The Trapeze Artist

I had my last appointment with my grief counselor, Susan, a few days ago. No, I did not get a diploma or any certificate to prove I had successfully completed some set course of therapy. I wish it were that easy! Unfortunately, the grieving process will most definitely continue. But I did get a parting hug, along with heartfelt words of wisdom from this savior of a woman.

First, she called me on my bluff that everything was a-okay, hunky dory, just tops, or, to use Marcus’ favorite word, brilliant! I had put on my game face for this final session. I’m moving away and I didn’t want her to think she was turning me out into the cold prematurely. But she saw right through it. “I am feeling a sense of urgency from you,” she said.

This is what I love about my grief counselor. She is good at what she does. Plus she has x-ray vision.

“Yes, I am aware of that,” I admitted. I want the grief to go away — now!!! — even if I have to run away from Portland and outrun myself to escape its talons. I told her, “I remember sitting in your grief support group 10 months ago listening to people say they lost their spouse one or two years ago and thinking, ‘That will not be me. I won’t be grieving a year from now and needing some support group.'” Oh how wrong I was! What has been one year since Marcus died feels more like one month. My how time flies. Susan nodded her head, her eyes so full of compassion it almost felt like she was hugging me with them.

She was quiet for a moment and then stated in her gentle way, “You are like a trapeze artist. You have to let go of one swing in order to grab the next one. There is that moment of being airborne in between when you are holding onto nothing, and trusting that the other swing will come toward you. That ‘in between’ is where you are now, grasping for air.” I took her comment well, though it was not a stretch and actually felt like a compliment considering the day before someone else told me I was like the Tasmanian Devil and that even when I stopped my tornado twirl I had an angry grimace on my face.

I thanked Susan for her brilliance, not just for this astute analogy, but for her months of wise counsel, and for her keeping my life from derailing completely.But in thinking about this for a few days — surrounded by moving boxes — I realize that Susan is wrong. I am not in a mid-air leap. I am not in that free-floating, faith-challenging, empty air space. I wish I was flying. But no, I haven’t let go of the first swing yet! My fingers are still clutching the bar in a white knuckle grip, afraid to release, afraid of falling into the abyss (the one I have spent the year living in and have barely begun to climb out of), afraid of the unknown. And the longer I sit staring at the stacks of boxes (not to mention the piles of clothes, dishes, and other belongings that haven’t found their way into boxes yet — like the “Free Pie” sign from our January TV shoot), the tighter I cling to the first swing.

I’m clinging to the security of my nest. It’s stressful enough to move under the best of circumstances, but to be running away from your own self with no destination in mind?!

I’m clinging to the familiarity of the city (St. Honore Boulangerie, the Mexican bar with the best nachos north of the Rio Grande, the ease of driving on Portland’s uncrowded freeways).

I’m clinging to my friends, like Stacy, Sylvia, Alison, Katrin, Joerg, Lyndsay, Fetze, Dayna…the list is too long to name all of the amazing, kind, loving people who have propped me up these past months, people I’ve hiked with, baked pies with, walked the dogs with, babysat for, gotten drunk with, gone to movies with, cried with, spent holidays with.
I’m clinging to the trees – literally – in the forest behind my house, hugging them all, channeling energy from their roots to keep me from blowing off into the atmosphere with the next breeze. I’m clinging even harder now that I planted a tree in this forest for Marcus.

And I’m clinging to Marcus. What happens when I leave the place that reminds me most of him? Will my memory fade? Will I forget him? I don’t want to forget him! I am terrified of forgetting him, worried that I am leaving him behind. What will happen to my connection to him when I sever the ties to the places that keep my feelings for him alive? For example, what will happen when I no longer drive past the hospital where he was taken in the ambulance and pronounced dead? My point exactly. I get it. It’s time to leave. But for the first time in my free-spirited, nomadic, restless life I am truly afraid of moving forward.

