Word Winding

attempting to spin cacophony into sanity

When You’re Smiling

I was a serious child and a shy one, prone to gazing mutely at enthusiastic adults with solemn, enormous eyes if I wasn’t in the mood for interaction.

My grandmother Millie was the opposite: vivacious as all get out, gutsy of voice and broad of smile.

“When you’re smiling,” she’d sing in her smoky alto, shimmying up a storm, “when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you…”

I don’t know how any person survives losing first a spouse, then a daughter within a handful of years, but she did so in a way that embraced both life and grief wholeheartedly.

Her religion is not mine, but there was common ground where it mattered: in services on the beach at sunrise, in sitting quietly with the memory of loved ones at sunset, in music of all sorts.

She lived to be 94 years old. Ninety-four and a half, actually. Can you fathom it? That’s exactly three times as old as I am, almost to the day. She lived to see all of her grandchildren reach adulthood, to meet her great-granddaughter. And in the most graceful of all possible exits, her curtain call was just enough to give fair warning. Then, this past Thursday, December 11th, 2014, she drifted off to sleep one final time.

I showed Owlet and Platypup photos and told all the stories I could think of. Platypup thought the one where Millie is holding infant me was of “Gama Jack” (Grandma Jackie) at first.


When I went out to honor her memory last night, I felt my lineage flare up within me more strongly than ever before. I felt how she had made my mom, my wonderful gem of a mother, and, in making her, had made me. Surrounded by the objects of my choosing — the first and last photos of she and I together, my mother’s ashes, a lilac-scented candle because lilacs always remind me of my mom, a sprig of fresh rosemary, a blue jay feather from Thor’s mother, three treasured stones (mugglestone, rose quartz, and blue lace agate), mom’s candle snuffer, and a scattering of lavender — I sent my love and said goodbye.





Harnessing Inertia

Life decisions are often made in the shadow of an 8am class. We all have wide-ranging interests, but not all of them are compelling enough to lure our eighteen-year-old selves out of bed. By process of elimination, the college classes we are willing to wake up for become the path we pursue.

But those almost-majors, the ones who didn’t make the 8am cut, they still trail along in our wake, ghost-careers that either haunt us or enrich our quirky selves, depending on whether our chosen vocation is currently going well.

I’m a serious physics nerd. The test of my love came in the form of early morning Calculus freshman year; I’d received college credit for AP Calculus, so this class was only required if I wanted to be a physics major. I decided against it by the end of the first week. I like math a lot… but not in the morning. When it came to Counterpoint at a similarly incomprehensibly early hour the following year, however, I magically managed to propel myself out of bed and over to the music building, often in pajamas and occasionally without breakfast, but nonetheless present and enthusiastically engaged. Music major, chosen.

I may have become a musician rather than a physicist (and don’t regret it), but my affection for the subject remains, and I find it frequently moonlights in the realm of analogy.

My latest one has to do with inertia and momentum.

Some folks roll into change with grace and even appear to relish the opportunity. Others resist novelty with every fiber of their being. Some are happy habit formers and others can’t seem to follow a consistent pattern for the life of them.

I’ve concluded this must be because we all have different mass.

We commonly think of inertia only in terms of resistance to motion. But the scientific definition speaks of resistance to changes in motion: essentially, the more massive the object in question, the more it wants to continue whatever it is currently doing, be that sitting still or rocketing along at high speeds.

It is a curious thing, and not one I’d considered until recently, but for those of us who take longer to get off our asses and do something, once we finally do we are kind of unstoppable, are we not? Whereas those of us who can more easily flit between activities, we may transition with envious spontaneity, but sustaining effort can be more of a challenge.

If you, like me, harbor a joy for physics or analogy or both, try assessing your momentum and that of those around you. Not empirically better or worse, just different. It may take more force to get a massive stone rolling, but it also takes a whole lot to stop it. It may be easy to derail a pebble, but it takes a tiny amount of energy to get it going again. We all have different challenges, but they are matched by our strengths, if we can only see them in the right light.

If you struggle to start anything new, see what it does to remind yourself how well you retain habits after the initial formation period. For you, it takes a lot of strength at the beginning, but then you are something of a cannonball.

If you find it tough to keep your nose to the grindstone, try to notice how quickly you reignite after each stumble, leaping up dancer-like to begin anew.

