Are You Paying Attention?
Our circumstances change and so do we. The trick, I’m finding, is to pay attention to when a door closes…for perhaps it is only when we truly accept that, can a new one open.
In November 2009, I gave a presentation called Wake Up to Your Dreams to a group of writers about my experience of writing my first book, A Widow’s Awakening. After I had finished speaking, a man asked me to explain in more detail about the ‘awakening’ process…“Because so many people,” he said, “seem to be sound asleep.”
I paused a moment before answering, thinking how best to articulate my perspective on the concept of awakening.
“The day after my husband died,” I said, “I remember noticing how slowly my parents seemed to be speaking to me. In fact, right from the moment I was told of my husband’s fall, it felt like I was functioning on a different level than everyone else…almost as if the shock of his imminent death had launched me into a heightened state of awareness.”
The man who’d posed the question nodded, so I continued. “I remember being really irritated with people in those first few days. It was as if my soul inherently understood the significance of my husband’s death – but everyone else around me just seemed stunned. I felt like screaming, ‘Pay attention to this!’ And it became clear to me very quickly that I had to write a book about the experience.”
“So do you think people need a tragedy, or something really significant, to wake them up,” he asked, “particularly in regards to the importance of pursuing their dreams?”
“No,” I said. “I think there are plenty of people living their dreams simply because they chose to do so and then took the necessary steps to achieve their goals – rather than being forced to do so after experiencing some tremendous loss, tragedy or life-altering event.”
The man shook his head. “I don’t agree. I think most people need a pretty loud wake-up call. It seems to me the vast majority of people are so asleep that they aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around them…or in them.”
In hindsight, I can hear the angels laughing.
For the very next day I got another powerful wake-up call that hurt like the dickens…but it wasn’t in the form of a tragedy. At least, not a real one.
It was a play.
I’m really starting to suspect the universe communicates to us through the mediums that will have the best chance of catching our attention. As a playwright and lover of the theatre, it makes sense that it would be a play that instigated a major life decision.
Maybe it’s a little like listening to the radio…we tend to listen to certain stations, so although we may flip between two or three different ones, the universe likely won’t send us an important news bulletin on a station we never listen to.
At any rate, the play was about a twelve year old girl hiding out in the boiler room of her junior high school. It was a one-act, one-woman play where the actress played four different characters: the twelve year old girl whose parents were recently divorced, the school janitor, the girl’s grandpa and the new wife of the girl’s dad.
The actress playing the four characters put on different masks and outfits and changed her voice and behaviour to convey which character she was, at any given moment. And isn’t THAT a metaphor for how we often live our lives?!
Anyway, about two thirds of the way through the play, the girl was so distraught that she was screaming at us – the audience – about her dreadful experience over the weekend of having to go to her dad’s wedding. She had a ruler in her hand and was waving it at us, as she got angrier and angrier explaining the humiliation of having to wear this horrible dress with a huge bow on her bum.
I howled with laughter at this image. But something didn’t feel quite right. I mean, although I was laughing out loud, it felt as if a whole bunch of emotion was…stuck behind my eyes, in the best way I can explain it.
Then the girl went on to say, through tears, how livid she was at her dad for leaving their family and how lonely her mother would be now and how she wouldn’t get to see her dad very much anymore and how he obviously didn’t care about her feelings…
I wasn’t laughing anymore. I was bawling – and scarcely stopped for two days.
A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
– Franz Kafka
In my case, the axe was a play.
When the performance ended, you could’ve heard a pin drop in that theatre. I wasn’t the only one impacted. I turned to my mom in the seat beside me. She took one look at the tears streaming down my face.
“What have I done?!” she cried. “Look how hurt you still are over the divorce! What could I have done better? That damn father of yours!”
“Mom,” I said, “let’s go get something to eat.”
My parents divorced when I was six. My dad remarried a couple of years later. The catch was how he told me the news: he picked me up one day and casually announced, over his shoulder to me in the back seat of the car, that he’d got married over the weekend.
Thanks for the invite.
“You cried for days,” my mom told me over dinner after the play. “You were so upset that my boss sent me home from work to care for you.”
I didn’t remember that.
I do know my dad didn’t intend to hurt me. He just made the best decision he could at the time. But looking back on the incident now, I think the best word to describe his behaviour is: indifference.
And I guess I’d buried the pain resulting from that indifference – until an annoyingly effective play brought it to the surface.
After dinner, I went home and cried some more. Although my dad lived with me at the time, he happened to be away that week – which was probably a good thing.
The next morning, I woke up feeling significantly better about that matter, having cried it out of my system. But then I proceeded to start crying again.
