Small Shreds of Life

Poetry takes a small shred of life and makes it important. Even if it is unimportant. Even if it is something we don’t know and still wonder about. That’s why I love the poems of Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003.

unusual-tombstonesIn the last several weeks, I’ve given some thought to death and dying. No, no, nothing is wrong, but several of my friends have had friends die recently, or a spouse, or someone they loved. And while I conducted the memorial service, I thought how little we know about the dead and their lives.

I love the descriptions in David Brockmeir’s  A Brief History of the Dead--that as long as someone tells stories about the dead, they live in a place much like earth, where they know they are remembered. And the day the last person who knew them dies, they move into a different dimension. And then there is Billy Collins’s take on death, one that is kind and funny. And that had to be hard to write:

The Dead

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

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–Quinn McDonald loves reading poetry that makes meaning.

The Cycle of Years

clouds2September is a month of knowing. Summer is over. The days become visibly shorter, by about three minutes a day, early in the month. Leaves turn a defeated green on their way to orange. Summer, the time of year that reminds us of laughter and fun and childhood, is over. Fall, with the hint of the knowledge of death, with its cool dawns and promise of fog, steps up from the horizon.

That is a memory.

clouds1My reality today is different. September is a promise that the white blazing heat of summer won’t last forever. September is a shadow that falls across the pool, cooling the water in tiny increments with with a steady determination. The water goes from tea-warm to body temperature, to cool, to crisp. By the end of September, there won’t be long swims, there will be fast daring dips, to prove we can swim till October. In September, I can start to walk again, free of the gym and the equipment. September is the gate that opens the door to the world again.

Fencepost cactus, about to bloom. The flowers are so large and generous for the climate.

Fencepost cactus, about to bloom. The flowers are so large and generous for the climate.

And in September, the New Year starts. I know, New Year comes in the middle of winter, in January. But not for me and the tribes that follow the calendar of the moon; whose sons and daughters were slaves first and nomads next. For us, the summer signals the end of one year with the harvest, and the beginning of the year in the fall, when the fruits are canned, the grain in the barn,  and the hard work of the fields behind us for the year.  And still, I live in a city, where there are no fields, except in the memory and in the thread that connects the tribe scattered across the globe.

Tonight, I lit candles, covered my eyes and said the prayer that brings in the New Year, ” Blessed is the Creator of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us through the circle of the year to reach this season once more.”

For us, the next week are the days of awe, a slowing of time, a stretch to think about the certainty of death and the possibility of life. It’s a good time to think about the next step in life. What do we choose to bring with us? What needs to be put down, to no longer burden us with a weighted soul or regret? In the next week, the Book of Life is open, and our destiny is written. It doesn’t matter if it’s a metaphor, the days are getting shorter and reminding us of our limited time.

Death cannot be avoided, so it’s best not to fear it. And better still to plan a rich, generous and creative life for the days ahead.

To the nomads among you, Happy New Year. Celebrations are not exclusive or limited. They are for anyone who wants to be more fully alive and creative. The Creator of the Universe is not some unknown, it is you. We create our own universes. Create well and live well. May the coming year be sweet and generous to you.

-Quinn McDonald loves the solemnity and joy of Rosh Hashanah.

A Tiny Death

During rush hour, while running errands, I saw a flock of doves touch down on the street ahead of me. This is a chronically busy street, and doves are usually good with their timing.

"Flight" reductive drawing, charcoal on paper. © Quinn McDonald, 2008.

As I got closer, most of the doves flew across the street. One of them turned toward my speeding car and lifted off. I felt the thump under my car and winced.

It was a small death, unavoidable (slamming on my brakes would have caused an accident, no way I could change lanes) but sad.

When I came back from my first errand, a group of people stood in front of the car. The dove had flown directly into my grill, and was dead, but stuck. The small crowd took photos with their cell phones. They asked me what I was going to do. I asked for volunteers to remove the bird. The crowd dispersed quickly.

I felt sick. Over the death of a bird. I also could not bring myself to touch the firmly lodged bird in my grill. I finished errands and drove home. I could not bring myself to clear the bird from the grill. I’m pretty tough. I’ve come across some pretty messy auto accidents and stopped to help. I’ve broken bones in Taikwondo and continued to the end of the match. I’ve had pets run over and taken them to the vet. But this one small life, these fragile wings stopped in mid flight undid me.

I still don’t know why. I’m not exploring why. I called my car mechanic, who not only removed the bird, but didn’t charge me for doing it. Afterwards, I sat in the car and cried. I had the car washed.

Every day in my city, in every big city, people are made homeless, are shot, are falsely accused, are beaten, suffer and die. And I’m crying about a bird with a bad sense of direction.

