Transactive Memory Extending Our Own Memories

I’ve written about the the inherent reflective nature of my loss and grief and how memories of Donna and our life would come in fits and starts. These moments become fulcrums to move my life forward and advance my self knowledge, us (Donna & I), and living in this world. This simple idea of ‘I remember this‘ becomes more complex when examined from what is not remembered. We don’t know what we don’t know. Like wise you don’t remember what you don’t remember.

Donna did not dwell on her illness. She did openly fear her eminent death. She gave me her illness to manage. Any thoughts of death any fear of death were held tightly in her heart. Donna wanted to remain alive and to live as she always had, on her terms. The interruptions of doctor visits, treatments, side effects, and pain was when she stoped to recognize the disease. As quickly as that happened it disappeared into my hands. My area of expertise/skill was managing the day to day disease. Getting her, nah going with her, to all appointments. Making pill packs at home.

I’ve attributed this division of labor to Donna’s desire to be disease free, it was not about denial as much as it was about division of labor. As a couple, I suspect like most couples, we’ve always had a division of labor. I would do the cooking. Donna would buy the kitchen items, dishes, pots, pans, etc. since they had to fit with the design of our home her visual eye. I would be the one to change the sheets. Donna selected the sheets and cases.

Transactive Memory

It turns out that this is Transative Memory. Transactive Memory is the fact people in continuing relationships  (in organizations as well) become specialized in different functions of labor within the relationship. Part of that specialization is the ability or skill set where the various members of the relationship manages different knowledge domains. One parter may remember all the details of what is needed to manage specific a area, Donna knew what sheets, shams, duvets, etc that went with what for each season. While I would be the one to change the sheets in a heartbeat. This is Transactive Memory. We used each others memories as our own. I didn’t not need to know color or style. Donna didn’t need to know how to make clarified butter or a hospital corner.

Transactive Memory in romantic relations improves self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness. Add to these benefits emotional support, companionship, and security. (Donna and I felt so very secure around each other and with each other.) It is postulated that romantic partners pool cognitive resources to increase our collective memories/information with less work. This pool of cognitive resources created a rich network of memories for us and after her death for me.

“Additionally, because people know about each other’s expertise (and non-expertise) they can make judgments about the reliability and value of any information conveyed. It is easy to see how a shared transactive memory system might work to help couples navigate their daily lives with ease and efficiency.”

The interesting part about Transactive Memory is that the theory and research shows that it is about the transaction or communications between members or a couple to encode, store, and retrieve information. Donna could give me a look and I knew what needed to be done. Or I could look perplexed and she would jump in. At the center of this theory is cognitive interdependence where the individuals depend on the knowledge of others and the outcomes are dependent on their knowledge. I learned to cook as a child. Donna was not a cook. So cooking became my knowledge area.

“…recruited couples who had been together for at least 3 months, and found that they used each other as extensions of their own memories, outperforming pairs of strangers at remembering category exemplars in different areas of expertise (for example science, food, spelling).”

Remembering What You Don’t Remember

Those memories (skills) Donna had died with her. Though they were effectively removed from my heart they were not lost as much as witnesses to deficits in my life now. Twice a year when I am faced with changing the shames and duvet I remember what I didn’t remember, Donna did this. This loss is not the same as loss and grief of Donna but the reality that we played well together and made each other better. I grieve for that balance between us where we as Donna and Mark would create new and better and do faster and more effectively.

When you remember what you don’t remember the hurt is as real.

Mail to Self News Feed #3

I found the Mail to Self app a year and a half ago. It is genius in its simplicity and productivity. At the same time maniacal in the burden of its output.

The app is added to your phone. You enter an email address into the app. After that when you swipe up or go to share a web page, article, etc. there is a button for Mail to Self. Just tap it and whoosh you got the article URL etc. in your inbox. The workflow is this. I will keep looking at my news feed, my papers, my sites, etc. and just mail to self to read later. Not so fast. My inbox is filled and I am not reading later cuz I got the attention span of a gnat

To repair the gnat in me I am going to post twice a week some of the articles I mailed to self. This is a way to share them with my non/imaginary readers and to force me to achieve inbox zero.

Spiritually Speaking: Grief sticks around after the flowers wilt

Beryl Schewe writing in the Eden Prairie News offers a unique way to address a loved ones grief when words fail us.

If only grief were so easy. Long after your flower arrangement has composted, grief lingers on. Grief has a way of showing up like an uninvited houseguest who refuses to leave.

Schewes’ idea is to send a book. She offers a selection of five books one of which includes C.S. Lewis’ “A Grief Observed” which is my favorite read that I have returned to frequently. Hop over and take a look.

TED Talks: What Makes Life Worth Living in the Face of Death

Lucy Kalanithi

This is a stunning and powerful TED talk by Lucy Kalanithi a physician whose husband was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer and died 22 months later.

Much of what she says and addresses are very close if not similar to what I felt and what Donna did with her life after her diagnosis till her death. Donna and her husband Paul may not be identical but the one point Lucy made that rings true for both Donna and I is this:

“Our job isn’t to fight fate, but to help each other through. Not as soldiers but as shepherds.”

I was the caregiver and her shepherd. She became my muse and a shadow for the remainder of my life.

There’s a poem by W.S. Merwin — it’s just two sentences long — that captures how I feel now. “Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.”
Oh so true.