“Oh for Heaven’s sakes,” I snapped at the fireplace, “now what’s the problem?”
And in my imagination, I heard a tiny voice whisper, “You can move on now.”
“WHAT?” I yelled.
“IT’S TIME TO MOVE ON!” the voice in my head yelled back, tired of the gentle approach. “YOU ARE DONE HERE. YOU HAVE DEALT WITH ALL YOU NEEDED TO AND NOW YOU CAN LEAVE.”
I looked around my familiar living room with new eyes. Why am I still living in the same neighbourhood I grew up in? In the same house my husband and I bought? I am a 41 year old widow living with my father in a big city in the prairies. Is this what I signed up for?
For the short term, yes…but now that chapter was coming to a close.
My dad had moved in three years ago and had been a tremendous help to me with my home, yard and dogs during a period when I had a lot of other demands on my time.
So, as I continued to cry my way through that Sunday morning, I realized that even though it had taken my dad thirty-five years to come back to me, in his own way he had…when I needed him most.
I guess dislodging all this childhood stuff must have made room for a long-buried dream to bubble to the surface because my next thought wasn’t about the past. It was about my future. And, for the first time since Saturday afternoon, I smiled.
A couple of hours later, I called my mom. “I’m moving to the coast,” I said. “At long last, I’m gonna be a writer by the sea.”
I told her the details I’d worked out so far, including selling my home in the spring.
“Why don’t you just rent it out,” she suggested. “In case you change your mind.”
“Because I’m a widow and my husband’s not coming back,” I heard myself say. “I live in a house for a family and I’m obviously not having one. So why would I want to keep the door open to a life that was slammed shut nearly a decade ago?”
Silence. Then, my mom said softly, “You’re right.”
“I know I am.”
“What about your dad?” she asked. “Where will he go?”
“He’ll be fine,” I assured her. “We’ll find him a new place to live.”
Three months later, my dad moved into his own digs, happy as a clam to be on his own again. Three months after that, I sold my home and moved to a cute little bungalow by the sea.
All because of a play…sure glad I was paying attention.
Maryanne Pope is a playwright, screenwriter and the author of A Widow’s Awakening. Maryanne’s next book, Barrier Removed; A Tough Love Guide to Achieving Your Dreams will be released in Sept 2012. She is the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions Inc and the Board Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund.
A Special Message for Mother’s Day
By Maryanne Pope
“Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweetcorn and flowers, through sports, music and books, and raising kids – all the places where the gravy soaks in and the grace shines through.”
— Garrison Keillor
Sunday May 13th, 2012
I know it’s not a Monday (the day of the week the Mothering Matters blog goes out) but we couldn’t let Mother’s Day slip by without a mention!
For me, today is a special day because it would’ve been my husband John’s 44th birthday. So I reckon I have two choices on how to view today:
1) As a double-loss. John is no longer here to wish Happy Birthday to. Nor do I have a child to celebrate Mother’s Day with – partly by choice and partly by circumstance, as the result of being widowed at 32.
2) With gratitude for all that I do have – and have had – in my life.
In reality, I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum over the past few days. I had a good cry the other night and allowed myself to acknowledge how much I still miss him – and to mourn the loss of the life we might have had together.
So, as per the advice in Mitch Albom’s beautiful book, Tuesday’s with Morrie, I stopped and turned to face my feelings. I chose to honour the hurt by letting it make its way to the surface.
I felt it. I expressed it through my tears. Then I let it go…and got back to the regularly scheduled program of viewing my life with gratitude for all that I have — versus dwelling on what I don’t.
For many women, Mother’s Day isn’t a celebration; it’s a minefield…a day to simply try and make it through with a minimum number of meltdowns.
Today, I send out a special prayer to John’s mom — a double-whammy for her — and to all women who have lost a child… or wanted children but didn’t have the opportunity to have them in their life.
I’m also thinking today of all the women whose own mom’s are no longer here.
My mom is 86 now and, I’m pleased to report, finally transforming from a sharp-tongued tiger into a sweet little old lady!
For all those moms out there – traditional and otherwise – we wish you a wonderful day! Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing and whoever you’re with, may the gravy soak in and the grace shine through.
As for me, I’ll be spending the day with my fluffy four-legged friend, Soda, and my Victoria adopted-family
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening, the Board Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund and the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions Inc. Mothering Matters is a bi-weekly blog series that explores a variety of motherhood and mothering-related topics, issues and perspectives. Please click here to subscribe.
The Chick in the Road
In the fall of 2010, I gave a presentation entitled, Behind the Scenes; A Grief Deconstructed, at a police-based victim services conference in British Columbia. In this particular presentation, I go into detail about the psychological, emotional and spiritual components of my experience grieving the death of my husband, John, a police officer.