And what if you’re in the middle and therefore seem to sway from one camp to the other, like me?

Well, as you may know, friction also plays a card in this game. So sometimes I’m moonwalking across kitchen linoleum and sometimes I’m swamp-tromping with the bullfrogs, knee-deep in muck. Different day, different texture. If you are at one extreme or the other, the texture changes aren’t going to affect your basic strategy too much, but if you’re in the middle, you may need to periodically assess which way you’re leaning.

This analogy works well for me because it ushers blame, shame, and denial politely but firmly out of the equation and unearths plain truth, which is so much easier to grapple with.

So what if I’m as massive as an iceburg? It might help to fuel up as best I can as early in the day as possible and then expend my effort toward launching into action, knowing that I’m likely to sustain whatever pace I set.

Or let’s say I have a student who eagerly tackles even the most devilishly challenging of new pieces but needs a lot of help staying focused for polishing. Ok. I’ve got a pebble here. I need to work with that. Addressing them as a boulder is never going to get us anywhere.

If I am to grow in any positive way I need to come to terms with who I am and who I’d like to become, and then stockpile tools that take my own unique set of strengths and challenges into account. Same goes for my approach to my kids and students. Inertia can be my undoing or my key to success — my perspective makes the difference.

Because objects in motion tend to stay in motion…


…and objects at rest, well, you know.


Feelings (nothing more than…)

Is it possible to be steadier and more volatile at the same time?

Apparently, yes.

I’ve been hitting vivid highs and lows on a regular basis lately, often within a single week. My heart is hanging out there, flapping in the breeze, and that means…


(Cue earworm.)

And yet, I am stable. I am centered as my life careens along exploring uncharted territory. My moods dance across the floor tile pages of my calendar and I willingly embrace them, but as seamlessly as we waltz, I know I am leading, not they. In fact, the frequency with which they flicker is driving home the point I have known intellectually for a long while but am only beginning to use as a cornerstone for my day-to-day operating system: I am not my emotions.

I am not my emotions. And really entering into the truth of that statement somehow makes it easier to experience them fully, to revel in the incredible roller-coaster pull of them, knowing that centripetal force is my utterly dependable friend, keeping me tethered no matter how tempestuously I whirl around. Knowing that in a few minutes the ride will lurch to a stop, the clattering will cease, my vision will sharpen, and I will toddle off on trembling knees to wait in line at the next big adventure.

Vulnerable and precarious and stable. Catching my breath and then diving right back in.

That’s my new normal.


Embracing the Salmon Leap

It is always hard to lose a student. And it happens to even the best, most highly regarded educators. When you teach a musical instrument, sometimes people quit, for all kinds of reasons that may or may not have the slightest sliver of a reason you could have influenced.

And yet every time it hits me like a breakup. My pulse races and I feel weak and trembly and attacked and unappreciated and pretty much like a complete failure.

I used to fight that feeling. Used to get angry, and defensive, and eventually go do something not so much soothing as mind-numbing, like watch tv and eat too much. But it would pursue me, sometimes for weeks, once or twice for months, until I finally acknowledged the wound that had been dealt me.

And then, a la Rumi, light would enter.

There was always at least a small nugget of uncomfortable truth I was avoiding. Facing the pain is only difficult to begin. Once I have turned toward it, I pass through like a juvenile salmon leaping blindly over the dam.

And I emerge a better teacher. Every time. Even when the student has loved me and I them and they are leaving for reasons like moving out of state (or, hell, even when I have left them by moving across the country and they in fact stuck with me right up until my departure date). There is always something I could have done differently.

I don’t fight the feeling anymore. I let it roll through me and within a few days (sometimes even a matter of minutes) light is already shining through the wound and I am off and running, evolving as a teacher once again.

Occasionally this even happens in time to keep the student. But even when they still go, the parting is always graceful, not just on the outside, sealed with plaster of professional decorum, but on the inside too.


Ahoy, Mateys!

Yaaaarrr! Listen smartly, me bilge rats an’ wenches
And I’ll spin ye a yaaaarn of the finest shipmate you e’er did see.

My best matey be strong but ne’er tough.
She be waaaarm but ne’er gooey.
Wise but ne’er conceited.
She be fallible but ne’er wrong.
Bloody perfect but ne’er flawless.
And she’s sure as a ship’s rudder fer steerin’ a poor soul
With ‘er ‘eart as wide as the sea beyond maps
An’ naught but the stars to guide’r.

