If mourning is the outward expression of grief, as seen in the oldy times when families wore black for a certain length of time and abstained from things that might seem irreverent and disrespectful to the memory of the departed, I’m not sure I’ve been doing a good job of mourning.
But that implies that there is a correct way to do things, a right way, a one perfect way, and that’s just not true.
However, we have reached a year since the day mum died, Feb 8, and a year is a milestone that many agree is a reasonable marking of time. I really don’t know why some people only eat cake once a year on their birthdays, but there are many things people do which I don’t understand, so here we are.
The reality is, I am at a loss within this loss. I think that I have been trying navigate grief “properly” but haven’t given myself any room to mourn. That said, I’m for sure guilty of having said, “oh yeah my mum died, but all mums die so I’m fine, really.” I am not fine. I will never be fine. I’m starting to come to terms with fine is a way to describe hair which is thin, or the edge of something. It’s not thick enough to encompass whatever this is.
There was barely enough time to deal with the reality of the thing before the thing was upon us, and while I don’t think anyone can every really be “prepared”, I took on this sort of, be practical now, and be sad/mourn later. Except that grief is liquid and finds a way into the spaces that one didn’t know existed. Like holes in the roof which only make themselves known when it rains. You’d love to fix them, but on good days, the holes aren’t so apparent. Unless one plans to blanket a tarp over the whole damn thing, which my dad tried with our actual roof and it did not work all that well, sometimes it’s necessary to dig down a bit, and fix it properly. But how does one do that when trying to navigate a society where openly discussing death and grief, and even having days where you give yourself permission to do “nothing” are not really given space? Capitalism doesn’t care about your feelings!!! Plus, I’m kind of British so stiff upper lip and all that? But I’m also kind of Irish so sing a bit, wail a bunch, and drink a lot? There has to be a happy medium here somewhere.
When dad got sick, it was this, “oh your father has cancer” thing, and there was no indication as to how long, or how fast, or even how to cope, because he didn’t talk about it and I don’t think he wanted to talk about it. It was like being ambushed by a grotesque that had probably existed in his periphery for so long, he’d become accustomed to it’s presence until it decided to make itself prominent within the frame that encompasses who we are and how we inhabit the world.
We all have a frame. Some are skewed and will never be square no matter how often you try to straighten it. Honestly that is taking for granted that the backdrop is of an even keel, temperament, or what-have-you. Sometimes the frame grows too small, and ideally we have the space, the resources, the support to swap it out for a larger frame, but I think often people spend much of their lives feeling trapped and hemmed in, by their own perceptions as well as any expectations the world might have of them. Sometimes people see their frame as gilt-edged, golden, and sturdy when it’s probably closer to a couple of rulers held together with white glue (which some kids eat, and some kids use to make fake fingerprints without realizing they’ve actually just made an exact representation of their own fingerprint and okay so I probably wouldn’t have made a good spy, let’s leave that for now) and baling wire.
What I’m saying with this, is there is often a disconnect between how we see ourselves, and how the world sees us. The only time it really gets in the way is when we, to put it in a colloquial 70’s parent sort of way, “write cheques our butts can’t cash”. Which just means (if you didn’t grow up with 70’s parents like I did) that you take on more than you’re capable of pulling off. Overextending one’s self, having things fall apart, and blaming those around you for their failing to accommodate your expectations, because you lacked the foresight to understand that Elmer’s glue and baling wire is great for a balsa wood log cabin, but not much else.
And then there’s the flip side, where one is curtailed by their own fear of inadequacy, which is invariably tied to fear of success, I think. Someone once teased me for having fear of success, which at the time made me feel like an idiot, but in hindsight makes him look like a dick. I’ve had jobs where I am one of relatively few truly competent people on the crew. I’m not saying I was surrounded by idiots, but not everyone is equipped for every thing. I had a “manager” who loved the idea of being a manager so much that he didn’t actually end up managing anything, including realistic expectations of what being a manager actually entails. Not a bad human, in a different capacity would have been highly effective, but he was all about the prestige of titles. Unfortunately, the thing that gave him managerial qualities was that he recognized which of the crew the best workers were, and gave them (us) the bulk of the work, knowing that it being done properly would make him look good. Except he broke us while the rest of the crew had it easy, we grew resentful and both quit within a week of each other. And I learned a lesson about not shining too bright or people will take advantage. Which is one aspect of “fear of success.”
What a goddamn terrible thing to learn. Don’t shine. Don’t do as good a job as you know you’re capable of, because people will use that against you. It also put me into this mindset where managers are dicks who didn’t earn it. They don’t know what hard work is. So I knew I never wanted to be “in charge” because by that rationale, I’d be a dick who didn’t earn it. The unseen ripple effect of this sort of thing is devastating. I spent years throwing around the phrase, “I like being a grunt”, which for those who are into tabletop war games (I say that because I have a supercrush on someone who does) that is the equivalent of my saying, “I’m really only good as cannon fodder.”
Right this second, I need a job. Like, fairly desperately. The bookstore hasn’t worked out, and so I need to find something because rent comes due much faster during times of scarcity. My automatic notion was to go back. Go back to working in camps, go back to being a chambermaid, go back to doing what I’ve done before, which is being a grunt, being cannon-fodder, being only that which I have allowed myself to aspire to be, that which I have framed myself as deserving, as being allowed to access.
I don’t want to go back. I want to go forward. I want to use my big brain, my creative spark, my myriad skills. I want to level up, to do work that won’t break my body down, won’t leave me feeling sore and only varying degrees of stable because while min wage almost pays enough to get by, not being able to do anything but tread water is bloody exhausting. I was a synchronized swimmer briefly, I know.