Ready or not I have to let go of the swing. (In the scheme of things at least I have a little more control over this metaphoric swing compared to the time I went sky diving and the instructor PUSHED me out of the airplane into a 10,000 foot free fall. Yes, the chute opened. And yes, that’s me in the picture. And yes, I am smiling.)

I’ve already committed to letting go, to being open to the few airborne seconds without another swing to grab, because I’ve made plans. And making plans, according to my grief counselor, is an excellent sign of progress. These plans include – why yes – pie!!! I am scheduled to be in Des Moines, Iowa on August 12 for the Iowa State Fair, where I will be a judge for the pie competitions – all 22 categories of them. I’m even scheduled to give a pie baking demonstration on live TV, a 5-minute segment on Des Moines’ NBC affiliate, WHO-TV.

Even if I didn’t have plans to pursue pie in Iowa, it’s too late to keep my apartment. It’s been rented to a very nice woman who is already picking out paint for the walls and will be moving in by mid-August. I met her, Renee, and she already knew who I was when she arrived to look at my place. (Wow, ya gotta love Google.) She even brought me a book on grief called The New Black by Darian Leader, which was very sweet of her. She suggested that if there was time she would love to come by and have me teach her how to make pie, kind of christen the place, pass the torch (or rolling pin), so to speak.Given the current state of the apartment, the stacks of moving boxes and the disaster of stuff strewn across the floor, there is no way I will be out of here by the end of the week and still have time to give a pie lesson. But I appreciated her suggestion and as such will leave her one of my blueberry pie-in-a-jar pies in the freezer as a welcome present.

And since I have one more of the blueberry “jar” pies left I know just who will be the recipient: Susan, my grief counselor, of course. If anyone deserves a pie, it’s this compassionate, giving, human being, someone who listened to me, understood me, and nurtured me during the hell that is known as acute and complicated grief. Forget my diploma. Tis better to give than to receive. And what better way to tell her how deeply, eternally grateful I am than with a homemade, handmade pie. Gratitude in a jar.

Thank you, friends, forest, nest, and bakery. Thank you, Portland. And most of all, thank you, Susan.(PHOTO: I hired two friends of my neighbor’s son to move my big pieces of furniture to my storage locker. He’s giving me the thumbs up. This must mean everything is going to be okay!)

The “Romantische Strasse” Awaits

I was going to write about how surprisingly difficult, emotionally, this move out of Portland has been. I was going to explain how for someone who is a free-spirited gypsy like me, who moves on average every 8 months, this time it feels harder than usual to uproot myself from my nest. I was going to elaborate (for the umpteenth time) on how symbolic it is to leave the place where I lived with Marcus, and how it feels like I’m leaving him, even though he left me, left us all, when he departed the planet almost one year ago. But then, thankfully, I received a few emails that snapped me out of my self-indulgent, time-wasting, energy-draining funk. The first was from my neighbor Elizabeth, who replied to my request to borrow her strapping college-age son and his friends to help me move my furniture on Saturday.

Elizabeth, who was widowed at the age of 35 when her husband died of a heart attack, wrote, “I’m sorry you are moving, but I am not too surprised. It will be good for you to be in a place that doesn’t remind you of Marcus. It is so hard to stay in the same place because they are just right there. Moving on sucks, staying still sucks. Let’s face it: it all sucks.”

I thought this was very well stated. “It all sucks” — yes, so simple and to the point.

She added, “HOWEVER, don’t forget the little gifts you have received through all of this. They stay with you!”

She’s right. I have made many new friends in these past months, and deepened my relationships with existing friends I made when I lived here before. I have gotten my health and fitness back by hiking, biking and running on the trails behind my house. I have had the luxury of living in a beautiful, quiet little (very little!) house with a fireplace and views of Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens, a place that provided me with safe, warm and dry shelter, a place that nurtured me back to life during the darkest months I have ever known.And then, saving me from further melancholy, I got another email, an update from Team Switzerland who is making their way down the West coast in my RV.

