Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Circles

In class, when I talk about symbolism, I mention the metaphorical weight we assign to objects. I often use my wedding band as an example. What is it? Metal, formed into a circle. It has scratches and nicks on it after two-plus decades on my finger. It will eventually get lost or melted or broken. It exists, as all physical things exist, but the symbolism of it exists independent of its physical form. I talk about the infinite nature of a circle: a beginning that also contains its end, blurring the two into a singular form that is simultaneously dynamic and static. A perfect circle, independent of its physical manifestation.

I’ve found myself thinking about circles and finitude and infinitude a lot over the last weeks. Presence without physical form; symbolic weight absent a concrete object. Existence without beginning or end.


A couple of weeks ago on my birthday, the first since my 18th that I haven’t shared in at least some way with Allison, I decided to pay special attention to circles and the quiet reminders of a continuum that exists without clear beginning or end. Here are a few of the circles that I captured during the course of my 45th birthday:



Metaphorically, the circles outlined hydration, sustenance, activity, and mindful reflection. The unbrokenness of the circles I noticed feels at odds with what feels acutely broken in my life and my conception of it and its trajectory. 


Symbolism is an abstraction, but it exists, present tense. So do memories and feelings. In my better moments, I’m able to cherish the wealth of memories we have in a closed circle of the time we had as a family of 2, 3, 4, and 5. On my difficult days, I try my best to remember what Allison often said, written clearly in 2015 on the second anniversary of her initial diagnosis: 

I try very hard to stay grounded in each moment. It's hard work, and some days--many, actually--I do a bad job at it. But part of my continued efforts to take better care of and be kinder to myself have yielded the understanding that even my bad days with their fear, anxiety, sadness and/or anger can teach me something. Each new day is another opportunity to learn more and hopefully do better.


Sunday, December 05, 2021

"Mary's Room"

Over the last weeks, I've thought frequently about a thought experiment called "Mary's Room," attributed to Frank Jackson. It's an illustration of the "knowledge argument." Basically, an imaginary Mary is a brilliant scientist who lives in a completely black-and-white room, one that she has never left in her life. She has all of the scientific knowledge of color and the spectrum of light and how the human eye captures and translates color to the brain. She knows how and why the brain "sees" red and green and blue and all of the other colors. Still, she has never experienced seeing color. Frank Jackson finishes his hypothetical scenario by posing the question: what happens when Mary goes outside into the colorful world? Does her experience of seeing color enhance her knowledge? Has she learned anything new? Or does the reality of color merely reinforce and affirm her prior knowledge, adding nothing to her prior understanding?

I believe Mary experiences new knowledge through experience. I think her abstract understanding of color and light only provides scaffolding for the less-quantifiable experience of color. These are "qualia," the non-physical components of knowledge that can only be learned through experience.

I first encountered Mary's Room after a long stretch of thinking about empathy and experience as vital components of human community. Some of the most comforting assurances I've received from others about a range of experience: parenthood, marriage, grief, etc. have come from people who have experienced the phenomena they're talking about. For instance, when my dad died, a friend of mine offered to talk (or not talk) about anything or nothing and provide a space where grief wasn't a present part of our discussions and activities. He had lost his own mother a few years before, and knew from experience that the grieving are often the hub of a wheel of grief with as many spokes as there are well-meaning friends offering condolences. He shared further that part of his epiphany about giving space and offering windows away from that ever-present grief came while he was in divinity school. He felt like the loss of his mom provided his fellow students with a learning lab to try out pastoral counseling and comforting, academic explanations of the experience of grief and meaning. At that point, the abstraction of a friend or acquaintance experiencing grief provided the chance for practical application--a laboratory for applying non-experiential knowledge. In my friend's experience, it was exhausting, a steady offering of pat answers and platitudinous, hollow assurances of the ultimate justice of God's creation. It was Mary's confident articulation of the reality of color without the grounding of her experience of color.