However the gap between stepping back into what I know, and the chasm between leaping forward into something new is well illustrated by the words I’ve used to represent it. I’m applying for jobs alongside people who have degrees and diplomas, and it’s very intimidating. It would be so easy to go back.
What the heck does this have to do with mourning and how we frame ourselves?
A year ago on February 8, my mum died.
About a week before that I had joined a painting party led by a lovely human named Aoife Nally, an incredible Creatrix, Thespian, Muse Extraordinaire.
I didn’t have any paints, but a couple of days before the painting party, I found some brushes and acrylic paints in a small box on the giving bench in my apartment building. It’s where people put things they don’t want anymore. I often leave books, I’ve scored shirts and bookshelves, last time I looked there was a fountain up for grabs, it’s a lovely giving bench. Which sometimes bestows art supplies in a timely fashion.
The box had 4 colours, plus black, white, and silver. I had come across a sketch book at the second hand store and away I went. Anyone who knows me, knows I don’t draw. I don’t paint, I don’t sketch, I don’t have any artistic talent or skill in that medium. And I hated what I did. I don’t think I shared it with the group, I thought awful things about everyone in the group too.
They were all so talented. They were all so good at drawing.
Who the heck did I think I was? I was some idiot who ground scored paints two days before the happening, and didn’t even have proper paper to paint on. As a result, there is much warble in my various drawings, as seen here.
The second one was even worse. We did a World Tree for Spring Equinox, and mine was awful!
So I thought.
I had upgraded a bit, I’d found some paint supplies among Mum’s stuff when Sister and I sorted through it, including water colours and proper paper, but the paper was small so I taped nine squares of it together with electrical tape, it was just a mess. Everyone else had these trees that were arching and sparkly and glorious and mine was a hellish mess of what did you think would happen when you mixed all the colours together? As you can see here.
The result was so much self loathing. I was determined never to join again.
Anyhoo. I’m a masochist so there I was on Beltane, ready for another go. The theme this time was Rude Botanicals and we were drawing a figure in a garden well or something I can’t quite remember, and at some point during the two hours, I stopped caring. There was no reason it had to be perfect. I had no attachment to the outcome because I’m not that sort of artist. I didn’t owe anyone anything. Least of all myself. At the time I told myself that I did a mermaid because I don’t have enough skill to draw legs, okay, whatever you need to hear, dickbrain. Anyone who knows me would probably recognize this is as self-portrait-y as it gets. Major hair goals.
And here is the solar shield we did for the Summer Solstice, complete with my wonky thumb.
A Labyrinth with a rose at the centre for Lughnasadh. This one was especially timely and meaningful for me.
A visit to the Pythia at Delphi for Autumn’s Equinox
The fortune teller’s tent for Samhain;
(that’s my Uncle Bun at my left shoulder, as I was looking in a mirror when I painted it)
The Northern lights and an unexpected Walrus friend at the Winter Solstice
And back around the Brigid and her fire for Imbolc once more, and the circle is complete. As far as it goes, Aoife is doing another year-long painty gathering thing according to the Zodiac starting in March, I’ll get details and update this post with them. They’re always so much fun. I highly recommend.
It’s been so easy for me to look at the year and see all the times when I didn’t get out of bed, feed myself properly, do all the things, but seeing the artistic progression from where I was at a year ago, the tumultuous darkness, self-loathing, and fear I splashed about slowly giving way to a letting go of being attached to perfection and the need to have it look on paper exactly as it does in my head, I see a broader picture of the year, which encompasses all the times I did get out of bed, showed up for myself, did enough of the things to make it count. And I see a broader picture of my own growth.
A re-framing, as it were.
Sometimes I get so locked in to how I think things ‘should’ look, there’s no room for letting them look however they will. I’ve spent a year trying to grieve properly, perfectly, in a genuine way that encompasses the depth and breadth of the love and loss I feel, and feeling bad on days when I don’t, as though I have a finite amount of time to be sad, and if I don’t fit it all in, that’s it.
If Aoife’s wheel of the year painting parties have taught me anything, it’s the beauty there is in being part of the cycle, in recognizing that there are cycles. Which is a lesson I could also take from my very dormant plants I nearly killed this winter by watering them as though it wasn’t hibernating time. Full disclosure, I totally killed some of my plants this winter. But resilience is another lesson the ones I didn’t kill are teaching me.
I don’t want to say, there is time, because no one knows how much time there is, and what you think is another 20 years might only be 6 months, which is in actuality 3 weeks.
But there is a difference between saying, I have time, and taking the time if it’s needed. Between procrastinating or taking on too much out of fear, and recognizing when is the time to rest, and when is the time to act. I’m still learning that, but that’s how this works. We learn, we grow, we learn some more.
I’ve said at the painting parties, that if someone would have told me a year ago that not only would I be sharing my art, but I’d have it on my walls, I’d be posting it on my blog (!!!) for the world to see, I would have said, that will never happen. Because I’m not good at that sort of art.
But there is an art to everything, including being vulnerable, being brave enough to share, being strong enough to let go of any sort of attachment to perfection. If art imitates life, and life is most assuredly not perfect, so why would I have the expectation that art should be so?
And if I had any concerns about the quality of my art, or anything that I do, creating a legacy my mum would be proud of, I would do well to remind myself that she kept my ‘ladybug eating a pizza’ and wonky non-functional ashtray, created nearly 40 years ago, until the day she died.
Things don’t have to be perfect, to be well and truly deserving of love.
I love you….your painting, your words, your emotions and your pizza eating ladybird. You make me laugh, cry, you give me hope. You touch my soul with your words…I know your grief. And your paintings are fucking amazing!