New Identity

For when I really get down to it, there is a “me” that inhabits this body-mind, a “me” who has built an identity around all kinds of adjectives. But it is just ego talking, and though there is a kind of truth in these egoic efforts, it’s cold comfort on the long nights alone.

emptiness

September 20, 2018

I must be working on a new identity now. Today I found myself renewing both my driver’s license and my passport, and certainly these are metaphors of identity. I got new photos, pictures that I hate, or at least don’t like very much. Washed out is how they look to me. Washed out and old. But that’s how I’m feeling today, so why shouldn’t my photos match my mood?

Even so, a new identity is being formed in the outer world, and I pay attention. I notice how negatively I’m viewing my pictures, how the words “washed out” arise on this grey stormy day, caught in another downpour in this unusually rainy September. But when I notice these feelings, I vow to see things differently.

Several times in the past week I’ve had to fill out forms for various agencies, doctors, and dentists. And I notice that I am now a Widow, a “W” on these forms, an upside down “M.” I realize that I feel a bit upside down, no longer married, no longer belonging to anyone in particular. It’s a weird thought really. Am I always and forever a widow now?

I’m actually not feeling so widowed these days. I’m feeling single. But that doesn’t matter to the government, to the doctors, to the institutions. Now I am a widow. Do I ever get to be single again, an “S”? Or am I destined to be a “W” for the rest of this life? An upside-down M, a reminder of the Hanged Man card in the tarot deck – the one who is  hanged upside down, suspended and waiting, but waiting with serenity and a slight smile on his face.

But waiting for what? Waiting for life to take a turn, I guess. Waiting for life to sweep me up again and blow its winds of change through my being. And when it happens, then I know that I’m the merest bit of flotsam in the Universe being swept, being held, being loved. Yet there is no sweeping without my willingness to give it space. And certainly, life can sweep in and overwhelm any plans that I have made, but today it feels like I have to participate in some more directed manner, in a way that allows a deeper truth to emerge.

I’m fairly certain that I’m not feeling like getting married again, not feeling like being an “M.” I’m seeing that for me, marriage is for raising children, for creating a family unit, or at least that’s how it seems right now. And even if I fall in love again, I’m not sure that I’d get married. I’m single, and I’m learning to accept my singleness. But there’s something here about also accepting my status as a widow. Something about completely accepting that this is how I’m seen by the world at large, and trying to find peace with it. And not only finding peace with widowhood, but finding peace with aging, with the inevitable changes, with letting go into this new reality.

Today, one of my clients tells me she’s asking the most basic identity question of all. She is asking: Who am I? I try to help her go more deeply into herself, but her answers are fairly commonplace – I’m a wife, a mother, an artist – words like that. I find myself wanting to answer the question as she does, to answer with relatively banal adjectives, to somehow identify myself in some easy and particular way. I know I can fall back on my profession, my business, my children, but that’s not who I am or who anyone is. It’s really such a profound question for any of us.

For when I get down to it, there is a “me” that inhabits this body-mind, a “me” who has built an identity around all kinds of adjectives. But it is just ego talking, and though there is a kind of truth in these egoic efforts, it’s cold comfort on the long nights alone.

Ultimately, there’s no real place to stand with any of these adjectives, but I didn’t truly face into this when I was married to Michael. I had the confidence of being married to a husband who loved me, a man who claimed me and who I claimed in return. And though it was terrifying and horrible, I ferried him through the awful dying and death he created for himself, through the passage that we co-created. And for a few years, this was my identity. Yet now, at last, I find myself truly alone. Alone and vulnerable and for the first time, forging an identity as an aging widow. I find myself cringing at these words, this cliché, so they must be true – an aging widow. What an awe-full thing to accept!

Of course I am more than an aging widow. I am full of spirit and light and hard-won wisdom and I’m generally healthy in body and mind. But these attributes do not change the necessity to accept the full spectrum of experience and truth, to explore all the aspects of identity that now present themselves.

I thought I understood the concept of the emptiness of identity for many years, but I didn’t really embrace it. For to embrace it fully means to embrace the utter emptiness that lies under the personality, under the body, under the mind. And this can feel stark and frightening. It can feel like nothing.

So, who is this “me” that lies under all the rest of it? Surely, there is something in the “I” who is writing these words. But even this is built on ego. Even as truthfully and carefully as I can answer this question, it still requires egoic energy to write these words, to articulate this truth. And when the ego is running things, we don’t ever really know the truth.