Eve wrote, “I’m sorry I have no pie news!” I had to laugh at this because my friends are all very well trained now to be on the look out for pie.

She continued, “We’re near Yosemite National Park. We are enjoying our trip very much. We found a TJ Maxx today, and everybody got nice things! We had a great time in San Francisco, but it was very cold and windy! Love, Eve and the girls”

It’s so funny to think about the RV — “The Beast” — having its own adventures without me, as if it’s my kid I sent off to summer camp. What’s ironic is that the RV is following the same route (only in reverse) that led to Marcus and me meeting in 2001, awe-inspiring scenic, as if an American version of Germany’s Romantische Strasse, a route that led to great love.

The “Romantic Road” Route taken by Team Switzerland is this: Start in Portland, drive through the waterfall-lined Columbia River Gorge, pass through the adventure town of Bend and go canoeing on your way to Crater Lake National Park (pictured below), follow the wild and winding Rogue River all the way to the rugged Oregon Coast, then head south through the Redwood Forest, drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco where you ride a cable car, and finally end up in Los Angeles where you may spot a celebrity or two.That’s more or less the route I will be taking when I leave Portland next week — in my MINI Cooper. Which, with all that promise of taking in the world’s most stunning and inspiring landscape, makes leaving Portland sound pretty exciting. What am I so sad about when I have such a great adventure to look forward to?! And that doesn’t even take into account the pie I will find along the way — about which, I guarantee, unlike Eve, I will have news.

But first, I have to finish packing.

11 Months After Marcus: Life in Full Bloom?

You’ve seen it in fall, winter, and spring. Here is the tree in summer, the tall maple on Floral Street that has come to symbolize my cycle of grief. The cycle that started 11 months ago today, the day Marcus died.But does this new crop of robust green leaves truly represent my life? Do I have the ability, like photosynthesis, to use the sun to create energy in my leaves and release oxygen? As I look around my sweet little apartment (otherwise referred to as my “grief sanctuary” and yet feels like a tree house), the task of packing up my boxes and moving — couches, desk, bed, dishes and all — into storage feels daunting, almost paralyzing.

Beginning a new chapter is like staring at a blank page on my computer monitor, sitting there in my desk chair wondering where and how to begin the story. Where will I land? What will become of me? Will my TV show sell? Will I finish writing my book? Will I ever find love again?

My reverie of anxiety is interrupted by an email from my friend Alison. “Stop those tears! Once you hit the road you will feel better. Ahem, pie anyone? Iowa pie! Delish!”

Alison knows me very well. And she’s right. I feel better when I’m in motion. (And when I’m eating pie.) Which makes me realize that the tree has been the wrong symbol all along. I am nothing like a tree. I am and always have been “a rolling stone that gathers no moss.”

As for the tree and its life cycle of leaves symbolizing my grief, it’s going to take a lot more than four seasons to end my grief. Even so, I’ll keep the maple leaves I’ve gathered tucked in between the pages of my journal as a souvenir of its symbolism — of grounded, rooted strength and grace. Because even a rolling stone needs an occasional place to rest.

Team Switzerland Takes the RV

Phase One of my move out of Portland has begun. The RV (aka: The Beast) is on its way to Southern California. But I’m not driving it this time. No. Behind the wheel you will find my lifelong friend from Switzerland, Eve Kamer.In the front passenger seat is Eve’s friend and co-worker, the smiling and bouncy Brigitte. And lounging comfortably in the rear are Eve’s two teenage daughters, Anouk and Meret.Their plan is to see — as is often the case with European tourists — the ENTIRE West Coast. “Go ahead, drive all you want,” I said. “Just make sure you change the oil before you set off, and bring it back clean with a full gas tank and an empty waste tank.” Clearly my rental requirements are exceptionally minimal. If I seem relaxed about handing off my RV for this marathon road trip, let me assure you I am not.I say this because after Team Switzerland finished one last breakfast (by the way, note the apple pie in the bottom left corner of the picture!) I walked them out to the RV and said goodbye. As I watched the RV pull away, down Aspen Avenue, without me in it — without Marcus in it — I had one of those tortured moments, the kind when you have to give yourself a stern lecture in the privacy of your own head. “Let go,” I argued with my conscience. “It’s just a vehicle. If anything happens to it, it’s replaceable. Eve is a good, confident driver. It’s going to be fine.”

