I held some strong convictions when I was young. I just knew what I knew was true because, well, “when you know, you know,” right? But I didn’t know what I didn’t know. For most of us, we often miss the realization that we actually don’t know. Until we’re knocked loose from those dearly held certainties, that is, and not always gently.
Around age 28, life provided me plenty of jolts to rumble the foundation I’d built, one I was sure was rock solid. I’d left the Mormon church. And my marriage. The shockwaves were severe enough to send many of my beliefs toppling ass over teakettle and smashing to bits on the ground.
When you know, you know . . . until you don’t
As I sifted through the ruins, a quieter knowing whispered an invitation–to open up to possibilities I’d never contemplated before. The transition was painful. But the accompanying shift in perspective was ecstatically liberating, rendering me free to re-imagine my values. What did I know? And how? It is humbling, startling even, to consider that knowledge can be malleable, transforming as we ourselves metamorphose.
Albert Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know,” echoing the Socratic paradox, “I know that I know nothing.”
A few years before she died, my mother wrote me an email. “I think the upshot for me is I am second guessing every decision I have ever made.” A sad confession I thought at the time. Now, I think perhaps a natural conclusion to reach at the end of a life.
I know that I know nothing
This evening, I sat on my back patio writing. The sun shone brilliantly as it moved on its path toward the horizon. After a long and rainy mid-Missouri spring, the warmth caressed my skin like a promise, or maybe the memory of a promise. As tender as the breeze, hope softly, shyly re-emerged after lying dormant for so very long.
I’d been working all day on my memoir, Death, Rock Me Asleep, momentum carrying me finally, FINALLY! hurtling toward the finish, a place I could never quite see, but trusted would be there when I arrived. It’s close. Really close.
As I revised a passage in the last chapter describing the finite nature of Mom’s life, the words welled up from the screen with visceral meaning and, without warning, I began weeping. The sting of loss can still pierce so sharply and unexpectedly, it takes my breath away, no matter how the years go by.
But . . . mixed with grief was the euphoric thought of just how close this project is to completion. “I’m almost done. I’m almost done,” I chanted in my mind. And instantaneously, my neurotransmitters shot out another thought, “And it’s good! It’s good! It’s going to be good!” In this visionary moment I could clearly see the next steps in birthing my memoir.
Knowledge is malleable
All of this is great, but it’s not the greatest thing. No, the most stunning, magical thing is this: Immediately after these phrases chimed through my head–”I’m almost done, it’s going to be good!”–through my earbuds, from Pandora, I heard the opening notes of Claire de Lune by Claude Debussy. It’s my signature piece, the one I rehearsed and performed over and over as an adolescent pianist, obsessed and in love with playing. In other words, “my song.”
This isn’t the first case of Claire de Lune showing up. Many times since Mom died, the classical masterpiece served as a lyrical soundtrack. In public, at restaurants and bookstores and airports, in the car from XM radio, at home on Spotify or Pandora or a TV show. Always at perfectly poignant moments, always in unmistakable affirmation of my writing success.
I’m second guessing every decision I ever made
As Truvy Jones, aka Dolly Parton said in Steel Magnolias, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” Through a fresh sob, I laughed out loud with incredulity. I looked around, as if I could catch sight of my mom.
I feel deeply there’s more to us than these mere physical bodies, than this earthly plane. But sometimes I think, “How can we know for sure?” Yet, if I question life after death, my mother continues to dare me to not believe with her well-timed, insistent taps on the shoulder.
And if she is working from the other side to help me bring my story to the world, there is no door she cannot open, no obstacle she can’t overcome. If she’s pulling strings and nudging the right people across my path, I have no doubt this book will not only be published, but make its way into the hands of readers who might not know what they don’t know. Yet.
Binge watching TV, a pastime for which I previously had little time, and a guilty pleasure I’m loathe to acknowledge, has opened a portal for me during the pandemic, a passageway to another world. Once Upon a Time has been my alternate realm (except for the period I resided within the universe of Schitt’s Creek—almost completely comprised of two adjoining motel rooms–where I voraciously gobbled up all six seasons, the final episode leaving me a sobbing mess in disbelief that it ever was allowed to end).