Anyone who has studied spirituality with any depth eventually comes to the question of identity. And it is always answered by recognizing the essence of the self, and ultimately, the inherent emptiness of the self. For when we get down to the real deal, to the bottom of the bottom, there’s nothing here but energy swirling in the vast unknown, and under this, there is the transparent and dazzling darkness of the void.

Fundamentally, it isn’t even “energy.” For it is all just Oneness. And the only thing that is holding this whole unutterably strange mystery together, the only thing that creates these forms in which we find ourselves, is love. Once again, whenever I really question who I am, it always comes down to love.

But these are easy words and not the true experience. I know that love is at the bottom of everything, but the experience of this ultimate love is fleeting and delicate and I can’t “make” it happen. Just as with any spiritual experience, it happens beyond us, it happens outside of personality, outside of words, and outside of any attempts to control it or understand it.

So now I pray. I pray wholeheartedly that I will once again be taken to the sacred place, that I will be swept up by God, or the Divine, or whatever you want to call this immeasurable ocean of experience. I pray that I will once again know the Identity beyond identity, the Wondrous Being. And when I do, then true acceptance will flood through me and heal me, and dear God, it will heal us all.

 

Widow

Weight of Grief

The Weight of Grief by Celeste Roberge

8-4-18

I am living with “fully alive, heart-centered, resignation” toward widowhood. These are the words my friend, Fran, says to me. As she speaks, I remember several months ago not wanting to identify myself as a widow, wanting desperately to distance myself from the reality of this word, this state of being. But that is exactly what I am now, or at least part of what I am, and her words remind me that I am in the process of resigning myself to a fully alive, heart-centered widowhood. What a difficult task!

The word “widow” still feels sorrowful and disconnected. It conjures images of sad, old women dressed in black, and the “w” sound seems inherently mournful, or at least wistfully poetic. And then there’s that silent “w” at the end. Oh, the silence.

One of the things I’m realizing in this widowhood is the silence. There’s a goodness in it, a stillness. But there is also a terrible loneliness that nothing and no one can fill but Michael. And part of me, very weirdly, continues to feel that he might be there to fill that hole, to fill the looming emptiness that awaits me at the end of each day. It’s completely irrational, but I can’t help thinking that he might be on a long, weird vacation. I’m not sure when or if that feeling will disappear, but it’s with me daily, that sense of him not really being gone.

Of course, he’s not “gone.” But that gets into all the things we imagine about our dead, about where they are, about how it is in the land of the dead, and about what our relationship with the dead really is. For instance, I often feel that Michael is watching me, hearing me, even helping me. I think many of us feel this way. Most of us end up talking to our dead, telling them what we’re feeling, how we miss them, giving them magical qualities that allow them to help us from “the other side.” Or at least, I do. But there’s not much comfort in this.

I really don’t have a clue whether any of these thoughts are true. I used to think I knew something about the other side, but I realize now that my thoughts were probably wishful thinking, or hubris, or some combination of ideas from various sources. Because the truth is, even if they are helping us, hearing us, seeing us, we really don’t know! I want it to be true, but all I really know is that Michael is in Spirit now. Whether there is any form or memory left over from the life he had with me is up for grabs. I imagine Michael is “there” but I’m still alone and lonely on this earthly plane, and this leaves a terrible sense of emptiness hanging in the space around me.

I realize that these thoughts have put me in a new phase of widowhood. In some ways, it’s a harder phase. All the excitement, which isn’t quite the right word, is over – the dying, the death, the memorial, the cards and flowers, the focused attention – all of that is over. And now it’s just the living with it. The daily grind of getting through it, of finding a life that begins to fill in the emptiness, of making a conscious effort to stay connected. Thankfully, on most days I am washed in my connections with beautiful others.

But there is still a large amount of time alone. I’m finding this alone time to be quite a challenge for it actually involves forming a new identity, and this is slow-going indeed. I hear myself referring to “our” house, “our” garden, “our” business. There’s 35 years of “us” to contend with, and that’s not going to go away.

I’m also noticing a strong need to talk about Michael. It’s some kind of struggle to keep him alive inside of me, and I realize I’m not ready to let go yet, that my separate identity hasn’t formed yet. And maybe one is never really ready to let go of those they have loved. All I know is that I miss him fiercely. It’s inevitable and there’s no way around it. There are just too many ways in which we are intertwined and entangled, too many ways in which his energy is part of me forever.