I told a friend later, I’m trying to “practice Buddhism without being a Buddhist.” If I am to move forward, to leave Portland — which, in my twisted little grieving mind also means leaving Marcus — then I need to practice detachment.

“Let go,” I warned myself again. “Let go.” So I swallowed the lump in my throat, rubbed the sick feeling that was lingering in my stomach, and waved goodbye as Eve & Co. rounded the bend. “Drive safely,” I said again, even though they could no longer hear me. I even added it in German for extra assurance. “Sicher Fahrt.”

Here’s the good news. Some reshuffling of travel plans means I will be arriving in LA just a day or two after the RV. I will be reunited with my home-on-wheels. And that’s a good thing because for now that RV is going to be the only home I have. Considering I never wanted Marcus to buy The Beast in the first place, it sure has come to play a hugely significant role in my life. My new life.

And now, I need to start packing boxes. Let the adventures begin. “Sicher Fahrt” indeed.

Some Like It Hot

The past two days in Portland have been 100 degrees. I hear other people complaining about the weather, but I don’t have any problem with it. I spent the entire last summer in Terlingua, Texas, surprisingly content in the face of 110-plus degree temperatures every single day for three months. In fact, if the weather was always this hot in Portland I wouldn’t ever consider moving! (Though if it was always this hot and sunny the population would probably be quadruple what it is now.)The thing I find so fascinating about the onset of hot weather in the Pacific Northwest is the sudden appearance of skin. Specifically, women in sundresses. Granted, their newly exposed limbs are white and pale, but to see the proliferation of girls, women, mothers, daughters, grandmas, whatever age, in paper-thin cotton frocks with spaghetti straps and hemlines above the knee…well let’s just say it’s not how they look, but how they carry themselves, and it’s inspiring. I met an editor friend for coffee today at Crema and as I sat there at our sidewalk table I watched an assortment of women walk past in Really Cute Dresses. It was not their dress styles that caught my attention but the bounce in their steps, the smiles on their faces, their faces tipped up toward the sun (and not scowling and hunkering down against the usual rain). I overheard a 60-something-year-old women at the next table telling her friend how the summer weather inspired her to buy the new flowered mini-skirt she was wearing. “It was only $15 at Twill, and it’s stretchy,” the gray haired woman explained, twirling around like a high school cheerleader. Regardless of the sweat dripping down their backs and the lack of air conditioning, I have never seen people in Portland this happy. Forget pie, it’s sun that equals happiness! As for me, I’m going to enjoy the heat while it lasts. I’m so optimistic that I’ve dragged my own sundress collection out of storage, laundered and ironed each one, and dug my sunglasses out from the back of the drawer. According to the weather forecast, the sun will shine for five more days. Less than the shelf-life of an apple pie, but long enough I won’t have to repeat outfits. Long enough to heat up my bones and turn my skin the color of pie crust.

Bake me, baby, bake.

Happy Birthday, Marcus — Happy Birthday, Me

Marcus would have been 44 today. If he were still alive. I have been dreading this day for several weeks now. Anyone who’s grieved a loss will tell you the firsts are the hardest: the first Christmas, the first anniversary, the first birthday, the first you-name-it, any milestone missed by your loved one is a glaring reminder of their absence. But like most things filled with dreaded anticipation, the day wasn’t as bad as I had expected. To the contrary.(PHOTO: Marcus’ meadow. The view from his tree.)