Mail to Self News Feed #2

I found the Mail to Self app a year and a half ago. It is genius in its simplicity and productivity. At the same time maniacal in the burden of its output. It is a ersatz news feed for me.

The app is added to your phone. You enter an email address into the app. After that when you swipe up or go to share a web page, article, etc. there is a button for Mail to Self. Just tap it and whoosh you got the article URL etc. in your inbox. The workflow is this. I will keep looking at my news feed, my papers, my sites, etc. and just mail to self to read later. Not so fast. My inbox is filled and I am not reading later cuz I got the attention span of a gnat

To repair the gnat in me I am going to post twice a week some of the articles I mailed to self. This is a way to share them with my non/imaginary readers and to force me to achieve inbox zero.

How to have a better death

This is from the April 29, 2017 Economist and perhaps one of the best articulated and presented cases for end-of-life care.

Most important, these medicalised deaths do not seem to be what people want. Polls, including one carried out in four large countries by the Kaiser Family Foundation, an American think-tank, and The Economist, find that most people in good health hope that, when the time comes, they will die at home. And few, when asked about their hopes for their final days, say that their priority is to live as long as possible. Rather, they want to die free from pain, at peace, and surrounded by loved ones for whom they are not a burden.

This is counter to what I’ve read and seen. Many patients receive hospitalized treatment that saps quality of life and renders the final days unbearable. All of this because family and friends want medicine to do everything possible to extend life where extending life is destroying life. And this is without consideration of what the loved one wants.

The Economist notes that death in the hospital means greater pain, stress, and depression for loved ones. While compared to similar patients in hospice. Death in the hospital leads to family strife and prolonged grief.

Donna was placed in hospice. She died in hospice. Her care there was loving and kind. My care from the hospice staff and her oncologist was supportive and focused on my long-term outcome. As I’ve said ‘Hospice saved my life.’

There is much to consider and learn in this short editorial. It ends with this:

But honest and open conversations with the dying should be as much a part of modern medicine as prescribing drugs or fixing broken bones. A better death means a better life, right until the end.

True that. True that.

A Guide to the Best Sipping Rums Under $50

Rum is a new stop in the sophistication of my liquor taste buds. Typical of the times and what was trending there was beer and vodka. Of course wine but truth be told I know when I have a good wine but since they are mostly French, Italian, or Spanish remembering the names escaped me.

A few years back Ward III joined our block. The bar is one of the finest cocktail bars in NYC and the owners are amazing people who over time became friends. As with friends you share and discover what they like. One of the bartenders at Ward III introduced me to Rum. Not Rum and coke but, sipping Rum served neat. Just like Rye whisky or Bourbon. I saw this review and thought I would share it with you all.

Yo, Ho, Ho, and a Bottle of Rum

Some Grief Lasts a Lifetime

From the SF Bay Times

You’ll probably always feel sad when you think of Tim. And, really, would you want it any other way? Your grief is also your link to the love that you feel for him. I think a better approach than trying to “get over” these feelings would be to respect their essential dignity. Treat your grief with respect, not as a weakness from which you should “recover.”

This fits with my view, Closure is indifference. It is denial said pretty. Here are my thoughts on this topic.

This is from The Guardian and again points to the understanding that grief is not loss but opening yourself to life.
And yet, says Julia, running away from it means we will never recover from it. Embracing it, moving through its agony, and allowing ourselves to just be while it washes over us, is the only way to survive it; because we have to feel the worst of it in order to let it change us, and then we can start to find out who we are going to be in the wake of it.

Mail to Self News Feed #1

I found the Mail to Self app a year and a half ago. It is genius in its simplicity and productivity. At the same time maniacal in the burden of its output. It is my mini me news feed.

The app is added to your phone. You enter an email address into the app. After that when you swipe up or go to share a web page, article, etc. there is a button for Mail to Self. Just tap it and whoosh you got the article URL etc. in your inbox. The workflow is this. I will keep looking at my news feed, my papers, my sites, etc. and just mail to self to read later. Not so fast. My inbox is filled and I am not reading later cuz I got the attention span of a gnat

To repair the gnat in me I am going to post twice a week some of the articles I mailed to self. This is a way to share them with my non/imaginary readers and to force me to achieve inbox zero.

Parting Shot

Angela Chen writing for the The Paris Review examines the ‘the words that bookend a life.’ Specifically she examines the West’s concept of famous last words and East where premeditated death poems (jisei) are a long tradition.

Chen points that from the start the last words of Jesus on the cross opened the entire exercise where during the Enlightenment one and all were excepted to offer up brilliance and insight minutes prior to dying.

This was in direct counter point to the Japanese. Elderly samurai and those in the upper class were spurred to compose death poem that would be shared for criticism and input. If you ask about the fear of sudden death in the Japan.

“…Narushima Chuhachiro, who started drafting death poems at fifty lest he die unprepared. Chuhachiro sent this one to his poetry teacher: “For eighty years and more, by the grace of my sovereign / and my parents, I have lived / with a tranquil heart / between the flowers and the moon.” The teacher’s response: “When you reach age ninety, correct the first line.”

Donna was in hospice for her last 18 days. I would be there daily and at night. One of the attending on the staff said that to be present at the time of death is rare. I wanted to be there less for this last words but so she would not be alone. I was home walking the dog and got a call to hurry back. The cab driver went the wrong way and I was not there for her last words or otherwise. Here is a podcast about Hospice and Beyond.

