tax in 2018 (Netflix, Amazon, US Steel, Haliburton).
We have an epidemic of greed in this country and it's at the expense of those most vulnerable: the elderly, children, the poor. Find me one of your bibles that endorses these values. You can’t. Instead, our shame at what we’re allowing to happen forces us to tell ourselves a different story, a story where the enemy are the vulnerable ones. It’s so disheartening and obvious if you have eyes and ears and a mind.
“In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
Wednesday 2/19 and Thursday 2/20
It’s another busy week and Anne and I are ships passing in the morning, as I’m often asleep by the time she gets home. But I was awake last night in part because of the return of the helicopters to Ravenswood Manor since Trump commuted our former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s sentence. I have mixed feelings on the whole thing. I’ve come to understand and believe that the way we do criminal justice in this country lacks justice and wisdom. Too many people are thrown into prisons for too long - from minor drug offenses to political crimes. It’s as if our blood lust for comeuppance is so great that we cannot see the greater harm we’re committing in throwing away the key.
And yet, in the coverage of Blagojevich, I was painfully reminded that he was holding back funds to Lurie Children’s Hospital in attempt to get $50,000.00 from their then CEO. Horrific.
So I’m left with another both things are true moment: his sentence was too long and he did many horrible acts. The fact that he appears to feel no shame or remorse is repellent and I, as his neighbor, won’t greet him as a friend. If he were honest to himself and others about his wrongdoing, I think we have to allow our fellow humans a shot at doing better. But if they cannot own up to their bad deeds, we have no obligation to offer a hand. His sister in law, Deb, was very sweet with us during Nora’s illness. She followed up twice to check on her and the last time I saw her, she gave me a big hug. Humans and human relationships are complicated.
We had an all day offsite at work today. It was really productive - but I’ve been so focused on work, I didn’t have much prepared to talk to Fred tonight in therapy, other than recovering the fact that I’ve been dreaming and was likely dreaming before but it wasn’t registering.
It’s always interesting in therapy when you go in expecting one thing and quite another thing happens. I went in feeling light, found that I was weighted more than I thought and left feeling like I had had a thorough emotional workout.
How we got there is too long and circuitous, but the thing we discovered was that I was starting to accept that Nora is gone. And by saying the thing out loud, I unlocked another layer of grief. Honest tears. True sorrow. A significant and mournful acceptance.
So what now?
At his trial, facing a death sentence, Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” As I work on healing all the parts of me, I want to grow more strength, more wisdom and more serenity - so that I can be of more use to the people I love and the world in general. I can see now with increasing clarity that tragedies do define you for better or worse. There is just so much work to do.
“What does one person give to another? He gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life. This does not necessarily mean that he sacrifices his life for the other—but that he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness—of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him. In thus giving of his life, he enriches the other person, he enhances the other's sense of aliveness by enhancing his own sense of aliveness. He does not give in order to receive; giving is in itself exquisite joy. But in giving he cannot help bringing something to life in the other person, and this which is brought to life reflects back to him.”
I learned a new term this morning: “eidos.”
Eidos is, as Merriam Webster defines it: “the cognitive part of cultural structure made up of the criteria of credibility, the logic used in thinking and acting, and the basic ideas by which the members of a culture organize and interpret experience : logical structure.”
It is different than ethos. Which, as MW provides is: “the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution.”
Eidos is seeing or understanding; ethos is believing.
Making my way through John Vervaeke’s “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis,” I’m prone to ask my personal dictionary (her name is Anne) what terms mean - she hadn’t heard of eidos, so we looked it up.
Vervaeke talks about the various states of consciousness and how they develop: from first to second order thinking, knowing and believing, and how the ideas that Plato, Socrates and Aristotle were wrestling with are still being wrestled with today - despite all our technology and our cartoonishly arrogant sense of how we have it “figured out.” I’m reminded of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a bias in which people assess their own cognitive ability as greater than it is. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of ability.
So, the smarter someone thinks they are, the more likely it is that they are simply delusional.
Know anyone like that?
In the episode on consciousness, Vervaeke talks about a study he was just about to publish that showed how people who experience a higher order sense of consciousness - which could be a spiritual awakening, a great flash of insight, etc… - report far greater meaning in their life. They are happier. And, interestingly, this phenomenon is not isolated by religion, culture, socio-economic condition - it is present across the human experience.
I think this is also true of a tragedy. It’s true if you can come out of the other side of a trauma and let the experience of it inform and inspire you to a more present path; a kind of self-generosity whose expression is to actually give of oneself to others; maybe its second order caregiving? Pretty sure I just made up that concept.
Lao Tzu said, “Love is of all passions the strongest, for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart and the senses.” Knowing and believing. And giving.
Our friend Ai-jen Poo was quoted in an article saying: “It’s precisely the people who are considered the least ‘likely’ leaders who end up inspiring others the most. Everyday people and everyday acts of courage eventually change everything.”
She’s talking about us.
I think of this in Nora’s name.