Contemplative by nature, the isolation of this COVID year has forced constant and not always welcome introspection. Magnetically drawn to the tales of Storybooke, the fictional town inhabited by intersecting celebrities of the make-believe power set (and not just characters from the Brothers Grimm, mind you, but also those of C.S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum, and the numerous Disney creators of Mulan, Jasmine, and Anna and Elsa), I’ve been intrigued by my own intrigue. I have always loved stories, but why such attraction to these fairy tales and their creative twists? Magic, true love, mystical powers, light in the dark, good versus evil, the epic tales contain the stuff of classic yarns. A harmless escape into fantasy, I decided it was. A much needed exit from the chaos of this reality into the multiverse of the Enchanted Forest. A rising hero, a vanquished villain, a happy ending, the clear cinematic themes provided structure. Closure. There’s something satisfying in watching the formulaic saga repeat itself: Innocents, the undeserving victims of circumstance are trapped under a curse cast by a malevolent force seeking to retain brutal control by exerting their powers. Dire straits intensify until certain doom awaits and all hope is lost. Or is it? Because in that precise moment the miracles occur, triumph at the last moment by an unforeseeable savior. A potion, a spell, a token. True love’s kiss. No matter how dark, light always prevails. Love wins the day.
There’s something satisfying in the formulaic saga.
I thought perhaps I’ve been charmed by the childish simplicity. Real life isn’t so black and white. Upon a closer look, however, I saw that neither is life in that pretend place. When peeling back the layers of vile atrocity, no matter how black the heart, no scoundrel began their sojourn as such. Pain, abandonment, betrayal–these drive the bad guy’s blood lust for revenge and destruction. Moral devastation amplifies their rage aimed at those who have what is desired but remains out of reach. And even the good guys sometimes succumb to hopelessness or jealousy. They, too, can lose their way, pouring gasoline on the fire in their fight for justice, learning that the end cannot justify the means. I think even children can tease out the truths embedded in these stories. Especially children.
Maybe my deep dive into the fairytale world isn’t just escapism. Maybe it’s a way for me to process what I’m seeing around me: the age-old struggle of humankind for equity, collectively caught in a violent tug-of-war, “others,” perceived as enemies, dominated and killed. The battle for the soul of humanity is still happening today. For all the advances of technology, in the Information Age, we’re not much different than in the Dark Ages, when kings hoarded wealth and peasants starved. When the elite few sustained their power by climbing on the backs of the working masses.
Even children can tease out the truths in these stories.
I feel in my bones, though, the longing to evolve, to purge ourselves of ugliness and petty, selfish greed, to emerge outside the rigidity of our own thinking into a collaborative, peaceful co-existence. But how do we get from here to there? I suppose the answer lies within each heart and mind. In every choice. As we co-create the world around us, moment by moment, this synergy of choice operates on free will. And like the characters in Storybrooke, we all possess both lightness and darkness. At any given intersection, the possibility exists to take a different fork in the road.
Even then, happy endings aren’t static. They don’t last forever–that was never the point. As perfect as they might feel, our happily-ever-afters burn bright only for a season. Life is transient. For better or worse. In sickness and in health. The afterlife notwithstanding, the physical limitations of our kingdom on earth offer the inevitable exchange of heartache for the gift of having loved in real time. For every summer, there is a winter. The leaves turn. The snow falls and signals the chapter’s end. And life waits patiently, dormantly, until it renews itself in spring and a new chapter begins.
Our happily-ever-afters burn bright only for a season.
My Auntie Gwen reached the apex of her winter last week and arrived at the end of her story. She was ready, she told me, at peace. “I’m so looking forward to seeing my mom,” she said. ”And Jesus.”
Aunt Gwen is the third of four siblings now gone. My mother, Pat, died five years ago, and their older brother, J.W., back in 1948 when he was only 10. My Grammy and Grampy, Katie and John, died in 1998 and 1990 respectively. Only Auntie Dee remains earthbound. For now. The family history is written in letters and journals and essays. It’s preserved in my DNA. It lives in my memories, passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions like the one that begins, “Once upon a time, not so long ago and not so far away, there lived a Little Old Man and a Little Old Woman and their Little Dog Turpy in a Little Old House by the field where the hemp stalks grew.” I clutch at a past that’s slipping away to die with those who lived it. Perhaps this is why I am compelled to take up the pen and tell their stories.
Katherine Gwen Lyman was born in Bozeman, Montana on May 14, 1946 and grew up in Wallowa, Oregon. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Social Welfare and a Master’s in Special Education and School Counseling, she spent her career as a beloved teacher of students with disabilities. An avid vegetarian and lover of birds and wildlife and flowers, she was never without a feline companion. Auntie Gwen was my first musical influence, pulling me into her lap to sing as she played the piano. I watched her fingers trill on her delicate flute, amazed and enthralled at the beauty of her embouchure.
This is why I am compelled to tell their stories.