As I read Chen’s article and consider last words vs. death poems I lean toward the poem. I see my blog as my death poems albeit long form. Though I would think of it in terms of a meandering suicide note.

Parting Shots is a short article but one we may all want to consider. Either rehearse our closing act or start thinking about how we want to be remembered. I am guessing that what is left on the Internet is what will be remembered. So save wisely.

How to Find Meaning in the Face of Death

Emily Esfahani Smith writing in the The Atlantic from her book The Power of Meaning reviews the work of psychiatrist William Breitbart chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Memorial Sloan Kettering. The question on top of mind when given a diagnosis of terminal illness is less about when I will die or how much pain, it is about what makes life meaningful? “Meaning that cannot be destroyed by death.”

Esfahani Smith presents recent data addressing that meaningful lives are demonstrated because of three factors, my existence is valued by others, I am driven by a sense of purpose or important life goals, and I see my path to this point as coherent and integrated. Though as I review my writings there is a struggle to find meaning and purpose.

“Psychologists and philosophers say that the path to meaning lies in connecting and contributing to something that is bigger than the self, like family, country, or God.”

Breitbart wanted to help patients build meaning and reduce suicidal ideation. His work was to create and eight session group therapy program of six to eight cancer patients. Each session was structured around set questions that the group were asked. In the first session participants were asked about moments or experiences that were meaningful. In the second session patients responded to who am I. In the final session they were asked to what part of them would going on living after death.

Breitbart went on to perform three randomized, controlled experiments on meaning centered psychotherapy. His results found this work was transformative, patients attitudes toward life and death changed with less hopelessness and anxious about death. Spiritual wellbeing improved.

Breitbart comments that the time between diagnosis and death is an opportunity for “extraordinary growth”.

Two observations from my world. After Donna died the entire world I lived in lost most of its meaning and purpose. Most of that loss is directly related to Donna but a lot of is to do with my failure to find work or find what I wanted. I live with the sense this is the end I have had all the meaning and purpose in my life. My friend Scott writes about this top at Age Spots Blog so hop over and take a look. Right now I vacillate between oh fuck to there is something here to find and uncover.

My second thought is that Breitbart is right, there is extraordinary growth between dx and death particularly when you are a caregiver for someone dying. And that growth extends well beyond the death though the experience of grief and the role it plays in knowledge acquisition and understanding of ones emotions and life.

A bonus link in the article is here, it is a “Meaning in Life as Comprehension, Purpose, and Mattering: Toward Integration and New Research Questions” A long details examination of this question by psychologists. Enjoy

Judging my grief? Move on…

This article is well outside my usual link and opinion. This was from a The Tribune India which is one I do not normally or ever read. Second the opinion here is 180 degrees opposite of my thoughts on closure.

Closure is indifference. It is denial said pretty. I subscribe that grief and loss can be a window into our loved ones, ourselves, and the world at large. This is from a Poem Unconditional by Jennifer Welwood and captures my thoughts on closure.

Unconditional
Willing to experience aloneness,
I discover connection everywhere;
Turning to face my fear,
I meet the warrior who lives within;
Opening to my loss,
I gain the embrace of the universe;
Surrendering into emptiness,

I find fullness without end.

Get Vaid writing in the The Tribune captures a societal view of grief that I had not considered.

“Oh, she is fine. She is moving on in life already,” the thinly veiled ‘judgment’ pierced through my ears as I heard someone at work talk about a friend’s widow handling her recent bereavement.”

We all grieve differently. Those of us who grieve know full well the reality of our grief and the importance to not judge others grief. Vaid is addressing the inverse of what I have witnessed the well meaning friends or family members who say it is time to move on. Date someone as if dating is a cure for loss. This article and discussion is about how people set standards for grief and expect you to live up to it, their standards.

The bigger issue here is that we must allow those to are grieving to do so at their pace and way. Only if the grieving becomes pathological and complicated then should we help them find support.

“Moving on is not a stigma or blasphemy, life moves on.”

Self-Compasion, Mindful Meditation, and AA

Take the random nature of the universe, add Amtrak, and read an amazing CV, bingo I am now taking an eight week course in self-compassion and mindful meditation.

Back to the start. I was on an Amtrak train retuning from PAX Boston and got a seat across from a young woman. It was the quite car but we chatted on and off for a couple of hours. I am the old black humored widowed guy so any attention I get from a woman is surprising. Part of our chatting was about course she was teaching which she noted may help with the grief. We did what all the cool kids do, we friended on FB.

Switching to my stalking mood I looked up her profile and the course she was teaching. In my mind there was this connection, no not to her, to the course and where I stand, sit, rest, and hate about my life. I said to myself, ‘Self this may be a chance to look deeper at your life and your goals.’ I signed up for the course. Today I am six classes in.

This video lecture by Dr. Kristin Neff is the essence of the course. There is much there to untangle and consider. Overall it speaks to ideas that may help us as we navigate life. Of course there are quite a few questions about this that I am still sorting out and how I will integrate it into my world. Overall, as with anything worth doing, there is a positive attitude one should have before casting it aside. More on that after the  course is completed. Right now this course is a friend with yet to be determined benefits.

AA vs. Self-Compassion

The Big Book
The day to day guide to sobriety

This course takes place at an austere Tibet Center. So the mood is perfect. The course is taught with a mixture of lectures (reading stuff at you), meditations, homework, and discussions.

