Dawning on Me

206When’s the last time you were up at dawn?

Well, this morning: daily dawns came along with grief, as part of the package deal.

As soon as my husband Jim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I lost my capacity to eat, sleep, and otherwise function . . . until the day I realized I had to amass some strength for his sake, and our children’s.  But that’s another story (one I told not long ago on the Moth Mainstage in Boston).

I used to be inside at dawn and miss the whole thing.  I was either sleeping or scurrying around the house, doing tasks, preparing myself and the children and dogs to set about the day–though, in the dogs’ case, they don’t really require that much preparation.  Their duties are minimal, but important in their way.

Then, utterly unable to sleep while Jim was sick, I would wander outside with the beagles and see immense blankets of color above the pond where Jim would take in his last outdoor view of an orange perigee moon.

So even when I began recovering strength, I thought it worth keeping hold of the dawns.


Dawn at Jim’s Pond


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The Empty Nest


Abandoned Robins’ Nest

Loneliness is an interesting feeling.

Interesting, you ask?  How neutral.  How unilluminating.  How non-judgmental.

How unlike me.

My feelings about loneliness have been pretty darn negative.  I’ve written about unwanted solitude as a vacuum, an inescapable shadowed partner to despair.  I’ve bemoaned the loneliest number.  I’ve even referred to closing the door of one’s home, remaining alone inside, as a step towards death.

And of course a person can neither experience nor dispense compassion without at least one human being on the other end.  It’s a tandem event.

But is loneliness always steeped in black?

Overwhelmingly, I take my best photographs when wandering by myself–as the sun rises, as rainbow skies edge into black, as mist rises from the sea’s surface and swallows evidence of humans going about their daily business. I have never even glimpsed another human being at the spectacular lonely spot where I most frequently take such pictures.

Solitary at Sundown

Solitary at Sundown

In the wee hours of most mornings, including this one, being by myself–during all seasons, in outside places I never would have ventured were my spouse still at home with me as we both began a day–makes me notice things I would not have experienced but for having been left behind, alone, by death.

Within these spaces, solitude’s silences are punctuated by noises which are nearly impossible to hear amidst even the smallest of maddening crowds: the startling click of a falling acorn, signifying summer’s softly edging into fall; the scurrying and rustling of chipmunks; a bird’s lilting two-note call.  I hear the ocean.  I hear the wind.  I even hear ice splintering.

When I am by myself, pictures and thoughts come to me and begin transforming themselves into words (and into blog posts).

Jim tends to visit me when I am alone . . . or have a minimum of corporeal company.

Generally I indulge in my artistic impulses only when I am alone.  I find that art is neither for the faint-hearted nor amenable to group input.

Let’s consider the Dreaded Empty Nest.  Mine will be empty very soon. I will be alone, but for my canine companions.


The Maddening Crowd

Yes, I know; you’re probably thinking, “This nest isn’t empty.”

This is the time of year when children clear out in droves from the houses in which they were reared, heading for school or beyond.  Many of their parents, my friends, begin thinking of themselves as “empty nesters,” in a negative way.

This makes me cringe just a little bit.  (I am at least consistent in overreacting: I recoil when people proclaim themselves “single parents” despite sharing custody of the children in question.  I don’t care how much you hate your ex-spouse or how dreadful an influence that person is on your children; you aren’t a “single parent” when more than one living person takes on some portion of the burdens and wonders of parenthood.   If your ex happens to be a malignant narcissist or otherwise does your children more harm than good, I’m sorry for all of you . . . but you’re still not a single parent.)

A child with more than one involved parent does not have a single parent.

And a house with a spouse is not an empty nest.

But if you do find yourself alone, both in a truly empty nest and wandering in the world outside it; it still isn’t all bad.

Sure, sometimes you have to stretch to find gold in those hills: when it’s just you, for example, you’re far more likely to recognize the contents of your laundry hamper.  And I certainly never fail to put gas in the tank, or pick up more milk when I’m the one to use it up (not mentioning any names here, kids).

I realize I’ve finessed the line between loneliness and solitude, which for me has to do with volition.  I’m alone by death, not by any kind of choice.

But here’s my mildly shameful secret: even when I wasn’t so shockingly alone as a parent, there were times I wanted to be by myself.  The persistent demands of a job and marriage and four children under the age of five could be a wee bit taxing on my supply of patience and energy.

And now that I’ve been forced into a large measure of solitude, I find that neither being alone nor even the darkness itself is always filled to the brim with sorrow.


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Frayed Days


            Peach and mottled green/Spectacularly set off/Frayed leaves of deep rose


My favorite frayed thing . . . and a variation on one of my favorite words.

I made a quilt for my baby daughter, and it became her favorite inanimate companion.  She rubbed its binding away as she clutched it, until the once crisply pressed bias-cut fabric along its edges separated into feathered ridges.

The quilt became so well-loved that an appliqued heart occasionally would drop from its surface.  A piece of fabric from its top might gradually loosen and then suddenly float away, leaving a tiny triangular nest of cotton batting exposed.

My husband Jim and I took our two sons and first daughter for a summer week in Bar Harbor, Maine.  We wandered and popped into a store where children’s books were displayed.

Our three and four year-old sons, who were quite learned when it came to dinosaurs, pointed out books with pictures of them to their little sister, who had one thumb plugged into her mouth.  Her arm enfolded her bundled crib quilt, which she clutched in all seasons and temperatures.

After her toddler tutorial, she pointed delightedly at a small stuffed pink and yellow stegosaurus at her level of a book display in a clear lucite column.

“Dido!” she cried.

We returned home and were putting our daughter into her crib when she began demanding “Steggy,” beaming when her father handed her the quilt.

“Steggy?” Jim and I turned to each other.

Then we saw her happily running her finger over the quilt’s frayed edges, smoothing the frayed binding into a line of wee, softly serrated triangular points.

“Stegs.”  She announced.

Of course.

She had added another sensible word to the family lexicon.

Look carefully at the deep rose leaves on the plant pictured above and you’ll see the “stegs.”  What better descriptive word could there be?


When we moved, after Jim died, I found Steggy carefully folded and packed away inside a penguin-shaped backpack.

Steggy’s owner has just returned from Bangladesh, where she spent the summer studying infectious diseases.  This weekend her nerves are slightly frayed, and the vocabulary she’s studying is nothing I’ve ever heard of.  Vast bodies of technical scientific material must be memorized.  It’s now subject matter that doesn’t lend itself to metaphor–applying colorful common sense shorthand derived from the magical worlds in which toddlers dwell.

Her dad would be so very tickled.

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