At the end of every blog post, I try to write a summary, draw a conclusion, explain a lesson. Today there is none. Not that I can see or know. So there it is–just a vignette. Sometimes we don’t understand it all.

Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach. She doesn’t understand much, but that which she understands, she is sure of.

There Is No Closure

The teary-eyed woman on the news with the microphone thrust in front of her said, “I just want to get closure on my daughter’s murder.” The reporter nodded solemnly, turned to the camera and intoned, “With the funeral tomorrow, the family hopes to move on.”  Being farther down life’s road than the reporter, I ‘d like to paint a signpost: There is no closure. Your life will become different.

Image from

As a culture, Americans are big on closure.
Something awful happens to us, and we look for a ritual that allows us to tie it up neatly, claim we are “just fine,” and go back to work.

We are afraid of the word Death, we want to call it something softer, soft enough to stuff away and hide. We talk about “final reward” and “called home,” “passing on” and “passing over,” or simply “passing,” which, because I live in the land of fast drivers, I always imagine as a soul flashing its headlights and pulling into the left lane and zipping ahead to heaven. None of that has the finality, the simple truth of not being here anymore, as death.

Last year, when Gary’s wife died, he asked me when he should stop wearing his wedding ring.
“When you are ready to take it off,” I replied.
Gary looked at me warily. “I thought you were a life coach. Well, you should know the rules.”

Life doesn’t come with instructions for grief. We have to write our own. And there is no closure, no permission that mourning is over and we can go back to our regular lives. We don’t have regular lives anymore. After death, life changes.
When we lose someone we love, when a medical problem blows up our routine, lives do not get glued back together

Instead, there’s a different life. And we become a different person by coping with it. Over time, we stitch together broken hearts, shattered expectations, overturned plans, and figure out how to proceed. And the change forges for us a new heart and a new spirit that we use to cope with our new life.

As almost anyone who has lost a loved one or gone through a life-changing disease, friends pull away.  In the beginning, we are showered with questions, with suggestions, with directions. And when we don’t respond as expected, our circle of friends backs away, leaving us alone, because death is scary. Because we don’t want to be around it. Because it might be catching.

Disaster brings a new character. We slowly quit crying so hard and so long. We fashion a new life. There is no closure. There is just courage to face another day until we get strong enough to recognize our new life. And then we live it, one day at a time, until we make a new role for ourselves.

Theodore Roethke had it right in The Waking, when he said,

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

-Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach who is stepping into a new life once again.

Where There’s a Will. . .There Are Relieved Relatives

Some months ago, I made a new will. The old one got left behind in the files of an attorney who died. His will stipulated that his office be packed up and closed, but not that his former clients know how to get their documents back. Put me in doubt about his ability to write a good will.

Old New England tombstones covered a lot of worry.

I’m not planning on dying anytime soon, which makes this the excellent time to write a will. On the other hand, none of us came to stay, so I might as well decide what I want to happen when I die. Note that I said “die” not pass away, pass on, pass, go Home, or other euphemisms. My body will die off. I don’t have a problem with that.

I am actually not afraid of death. I am terrified of becoming feeble and being at the mercy of medical care that is not aligned at all with the natural state of death. My insurance company decides who gets the transplants and who doesn’t, who lives and who dies. Oddly enough, the same company that doesn’t want to help you live well doesn’t want you to die, either.

So I created a document that spells out the conditions under which I want to be allowed to die. At some point, not determined by age alone, my body will reach the tipping point of interconnected biological collapse. Nature designs us to disintegrate, and I would like to have that happen without violent, invasive procedures performed by people who are hired not to think but to act, and in their lawyer’s best behalf, not mine. I want someone to make the same merciful decisions I made for a number of cats and dogs in my care.

My mother chose the path of natural death and it was one of the few things we agreed on. Well into her 90s, her mind gone and her body failing, those wishes were ignored. She had a Do Not Resuscitate Order which was ignored half a dozen times. By the time she was allowed to die, she had had her ribs broken from EMTs who didn’t check for med-alert bracelets. They thought of themselves as heroes. I did not.

My will covers what I want to happen to my body when it’s dead. (I’ve never been a fan of formaldehyde, and if people knew that embalming includes sewing your mouth shut through your nose and placing your organs in a plastic bag at your feet, they may choose a way to ensure that dust-to-dust actually happens.

Most of all, writing a will made me aware that I have work to do. Right now. I am not afraid to die, but I am afraid of not living fully. I don’t have a bucket list–it seems like a sad list of odd self-indulgence mixed with a weird competitive spirit of end of life achievement. I’m sticking to my to-do list. There are more interesting things I still have to do.

