Kara Q. Lewis

A Story

I miss

I miss
The effort and ritual 
Of building a fire
To rest in front of and read 

I miss
The trails only a step away,
A dark-brown carpet of spiky chestnuts 

I miss
Sunshine, bright and green,
Reflecting off the oak forest across the valley

I miss
Easy mornings
Of fried eggs and buttered toast with jam
Enjoyed in silence at the wooden table

I miss
Drawing and painting,
Listening to an inside voice that says, Yes,
Not, What’s the point

I miss
Who I am 
When not aligned with heat and quiet and trees

What Matters Most

September 7, 2017, is my dad’s 77th birthday. He wanted to make it this far, but he didn’t. My dad died on April 10th. My dad is dead. Words hard to write. Missing someone I can never see again is a lonely ache in my chest. Thinking of him brings an image of him to my mind. It’s a happy vision. Then the reality. Like walking into a glass door.

It’s been almost five months. When the grief was hardest, and I was doubled over with tears, heaving for breath, I’d find a wall or a carpet to lean my cheek against. I held my dad’s hand to my right cheek his last week. It was comforting. Now, it’s like I turn off. My eyes remain open and I am breathing, but the grief takes my spirit out. The blankness lasts as long as it needs, sometimes moments others longer. My thoughts and feelings gone. I am just a body crouched or curled, letting air enter and exit my lungs.

My dad’s breathing the day before he died was agonizing to witness. His lungs had liquid bubbling up, frothy yellow fluid pooling in his mouth and oxygen mask. My mom and I held his hands and told him to hold on. My brother and sister were still several hours away, on the road driving to us.

I bent my head and meditated harder than I ever had before. Purplish light seemed to funnel from behind my closed eyes – in the dark space I can sense but not see – between me and my dad. I repeated a mantra for hours, chanting in my head – I take the liquid from your lungs and give you my breath.

He wasn’t ready to go. He stayed with us through the night and almost all of the next day. In the morning his breathing had changed: no more fluid, no death rattle. He was breathing gently and regularly; very different than he’d been all his life with his sleep apnea.

It unfurled into a beautiful day with family, stories, live music, a lavender bath, and a hand and foot massage. When he took his last breath around 9:30 pm, one of his closest friends had arrived an hour earlier and we were talking about my dad, what we loved about him, the obstacles he overcame throughout his life. He was a complicated human, with personal demons and struggles, but it didn’t change his love for us, his gratitude for the good in his life.

I feel like he was aware of us. He wasn’t in pain anymore and our words surrounded him with understanding: “They know me.” Then he was gone. Just a body, freezing in place. His spirit hopefully happy and free, dancing atom-like through the night.

What matters most is that we were honest. Our love for him was complex, but it was love. The best kind, full of understanding. We held his heart with ours at the end.

Dating

Seated in the shade of a lone tree on a mountain meadow, I watch as dozens of dragonflies dot the landscape. Their miniscule forms put into perspective the tall, dry grasses and distant green ridgelines disappearing into blue. I am patiently resting while blissfully letting my hot, sweaty head ease its pulsing, paying close attention to the coolness of perspiration.

I wish I’d had this calm sense of objectivity and waiting instilled in me when I was younger. In particular with romantic opportunities. I’ve been looking back at my dating past lately, curious about what I did then and how it relates to me now. I am in wonder at my full immersion into anxiety at those times.

The first time I was asked out, I was 19 years old. A spinster, according to the Jane Austen stories I loved. I was a senior in college, two significant years behind my classmates in age and experience. I’d never held a boy’s hand and had only once talked with a guy, as in an actual, full-length conversation, when I was 16.

Yet one kind soul reached out, sharing his interest in me with a hand-written and illustrated note that he left in my art studio locker after graduation. After a few moments of adoration for this sweet gesture – the perfect way for an introvert-to-introvert communication – anxiety started brewing. A door closed around the corner. Pin prickles of fear from an immediate adrenaline rush coursed through my arms. I fled out of the building, afraid he would walk down the deserted hallway at any moment.

I wasn’t interested in him romantically, and I did not want to have to say so.

I knew what it was like to have a crush on someone and have the feelings left unreturned. I did not want to cause someone that pain, nor did I want to agree to a date. And, I couldn’t ignore him. That would be a terrible way to repay his lovely note.

My internal torment culminated in laying prone and immobile in the foyer at home, where I lived with my parents and little sister. I could stay right here the whole summer, I thought to myself. That sounds nice. The light looks pretty on the wall, and the carpet is comfortable.