To deal with the endless time alone, I start cruising on the Match.com site. I’m embarrassed to say this, but it’s true, and as I said before, if writing isn’t about the truth, then it’s worthless. I’m just looking so far, but I’ve got to say, it’s pretty grim in Match world. Lots of men on motorcycles, lots of Hawk fans, lots of lonely hearts with whom I have little in common.

I haven’t put my whole self into this search. I just can’t. I’m looking around and it’s probably too soon anyway. But I’m not looking for marriage or a lifelong partner. I’d just like to go out for coffee, or for dinner and a movie. Mostly, I’d like to find a new friend. But as we all know, making real friends takes time.

So, a new identity needs to be formed. A new way of being in the world as an “independent woman.” I notice that I have to put this in quotation marks. This independence doesn’t feel quite real to me yet, and I can see myself floating on ego as a way of coping. “I love my work. I own a business. I’m a good partner. I’m alive and alert to life. I still look pretty good, etc.” This ego patter goes on until a new wave of grief washes over me and I realize it’s all just nonsense. Finally, I cry and my heart bursts open once again.

Then, I know that identity requires an ego upon which it can ride, but it’s the higher self that I wish to embody and become, the higher Being that is the only real truth, and ego has no ability to encompass this. It’s damned hard to build this new higher identity when I’m consumed in grief and loneliness. For it looks to me like there are two obvious paths here – one in which I move on into a new life, and one in which I cling to the old life and never truly let go.

Any loss, in fact, every loss, must ultimately force us into redefining who we are. From the smaller losses of things such as money to the larger losses of friends and loved ones, we are forced to re-forge who we are without that thing or that person in our lives, forced to re-grow ourselves around the empty space.

I know that it is grief and pain that allow the higher self to emerge. For it is suffering that either crushes us or entreats us to expand. I know I am in the process of choosing growth. But so much of what must be new growth feels like it is going on underground. I can dimly sense this growth in the liminal spaces vacated by Michael, in ways that I can barely imagine, in the fleeting winds of freedom that blow through me. But often the newness feels shaky, or false, or forced. So, I back off, retreat into my house, my dog, my writing, my books, until the next time life breathes me out into the world again. And thank God, it does. Over and over, I am flung back into the sacred flow of life.

I tell my friend, Fran, that I’m tired of being sad, that I’ve been sad for too long, that I want to be done with grief. She says, “What you really want is for grief to be done with you!” She’s right, of course, and I find my resistance to widowhood softening a bit, I find my identity shifting.

At the highest level we are always dealing with elemental forces – love, grief, fear, forgiveness, grace, and more. We can learn to see these as primal human experiences that are not under our control, and ultimately, we don’t move through them. In fact, our tiny ego selves literally can’t move through them. The forces move through us! And when we know this, rather than being captured by them, we witness them with curiosity and bated breath. For there isn’t any act of will that allows grief to end. It is Grace that moves us. Or it is Grace’s other name, Love. All of it, all movement, whether we recognize it or not, is in our surrender to this beauty we call Grace.

The Cost of Love

Now it’s just me. I think in some totally irrational and magical way, I didn’t really believe in Michael’s death. I could surely see it coming, but I didn’t fully appreciate the enormity of him actually not being here any longer.

us at Duncan's thing

May 20, 2018

I’m being amazed by how casually Michael and I spoke of his death. It wasn’t really casual, but we had to establish some way of speaking that would allow the future to unfold. So conversations would begin with, “When I die, you might want to sell everything, and take to the road!” Or I’d say, “When you die, I’ll probably move to a smaller house.” Or “What would you like to have done with your ashes? Do you care where your ashes get put?”

And though we spoke sanely, matter-of-factly, it was anything but easy. But it had to be done. Things had to be arranged.

Sometimes his sentences would begin with, “If I die…,” and I’d say, “I don’t think there’s an ‘if’ about it.” Michael would pause, then smile just a bit, and gently say, “You’re probably right.”

It was all so easy, or seemingly easy, but really, it was agony and we both knew it. Toward the end it became more serious. “Please make sure that Adrian gets the right pen, and give this one to Darby, and this one to Colin.” “I’ll make sure,” I’d say.

