I’ve revamped my website and changed my blog home. Now, you can find me here: http://stephanieastamm.com/
Looking forward to seeing you there!
I’ve revamped my website and changed my blog home. Now, you can find me here: http://stephanieastamm.com/
Looking forward to seeing you there!
My much older sister was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 57. Symptoms started with what she referred to as “losing words” and progressed to the inability to make the correct change when buying small items at the grocery store. Gradually, she lost the ability to drive, to operate a stove, a microwave, or a television, and to dress herself. Our family watched and cared for her—first at her home, then my brother’s home, and finally in assisted living—as this confident, capable, intelligent, funny former university professor and administrator became someone who could no longer form a coherent sentence, walk, or, at least visibly, recognize us.
Before my sister’s death, I was honored to be asked to contribute a story about her and my experiences as a kind of caregiver for her to an anthology, which was then just beginning to take form. The book’s editor and prime mover, Collin Tong, had lost his wife to younger-onset Alzheimer’s, which struck her at the age of 51. Their experience spurred him to create the book.
In Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s, twenty-three family caregivers share their stories and experiences. We have all shared our stories in the hope of providing support to others with loved ones who have Alzheimer’s or dementia.
I am proud to have contributed a piece to this anthology. In addition to offering support to others, the writing of it allowed me to honor my sister and her story.
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As writers, we know that what we are dealing with in our lives will somehow show up in our writing. Sometimes this means our relationships inform our characters’ relationships, our struggles shape our characters’ struggles, or our issues become our characters’ issues. Sometimes the correspondence is not so tidy or one-to-one. The events of our lives may instead define our themes or plot elements, or they might show up in some symbolic way. The specifics vary, but our lives will show up in our writing, even if we are not conscious of it until reading over what we wrote later.
It is also true that what we are dealing with in our writing will somehow show up in our lives. My current work in progress, the sequel to A Gift of Wings, is called A Gift of Shadows. And I knew going into it that it would stir things up for me, that in writing a book about Shadows, I’d have to face my own.
Webster’s defines “shadow” as “an area of darkness created when a source of light is blocked.” For Carl Jung, the “shadow” is the unknown or denied “dark side” of the personality. Our negative, or socially unacceptable, emotions like rage, envy, and anger, for example, are usually part of our shadow. As Dr. Stephen Diamond writes, in a 2012 Psychology Today blog post, “Whatever we deem evil, inferior or unacceptable and deny in ourselves becomes part of the shadow, the counterpoint to what Jung called the persona or conscious ego personality.”
Most of us are familiar with the opening lines to the 1930’s radio program The Shadow: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” If we think about this statement in Jungian terms, it makes perfect sense. Of course, the Shadow knows the evil that lurks in our hearts, because the very things we define as evil and hide in our hearts are what create the Shadow in the first place. In a way, our Shadow is our self-created evil twin.
No surprise, then, that “facing my Shadow” doesn’t show up on most people’s list of Top Ten Favorite Activities. We deny the shadow parts of ourselves because we don’t like them, we think they are unacceptable. We don’t want to be forced to recognize that they are, well, us.
But here’s the thing. Denying the Shadow makes it more powerful. When we deny our own capacity for, say, anger, when we believe it is unacceptable to feel anger or give it expression, we often project that anger onto others, whom we define as enemies or adversaries, or we turn that anger inward, where it becomes self-hatred or depression. And at the same time, our angry Shadow side grows stronger—so that when the anger finally does come spilling out, it’s bigger and badder than it ever needed to be.
What we resist persists.
Resisting our Shadow suppresses our creativity, harms our relationships, and limits our ability to fully engage with life. In contrast, accepting those things we would deny opens us up. Psychotherapist and Buddhist Tara Brach writes and teaches about the importance of what she calls “Radical Acceptance,” which means accepting what you are experiencing and feeling just as it is and regarding it with compassion. (See her book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.) In The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself, Michael A. Singer explains how the energy of things we resist (either external events or internal events like emotions we don’t want to feel) gets trapped inside of us. Acceptance is the key to freeing that energy.
So, I’ve been facing my own Shadow and learning to accept those things in myself that I have wanted to deny (like fear, anger, judgment). It hasn’t been easy, and it certainly hasn’t always been fun, and the work is far from done, but I feel a greater sense of peace and joy and happiness than I have felt in a while.
Perhaps I chose to write A Gift of Shadows, because on some level I knew it would force me to face my own Shadow. Or maybe the writing just led me here all on its own. I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that whatever we do, if we engage it with our whole heart, our whole being, the doing of that thing will change us, shape us. We each forge our own path into this thing called life. And we each choose our own compass to guide us. For me, for now, writing is that compass.
2013 was an interesting and full year. I did some things right. I did some things wrong. I learned a lot.
At mid-year, during the first day of a year-long workshop in which I’m participating, all the participants were asked to state what we wanted to learn during the year of the class. I said I wanted to learn to enjoy the journey. I have spent much of my life thinking that I could finally start living when I reached a certain point, met a certain goal, or achieved a certain something. During the first half of 2013, I finally realized that point, goal, or something was never going to be reached. It’s a moving target. Reach one point, meet one goal, achieve one something, and another pops up to take its place. So, since the destination isn’t really there, the only solution is to relax and enjoy the journey.
That became my work—or part of my work—during the last half of the year.
