Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | March 3, 2017

“Oh, look! Platitudes!”

“I’ve lived through worse than this, and you will, too.”
These ever-so-helpful words spilled from my mouth, spread like an awful stain.
“Oh, look! Platitudes!” came the instant, bitter retort.
Rightly enough, this brought me up short, made me consider what I had said. It cut me to the quick, but I knew I was wrong. Like most people who utter such beatific nonsense, I had meant to be helpful and supportive, but was, in fact, the exact opposite. In my head, my words made sense. Spoken aloud, echoing out in the air, they were only the hollow jabberings of the clueless.
I know better than this. I know all too well that I can be up to my ass in aphorisms and still be in the depths of despair. Even worse, I know that if someone throws me the kind of leaden life preserver I just tossed out so blithely, my unsolvable problem won’t be any closer to being fixed, and I’ll feel even more alone.
Just that morning I had written to a friend, “I’m so sorry for your loss and for this insult added to such injury. Love is love; pain is pain. Sometimes shutting up is the way to help a grieving friend the most. Not a platitude with “but” tacked onto the end of it.”
This is easier said than done, evidently, despite my best efforts and knowing better. By now everyone has seen this ring theory diagram.
Lovely and simple, it describes the obvious “comfort in, dump out” theory of helping. The problem lies in the center, with larger concentric rings of care around the issue at hand. Those in the inner rings ONLY receive care and love, never the added burden of helping those who try to help. Those in the outer rings may ONLY help, not make the problem worse. The job of those in the outer rings is to offer comfort and succor, or go the hell away. Not offer empty platitudes, not ask nosy questions, not require comforting themselves. You may not be able to make the situation better, much as you may desire, but you may not make it worse.
Link to original article “ How Not To Say The Wrong Thing” here:…
If I’m to divine any meaning at all from the everyday tragedies that have befallen me, I must live my life in such a way as to regret nothing of my behavior later. (Or as little as possible? Nobody’s perfect.) Some days all I can see is strife and pain everywhere I look. I must tweak the box; look through a different lens. I must “look for the helpers.” Look for the connections I know are here. I must show up for my life, show up for the people I love, even when it is sad or uncomfortable or scary. I must love with my eyes wide open, with all my heart. I must be kind. When I drop the ball on kindness, as we all do at times, I must pick it up and play on, redoubling my efforts. Sometimes we can offer the most empathy and support by merely showing up, by being willing to sit there in the darkness and mess, knowing there are problems all the love in the world simply cannot solve. Sometimes all we can do is live through it, one horrible breath at a time. Together.
Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | August 17, 2016

a case of you, and you, and you


“I’m traveling in some vehicle.” I am on the road, listening to Joni Mitchell, of course – as one does, or is that just me? – every road trip a hejira.

We used to drive this oh-so-familiar road as a family of two, then three, then two. Now, long widowed, our child grown, mostly I drive it alone. “I am a woman of heart and mind, with time on her hands, no child to raise.”

This same road trip has split me wide open dozens of times, with its evocative mile markers, its big sky, impossible clouds, its certain slant of light across late-afternoon fields. “A red sun came rolling down a gray sky / and the frogs and dogs and night birds then started up singing sweet country lullabye.”

“So this is how I hide the hurt, as the road leads cursed and charmed.” I sing along to stay awake, and to keep the devils at bay, bellowing at top volume as a baby might “cry it out”. I have certainly seen more than my fair share of crying it out on this smooth stretch of 95 North, as “a prisoner of the fine white lines of the free, free way.”

These days, thank goodness, this road trip is more a three hour singing meditation than self-imposed vocal therapy session. Rarely does a song make me cry, these days. Not to say never. “I met a friend of spirit / He drank and womanized / And I sat before his sanity / I was holding back from crying.”

I’ve sung along to this music for over forty years. I can sing every song, every word, every note. Well, maybe not EVERY note. This IS our cherished, exalted contralto with the unmistakable falsetto, vibrato, and three-octave range, after all.

Each song is a time capsule, reminding me of an era, experience, job, or man. Some songs bring up more than one lover; some lovers bring up more than one song. Husband, partner, beloved, erstwhile-part-time-lover-full-time-friend, or unfulfilled fantasy: there’s a song, a verse, for each of them. “…and, you know, there may be more.”