Later he’d say, “You really need to learn how to do the books!” I’d say, “I will, I will.” But I never did. I hated doing the books. It involves the computer and a program that I don’t have a clue about, and endless rules about what account goes where, and what bill comes out of this or that account. He wrote it all down for me. In fact, he spent hours creating a cheat sheet with diagrams and pictures and “everything you’ll ever need to know.” And then today, I get the ATT bill and it’s not on the sheet and there’s no trace of what account it comes out of. The best laid plans….

Navigating this grief is a slow learning. There are so many things that make me cry. I found his baseball cap with the Tree of Life on it and it still smelled like him, just a little, and suddenly I am sobbing. Or a song comes on the radio while I’m getting my nails done for his memorial service, and I almost have to leave the shop I’m so overcome.

There are obvious pitfalls such as looking at his photo, or handling one of his precious pens, reading one of his notebooks and finding a letter to me that he never sent. It’s full of love and wishes for me to have a peaceful life. I cry and cry.

My heart literally hurts sometimes. It’s as if it can’t contain this huge sorrow and it bursts out and I find myself rolled into a ball on the bed. “I miss you so much, Michael, I miss you so much.” I say it over and over and it doesn’t make a damned bit of difference. There’s a horrible bodily insistence that wants to touch him again, talk with him, be with him in any form whatsoever. But he’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone. There’s no way around these times from what I can tell. They have to be lived through.

I think that I thought I would be able to protect myself from the enormity of this sorrow by all the grieving I did in these past 2 years. Ha! The joke’s on me. There is no protection, no way that two energies so intertwined can separate without horrible pain. I am ripped apart.

In some respects, this could mimic the pain of divorce which I remember all too well. But this is much more final. Much more empty. There’s simply a rather large hole that is no longer being filled, and now it’s up to me to learn to live around this hole, within this hole, within this new (w)holeness of me.

It’s weird because really, I’ve been taking care of myself for about 2 years now. Michael was more and more incapacitated and I had to take over more of the responsibilities. But it’s weird because in some way I still felt that it was a “we” doing things. And it was. We grieved together. We talked about dying and death. We had our inside jokes about the drugs and the side effects and the routines Michael’s illness engendered. We understood what We were going through.

Now it’s just me. I think in some totally irrational and magical way, I didn’t really believe in Michael’s death. I could surely see it coming, but I didn’t fully appreciate the enormity of him actually not being here any longer. In some odd way I thought we would still be doing it all together, that somehow, we would do his death together. I know this is nuts but it doesn’t matter. We were wrapped in each other’s lives in thousands of little ways and the shock of him actually being gone is almost incomprehensible.

A week after Michael’s death, I take my first trip out of the house. I am fragile — it’s the only word that fits. I am raw, an open festering wound. I am wrapped in a sorrow I’ve never known before. I see a woman I barely know in the grocery store and she grabs my arms, looks searchingly into my eyes, and says, “Are you peaceful yet?” I was thoroughly taken aback! Really? I stumbled and said something like, “I’m nowhere near peaceful right now.”

Then yesterday a neighbor stops me on the street and asks, “Are you just sad all the time?” And my answer is no. I’m not sad all the time. And I’m not completely peaceful either. I’m absolutely deeply in the middle of a huge grief. And when I’m sad, I’m really sad. And when I’m not, I’m more or less fully engaged with whatever is happening in the moment. There are even times of real peace. This has made me realize quite starkly the profound difference between depression and grief, for depression is filled with hopelessness, and I’m not hopeless.

Yesterday was also the first day that I fully realized that I’m on my own. I know this is obvious, but it didn’t really hit me until then. Yesterday I was struck by being a “widow.” Such a mournful word. I think it’s the “w’s” that define its mournfulness in some way – their sound at the beginning and the awful silent end. I’m a widow and I’m on my own and I have to take care of myself.

And yet, I don’t feel like a widow. I feel like a person who is carrying a huge sorrow, and I know that this sorrow has opened and strengthened me in ways I can’t even begin to fathom yet.

Part of me wishes to skip ahead a year, to a time when this pain is more distant, more abstract. An ache in my psyche but no longer a red bleeding wound. But of course, this is impossible. This pain must be lived through. This pain is the price of love. I am being taught the price of love. And I would pay it again, even knowing all of this, I would pay it again.