BAKED GOODS ARE ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA

I started my day (well, not counting the first part when I got drenched when walking the dogs in a downpour) by my neighbor Sylvia inviting me to have coffee at St. Honore Boulangerie – which Sylvia knew was Marcus’ favorite coffee house/bakery. When I hesitated at her invitation, Sylvia insisted, “Marcus would want you to go.” She’s as good at invoking his posthumous opinion to rationalize something as I am! The pain au raisin was worth whatever writing time I missed.

RETAIL THERAPY CAN ALWAYS BE JUSTIFIED

After that we popped into a new boutique down the street where I indulged in some unexpected retail therapy. I’d been in the store, Oxalis, once before and because I coveted every single overpriced item in there I swore I’d never set foot in there again. (Much the way I avoid going within six blocks of any Anthropologie.) Naturally, the moment I walked in I gravitated toward an organic cotton skirt and top set, embellished with stylish ruffles, exaggerated stitching and a big price tag. The savvy store owner didn’t even ask if I wanted a dressing room. Sylvia (and at least five other people in the shop) insisted I looked fabulous in the black skirt and top when I stepped out to show her. So of course I had to buy the ensemble. I figured since I spent my birthday two weeks earlier bedridden with bronchitis – and it’s not like I could actually buy something for Marcus – the expense was justified.

PLANT A TREE, MAYBE IT WILL GROW BIG ENOUGH TO HUG ONE DAY

Sylvia and I finally set about to our original plan for Marcus’ birthday morning– we planted a baby Redwood tree in Forest Park. The spot was strategically chosen for its proximity to two other Redwoods already growing there (“Redwoods need to be in families, they share roots,” Sylvia explained). The location also happened to be at the lower end of the large meadow – the meadow where Marcus had spent countless hours throwing the stick for our dog, Jack – closer to Sylvia’s house making it more convenient for her to water the tree. That it’s illegal to plant trees in Forest Park didn’t stop us from hiking in with two shovels and the huge tub that held the sapling –in broad daylight. I love Sylvia for this – and for having the idea to plant the tree in the first place.
(PHOTO: That’s the beautiful Sylvia, above, with her shovel. I hope this proof of illegal activity doesn’t get her arrested!)

EAT, EAT, EAT

Fast forward to the afternoon – well, it was already afternoon by the time we did all that – I put on a sexy little dress that Marcus liked and went for a late lunch at his favorite restaurant, Pok Pok, a place in Southeast Portland that serves Thai street food in an almost street-like environment (great for tropical Thailand but not ideal for the wet Pacific NW climate). I originally thought I would have a group dinner there, invite all our friends, make a big occasion of it. And then I remembered who I was dealing with – me – and decided I better not subject anyone to my wildly swinging moods or potential grief burst. So I opted to go alone.

JUST LIKE IN THE MOVIES

As I sat there gnawing on the bones of my roasted game hen and picking the sticky rice out of my teeth, I thought of the scene in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense,” where Bruce Willis shows up late to his anniversary dinner with his wife. She has already finished her meal, alone, and is paying the bill. He tries to apologize to her but she gives him the silent treatment. Bruce doesn’t know (nor does the audience) that he’s dead. Reenacting this scene in my head, I imagined Marcus was sitting across from me, wondering why I didn’t order him a beer, and why I was writing him a letter instead of actually talking to him. Especially since he’s used to me talking to him, since I have said good morning and goodnight to him every day for the past 10 and a half months, as if he is still next to me in our bed.

FRESH AIR FEELS EVEN BETTER WITH LOUD MUSIC

The day flew by, because by the time I finished lunch it was already early evening and the dogs were overdue for their walk. Instead of the usual slog up the muddy trails of Forest Park I took them to Swan Island, to the riverfront trail next to Marcus’ old office. It’s a surprisingly scenic and seldom used walking path that follows the Willamette River’s sandy banks, ideal for stick throwing and terrier digging.