In her live album Miles of Aisles, between songs Joni chuckles knowingly, self-deprecatingly: “Here, for you folks, are two new love songs, of course. One is very hopeful, and one is a kind of a portrait of a disappointment – my favorite theme.”
Present company excepted – “when I think of your kisses, my mind seesaws.”

Two friends recently discussed their list of long-lost dogs. One used a pithy line with which I concur: “I think I’ve had more dogs than men.”

“I’ll try to keep myself open up to you
That’s a promise that I made to love
When it was new
“Just like Jericho,” I said
“Let these walls come tumbling down”
I said it like I finally found the way
To keep the good feelings alive
I said it like it was something to strive for

I’ll try to keep myself open up to you
It gets easier and easier to do
Just like Jericho
Let these walls come tumbling down now
Let them fall right on the ground
Let all these dogs go running free
The wild and the gentle dogs
Kenneled in me”

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | July 27, 2016

impermanent kingdoms

The nimble oven bird, the dignity of pears,
The simplicity of oars, the imperishable
Engines inside slim fir-seeds, all of these
Hint how much we long for the impermanent
To be permanent. We want the hermit wren
To keep her eggs even during the Storm;
We want eternal oceans. But we are perishable;
Friends, we are salty, impermanent kingdoms.

-Robert Bly, of course, who else could it be? This poem came up in my On This Day in years past Facebook feed today, because of course it did.

Today I am getting lighter and freer, and also getting my ass kicked.
Four strapping lads arrived at 9 am, filled a 20′ truck with furniture, moved it to and arranged it in my new house, ate lunch, filled the truck again with all manner of assorted junk, and have already left for the dump before 1:30. And I’m here alone crying over some random pieces of wood that were planned for something that never got built. Because cancer. Cancer put an end to all that.

That’s the down side. The upside is I never have to go into the barn again. That is beyond major. I’ve been cleaning out Jeff’s workshop for SEVEN YEARS, 20 minutes at a time, crying every. single. damn. time. for! years!
and these guys did it in two hours. And none of them shed even a single tear.

“We long for the impermanent
To be permanent.

We want eternal oceans. But we are perishable;
Friends, we are salty, impermanent kingdoms.”

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | July 18, 2016


Before all this, I was a secular humanist. I believed we did our best here on Earth, died, and went back into the soil for new things to grow upon. Science!
Since my husband died, far too many bizarre, unexplainable things have happened for me to feel completely at ease in this belief anymore.
I KNOW. I know humans’ safety has long depended on perceiving patterns. Our brains are wired to try to make sense of unlikely combinations. Maybe our brains are active to a fault: we sometimes recognize patterns where none exist. I can’t reconcile my belief in scientific rigor with things I have seen, things my body knows that my mind hasn’t fully grasped, the synchronicity of certain events. The more I pay attention, the more I see. In human history, some of what used to be seen as magic, or witchcraft, can now be attributed to our deeper understanding of physics. I am willing to admit we don’t yet know everything.
The morning Jeff died was July 17, 2009, the first hot and sunny day after a string of cold and damp. When the funeral home men arrived to take away his cooling body, Jeff’s sister Karen led me out to the garden, murmuring, “We don’t need to see this.”
In the garden, Jeff’s favorite daylily had chosen that moment to burst into blossom. We’d been noting its progress for days – the chartreuse alien pod rising, swelling, revealing yellow lips in their green sheath. This daylily is a Hemerocallis hybrid named ‘Big Bird’. Apropos that my enormously tall, loose-limbed, gangly husband chose that as his favorite flower. This particular plant was a gift I gave Jeff for a wedding anniversary, a house-warming present of sorts. He’d had ‘Big Bird’ growing at our old house, and we had left it behind when we moved. I bought the plant with my employee discount at the first gardening job I ever had – a first tentative step into what is now my new life, the one in which I am no longer married, and I joyfully make my living doing something I’d never imagined when he was here.
So this daylily had begun to bloom on July 17, 2009. Since then it has thrived: grown and spread. Always blooming in July. Usually on July 17. Last year the first blossom opened on July 16. I always make a point of noticing, appreciating it. I bend down to sniff the offered fragrant cup, breathe in the wafting scent of lemon.
July 16: I inhale the lemon scent, note again the clear yellow petals sun-setting into green throat. I admire its structure: the strong green scapes, graceful nodding leaves. The plant grows by the patio I built after he died, where I entertain with ambitious-menu’d cookouts and cocktails, lazy morning coffees, blankets laid down by the fire pit on starlit nights.
July 16: I breathe deep the fragrance of the flower and go about my day. At bedtime, I am restless. My sleep is terrible. When I awake on July 17, there is the smell of lemon in the bedroom. There are no lemons here.
On July 17 I always take the day off. I always want to be with Anna, our grown child, our only. Her father died the summer she was eighteen, midway between high school and college. When he was clearly dying, I mentioned the idea of her taking some time, perhaps deferring college. She replied, “What am I gonna do, sit around here and be sad?” She’s so much like her dad: artistic, practical, dependable, quiet. There’s not a lot of excess verbiage with this young lady. I often hear of her decisions only after she has independently made them, just as her father was wont to do.
Last summer she moved with her beau into his family’s lakefront camp for the season. The anniversary of her father’s death, July 17, would be the first day I’d visit her there, see her new home, jump with her into the lake. I bought our favorite picnic lunch and hit the road.
July 17: Sitting at a traffic light where the road turns north toward the lakes, I muse about this occasion. The lone parent drives to see the grown daughter’s new digs. She lives with the young man who looks at her the same way her father used to look at me. The look is a slightly bemused, faraway smile lifting the corners of his mouth. He appreciates her intelligence, her humor, her goofy brand of beauty; he can’t believe his good fortune to be with her. This look I recognize well.
I am waiting for my light to turn green. I am thinking of her future, our past, the day the daylily bloomed, all tumbling together in my mind. A pickup truck turns left at the light, crosses in front of me. My focus comes away from inward musing, back to the road. I see, in passing, its vanity license plate.
It reads DAYLILY.
Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | February 4, 2016