I wish I could reach back to that moment and take my younger self up in a hug. Don’t stress, love. You’re sweet; just be honest and kind. Do what feels right for you and things will flow from there as they will.

I decided I wanted to try meeting him. I wanted to push myself to treat this as not a big deal. I wrote him and said thank you for his note. I would be happy to get together but it would be as friends.

I don’t want to read that email. It was probably very formal. Not so much raw honesty as strict groundwork for boundaries so I’d feel comfortable moving forward. I wanted to grow and push myself to build social skills, to move forward with my developmental goals. I wince now. That last line might even have been in the email.

He agreed to my terms and so we met. I arrived thirty minutes early to the cafe, got my drink, and picked our seats. My pulse was racing. I was sweating and hoped my shirt wouldn’t show wet armpits, or, worse, that my shorts would show leg sweat, which I could feel pooling in my seat. This is just a friendly get together, I repeated to myself, No need to be nervous. It’s just hot in here.

I went to the bathroom to double check the status of my leg and armpit sweat. I was soothed. It wasn’t visibly noticeable.

When he arrived, his off-kilter smile seemed kind and self-deprecating. It put me at ease.

He was nice. I don’t remember what we chatted about. I was jittery from the caffeine and remained nervous for much of our hang out. But I think we smiled a fair bit and shared thoughts and stories. I remember thinking I had relaxed, but after we said goodbye and I walked around the neighborhood, enjoying the quiet and the setting sun, I felt my body – heart rate, breathing, thinking – return to normal.

I did it!

I picked our next meeting place: Barnes and Noble to read magazines. I liked when I would go there with my family; it was a fun evening hangout. I got the impression my friend date didn’t enjoy himself as much. Or, at least that’s what I told myself.

We said goodbye in the parking lot, and by the time I got back to my car, I felt sure we weren’t a good fit as friends. I felt relief.

He invited me to get together again, at his art studio. What if we’re the only two there? I quashed my rising panic, thinking of the small, deserted basement studios at school. I said I’d let him know when I was free but that I was busy at the moment.

I avoided getting back to him. One day, weeks later, I was stopped at a red light and I sat facing the art building. I pictured him inside, alone and hurt by me. Then I pictured myself there with him and immediately feared him making a move to kiss me. Physical fear, from a picture in my head. The light turned green, I gripped my steering wheel.

I don’t want to deal with this.

I didn’t write him back.

Eight years later I met him again, at a gallery show opening. My heart rate pummeled my chest when I first saw him. But, I breathed. I have a boyfriend now. I know how to talk to people. I hated knowing though that there was an unspoken past. That I’d been so awkward and rude to him before.

Face to face, standing in a crowd of people amongst the hum of an art reception, our chit chat was friendly. Nothing was mentioned of the missed third get together. I was shaking when I said goodbye to him, but I was also relieved to have a semblance of closure.

The sense of time and space separating my present self from my past selves makes me think I would do it differently if I knew then what I know now. I’d talk to the people I had crushes on, ask them out even. Likely, I would have been rejected, but I could have done my living that way. Not by closing myself off and processing emotions solo. By avoiding people because being alone felt safer.

And yet, I’m realizing that I’m not so different now.

I’m in a committed relationship, seven years steady. It takes work, but we’re good at letting each other know when potentially troublesome issues arise so we can clear the air before it becomes a bigger problem. It’s hard but necessary to be honest.

I still ruminate, though, and hide in my head for too long sometimes. If I let a matter sit for a few days, it becomes extra difficult to start talking about it, and I end up feeling like I’m miles away from where we both are in reality.

In the days leading up to the hike that took me to this meadow, I have been locked in a Ferris wheel of high and low emotions about a particular issue. Even though my boyfriend and I have been discussing it, it will simply take time to work through. While patience is one of my favorite tools in the toolbox, I am inconsistent lately in my ability to stay even-keeled for very long.

How funny that my future self might look back at this time in my romantic history and give me the same advice I wanted to give my 19-year-old self: Don’t worry so much. Be in your body; be honest and kind to yourself and others. Enjoy living. Life is an adventure of constant learning.

On the walk uphill today, I was worrying about getting too hot during the climb and of going too slow for my friend I’m walking with. But both of us were quietly determined to get to this writing spot.

Then, any tension I had from earlier dissipated after sitting down and seeing the view. I am always grateful to mountains and nature to bring me back into myself.

At this, I feel put in my place.

Overhead, hummingbirds are buzzing intermittently amongst the tree branches. The shade is shifting, and the grass is starting to make my legs itch. The view remains spectacular. The space between the distant vista and what’s inside my head, now on this page, feels open and good. I breathe and am still.