I learned from him and from my own experience navigating the grief at my dad's death. I can't and don't articulate a lot of the rote responses I grew up hearing: "God is good all the time" being chief among them. While abstractly and contextually true, I feel like those kinds of sentiments too often land as "Stop your grieving right now and move on." It's never intended that way, but the conflict between the abstraction and experience too often steals the grace from the sentiment. I find that people who have experienced that kind of grief themselves are slower to offer such ideas.

I've known for years that cancer would most likely take Allison from us. I tried to avoid imagining what life without her would be like, but I still wondered. I know academically and scientifically about grief and how it affects most people. I know Allison is loved, and that people would rally to all of us when Allison passed away. The reality of each and every component of the experience: having to share the news with family and friends, the acute physical pain of loss, the sleep disruption, the anger, the confusion, and the paradoxical joy and misery of seeing and hearing from so many loved ones constitute an experiential knowledge, a collection of qualia that together transcend whatever preparation and knowledge I might have had before. I imagine Mary being awed and overwhelmed and startled by the reality of the colors she encountered.

Today is one month since Allison died. This blog has been a place for sharing the full range of emotions and experiences we've navigated since becoming parents. We decided together not to chronicle the roller coaster of Allison's metastatic diagnosis and treatment here. Our writing has been more private for the last few years, or we've written in other places for other audiences instead.

I feel different now (at least as I feel led today). I want to make this a regular place for sharing and reflection again. It's now my intent to write here at least once a month, and to allow the subject matter and content to come naturally to me, as Mary's Room has today. 

Two values have especially guided the way Allison and I have traveled the last few years: 1) finding time every day to be grateful for the provisions and blessings of our lives, even when they seemed slight when contrasted with larger fears and concerns, and 2) being honest, even when it means being honest with Lauren, Evan, and Tobin about incurable metastatic disease and the reality of death and loss. It is my hope, today and every day, that I can continue to uphold those values, even when it's difficult to do so.



Thursday, December 28, 2017

2017

fall fam

As we approach the end of another year, I'm feeling many things: Relief that the busyness of Christmas is complete. Sadness that our time with our out-of-town family is fleeting. Hopeful about being home again and the feeling of a fresh start that a New Year brings. Anxiety about many things, close to home and in our larger community.

Of course, I'm grateful, too. I'm thankful to have marked another year. Matt and the kids are my world, and they are mostly happy and very healthy. That is huge. But the flip slide of gratitude is the always-present knowledge of the fragility of it all. I try to mindful of what is good and right in front of us in this moment.

Yesterday, I was in the bathroom with Lauren at Matt's aunt and uncle's house. There was a sign that said, "In all things, give thanks." Lauren, as she is apt to do--even while sitting on the toilet--read the sign and proceeded to scrutinize it. She said, "Mom, what does that even mean?" I said, "Well, I think it means, no matter what happens we should be thankful. Like say, even if you were sick, you should be thankful." Lala scrunched up her nose, narrowed her eyes, and asked indignantly, "Why would I EVER be thankful to be sick?!?"

I realized she was right. I hadn't quite captured the sentiment correctly. So I tried again: "I think it means that, you don't need to be grateful for being sick, but when you're sick, you can find something to be grateful for." Lauren then wondered, "Like how it's nice how you take care of me when I'm sick?" And I said, "I think that's it, exactly."

I close this year, thankful for each of you who has taken the time to read another year of our reflections on gratitude. Life is beautiful and difficult; some days it feels more one than the other. I hope that we can continue to find some love, some light even in the darkest times--or at least resolve to look for them again tomorrow.

christmas smiths

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Trippin'

Lately, I've been caught up dwelling a little on how short our Christmas break feels. The last two years have had school calendars that make our family winter tour feel accelerated, meaning that travel feels more stressful than usual. I have family and friends who don't have near the time that we usually have as a family, though. I'm thankful to be hitting the road for the holidays again, and thankful that we have the time and means to do so.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Rest

While life always has a certain amount of busyness for us, all things considered, this is a restful time for us. The shorter daylight hours force us inside and, lately, dinner has been followed by board games. We take a break from sports in the winter, so afternoons and evenings are more open and relaxed than when we are in season.