smoke ring day

Reminiscent of Neil Young’s
“I went insane / like a smoke ring day / when the wind blows.”
For real. This is me taking a little break from my day. As if typing out my thoughts helps somehow. Except instead of a smoke ring day, it’s more like a fuck!me! day. Ever have those?
“Now I won’t be back til later on, if I do come back at all…”
I have been going through papers, old files, boxes and reams of stuff which “no longer serves”. J’s been gone for over six years now, and I have removed maybe half the volume of stuff that was in this house when he was here. I’ve filled a 40 yard dumpster, taken hundreds of truckloads to the dump, donated dozens more, supported myself for a year on the sale of precious ephemera & etc., and there is still plenty more where that came from. The mind boggles. As much as I would like to blame this on my husband, it seems inappropriate at this juncture. Not here to defend himself…
I am burning handfuls of papers in the wood stove; saying incantations over them.
“Be gone.” “You can’t hurt me any more.” “WHY are you even still here?”
I called my friend Sarah for emergency girlfriend-tech-support. She said, “You think you can do this work for eight hours a day, but that is unrealistic. You totally can’t.”
when I told her how I was powering through a mighty load of crap and came upon my typed-out wedding vows, with our handwritten notes to each other. Suddenly I’m back in spring of 1990, full of hope for the future. Screeching halt, whiplash back to today, aaaaand
I’m done for the day. Gotta go.
That was yesterday. Lots of stuff is easily discarded. Some stuff is clearly to be kept. It’s the in-between stuff that makes this process so exhausting. Some stuff, you just wonder: why are you still here? will I ever need you? which will I regret more: keeping you or throwing you out? I have had the bonus of finding some very sweet photographs and memorabilia I thought were long gone, so there’s that. Silver lining.
Today, I have a messy and tiresome cold, but, fueled by Sarah’s phone call and a large greasy delicious avocado BLT, I spent the morning emptying a simmering file cabinet. It lives in a corner of the attic, glowering at me. I could really use the space for something more current and relevant. I was going along fine, a very productive day. It feels great to get rid of stuff, to open up some breathing room. I have piles to burn, piles to recycle, a large trash bag at the ready.
Til I came upon this. The Tear Stained Letter. I have made mention of this in earlier writings, but I did not remember that there actually was just one such letter. This is it. Jeff wryly named it after a beloved Richard Thompson song. It is so like him to make light of the dire situation in which we found ourselves that year (and for years afterwards, some of which he was here for, but mostly not). I wrote this letter to the financial aid officers at the colleges to which my daughter applied as her father lay dying.
To the casual observer who has not had to do this recently: If you have anything encouraging to say, I advise you to think first about how it will sound once it escapes your mouth and flies to my ears, because by then it will be too late.
I think I’ll go lie down for a while. Thanks for listening.
Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | January 13, 2016


This line, from a NY Times book review, caught my eye:
“All our lives are seamed with tragedies that gleam, like quartz, with petrified beauty.”