The discussions are generally done in the “Tell us what you feel about xyz?” Which opens the floor up to the following:

‘I find that I am able to clear my mind and think about flowers.’

‘I hurt my ankle and when I meditation it seems better.’

‘I have more compassion for others who I normally wouldn’t.’

All and all these are benign statements in the universe like so much detritus, yet important to the speaker, so credit given. I found myself wondering if this was the depth that would benefit me upon reflection to learn and grown? And then my mind went to past friends from who were in AA and shared their feelings.

‘I got so blackout drunk that I woke up in the backseat of car in Atlantic City with one shoe missing.’

‘One Thanksgiving I tried to beat my dad with a turkey drumstick.’

‘My family abandoned me after I took all their savings and spent it on booze.’

Those AA shares are raw emotional statements that tell a life story from those fighting to return from the brink of profound loss and suffering. Both sets give the listener a place holder to examine life their own lives because that is what sharing does create reflection points. The later set is raw and opens wounds. The prior are statements are observational and ricochets off of the depth of self. The listener needs to dig harder in one to find meaning while the AA stories are cringe worthy they encourage reflection, deep reflection.

Then last week this sharing story exercise reveled an AA type moment where I may need to consider my harsh analysis of the sharing in this course.

A woman in answer to the lecturers question on compassion for others shared this:

‘I was with my eight year old daughter for the day and we went to YMCA to use the pool. She was being and eight year old and it was frustrating me to no end before, during, and after being in the pool. As I was drying off I notices a disabled child with her dad in the pool and thought about the love of a parent for a child and what we do. When the child and dad exited the pool I saw that the disabled child was leading the blind father to the locker room. I realized the compassion I have for myself, my daughter, and others.’

Optimism or Pessimism

This raises to the level of AA and opens up the entire compassion moment and a depth of insight. I am reminded of a joke about how to identify and optimist.

Two boys age eight are selected to determine who is the optimist. One at a time they are placed in room knee deep with horse poop. The first boy freaks out and is cowering in the corner crying. He is taken out. The second boy is put in the room and he immediately begins to dig and dig in the poop. When asked why he says, ‘With all this horse poop there must be a pony in here.”

I guess I am looking for that pony.

The Tyranny of a Blank Piece of Paper

The tyranny of a blank piece of paper is know by anyone who writes or needs to get a proposal done. It is not very different from the death of a spouse, each day begins with a blank page.

I will repeat my mantra about closure because during a class I am attending a fellow student reacted in horror when I said ‘Closure is indifference, it is denial said pretty’. I guess not seeking closure following the death of a loved on is abhorrent to some. You can find my various posts on closure here, here, here, and here and why it is not a bad thing.

It has been six years since Donna died. I can say I am largely out of woods of grief though there is a new grief. The grief of how am I going to find my way forward when the fabric of my meaning and my purpose is in tatters. The path forward feels as treacherous and riddled with obstacles as anything that grief over Donna’s death has presented.

Filling The Silences of Time

During these blank page days I find myself filling silences of time with unimportant activities. Those small meaningless tasks flash a moment of purpose and just as quickly are replaced by ‘this is what life has devolved into: stacking books in size order, cleaning the glass coffee table (again), empty the dishwasher (that is never filled), do a load of laundry, etc’. Let me not gild the lily here, I do volunteer at an animal shelter and other organizations. I have written a book and am pitching it so all is not desperate. I am taking classes.

Time becomes the interstitial spaces between activities. Compare what I am doing today to what I did prior to Donna’s diagnosis or during her caregiving. The value my time has for me and how I feel about that time is profoundly different today than it was then. The time I have on hand now is greater and echoes in the silence of my own breathing.  Previously the spaces of time between ’things’ was compressed. It had its own heart beat and rhythm. I was able to do all that I wanted to do and needed to do plus run a business or care for Donna or consult. The busier the person the more they can do seems to fit here. I am a slow-mo version of who and what I was.

Another and more apprehensive comparator of then and now is enthusiasm. Not sure I can quantify enthusiasm then to now. Then, the activities were keeping the business open and going. Pay rent. Paying salaries. Pitching business. Those tasks may not qualify as enthusiastic endeavors. They had to get done or else. They were part of a larger life and movement though time.

Comparing Then to Now

Today am I enthusiastic about emptying a dishwasher? It doesn’t have to get done. The dishwasher got done before because it was in the way of the next thing to do, watch TV with Donna or make dinner or go to a movie. Meet with Donna’s oncologist. Now the dishwasher gets emptied because it is an activity that fills space and time. The word enthusiastic may overstate what I am saying but, it felt like there was drive to do and do more then and in doing those things feel accomplished and enthused. Now, not so much.

I have been noticing that I am looking for things that I can loose myself in and relish the time spent lost. In this day and age of WWW and social media there is an abundance of things to do, watch, read, and follow. Those all become a passing moment, literally a glancing blow to my attention. Why?

My curiosity is as active as it has ever been. I want to devour as much as I can especially new things. Though the  bouncing from activity to site to podcast to book is the blinking neon sign of ADHD. I feel as if i am trying to find something to lock onto. I was locked into caregiving or my business. Now?