Self-torture comes in many forms. My choice is walking past Marcus’ old office door, the entrance where I used to pick him up or meet him for lunch. But I take the torture up a notch by listening to my iPod at full volume playing songs that remind me of him. I even made a special Playlist just for these occasions, which includes “Gorecki” by Lamb, “Run” by Snow Patrol, and my favorite, Scala’s (Belgian Girls’ Choir) version of the U2 hit, “With or Without You.” Luckily most of the employees had left the campus by this time, so no one could hear me singing too loud (and presumably off key), nor could they see me leaking tears of sadness.

SET YOUR SIGHTS ON NEW BEGINNINGS

After I got home and fed the dogs, I sat down to write a letter. Not to Marcus this time, but to my landlords. “Dear Don and Ingrid, I am writing to give you a written 30-day notice to end my lease.”

Yes. It’s time. Time to go. Portland is the place I lived with Marcus. It’s the place Marcus died. It’s the place I came to grieve. But Portland is not MY place. It’s too cold, rainy and dark for my California girl disposition and my aggressive driving habits. I gave myself a one-year grace period to grieve. Granted, it’s not August 19 yet, but a friend told me in his Jewish faith the grieving period lasts 11 months minus one day. That would put me at July 18. And given that I am grossly impatient by nature, July 2 is not too early to draw the line.

It’s a Birth Day. It is Marcus’ 44th birthday, but it’s also my first birthday. I hereby claim this day to mark the official end of my grief, and the first day of my new life. Don’t think I won’t take Marcus with me into my new year. I will recreate my shrine of the Buddha candle and the hundreds of pictures of my late husband wherever I go. I will still say good morning and goodnight every day. But I will live in a place that can better warm my bones, fill my (still puffy!) eyes with light, and therefore expedite the continued healing of my heart. Not to mention, I want to live in a place where I can wear my new skirt and top more than two months out of the year. I just hope Sylvia will remember to water the tree after I leave.

Happy Birthday, Marcus. Happy Birthday, Me.

Or, Perhaps, The World Does NOT Need More Pie!

I promised I would not succumb to vanity, so here you see what eating too much pie looks like. My belly was so bloated from a weekend-long pie binge, my friend Alison thought we should take before and after measurements. What you see is two inches added to my normal 31-inch waist. And this is BEFORE we cut into Alison’s blueberry crumble pie! (That’s her pie in my right hand.) Because I refuse to own a scale, I have no idea how many extra pounds this translates to. But however much weight I put on, every bite of strawberry pie, blueberry pie, and banana cream pie was worth it! Remember, it’s just fruit. Even so, it’s back to boot camp on the hiking trails I go.

We Picked Blueberries Too & Made Pie-in-a-Jar

Sauvie Island Farms was good to us. We came home not only with 25 pounds of strawberries between us, but also 9 pounds of blueberries. Or “Early Blues” as the farm calls them.And what to do with all those blueberries? Yes, of course, make pie, but in this case I tried a new style of pie: Pie in a Jar. A neighbor emailed me the link to Our Best Bites blog, which outlines the concept along with the instructions. You prepare the baby pies in canning jars ($6.99 for 12 at Fred Meyer) and freeze them. You can give these individual serving sizes away as gifts. The recipient simply removes the lid from the still-frozen pie, bakes it in the jar (the jars won’t break as these are made to withstand the high heat of the canning process), and….voila! Proving that even little pies can bring big happiness.This is only the beginning of what is sure to be yet another abundant fruit-bearing summer. More blueberries (presumably called “Late Blues?”), blackberries, marionberries, raspberries, peaches…THIS is why we live in Oregon!

Strawberry Fields Forever (& Afterward Strawberry Pie)

A morning spent picking strawberries at Sauvie Island Farms proved bountiful indeed. Wait until you see the pictures of the pies we made (to be posted later). Wait until you see the picture of my belly so full and protruding with pie that my fellow berry picker/pie baker Alison (pictured below with her husband Thomas) insisted on wrapping a measuring tape around my waist to see just how many extra inches the pie gorging had added! (I promise, I will post that picture later too, proving I am not vain.)