This is a screenshot of an awesome iPod app Thor found me earlier this summer called “Starlight.” You want it. Trust me.

(If you are a tad confused, it may have escaped your attention that it is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Lucky for you, it’s still early in the day, so get out there and swagger with the best of them.

NaBloPoMo wanted to hear about my best friend today. If pirate talk confuses you *cough-cough*land-lubber*cough-cough* and you’d like to read something more normal about Rapunzel, allow me to redirect you to her birthday post.)

Progress Report: B+ in NaBloPoMo

Obviously I approach NaBloPoMo much the way I approached homework in high school… With my focus on the material but not so much on the deadline.

Time to get caught up on the questions I’ve skipped along the way!

Tell us the methods you use to get through a disappointment.

When I am shaken by any level of disappointment, anger, frustration, sadness, uneasiness, or grief, I try and remember to tune into my basic needs first, to eat soothing, nourishing food, drink plenty of water and tea, take a shower or bath, exercise, meditate, and get some sleep.

Obviously I do not do all of the above before allowing the stressor to so much as cross my mind! But I attempt to deal with any pressing bodily concerns first and maybe delve into a soul-warming activity of some kind (music, writing, fun with family/friends, etc). Once I am buoyed by meeting my own needs, I am better equipped to grapple with whatever has thrown me off course.

Maybe it turns out just taking care of myself is enough. Or perhaps I need to work through an aspect of it in a practical, problem-solving capacity. But most of the time, if a negative emotion is clinging to me, what I need is to find a way to slough it off, which can hopefully be done by remaining conscious of my thoughts on the subject throughout the day and by forming an intent around it during my nightly circle.

Have you ever been scared to let go of your grief?

Of course. For most of the grieving process, the grief itself feels like the sole remaining connection to whatever has been lost, making moving forward a dauntingly lonesome prospect.

Letting go begins when other, more sustainable connections to the object of loss have been made, ideally both privately and publicly. Once that which has been grieved for is rewoven into a new position in daily life, it is possible to gradually release the grief.

Do you believe that time heals all wounds?

Healing occurs over time, but time alone cannot complete the job. Our participation is essential. It is our resistance or willingness to grieve that determines the amount of scarring left behind when time has done the best it can.



Kübler-Ross had a good concept. Seriously. But our culture has taken it and run so far past its expiration date.

The problem is partially linguistic; “stage” implies order and direction.

But as we’ve discussed already, grief is messy.

It also tends to avoid conforming to things like neat boxes and really predictability in general.

Instead if “stages,” I propose calling the items on Kübler-Ross’s laundry list “puddles people often blunder through while trying to find the exit from the courtyard of grief.”

Just as grief does not proceed in an orderly fashion from denial to anger and all the way to acceptance (where it, what, vanishes?), one person does not process all grief in the same way. I know I don’t. I may have tendencies, but the depth and muddiness of the puddle depend on what I am grieving and where I am in my own journey at that point in time.

So which puddle is most difficult?

When I lost my mom, it was fear, which oddly is not on the list. Probably someone will tell me fear is actually included in another puddle (and go ahead, of course), but as a child sailing along, learning the ropes and rudder, to suddenly lose the mast is a first and foremost a frightening thing.

Second hardest was probably depression, a despair that randomly shifted between foreground and background and colored most of my adolescence, even as I went through all of the usual teenage drama of school and dating and friendship and figuring out who I was and where I belonged.

When my friends lost their son, it was anger. Outrage. How dare a quirk of genetics rob them of his light, replacing decades with months in one fell swoop.

Denial is rarely a problem for me. I face facts pretty swiftly, not always with grace, sometimes with gritted teeth or deep resignation, but I face them.

And one side benefit to being an atheist?

I am rather immune to the stage of bargaining.


There’s a drought on and puddles are hard to come by. Fortunately our cats have not been successfully trained to stay off of the kitchen table.

With love for duct tape

During library time in the fourth grade, a close friend and her new friend said they didn’t want to play with me anymore, and I sat there behind them on the close-shorn carpet, my heart in flames.

That was the first time.