Case in point, I am a fan of the video game Destiny. I’m new to gaming. You can read about me and gaming here, here, and here. Truth be told I am not playing many if any other games which right there is a bit of this dragon fly behavior, darting around a pond touching the waters surface for a second and moving on. A new Destiny, Destiny2, will drop in September. I have been listening to Bungie Podcast and following players. My excitement extends beyond the game to thinking about what is like to create something to launch it to test it. My comparison point is working in pharmaceuticals knowing what it takes to get a drug to market and how similar this feels. All the phases of testing the product, identifying messages based on the outcomes, marketing, and launch. I wrap the warm blanket of my past around this new world and have a burst of enthusiasm. Dare I say focus. And …

And

I had lunch with my lawyer who is retiring this year. We were at a lovely little Vietnamese hole in the wall called Pho King. (Howard has been to Vietnam many times and remarked how good the food was. As good as the street carts in Hanoi he said.) I was bitching that I need to buy a new oven. He said without thinking, “That should take up three weeks of your time.” And there you go. Filling time with activities. In a way it is the theory of brief cases. Have a big brief case you fill it up. Have a small one not so much. That is time these days a big brief case that you need to fill sans enthusiasm, meaning, and purpose.

I remain undaunted to find that one or two activities that motivate me that fill me with ongoing wonder and hope where I can loose myself in. The poem below seems to capture that, discovering a place for the first time. I look for the return to the place I started for the first time.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
                        Little Gidding V,
                        Four Quartets.
                        — T.S. Eliot (1943)

Sundays and Banana Bread

It was Sunday and I was getting ready to make some banana bread.

She called out from the bedroom, “I am going down to Century 21 to pickup some things.”

I rolled my eyes and took a deep breath to steady my response, “Okay but don’t spend a lot.”

Now in the kitchen looking at me with that smile of WTF, “I work, my money, I pay half the bills, and savings so shut up. Besides there is always a sale, so it is free.”

Pulling at my logic, “Its not free, even on sale, you pay something.”

Turning to head out she notes, “It is free especially if I buy two for the price of one. One is free.”

I can’t win, “Okay I am going to start the banana bread. You can have some when you come home. Bye.”

“Bye bye, la la la la” she sang as the door closed behind her.

 Sunday Dinners

It’s Sunday. My bike ride is done, her lattes were made and finished, the Sunday Times devoured, played with the dog, and now looking at Sunday recipes at rest on the stainless steel island.

I run my fingers over the listed ingredients to animate them. Make these black letters and words on white paper come to life. These words expressed in this order will fill the kitchen with the scent of warm embracing flavors and create a home, the home, our home, for us.

As a child Sunday meals anchored the family. That and going to church. We’d pile into the Ford dressed in our church outfits for the 10am service. My brother and I wearing ties, jackets, and feeling constrained. Dad in a suit. Mom in a dress and my sister wearing a print frock and hat. I was an acolyte for my teen years. An acolyte needed to be at St. Andrews early to put on the cassock, cotta, and light the candles.

The service ended at 11:30. And then we’d pile back into the Ford loosening our ties and the top button on the starchy white shirts poking and prodding each other with all the pent up energy of children held captive. We’d race into our rooms strip off the church clothes being yelled to to hang everything up.

Mom would do most of the work preparing the Sunday meals. We would be charged with setting the table, the dinning room table, not the kitchen table. Forks on the left. Napkins under the fork. Knife and spoon on the right. Water glasses and plates. There was always a table cloth. It felt elegant, stately, and formal as if we were dinning out within our own home. Afternoon sunlight came though the dining room window and the place settings cast shadows on the white table cloth in a still-life moment.

While dinner was being cooking the Sunday paper was consumed which included the comics in the Star Ledger for the kids. Mom and dad would fight over the Sunday Times Crossword puzzle.

The food was only part of this day. It was the act, the real life moment, of sitting and eating that made it Sunday. “Please pass the carrots. May I have some more chicken? Can we watch Disney tonight? May I be excused?” And then there was the instructional moments, “The fork in the left hand!” “Use your knife with your fork. “Sit up don’t slouch over the plate.” “Put your napkin on your lap. Chew with your mouth closed.” We were all there all present all engaged around a meal with each other.

During the teen years there was the sullen jealous arguing of siblings. The sharp retorts to imagined insults or hurts that fractured the meal which at times ended with “Leave the table and go to your room, now!”

The specifics of the meals were there but the memory has a larger life. It is the family gathered around the a table like an alter offering the warmth and comfort of a meal in a split level suburban home. Eight steps up to the living room, dinning room, kitchen, three bedrooms, and bath. Eight steps down to the rec room, spare room, utility room, door to patio and yard, the utility room, and garage. Sitting in a small subdivision in central New Jersey. NJ was a long way from the tenement in a Worcester neighborhood where the entire side of my mothers family lived. Sunday meals there were events of a magnitude that rivals King Arthurs Court. Extended family members grandmom’s, aunts, uncles, etc. sitting around the table talking and arguing about everything and anything. Politics, something called the stock market, work, and the crazy uncle who was not there. Mom, grand-mom, and aunts all jammed into an apartment kitchen cooking without a bump or foul. A ballet of food and fire.

This was as close as I got during those early years to imagine what it must have been like living in a village a hundred years earlier where everyone was family. This tenement in Worcester translated well to the split level in NJ. The warmth of the kitchen the food aroma, the chattering over dinner and the sense of family. Family is less about a birth order and more about environment. Sunday dinner was the environment that reinforced family.