–Quinn McDonald plans on a few more accomplishments before she dies.

5 Things NOT to Say at a Funeral

Funerals are hard for everybody. We don’t much like death in our culture. We avoid all contact with it, so much so that we call say “she passed,” “she went home,” “she passed over,” and “she’s gone,” rather than “she died.” Although “died” is a perfectly good word, we avoid it. Death means something else is in control, and we can’t live in the future anymore.

Death used to be part of life, but now we’ve pushed it so far into the future, so that we can forget about it. When my mother was 95 and dying of Alzheimer’s, the nurses would tell me about her “progress” at each meeting.  Despite the fact that everyone in the room knew the end was near, I kept being told that she might soon improve.

At the funeral (now six years ago), well-meaning people who were terribly uncomfortable said things that were not comforting, trite, or simply awful. But what can we say? It’s such an difficult situation all the way around, what can we say and be sure it’s right?

Here are 5 things not to say, and 5 things that work better.

1. “I’m sorry for your loss.” I know that Law and Order has made this the catch-all appropriate phrase, and that’s exactly why you shouldn’t say it. The person will know you said it because you don’t know what else to say.

The better thing to say is, “I’m so sorry.” No more is needed. A touch on the elbow, shoulder or a hug is also fine if you know the person well enough.

2. “What can I do?” Don’t make the person come up with a small task to make you feel better. This is a better question after the funeral, and with a suggestion. “What can I do for you that’s helpful–pick up some groceries? Cook dinner? Take your car to be washed?” That let’s the person know what you are offering.

The better thing to say at the funeral is, “I’ll call in a week and ask what you need.” Then do it.

3. “Go ahead and cry, it will make you feel better.” Let the person decide when to cry or struggle not to cry. And right then, nothing will make her feel better.

Instead, say, “I’m keeping X in my prayers [or heart or thoughts]. And you, too.” That doesn’t require an answer and is a comforting remark.

4. “You’ll get closure soon.” The death of a loved one has no closure. There is no getting over it, it will change the life of the person left behind forever. And that’s fine. It’s one of the big changes we go through in life. Their life will never be the same, never heal over. There will always be a scar, and the person will have to learn how to live with death. In time the pain will be different, and she will create a new way to be, but there is no closure.

A better thing to say is, ” May you always have good memories.” Of course, this is best used if the person you are saying it to was not in an abusive relationship.

5. “This is all part of God’s plan.” Even if the person you are talking to believes this, right now it not a good time to remind her. She might be angry at God at the moment, and reminding her that she’s not in charge and her sorrow is somehow inappropriate is not comforting. If she doesn’t believe that every action is part of a divine plan, it sounds condescending and empty.

A better thing to say is, “I don’t know what to say.” You don’t have to know what to say. Honesty is a wonderful thing for a person who has suffered a loss. You don’t have to fix the person who is suffering. You just have to be there for her.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and creativity coach.

Goodbye, Martha

She was beyond old, and a little deaf. She had grown tired of the cold in Illinois and come to Arizona to warm up. She was a night owl, I could hear her TV when I walked past her apartment on the way to the laundry room.

One day, hearing the radio alarm on when I passed her apartment, I wondered why the alarm was ringing in the middle of the afternoon. I picked up my mail at the communal boxes, and heard the alarm on my way back. I knocked on her door. Nothing. I knocked harder. She came to the door, and looked at me smiling.
“It’s good to have youngsters in this place,” she said. I smiled back, it’s been many years since I could have been a youngster, but to her, I was.
“Your radio alarm is ringing,” I said, “so I came to check on you.”
“It is?” she said, “Well, I wonder what it wants.”
I turned it off for her, and chatted for a few minutes.

canning jarShe asked about the canning jar that sits by the bougainvillea shrubs during the daytime. I explained that it contained a solar battery that charged in the sun, then the jar glowed at night, and I used it to cheer me up in the dark.
“We all need one of those,” she said, “Something that soaks up sun in the day.”
In March, she began to make plans to return to the East.
“I can’t manage by myself anymore,” she said, “so I’m going back to the cold.”
She gave me her ironing board and iron, and I planned on giving her the canning jar, so she could take some Arizona sunshine back with her.
Yesterday, she sat down in her apartment and died of an aneurism. She won’t have to go back to the cold. She won’t have to endure the broiler-heat of July here. I hope that wherever she goes, her generous and cheerful spirit will be happy, and that she will have a bit of Light to enjoy.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. She lives in Mesa, AZ. See her work at (c) Quinn McDonald, 2008 All rights reserved.