We do still run around quite a bit--like tonight. We had a school dinner to which we took separate cars, because Matt had a meeting to go to at 7:00. On the way home, with just the kids and me, I took some extra time to drive around our neighborhood and let the kids see the holiday lights. It was a nice, leisurely excursion that allowed us to take a moment and appreciate some of the wonder of the season.

When we got home, Lauren was a bit distraught, because she has a "very, very wiggly" tooth. She let me try to wiggle it (not my fav thing) and tried to eat an apple (that's how she lost her first tooth). Alas, the loose tooth remained attached. I suggested that she could go to bed and try again in the morning. She managed a tearful "OK" and headed off to bed. I'm thankful that she understands in her own way that sleep is restorative, and things will be better in the morning.

As usual, I am a bit overwhelmed by the holiday season. I've got many to-do lists running through my head--only half of which I manage to write down. Though there's plenty of stuff pending, I've slowly but surely checked a few big items off some of the lists this week. And now I've reached the time of the day when I will choose to wind down and rest. I might address a few Christmas cards, or go to bed early. I'm grateful for both the opportunity to rest and my own understanding, in this moment, it is what I need most.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Holidays

I've been especially aware of the bittersweet nature of the holiday season this year. I'm thankful for traditions and memories and comfort foods and time with family, but I've spent a lot of time thinking about my dad and my grandparents and the way that time slips by. My own kids are old enough to have their own memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions. And I'm old enough (and young enough?) to remember this season at their ages. Many of the memories I have are of people no longer with us, though. I know that's the nature of life, but it's a steady pang that underlies November and December for me.

I have years of happy, loud, fun memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I also have weighty ones of funerals and numbness and a vague awareness that I was supposed to compartmentalize my feelings to preserve my cheer or gratitude. Holidays are complicated. Life is complicated. Sometimes life seems as mean as it seems wonderful. On my optimistic days, that juxtaposition enhances the joy of being with loved ones and the joy of tradition. On my less optimistic days, it makes me feel like life is a slow, inescapable march of loss.

A friend whose parent had recently passed asked me once "How long does it take to get over it?" I wanted to give a pat, satisfactory answer, but I don't have one. Is "getting over it" anything more than an appeasement of other people's expectations of the shelf life of grief and grappling with the ephemeral? I struggle with gratitude at Thanksgiving because I'm still mad at the unfairness of my mom losing my dad on Thanksgiving week. I struggle with Christmas music because so much of it is intertwined with memories of my dad. I can be picking out a Christmas tune on the piano with the kids and suddenly have to excuse myself to a different room. I can be hit by a chord from the pipe organ and want to be anywhere in the world but in a church. Not "over it," clearly.

"Grapple" is the verb I use most often to describe what I've been doing with my feelings for the last few weeks (years?). As many things do, "grappling with difficulty" makes me think of Epictetus, who said "When difficulty falls on you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough opponent. Why? So that you may become a conqueror. But it is not accomplished without sweat." I'm thankful to be here to struggle, and thankful for family and friends who struggle along with me. And I'm thankful to see this season through my children's eyes, as I find myself both hopeful and fearful for them as they get older.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Collaboration

I've gone to two meetings this week. Both were right in the middle of dinner time, and the one tonight lasted past bedtime. I'm thankful that Matt acts like it's no big thing to handle these on his own.

The meetings I attended this week were meaningful. One was a PTA Board meeting in which we discussed a proposal for a creative, innovative program. Discussion, disagreement, and, even, awkwardness ensued, but, ultimately, we voted unanimously about what the next best thing was.

The second was a focus group related to breast cancer services. I met with some thoughtful service providers and survivors, and we were able to have a candid discussion as well as make connections. The gathering had the potential to be uninteresting and formulaic, but it was anything but. It was really inspiring to meet with a group of people I don't know very well--unlike the PTA meeting, where I knew people really well--yet feel connected with them in a common purpose.

In both meetings, I felt grateful to be part of building something. Not all meetings feel this way, but these two did. This week has been full of reminders of the many connections my family has to our community. My hope is to be a constructive, collaborative participant in whatever group I'm a part of.