She didn’t really have that family Sunday dinner environment. Loss of her dad when she was young. An older brother with issues. A mother who worked to keep a roof over the family. I think more importantly was the fact her mom was not a cook.

I wanted to return to those Sunday meals for me. It was less an active choice and more instinct or DNA. Since it was only her and me. Our Sunday meals did not begin as plan to make up for what wasn’t. It happened over time. Beginning in small cramped apartments and kitchens making something, eating together, sharing a bottle of wine, and steeling ourselves for the week to come. By the time we ended up here 28 years ago the Sunday meal was an event. She would set the table. On the Sundays she cooked I set the table and washed the pans etc.

Sunday Dinner Dishes
Franciscar Dishes

She would select the dishes as carefully as she set type. Were the settings to be the midcentury Jetson looking dishes, her mothers traditional set, the Martha Stewart set in taupe, or the Fiestaware. Dishes were chosen according to the meal and the season or the date. Placemats matched and the silverware pulled along with water glasses and wine glasses. And of course linen napkins. It was Sunday, no paper napkins.

This preparing the table was independent of my youth yet resembled it so well. There is that part of us deep within the brain that seeks order, family, comfort, peace, etc. It was less about trying to give back what she lost as child but more that we as humans crave that prehistoric life around the campfire. In my mind I began to rationalize Sunday meals as returning to her what was lost.

 Baking Banana Bread

Right now the table was waiting till she was back from Century 21. Make the banana bread.

I went to the pantry and pulled down the container of flour. Removed the cover and reached in for the scoop. Slowly sank the plastic scoop into the flour and watched small mist of flour plum up. I poured it into a one cup measuring cup. A knife was scraped over the top to ensure its level with the rim and emptied it into a bowl. I repeated it again and returned the flour to the pantry and took out the whole wheat flour. Measured 1/2 cup repeated the actions. Added 2 teaspoons of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of salt.

Two cups of sugar and two sticks of butter were placed in the bowl of mixer and turned to low. Slow steady turning of the paddle attachment pulling and pushing the butter and sugar together. The color and texture changed from white and yellow to golden softness shinning ice like.

Now for the fun part, mashing six bananas. The bananas were lying in the bowl. Small logs speckled brown and soft. I picked up the potato masher with the red plastic handle given to me by my mom when I got my first apartment after college. It and the other utensils were from the 1950’s. They were classic and weighty. I slowly pushed down on the bananas and watched the fruit squish and rise up between the ends of the masher. The repeated mashing produced a grey colored wet paste. Resembling mud at the edge of pond.

To the mashed bananas four eggs were added and whisked. The gold of the yolks blend into he mashed grey bananas. The yellow swirled in a vortex and slowly disappeared into the bananas changing the grey to a yellow tinted gelatinous mass that would become banana bread.

The blender working the butter and sugar was waiting for the bananas and eggs. Once added the aroma of the ingredients filled the air and took on a firmer texture. Slowly the flour mix was added. The dry flour melded in to become a batter of grayness. Scrap the sides until the scars of dried flour was gone. I pour this into two loaf pans and place in the oven.

Forty minutes later I removed the loafs of banana bread and cooled on a wire rack. The house smelled like home. I sat on the chair and closed my eyes. I was startled awake by a dream of which I have no memory.

Where was she? The aroma of banana bread was there that was no dream. The mist of sleep evaporated from my mind. I remembered, she is not coming home. Donna died six years ago.

It was still Sunday. It was still our home. There is no reason not to continue. I imagine she can smell the banana bread.

Destiny to Destiny 2 More Than A Journey in Gaming

The summer of 2014 was three years after Donna’s death,. I was (still am) in the throws of my grief over her death. The world around me that summer had transformed into a strange land of endless vistas that I wanted nothing to do with. Seemingly endless horizons opened after three years of caregiving and three years of grief. It was all meaningless.

I knew these vistas were there for exploration. It felt as if I was standing on a beach on day that was cloudy and cold looking out onto the ocean. I could come and go as I pleased and where I wanted to within reason. I didn’t. I kept trying to go back. Not to reclaim Donna but continue what was, without her. I was living in the same home, walking the same streets, doing the same routines, making meals for us, and all the rest. I was stuck in an emotional amber. I was half heartedly not looking to escape.

That summer a friend was posting on FB about a new game from a company called Bungie. The game was Destiny. That was all I knew. A video game. I had a PS3 which Donna and I used for movies. It was an expensive DVD player. I barely knew how to use the controller. Bless Sony, you loaded a DVD and toggled a bit to watch a movie.

I was still on the beach looking at the endless ocean deciding if I wanted to set sail somewhere anywhere. Gaming? Isn’t that what all the cool kids were doing it. Small investment to make for learning something new. Even today I am not sure why I was interested. I think it was a way to fill time as I waited for my time to roll forward. Perhaps it was magical thinking, I can do this easily and I will be new.

Introduction To Gaming

Early that summer another friend, a kid compared to my age, came over and brought a game called Boarderlands. He dropped the DVD in the PS3 sat and texted while giving me directions on how to use the controller. Square, Triangle, X, toggle, etc. I barely knew WTF he was saying. He left. I sat there not sure what to do next. Suddenly what was I thought was cool and fun was not. It was an exercise. It was learning. Learning alone in the dark is, well different from owning a small business.