There is deep pain in love and loss. Of course. But there’s also pain in being closed off, shutting down, choosing not to be open to possibility and happiness and wonder. In deep grief I chose to lean into pain over numbness, over distraction, over all the ways of keeping it at bay (which don’t even work anyway – drinking and eating and working and shopping and exercise and sex. The pain is still there, waiting to be examined, when you are done with all your exertions. And by you, I mean me.) I don’t want to live there, in pain, but I do believe that the only way out is through. Being in that dark, dark place taught me that to lean into love/pain/love was to heal myself. Eventually.

I will always choose leaning into love, in all its manifestations. Pain being one of them – where there’s no love, there’s no pain.

My mom’s ancient cat died. We know, when we choose a pet, that we are just setting ourselves up for heartbreak down the road. Do we stop? No. Because the joy they bring daily is worth the pain when they go. Or is it? Apparently so, because we welcome Molly, Mom’s new kitty, into the fold. The house was just way too quiet without her.

Love is all there is, in all its many forms. Love has so much to teach us. It cracks our hearts wide open.
Wide the fuck open. Bring it.

Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | January 6, 2016

is, was, is

My husband Jeff’s birthday is, was, is January 6.
Twelfth Night, Feast of the Epiphany, “Little Christmas”, he would chortle, rubbing his hands together gleefully, eyes shining in anticipation.
The last birthday he was here was on a Tuesday. He was too sick to open his presents until Friday. I never got to make the special dinner I had planned for him.
In the bright afternoon of that long-ago Tuesday, we went on one of his favorite outings – we drove to Old Orchard Beach, sat in the car facing the frigid beach, and ate his favorite lunch: pizza slices with crushed red peppers and Pier fries doused with malt vinegar and icy Coke slurped through a paper straw.
I remember feeling restless and wanting to walk on that cold beach, but he was too weak from cancer or chemo or both, so we stayed in the car and rested, the sun glowing golden through my closed eyelids.
Later that afternoon I crouched beside him on our bed, holding his hair in one hand and a basin in the other, as he gave up that pizza and fries. His favorite. He never had them again.
As expected, January 6 is one of the hard days for me now. This is the seventh one since he’s been gone. It doesn’t get easier. Lots of things do, but his birthday is not one of them. In the early days I thought maybe by now I wouldn’t still miss him so much. I was so, so wrong.
This year on January 6 I’m treating myself to a long massage from a dear lady who croons quietly, and anoints me with scented oils, and rubs my body with her strong hands as the sun streams in her window and glows golden through my closed eyelids. I’ll drive south to Old Orchard Beach in search of open space and snowy owls. I’ve got the freedom, time, and inclination to walk miles down that cold beach if I want. I won’t eat pizza and Pier fries, though, probably ever again.
When I was married, we always left the Christmas tree and all the decorations up until after Little Christmas. Now that I am oh-so-single, I kick that green-needled bitch to the curb on New Year’s Day.
I guess all this is just to say, we can never know when or why somebody might be having a hard day, for a million different reasons. I learned this lesson the hard way, and although it is easier said than done, I preach it constantly: Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.
Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | December 2, 2015

like so much smoke…

Last night I dreamed that my Jeff was alive, and planning to leave me. This dream went on and on. He had decided to divorce me because for decades he hated the way I picked up the messy room and put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket. (!) He’d been planning to go for a while and finally couldn’t take another minute. I was astounded. Crushed, broken! Then pissed. I said to him:
“After all I’ve been through for you, this is what happens?!”
and burst into tears. This referring to the years since he died, all that pain, all the heartache, so many years of complicated grief, clinical depression, utter disability. Even in sleep, deep in dream, I knew this was absurd. It was such jangled ill-logic I woke myself up, sweating, sheets tangled.
I had dreamed about him the night before, too.
Another chapters, hours long dream that drifted away like so much smoke as I was trying to capture it in a notebook upon awakening.
This after dreaming of him maybe once a year.
He’s been gone six plus years.
My life is pretty good now, after a long, long time of NOT. I am once again a (mostly) fully-functioning adult human woman. I can work and pay my bills (on time, even!); I can feed myself and run a household; the brain fog of early widowhood has mostly dissipated; I no longer feel I am a danger to myself or others when I drive. Occasionally I sleep through a whole night. Not often, but sometimes. The drinking is largely under control, and I usually do not have to rush out of the grocery store empty-handed and in tears any more. Most grieving people could tell you they face these and other trials.
I feel a little unsettled right now with various aspects of this new life, but it’s nothing tragic. Of course, it’s coming on Christmas (they’re cutting down trees), and his birthday is in early January, but aside from that, there’s no particular anniversary or other trigger that might bring about these unsettling dreams of my long lost love.
“What the hell, baby?”
Is what I would say to him.
If he were here.
Which, of course, he is not.
Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | November 28, 2015


Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 9.57.22 AM

Turkey stock is simmering fragrantly, fire is glowing merrily in the wood stove, and my girl is ensconced under a comforter with her laptop and kitten. Outwardly all around us is a peaceful haven.

But last night the world lost an important puzzle piece. Suddenly lost a man who held many other pieces together, bravely and quietly, without ever drawing attention to himself or saying a word. He was a linchpin, a keystone upon which many people depend. His family is immeasurably poorer today for this loss which echoes outward like a ripple

“in still water/ when there is no pebble tossed/ nor wind to blow”.

Damn, a hushed standing-room-only crowd sang along to this verse just last week: a funeral which all wished there was no need to attend. Is there no end to this? Of course we know there is not, until it’s our turn to go. Some of us will be lucky enough to die as we lived. This is such a man.

Right now it’s hard to imagine how the family can go on with this gaping hole in the center. They will, because that’s what people do, somehow, against all odds. How on earth they will manage without him, it is far too early to say.

But if your world was not rocked by something unimaginable last night, something no one saw coming, if you didn’t have an unexpected phone call or police knocking at the door, consider yourself even more fortunate than ever. Then say a little prayer for your family and another for this other family who has to figure out a whole new way to live this morning. Namaste all. Blessings and much love to the family. Safe travels, Charlie.


Posted by: carolyn / through a widow's eyes | November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving, past and present

They told me you just can’t predict what the triggers will be.

First weekend of November: at the theater, contentedly waiting in the buzzing capacity crowd for the play to begin, I was suddenly stricken by the sight of a play program advertisement for a gourmet cheese shop that my husband Jeff, now gone from us, wanted to patronize before what was to be his last Thanksgiving. Ever the gracious host, he wanted the best for our gathering. After the last treatment of his first 12 chemo cycles, we stopped in and spent a lovely hour there, tasting samples and chatting with the friendly staff, buying a few tidbits and promising to return the following week. We never did get back there.

In moving my suddenly, inexplicably tear-filled gaze away from the painful printed ad, my eyes were distracted by a gentle motion a few rows ahead. It was the hand of a woman, idly stroking her mate’s neck and shoulders, which were clad in a shirt just like one Jeff used to wear. Oh, it is ever thus! I cry over the strangest things, but the constant is the crying. My friends and family now are quite used to the sight and know it is fine to avert their eyes and continue the conversation, or give me a friendly squeeze, and it will be over soon enough, until next time. Someday these episodes will spread out, and fade, and then eventually will come the day we will say, boy, remember back when we used to cry over stuff like this!

I guess in my heart of hearts, I knew last Thanksgiving that he would not be here this year. I worked so very hard to make a lovely day for him and for all of us gathered together that day, and by all measures, succeeded in that effort. This year my girl Anna and I will drive over the river and through the woods to the welcoming home of the last remaining Flanagan, his sister Karen, who was with us the last week of Jeff’s life. I don’t know what I would have done, how we would have coped, without her here, and we are now as close as any friends or sisters could ever be. Indeed she and Anna and I did walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and we did come out the other side, and we will never be the same.

I have never been more grateful, more aware of every blessing and tiny scrap of kindness and grace, both accidental (perhaps a sunset or a flock of birds) and purposeful (any number of examples from any number of people near and far). The kindness of other people is making me a better person than I ever would have been without this. And whether or not this makes me a sap, I wish fervently for everyone to notice their own moments of beauty and goodness that their own worlds contain. Before Thanksgiving, in time to be properly grateful for your own pieces of wonder and grace. I will end this musing with a favorite quote of my brother’s, from Kurt Vonnegut:

“God damn it, babies, you’ve got to be kind!”

C. Stephens, November 2009

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