Thistles III

Thistles grow from
His heart
Protective arms
Enwrap the
Thorn he loves

Light dawns within
Purple petals
Thin and delicate
Surrounded by green
Enforcements
Hiding pocket knives
In mauve shadows

The sun’s bright warmth
Glows from her center
And meets his intensity
His full expression
Of sadness and
Memories of shared joy

Out of wastelands
Caressing loneliness
He gives his energy
To landscapes unnourished

At night he shakes–
Peace must be made
His love’s fate is certain
And the brutality
Of ending
Can’t be unmet

Heads together
They bloom
Their beauty is not simple
Notice the strength
The deep looks
Of centuries

Those who know them
Will not forget:
Love for them
Is accepting
Flowers and spurs
Smiles and bruises
As one whole

He begins to pale
Before his wife
He was supposed to be first
His energy is sapped
But what he has left
He can give
To his purpose

When his mission ends
He will fade

Though color and light
Continues
Her seeds fall and blow away
On deserted sidewalks

It’s frightening
Inevitable
They have no choice
Except
Finding appreciation
For the growth
That came before
And that comes after

A plant family
Is made of single stalks
Their strength and
Wherewithal
From roots to thorny tips

They existed
They hold time and sun
Their survival and cycles
Are our own

Indigo Bunting

Leaf blowers, tree cutters buzz distantly
Four hundred Indigo Buntings
Fly and sit and sing

Their thoughts carry them
From branch to wire to stream,
As they ponder color, leaves, and revel
In water playfully

When shaded skies enwrap the world, they snuggle
Warm hearts thrumming rhythmically
Elements of bones and beaks, of air and wings,
Form waves in syncopation

Strength swells from gentleness
Feathers fluffed to rest or preen,
They hearken for protection
To keep in check development

To soften… hold in wonder
When as they fly they dip and roll and glide
As graceful as a feinting Kite
Powerful as a thundercloud
Against a summer sky

Image credit: I used a photo by Brian Tang as drawing reference, used with permission. Visit Brian’s website to see his amazing photos: hardrain.me.

The one who remains standing

“I Am Not I”
By Juan Ramón Jiménez
Translated by Robert Bly

I am not I.
I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
whom at times I manage to visit,
and whom at other times I forget;
who remains calm and silent while I talk,
and forgives, gently, when I hate,
who walks where I am not,
who will remain standing when I die.

A friend shared this poem in a condolence card at my dad’s celebration of life. I waited weeks, until I was ready, to open this card. His wife wrote that she hoped I would find steadiness from within. Inside was also a beautiful necklace she’d worn and loved for years and wanted to gift to me. I was touched and very grateful for their generosity.

Their words resonated deeply. They illuminated thoughts and feelings I’ve been processing since my dad went into hospice.

I’ve been meditating nearly every day for four months. I’ve also been journaling, making art, reading poetry and philosophy, going to counseling, and taking time out to be alone or to be in nature. I want to be present and work through everything in a natural flow.

Lately, I’ve felt a strong sense of separateness between my self as I know me, who others know me – my outer self, say – and my inner self: the clear blue sky of my mind during meditation. The limitless, effortless feeling of simply moving along in life, breathing and letting thoughts and experiences float by like clouds.

My image of my dad is that he isn’t dead. His body is gone for sure (we all have travel-sized jars of his ashes to prove that). But, he lives on in our memories as well as through the lessons and traits he passed on to us by example and biology. He is a part of me and my life, no matter what.

There is more though.

During his chemotherapy recovery period, my dad shared with me a medication-induced experience that left him elated, grateful, and full of wonderment. He’d been given a combination of anti-nausea and anti-pain medications, then he was wheeled away in his bed for a test. He came back within 30 minutes and I asked how it went, not expecting much of a response. He asked me if I organized it. No, I told him, the doctor ordered the test.

“You weren’t there? It was amazing,” he said. “That is what academia is all about.” I laughed, what did he mean? “Did you take a class?” I asked. “Yes,” he said slowly, “The art of speeding up turds,” and then he giggled.

He described being put into a machine and then shot around in a big circle, while someone else had been shot around the other direction. They collided and he turned into a small, floating neutron. I can’t remember his exact words, but he seemed incredibly happy and very connected to this sense of being small but also expansive. He talked about his memories of Ireland, where he, my mom, and older brother spent three months traveling together after our parents were married in 1986. My dad talked about magic, mysticism, and his appreciation for these experiences.