So for a couple of months I played Boarderlands or thought I was. To misuse a term, I just ground my way around trying to shoot, jump, find loot, kill things, and get frustrated. I would play and stop. Low frustration tolerance is a thing. I would keep coming back. Load the DVD, launch, looking at the graphics and trying to figure out what was going on. I would start at the same point. Do the same map. Move in the same way. All along missing what gaming should be about, discovery. I was confusing discovery for technical skill. What I know now is that if you set out to discover your skills improve because you are engaged longer.As my kid friend says break something. (There is an entire school of learning theory dedicated to experience integration.) As opposed to being frustrated and cursing at the flat screen alone in a dark room while the neighbors listened.

Destiny dropped. That September I got a PS4. Thus begins my fractured entry into gaming. I did not know there were ways to play this game or any game. I thought all you did was launch and do random shit. Randomly. In hindsight teams of code heads and designers spend thousands of hours designing something not just to work but engage. Here I was insulting a shit load of serious people. As look back insulting myself.

I learned two years into Destiny that stories/lore are key to a game. Stories help you understand the game and keep you interested especially when you are frustrated or bored or failing. Stories are motivation.

There was language to learn. Strike, Raid, loot, maps, aliens with names that should be Bob or Joe or Gail or Susan. Who the fuck can remember Sepiks Prime, Phogoth, Aksor, Valus Ta’aurc, etc. etc. It wasn’t until year two that I learned I could cash shit in with Xur. I am the forever slow child.

I would sit with the controller in hand moving the face buttons, shoulder buttons, triggers, thumbsticks, etc. Frequently and still I look down to see where my thumb is or is going. I look down and look up noting I did this and this happened. Took me a year to figure out that I can convert engrams to stuff. I kid, it was a few months.

Rationalizing was a big go to in playing. I liked to walk and run though my maps. The truth was I didn’t know there was something called a Sparrow to drive around with. When I did discover the Sparrow I drove like a drunk teenager.

I could wax poetic about playing Destiny. Playing Destiny alone poorly. Embarrassed that I was not a cool kid. But that misses a couple of points.

Insight Into Gaming

This week a friends husband and I were chatting about life at this point in our lives. The whole finding meaning and purpose thing as we wait to expire. Career turns into waiting for Godot. He said to me ‘Mark I am so impressed by your going to PAX and getting into gaming.’ I thought ‘Wow I am a cool kid to someone.’ I have been so focused and frustrated that I am not @mynameIsByf, or Miguel, or Shaun, or @mesasean or @MissyGotGame or @laceduplauren or @Deej_BNG, and on and on. Yet the frustration of what I say is a glass half empty filled with a clear poisonous liquid misses what I have written here, here, here, and here about PAX and the community I’ve met and what I’ve learned since Destiny was launched.

I have learned that PvP is something I suck at. Not sure if that is by choice, fear, or my DNA. Do my moves and weapons suck? Do I suck. I learned that PAX is an amazing place for community and adventure. I’ve learned that there is something called Twitch. That there are YouTubers who show and explain game play. I’ve learned that my fear of not being as good as ‘them’ may not disqualify me from asking to play. Though I am still chicken shit of rejection. I’ve learned that I can run and gun and standing still is dumb as shit. I’ve learned my HUD is important. I’ve learned that I get lost on a map easily but can find my team, if I try. Operative word here is try. There are no gas stations in Destiny to stop and ask directions. I’ve learned that when playing in a group you don’t shout and swear into the mic when you get killed. I learned there is more to learn.

Destiny 2 Launch

I watched the Bungie intro event for Destiny 2. Three years ago I wouldn’t have known what that was or how to watch. I watched it like an Apple event. I was able to comprehend about 80% of what they were talking about. The players I follow on YouTube and Twitter have videos explaining what I heard and the 20% I was confused about. I am thinking about what I want to be a Hunter, Titian, or Warlock. I now know enough to learn more about the story so I can start from the beginning and progress. I am going to engage well and engage with others. The greater reality is today I am looking at new games. Steins Gate, The Unfinished Swan, What Remains of Edith Finch, Pinball Arcade.

End Game

It has been three years since Destiny was launched. Three years that I’ve been relentless in trying to get better both in life, death, and games. It has been three years of having a game carry me though some dark ass shit. Three years of letting Destiny down. A lot has happened and lot has not. Both those are good since it is as much as the white space of our lives as what is there on the page. I guess looking back my self described gaming failures may in fact be some success less about gaming and more about learning.

May 15, 1983

Today we would have been married for 34 years. Instead we were married for 28 years. For six years I have been a widower. I feel I am married still. I feel I am alone. It is a wonder I feel. That is good. Or not.

We Were This Cute Once
The insert for our wedding invitation

None of this matters. All of it matters. It is time and matter. It just is. Or was. Ashes in a box. Today the emotional flailing is limited to events like this or to memories that creep up and slap my consciousness.

May 15, 2017 I will scream into the void imaging a romantic anniversary dinner and a gift I carefully selected for Donna. The card would read: “Bug, can you believe it’s been 38 years? Some years were hard all the years amazing. Marrying you and loving you remains the center of my life. Love, Mark”

Bob Dylan
“Forever Young”
May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.
We both are surprised we got married
The happy couple from then

Grief is Vivisection to Those Left Behind

The Magic of Country Music

Country music is my go to workout playlist. Strong beats to just push myself. At times the lyrics break though with the undertow of grief. Raelynn was on and her song “Your Heart” struck an emotional chord.