She was a free spirit, a true bohemian, with long, sleek hair and John Lennon glasses, favoring embroidered tunics and leather sandals. With no make up, no fingernail polish, and no shaved underarms, she seemed exotic to my church girl sensibilities, just wild enough. Once Mom drove us south from Phoenix to Tucson to vist her adobe cottage in the middle of the desert. When she didn’t answer we went around to the back to peer in a curtain-less window. And there she was, sitting in Sukhasana (cross-legged) on her meditation cushion, eyes closed, face serene. Completely nude.
We visited her when she lived in Eugene and Seattle and San Francisco, though not in Hilo, Hawaii where she married a gentle bearded man named Guha. They both wore long, native leis, a symbol of their love, over white muslin. His easy-going ways tempered her high energy, and they lived their bliss for a time before parting ways. Later, she lopped off her hair in an asymmetrical cut that became her signature style, short enough to showcase the long beaded earrings she’d made herself. There would only be one more love, though they never wed. Joel, another beautiful man, this one with olive skin and dark curls brushed with silver, was mellow and generous. Another uncle to cherish. But again, only for a time.
Auntie Gwen lived alone after that, but she was rarely lonely, filling her time with friends and family and travel with her widowed mother. She adored her nieces and nephews and loved watching us grow up. She endured her share of physical challenges, an aneurysm that left her without the sense of smell, breast cancer, knee surgery, chronic back pain. But these ailments never dampened her joie de vivre. She was a true optimist with an effervescent smile that lifted right up into her twinkling eyes as if to say, “Isn’t it great, this life we’re living?”
She told me my mother always accused her of being a “Pollyanna,” the caricature imbued with excessive cheerfulness and based on the heroine in a book of the same name, authored by Eleanor Porter in 1913. Pollyanna was brought to life on the big screen in 1960, with Hayley Mills playing the irrepressibly sunny orphan. A nearly life-sized doll with a dimpled grin and blond curls, wearing a gingham dress and MaryJanes was launched on the retail market to coincide with the Disney film. Either my mom or Gwen owned one because we found it, sitting upright in a corner, green eyes staring, when cleaning out my Grammy’s house after she died. My bet is on Auntie Gwen.
“Isn’t it great, this life we’re living?”
In her own defense she’d said, “What’s wrong with that? I like seeing the up side of things.” I admit, I myself am slightly suspicious of those with unyielding positivity. But of all her eccentric idiosyncrasies, because of (or maybe even in spite of) an inherently strong personality—a trademark feature of all the women in my family, I find Auntie Gwen’s rejection of gloom admirable. Something I will always seek to emulate. After all, it was her steady stream of buoyancy that kept her afloat her whole life.
She died comfortably and peacefully in her home on Friday, January 8, 2021, surrounded by love, my brother holding one hand and her dear friend, the other. My sisters and I held her in our hearts from miles and miles away. Our goodbye, like too much of this past year, was remote. On Zoom. Auntie Gwen promised if we would hang bells, she would ring them. With quivering chins and welling eyes, we promised to hang them and watch for the sound of her eternal optimism, an omen of her tangible presence and a spark of magic in our ordinary days. And a reminder that “not so long ago and not so far away” a new story has begun.
*Reading given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia, online, August 9, 2020
“Always have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”
In what do I place my trust? This profound, existential question is, for an inherently trusting person, difficult to quantify. Before the pandemic, I trusted my alarm to go off, my car to start, and my phone to keep me on task. I trusted there would be money in the bank, food in the fridge, and job security for my partner and myself. From the sturdiness of my home and the safety of my Midwestern burg, I trusted the sun to rise and set on another ordinary day.
There are moments when the veil seems almost to lift, and we understand what the earth is meant to mean to us — the trees in their docility, the hills in their patience, the flowers and the vines in their wild, sweet vitality. Then the Word is within us, and the Book is put away.
Mary Oliver, The Veil
They called her Barbie, an apt moniker for her given name. A real-live Barbie doll, she was tall, gorgeous, voluptuous, blonde. But she also carried herself with the elegance of a Barbara. Moviestar glamour. Dressed to the nines and turning heads. She made you feel important when she bestowed her attention on you. She was all yours. Her eyes held an almost mischievous twinkle, while her gorgeous, wide-mouthed smile lifted on one side only. Her laugh was sensuous, subtle.
Dad emailed on Monday.
“Good morning, kids. Our dear Barbie passed through the veil last night about 9:15 pm Seattle time. She never woke up again since she went to sleep Thursday evening. It was a very blessed and peaceful passing. No more pain and trauma to her little body.”
Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in
“Be careful what you wish for,” my mother used to say.
“You just might get it.” A wise woman, whose words I often disregarded when she was alive, her advice has been on my mind a lot lately.
Time, as we experience it on this plane–as we have all agreed, is linear. A steadily-paced constant. Yet I know I’m not alone in the perception of its acceleration. In recent years I’ve felt more and more like a hamster on its wheel, running frenetically in a perpetual, never-ending race. My days consisted of rushing to commitments, appointments, and activities packed into an impossibly tight schedule and coordinating the inherent overlapping and conflicting logistics of the same. Fueled by a bottomless to-do list, my go-mode was switched to “over-drive” nearly 24/7.
Until March 15th, that is. Before that fateful date, I ran myself ragged trying to keep up, all the while complaining about being too busy.
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, and the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
I read once that Canadian geese are monogamous, that most couples stay together all their lives. Considering the brutality of life in this wild world, I find that to be an inspiring example of devotion, applicable to the human condition, particularly in our postmodern reality.
My husband and I have, on day 13 of the COVID-19 quarantine, brought our two goslings out to the country for a change of scenery. This is our fourth spring out at the farm. Well, that’s what we call it. Although we raise no livestock nor harvest any crops, we christened our 22 acres in the rolling countryside of Steedman, Missouri “the farm.”
I went to church this morning—on my couch. A dutiful daughter, I spent the first half of my life in religious prostration, and then I left. But detachment from dogma meant disconnect from community and I wandered, people-less into my middle-age. In recent years, I sometimes sat, shyly, noncommittally, on the back row of a new church I discovered, an un-church. The Unitarian Universalists.
The UU church, nurturing spirit and service, brings a solace of words and music and familiar faces to my living room via Zoom on this second Sunday of social distancing. Congregants come like moths to the chalice flame. Greetings scroll up from the chat box as joiners bask in the warmth of shared hearts and minds, if not bodies.
The older I get, the more I’m drawn homeward. When the weather turns cold, my craving for soup on the stove, a fire in the hearth, and time to knit begs to be slaked. Chilly temps find me cruising arts and crafts stores, feasting on colors and textures of yarn, imagining new projects. Winter sends me digging for my stash.
On hands and knees with the bedspread flipped up, driven by this seasonal hunger, I drag out from under my bed baskets and totes of knitting supplies, including fifty years of my mother’s accumulation I inherited after she died. Unlike my messy stockpile, hers is meticulously organized: stitch holders, markers, and gauge rulers, and dozens of pairs of needles—aluminum, plastic, wooden, double point, circular—all collated by size and neatly labeled. Her handwriting mark the pages of dog-eared pattern books dated back to the 1950s. Unused skeins of expensive alpaca wool leave me to wonder at her unfulfilled intentions.
In the hush of the hotel room I hear cars rushing by on the busy interstate. Above the hum of the fan, a far-off siren rises and recedes. It’s late. My teenage daughters make their cozy bed on the pullout in the other room. Their noisy whispers taper to silence then morph into the breathy sounds of sleep. Cocooned in the quiet, I listen to the rise and fall.
My husband and I detach for the moment, suspended between their sleep and ours. We recline on crisp white sheets, he with his phone, and me, my laptop. Time seems to stop, or perhaps I’m just willing it to. Shutting off his phone, my husband rolls over and reaches for the lamp. “Goodnight, honey,” he says. “Don’t stay up too late.”
In the dark, a glow emanates from my computer screen. I remove my reading glasses and rub my temples. I can’t give in. Not yet. Facing down the night, I try to stretch the hours until morning when my 31-year-old daughter will undergo a double mastectomy.
It’s late December, only days to Christmas. The kids are out of school and it’s dark already at 4:30 pm. All the lights burn in the kitchen where my husband is busy making sugar cookies with our girls. Flour dusts the counters and floors. A delicious aroma fills the house. I’ve got work emails to tackle, but I’m doing it reclined on the couch while listening to Christmas music. Our eclectic albums are on shuffle. iTunes creates the playlist pleasantly playing in the background until the opening phrase of Happy Xmas catches my ear.
“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.”
The unmistakable timbre of John Lennon’s voice causes me to pause. I close my eyes to listen. Such a familiar, comforting melody.
Lisa Pullen Kent is a writer, yoga teacher, musician, and passionate lover of people. She writes on parenting, marriage and the sacredness of the ordinary in everyday life. She lives in Columbia, Missouri with her husband and their two youngest children, one of whom has Down syndrome.