He continued to drift in and out, mind-traveling to other memories. He’d close his eyes and I’d ask him where he was. After Ireland, he said he was in a field, the grass scratchy under his feet. He was four years old and his friends were playing nearby. Then he was in a kitchen, he was five. He and his sister were making their favorite cookies. He drifted to other times as well. He was fully present in these moments from the past. He talked about details I’d never heard before. He went from his childhood in 1943 to an experience, or a dream, of South Dakota in the 1970’s. I recorded this and other talks, but I’m not ready to listen to them yet.

Today, I like imagining my dad as this neutron. Kind of like K-PAX traveling through light, existing in everything from a dust mote to a blue bird.

The Juan Ramón Jiménez poem with its lines “I am not I. / I am this one.” feels synchronistic with the idea that we are two things: a physical body and an intangible being.

I’ve been feeling this way when I meditate. It helps me be more observant, to feel a separate part of myself not tied to my body’s physical sensations. I’ve also been gleaning similar messages from the books Man’s Search for Meaning, The Untethered Soul, Letters to a Young Poet, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (translated by Ursula K. Le Guin); and from song lyrics, poems, and podcasts like Beautiful Anonymous and Invisibilia.

I’ve become a little extra introverted the past several weeks. But it doesn’t feel sad. It’s more like I’m recharging, enjoying thinking. I’ve been making some new realizations and having some new experiences as well.

My meditations and readings have had me pondering inner consciousness and its boundless nature. I’ve always liked giving my inner voice a place in my life, like a chatty friend who knows me better than anyone and is always there to support me. I routinely check in with this inner voice for advice and pep talks. It’s the voice I connect with when I’m thinking. It’s the voice you’re reading.

Now, through some transformative meditation experiences, I’ve been able to give that voice some space—freedom from todo lists and solving problems—to feel calm and vast. To go wherever it wants to. It’s a trippy feeling when I’m aware of both my body and this other me. It feels like I’m on the threshold of something that could be infinite.

After one memorable meditation in my hammock, I felt intensely aware of many things in a short instant. There was a rush of sensation from the back of my head that curved up and over, beyond my forehead. A few word fractions came to mind, paired with emotions ranging from painful to pleasant, which I turned into a new word for this feeling. Then there were memories of a place where I lived a couple years ago, the sound of our wind chime reverberating as waves in my ears, and an image of a squirrel I could hear but not see. My eyes opened and followed the curves of several tree branches overhead. I saw the blue air far, far above and knew it was the same air as that cooling my back through the nylon hammock fabric. I was aware of my shoulders and butt creating tension in the fabric and the sense of space between my suspended self and the ground. That moment of connection to all these disparate things, which I usually experience as separate entities, spaced out linearly, in order of appearance and distance, made me feel joyful and sad at the same time. I was facing and accepting the loveliness and barbarism of life in one gulp. The word I came up with, rumskaradonan, encapsulated this for me. The feeling made me smile, hugely and without thought. I was at the central line of a swinging pendulum. I laughed out loud. As I sat up, I held onto a sense of renewal, an other-worldly-happy. It stayed with me as I put on my shoes, and I moved on with my day.

The last month or two, I’ve also had some lessons that pushed my thinking-self into the world. I faced my fear of singing in front of someone, and I put my meditation work into practice by turning off an internal art critic in order to paint a mural.

I’ve wanted to take singing lessons for over 10 years, but I hated singing in front of anyone. I didn’t want to feel that way though. Stage fright, self-consciousness, and an innate stubbornness about avoiding unnecessary, uncomfortable situations kept me boxed in. I was safe when I was just singing in my car or the few times I sang in front of a family member. But, I wanted to improve my voice.

When I first told my-now voice teacher that I wanted to learn to sing, he said, great, let’s do it. Very positive and nonchalant. I said okay, too. I didn’t think about it. Didn’t think about being afraid. I wanted to learn to sing, and he was a singing teacher, who was also a friend of my dad’s.

We set a date and time for my first lesson, and I continued not thinking about it. As I was driving to his studio the first day, I felt jittery and nauseated. Should I have eaten first? Too late now. Then I was in a seat, in front of him and his keyboard. He asked me what my goal was. I responded: “To sing. Out loud.”

With barely a preamble, he was singing vocalization exercises, looking at me expectantly. I’m supposed to sing now? Now now? Oh fuckfuckfuck. Don’t think. Just go with it. The teacher made me feel very comfortable, saying that how I sounded was normal: “Everything is normal in here.”

Before my first lesson, my singing teacher asked if I wanted to paint a mural on his studio wall. He knew I was an artist, but I let him know I’d never done a mural before. He said that was okay, he’d pay me and I should just have fun with it. He’d be happy with whatever I did.