After my presentation in BC, an RCMP officer came up and shared his story with me. His teenage daughter had been struck and killed by a car as she was crossing the street at a pedestrian cross-walk. He was devastated. But he went on to explain how a police Chaplain had helped him in the days and weeks following his daughter’s death.
“I felt like a helpless little chick in the middle of Oak Street,” the officer told me. “I was terrified and didn’t know what to do. Then the Chaplain came along and through his kindness, it was almost as if he…gently picked me up and took me to safety at the side of the road.”
And it struck me: this is what people who work with victims do…they support strangers during the most horrific moments of their lives. And even though they can’t even begin to make anything okay again, they can be there for people during their greatest time of need. And this presence can be a tremendous gift.
During my time of greatest need, I didn’t meet any victim services volunteers. Instead, I had an amazing support network of family, friends, police officers and chaplains surrounding me. Heck, I wasn’t just moved off the road; I was picked up and put in a safe little nest with dozens of protective mother hens guarding it!
I was very blessed.
For the purpose of this blog, however, two of my “chick safe-keepers” in particular stand out.
The first was my brother, George. After spending seventeen hours with John in the ICU, the time came for me to say goodbye when an operating room became available for his organ removal surgery. The medical staff wheeled John’s hospital bed from the ICU into the operating room – and I’d followed him through the halls and right into the OR.
After saying my final goodbye, I left the OR and went back into the hallway, where dozens of people were waiting. I started to thank everyone for staying when George shook his head, took my arm and quietly said, “That’s enough for today, Maryanne.”
He was right.
But when we are in times of crisis, we often don’t KNOW when enough is enough. We’ve lost all perspective because suddenly there is no normal. And it is up to the people around us – be that family, friends, colleagues, professionals or strangers – to have the courage and compassion to remove us from a situation we no longer need to be in.
In the weeks that followed, my brother Doug became the chief safe-keeper of the chick. He was the mother hen of all the other mother hens. Doug fed me, watered me, put me to bed, dragged me out of bed, listened to me, answered my questions, fielded the dozens of phone calls, kept me on track meeting all the lousy new obligations my days held…funeral arrangements, choosing a headstone, meeting with lawyers and so on.
Fast forward a decade to my Behind the Scenes presentation at the victim services conference in BC. I knew then that the time would come when I would no longer be giving these presentations. By continually dredging up a painful past for the sole benefit of others, I was inadvertently keeping myself in baby-chick-mode: safe but stuck.
For although it may seem safer to stay in a situation we have outgrown – and is no longer healthy – versus finding the courage to change, the reality is that we are actually at risk of a fate worse than death, in my opinion: perceiving ourselves as a victim.
But the RCMP officer’s ‘chick in the road’ analogy gave me an idea. The next time I gave my Behind the Scenes presentation, I would incorporate his story to demonstrate the incredibly important role that people working in victim services play. I would also have my presentation professionally filmed and put on a DVD for educational use by victim services units.
My intended audience could still hear my presentation – it just wouldn’t be live.
Then I took it a step further and decided to create a Behind the Scenes “info kit” that will have the DVD, a copy of my book, A Widow’s Awakening, and one other item to complete the chick theme.
Back when John and I were in our early twenties and he was writing the different exams required to become a police officer, I gave him a “warm fuzzy” – a fluffy little yellow chick with cardboard feet and googly eyes. And with the chick was this little note I’d written for him:
This warm fuzzy will give you luck in your exam. Whenever you get nervous or worried, just remember he is in your pocket to remind you of our love.
Unbeknownst to me, John had kept that little fuzzy with him all those years. He had it in his duty bag the night he died. It was in the police car. So after his death, the police returned John’s duty bag to me and when I found the strength to go through it, there in the side pocket was the little chick and folded-up note I’d given him a decade earlier.
So the other item that will go in the Behind the Scenes info kit is a yellow chick/warm fuzzy and note of encouragement to victim services workers that the greatest gift they can give people is not their advice; it’s their presence – love at it finest.
As for the rest of us, thankfully muddling through life mostly in times of non-crisis, I think back to what George said to me that night in the hospital hallway. When the time for change has come in our own lives or those around us, perhaps the greatest gift we can offer is advice…as in: “That’s enough.”
I’m giving my Behind the Scenes presentation at another police-based victim services conference this spring. It will likely be my last. But you can bet your warm fuzzy it is being professionally filmed for the info kits
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening and the CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions Inc. She is the Board Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund and lives onVancouver Island, British Columbia.