“You think you know who you are
In somebody’s arms
But you don’t know
No, you don’t know
Yeah, you don’t know who you are

‘Til somebody breaks your heart”

Change the last line to “Til your heart is broken” That pretty much sums up where I am in this entire death and grief journey.

CS Lewis ‘A Grief Observed’

I recently picked up a copy of C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. I read it within a few months of Donna’s death and I wanted to look for a passage that I have been quoting. It turns out misquoting, as I am want.

I regularly reference Lewis from this essay and his thoughts on seeing a couple and how he can’t help but think one of them well suffer the grief he is suffering. I was close but no cigar. The passage is this:

‘To some I’m worse than and embarrassment. I am a deaths’s head. Whenever I meet a happily married pair I can feel them both thinking. ‘One or other of us must some day be as he is now.’

As I reread the essay and am struck by how brilliant Lewis is in finding the perfect language to describe grief and what is taking place within grief. If you are familiar with the essay and Lewis you also know this is his questioning of God and God’s grace. God is well above my pay grade but the analysis and experience of grief is not.

Science and Practice of Self-Compassion

Finally, I signed up for a course at the Tibet House “Science and Practice of Self-Compassion”. This course is based on Stanford Medical School’s compassion curriculum. The course is in June so my thoughts are from what I gleaned reading the course description. The course will:

“Using the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, meditation, lectures, readings, exercises, and class discussion, students learn to have a composed and compassionate attitude to the challenges of everyday life.”

The stated outcome of the course is:

“Every part of the class has been thoroughly researched. Research conducted on this course shows that it increases happiness and overall positive emotions, reduces stress and anxiety, enhances feelings of connection, decreases worry, and leads to a more caring, compassionate attitude toward oneself and others.”

We got country music, C.S. Lewis, and Self-Compassion. WTF! How is this going to work out?

Putting the Pieces Together

Raelynn’s lyrics reinforced the point I try to make with each post and podcast I’ve done on death, grief, and mourning, I see movement within me to a new understanding a new day to consider more. If you take a look at the post I did on Post Traumatic Growth this is the baseline for knowing who you are after trauma.

Lewis’s “A Grief Observed” gets a bit more complex and I fear I will end up entering Narnia of memories and analysis. Simply, Lewis begins questioning God and why this unthinkable pain was handed to him. His logic of analysis is clear and much of what he states and describes as he addresses this question of why and how could God have let this happen rings so true, been there done that. That discussion is better handled in a recent OP-ED piece in the NY Times “After Great Pain, Where is God?” written by Peter Whener.

For me it is less about God and more about Lewis’s descriptions of grief and his essay which is more a journal. He opens with grief feeling like fear or being drunk or denial and its gift of being laziness invoking. All these are true. At one point he describes God as a vivisectionist which is a powerful image.  Grief feels the same and I’m going to co-opt it, grieving is vivisection of those left behind.

As you progress though Lewis’s essay his descriptions become tighter and more focused. Here are some examples:

“It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down.”

“This is one of the things i’m afraid of. The agonies, the mad midnight moments, must, in the course of nature, die away. But what will follow? Just this apathy, this dead flatness?”

“Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea”?

Further on Lewis considers when the other one dies it is love cut short and if the dead also feels the pains of separation. “…and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of out experience of love.”

“…though the bodily presence is withdrawn, to love the very Her, and not fall back to loving our past, or our memory, or our sorrow, or our relief from sorrow, or our own love.”

Lewis continues speaking to his grief yet the subtleness of his observations as they unfold to revel a peace with the dead. This sense of peace is short lived and the crushing reality of grief. “They say ‘The coward dies many times’: so does the beloved.”

In the final notebook Lewis draws his grief and questioning of God’s will into a tighter circle and clearer insight. “When I say ‘intellect’ I include will. Attention is an act of will. Intelligence in action is will pare excellence. What seemed to meet me was full of resolution.”

Summary

Lewis and I agree closure is indifference said pretty. Closure deny’s the poet from strapping himself to the tree during a storm so he can better write about it from within its driving rain and lightening. The deep and abiding search of ones self to understand death and grief is treacherous to one’s life. It is worth the journey. There are outcomes and knowledge that produces a deeper knowledge of our person in the present and not in the past memories.

Self compassion training is the third part of this exercise.The stated outcomes above at first blush seem all vanilla and daisy like ‘increases happiness and overall positive emotions’ etc. That is assuming I can focus enough to meditate knowing full well I have the attention span of a gnat. Further complicating this exercise is the reality that death and grief have been this horrible tearing of my soul. That being said it has shaped my heart and emotions like nothing before. I worry that this exercise in self compassion may be a dulling of my inner rage, fear, insanity, etc. Taking my drive to learn and grow will become a passive exercise. I fear being anesthetized. Nothing ventured nothing gained. I may take this course to see how to channel that which drives me in positive ways.

So a major trauma forces you ( if you are so inclined) to look within long and hard, opening all your receptors to the pain of memories of what was and what is. As you fathom and navigate these empty wells thirsting for meaning and peace an awareness builds not of closure but an opening of a new memory one built from the time in the desert. It becomes a moment where you consider harvesting new and future memories from the seeds of the past. I will hold on to my rage about death and grief and not try to tame it but shape it.