It felt like a no-pressure situation, and I wanted to practice my art, so I agreed. I figured I’d do a bunch of research, maybe even practice drawing and painting on one of my own walls. I’d watch Youtube videos and read forums, draw studies for the palm fronds and clouds he wanted. But, I didn’t. I wanted it to be fun, like he said, and it wasn’t fun to do this research on top of all the other work I was getting through leading up to when I’d start painting.

And, everything flowed easily in its own time. I picked out colors a week ahead of time and did most of the prep work the day before. I had the most fun choosing paint colors. I spent a brief but fruitful time looking at pictures and videos for inspiration and reference the day of, and I made sure I had all the needed supplies. With a vote of confidence from the paint clerk at the hardware store that it was going to be a blast, I set forth.

The first evening, I did some pencil drawings in my sketchbook of palm fronds from a plant in the studio and of some clouds outside the window. Then I started: I put my earbuds in, and, listening to my “Dreamy Drawing” music mix, I gave myself a moment with the blank wall before putting my pencil to it.

Whenever I started to doubt myself, judge the art, or worry, I reiterated: I’m just having fun with this. Enjoy it. It doesn’t matter what it looks like in the end, what matters is that I had fun doing it, and that will show through.

I was simply moving forward on instinct and openness.

Going through the painting process in this way made me feel like I was both in control and not in control of the situation at the same time. Like in my meditations where I’m gently keeping thoughts at bay by focusing on my breath. It takes effort to be effortless. Drawing and painting the mural, I had to focus on being present and trust in my skills, in order to let go of expectations and anxiety about it turning out horrible.

With both of these experiences, I felt like I was bumping up against old boundaries, corners of myself I used to avoid. But, I was confident that I had the basic skills needed to move through the challenge, like water to Lao Tzu:

It doesn’t compete.
It goes right
to the low loathsome places,
and so finds the way.

(Excerpt from “Easy by nature” in Tao Te Ching, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin)

Having started the process of moving through these particular blocks, I’ve been feeling more sensitive, and also more free. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow but I can face the uncertainty and make it through. My comfort words during this time have been: boundless, limitless, effortless.

After my first singing lesson, walking back to my car, I felt light, airy, amazed. I talked to my dad. He felt very close. Not just because I thought he’d be happy and proud of me, but something more tangible. In a meditation later, I pictured myself stepping through a door, out into a star-shimmery vastness, with nothing under me. I felt safe, which I don’t usually feel where heights are concerned. I’m just standing in the ether, peaceful and curious. In a place like my dad’s neutron dream, where I imagine him to be now.

Knowing that my inner self is its own presence, and that my dad had his own inner self, I feel hopeful truth in the poem: “I am not I. / I am this one /…who will remain standing when I die.”

My dad’s inner self remains standing. He is a joyful neutron flipping through nature and time, roaming space near and far, and thinking about everything and nothing.

He exists boundlessly.

When I work through my internal boundaries, like fear of singing in front of someone, I reach states of mind where I feel open and electric. I feel that boundlessness.

I can share that space with my dad.

This feels like a profoundly personal truth. Yet, the questions of where we go when we die and what are we doing here anyways, are universal unknowns we’re all trying to grasp, through poetry, music, philosophy, religion, medication, nature, meditation. In these mysterious areas where dogmas are created to instruct your beliefs, I prefer the quote: “Wisest is she who does not know” (Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder). So while I won’t say with certainty that my dad’s “one,” my “one,” all of our inner selves keep existing after the body dies; I will say it’s hugely comforting for me to feel it as true.

The finality of death is sharp. My dad is gone. My other loved ones will also go. I will die. It brings on different levels of pain at different times: a jagged rift through my chest like a crevasse, a dulling rap as if from pounding my forehead against a wall repeatedly, a fear-induced stupor where I think I can feel cancer metastasizing in my own body. But, those feelings aren’t there all the time. Sometimes I don’t think about it at all. Or, when I do, it’s with a resoluteness: Well, then, get on with what you want to do, and love the ones you love.

Maintaining my routine of meditation, art, writing, reading, walking, and connecting with loved ones is bringing me steadiness within, as my friend wished. Operating on instinct and living at my own pace makes me happy, and practicing my skills inspires me to keep going. I also know that I can lean in to uncertainty, to potentially scary situations, and survive.

Whether I’m feeling buoyant or miserable, I breathe in and out. Being present and grateful is all I can really do.

Spring day

This is just my first post. A blueberry smoothie in a handmade mug by artist Alissa Clark. Sitting outside in the sun on a hope-filled, spring morning.