I was bent over at the kitchen room table, furiously squeezing paint on to paper plate. Reaching over for the hot glue gun and burning myself, a lesson that I never quite learned. Hot glue guns are hot. Around me: sheets of pink paper covered with glitter, a pile of mismatched Sharpies and colored pencils, a stack of photos printed from Facebook.
It was so tactile and real, the glueing on the paper flowers, the tiny plastic Corgi, the sugar skulls I'd found at Walgreens during a mad dash to gather supplies for this offerenda -- an offering for the dead. I'd no intention to spend last Sunday in a furious dash across town to find the materials to make an altar for my departed friend. But in church that morning something stirred in me during the homily when the priests talked about the unnamed saints, the men and women whose names were not carved on walls at the Vatican, but rather in our hearts and minds.
"Mary and Joseph, pray for us/Michael and all angels, pray for us. Anna, Joachim, Elizabeth, pray for us. Elijah, Moses, John the Baptist, pray for us ..." (It goes on, but you get the drift.)
Something in me knew that I had to make an altar in memory of Dolly to put on display the following day at Birmingham's annual Dia De Los Muertos (Day of The Dead). People spend months making altars to remember their loved ones, and as I glued and pasted I thought I should have started sooner. But that's the silly perfectionist in me, so I patted her on the head and sushed her.
It took all day, with missteps in my penmanship and dragging my skirt through the pink paint. Furiously scrubbing the skirt in in the sink, I was late to pick up Amy for our Anne Lamott reading, looking like a crazy woman. I hat not showered and my hair was pulled back in a ponytail. I left the house wearing a paint splattered skirt, squeaky rain boots and with dark circles under my eyes.
A few words of wisdom from Anne Lamott that night:
"Even though you are spaced out and screwed up, I love you anyhow" (Advice to herself)
"Jesus doesn't say, 'Try to be uptight middle aged multitasking people. Jesus says to be like little children.'"
"You own every story that happened to you."
"To heal means you are going to hurt."
"Do your anger and do your grief. They are part of the way home."
Who wants to do anger and grief? None of us. But life will give you plenty of opportunities for both. Anne L. is right -- you have to do them -- experience them fully, or they will sneak up on you later. I've been doing some work around both of these emotions, realizing that I've been stuffing both of them deep inside. It's a human do that, and it works, sometimes for a long time, until it doesn't.
Earlier in the year I learned that when the body experiences trauma, it doesn't distinguish the specifics. It just experiences it. And unless you have a way to process it, to release it, trauma lingers, and festers, and can come out in unexpected and at times in ugly ways. There's a growing body of evidence in this field. But you don't need data if you've experienced loss, or sadness or grief, or unexpected change you were not prepared for.
I believe that anger and grief work in the same way, that our bodies keep the score. We can bury emotion deep inside, but it always comes out. Or it lingers and affects our entire being.
It is good to figure out how to process anger and grief. Because the world knows how to hand it over in generous measure. It also dispenses blessings and joy sometimes simultaneously. Historically, I don't know how to process all of these emotions at once, but this year has given me practice.
I'd written, a few weeks before, a shaky note of help on Facebook for my own mom. "How do you coordinate this kind of care, and that kind of care?" I wrote. What I really meant was, "It hurts when you love someone and you're not sure how to help." Otherwise known with "I'm really not God," and "This life is a terribly lonely place, and the words that I've always leaned upon aren't solving problems the way that they used to."
Otherwise known as a lesson in humility.
There are some problems that words cannot solve. Nor therapy, nor all the questioning in the world.
There are some things that simply must be offered up, placed on an altar, wisped away toward the heavens.
In the Catholic Church, November is the month in which we remember our dead. My hands were shaking as I finished the offerenda for Dolly, pressing the paint pen to the canvas with significant dates of her life.
I stayed up late into the night making it, scrawling these final words, which she had said, before I ran into the Birmingham night air.
Previous years, I stayed at Dia De Los Muertos, face painted and part of the celebration. (I wrote about it here.) This year, I lay down the altar, said a prayer, and went home, to the deepest sleep that comes when one feel the anger and the grief, as well as the promise of a new day.