One evening in fifth grade, while my mom was at book club, I walked blithely into my sister’s room and stopped short. Our father sat next to her on the bed, clearly in mid-sentence. Her face was blotchy, tear-drenched. At his direction I went to take my bath. Sitting there, staring at the familiar friendly face of the faucet, I tried to imagine what could make my sister cry like that, and an answer immediately rose from nowhere: divorce. I quickly banished the thought. But later, once I was snug in bed, my dad came in to say goodnight. In his preoccupation he sat on my legs and before I could do anything about it he told me. They were separating.

That was the second time.

In sixth grade, my best friend abruptly stopped hanging out with me. As neighbors, we inevitably trekked similar paths to and from school no matter how many detours I took, her with friends, me alone, and within my preteen mind all of their giggles spotlit flaws I hadn’t owned before. Our history ran back to toddlerhood and so I stood holding the severed threads of our friendship for a long time, never sure why.

That was the third time.

In seventh grade my mom told us she had cancer. We were in the kitchen. She had been to the doctor to see about a persistent cough. I remember nothing of what she said. I think I was at the table. I think she was standing. I do not remember the time of day. I do not remember what her face looked like.

That was the fourth time.

In eighth grade, again in the kitchen, my mom gathered me into her lap, coltish legs and all, and told me she was dying. And then she comforted me while we cried. She lovingly, selflessly, bravely answered childish questions like where will I live and who will take care of me while I buried myself into the solidity of her flesh and tried but was unable to fathom a world without.

A month later, she was gone.

That was the last time.

For many people, I imagine their story of the word “heartbreak” begins at that age where mine ended, conjures up images of their first failed romance and continues on, perhaps for decades.

But not for me. Everything from that point on, no matter how devastating, has landed with impact but without shattering. Her last gift was an explosion that taught me where center is and how to piece myself back together around it with love for duct tape.

Because after your heart splinters into shards, living becomes a choice instead of a default. You meet your strengths and your weaknesses both. You learn their exact contours, how to identify them in the dark. And in reassembling them, you claim them all.



Closing Canyons

Platypup taking time.

Healing is an intensely personal process, generally rather messy, and sometimes impossible to control. Maybe it’s Ferguson, or Ray Rice, or last Friday’s should-have-been fifth birthday of a much-mourned little boy named Caemon, but today’s NaBloPoMo question is just too tidy for me.

“Do you give yourself time to heal,” they ask, “or do you keep making yourself move forward?” As though you can — or even should! — pick one. As though wading though trauma isn’t a spin cycle of both of the above and their opposites and then some, and you’re lucky if the machine doesn’t melt down in the process.

We all “know” the right answers. Give yourself generous amounts of time to grieve. But not too much; don’t wallow. Make yourself move forward. But not too fast; that’s denial.


Easy to see from the outside, sure. And yeah, those are good goals. My aim is not to diminish that.

But from deep inside the belly of a pot of Tear Soup, well, you do whatever it takes to keep your head up. Observers who encourage Taking Time or Moving Forward might as well be recommending you use a particular swimming stroke when, I mean really, can’t they see you’re just trying not to drown?

Ok, ok, back to the question… as much as I might take issue with its crisp packaging, here’s my answer. Here’s what I learned after I lost my mom.

I learned to try and take time if it feels like time is desperately needed in a losing-oxygen-fast sort of way. I learned to try and move forward if it feels like I am sinking slowly into a bottomless bog of grief. I learned to cry deeply and thoroughly, such that a lot of pain might be released in one big bubble rising to the surface. I learned that there is no laughter like the helpless giggling that immediately follows a bout of despair, and I learned to seek it out at the closest opportunity. I learned to lean on loving shoulders and I learned to dive fearlessly into solitude.

And as I went on, I learned that the depth of the ache never completely goes away, but the plateaus in between get further and further and further apart, and eventually the landscape looks more like rolling hills with the occasional mountain. What were once canyons of loss are now like cracks in parched earth.

And beside them grow trees.


“As part of the healing process, please talk about how you processed the events of Ferguson.”

Yeah. Um.

No past tense here yet. Definitely still processing living in a world where this shit happens routinely.

Here’s my typical routine, though:

- learn of atrocious event
– turn inward, grapple with initial shock, find time as soon as possible to just feel this terrible sadness
– turn outward, devour and share whatever quality media comes my way
– feel overwhelmed and turn back in
– stumble across new info or insight and turn back out
– perhaps eventually work my way toward expression in words or music

… And repeat as long as necessary.


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