Relaxing and enjoying the journey is both as simple as it sounds and incredibly difficult. We have expectations and desires we want to have met. We like some experiences and we don’t like others. It’s easy to relax and enjoy the journey when we get what we want, when we like what’s happening. When we don’t? Well, not so much.
The last six months have given me plenty of opportunity to experience both—whether through the ups and downs of my writing life, the events of my everyday life, or the literal journey I took to Italy in the fall. Sometimes I was able to relax and enjoy during the difficult moments, sometimes I wasn’t. Sometimes when I fell off the enjoyment wagon, I was able to brush myself off and get right back on. Other times, I beat myself up for falling off. (Yeah, pretty much the exact opposite of relaxing and enjoying there.)
But even the perpetual falling of the “beating myself up” cycle was a learning experience—once I was able to see what I was doing. One of the things I have learned—and keep learning—is that I usually learn more from my mistakes than from what I get right.
I remember the first time that lesson was brought home to me—when I really got it. I was living in Chicago and had to take public transportation from Hyde Park, where I lived, to the Uptown-Edgewater neighborhood, where I was meeting a friend at the church we both attended. I had never taken public transportation to that neighborhood before, I wasn’t familiar with the ‘L’ lines, and I had to transfer from one line to another downtown. Of course, I got lost. I missed the stop where I was supposed to transfer. I don’t remember how far I went out of my way, but I do remember I was running late—and, since this was in the days before cell phones, I couldn’t call my friend to let him know what had happened. In any case, I got off the train when I could, found an ‘L’ map, and figured out what I needed to do to get myself where I needed to be. And I now had a much better understanding of how the ‘L’ worked, which trains stopped where, how they intersected, and how to use the system. I got on the train I needed and stood in that car, knowing I was late, but feeling a huge since of accomplishment. I had learned something I never would have learned if I’d just followed my friend’s directions and done everything “right” the first time.
That wasn’t the last time I learned this lesson. I’ve always been an “I’ve got to do it right first time” kind of girl. But every time I learn the lesson, I relax a little more. It’s getting easier to appreciate my mistakes, or at least to accept them, and use them for the learning opportunities they are.
On New Year’s Eve, a friend and colleague told me how she’d recently come to a new understanding of the verse “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (If you’re wondering, it’s Psalm 118:24. I looked it up.) “This is the day,” she said, “this day. Not the one we might have wanted or hoped for, but this day that we have. Let us rejoice and be glad.” That’s what it means to relax and enjoy the journey, to rejoice in the day we have, the moments as we live them, instead of hoping for something else, wanting something else, making our happiness contingent on something other than what we have right here right now.
A few days ago L. Marie wrote a post about her resolution to be in the now in the new year, and trend spotters are saying 2014 is the year for mindfulness. That’s a trend I can get on board with. I know I will be continuing my year of learning to enjoy the journey, which really means being in the now and being okay with whatever the now brings. If we can drop our judgments, our expectations, and our desires, we may find the moment holds all we need.
Lesson #11: Don’t try to squeeze in too much, but enjoy the sites (sights) while you can.
Time to head back to Rome to fly back home. But our flight didn’t leave until late in the day, so we had time to make a couple of quick stops. We had planned on going to Orvieto to see the Cathedral, but the owner of the villa suggested we also stop in Todi, as it had been called the most livable city in the world. We didn’t have long in either place, but we had time to walk a bit and snap a few pictures. For this last post on the Italy trip, I’m going to let those pictures speak for themselves. Ciao!
Lesson #10: Pay attention. Sometimes beauty is overhead, and to the right, and to the left, and even under your feet.
Getting to go to Siena was kind of a happy accident—at least for me. Not so much so for one of our group. Four friends had planned on going to Siena, but one of them woke up with a cold and decided she’d rather stay at the villa and rest for the day. With room for another person in the car, the others invited me to go with them. I was sorry our friend didn’t feel well, but I was grateful for the invitation.
It took us over two hours to drive to Siena, so we weren’t there long, but we had time for a leisurely wander through the Cathedral, or Duomo. In a country of beautiful, ornate cathedrals, the Duomo di Siena is one of the most beautiful. The West façade, with the main entrance, is, well, stunning.
And there are sculptures of Romulus and Remus being nursed by the she-wolf of Siena in front.
Inside the Duomo, there is so much to see, it is impossible to take it all in. There are the black-and-white striped marble columns,…
the dome (with Bernini’s sun-like gilded lantern),…
and the floors. Yes, the floors. I’m gazing around, mouth agape, at the walls, the columns, the ceilings, and then I look down at the floors. Each section is a different marble mosaic, depicting people (there’s a whole series of oracles) or scenes.
And then there are the side chapels, like the Chapel of the Madonna of the Vow, …
and the Piccolomini Library.
What a visual feast—or smorgasbord even. Overwhelming. Stunning. It would take days to really see it all. I’m grateful to have had the unexpected opportunity to see what I did.
Lesson #9: Don’t be greedy. Enjoy the things you can, and be willing to adapt to circumstances.
Ah, Florence! For me, a place of joy and disappointment.
I have dreamed of seeing Michelangelo’s David in person in Florence ever since I first learned about the statue and saw pictures of it. I have memories of sitting in a classroom—don’t ask me which class or how old I was—and watching a black and white film talking about the statue and showing it from different angles. Snippets of the film became so integrated into my memory that I’ve sometimes wondered if I actually walked around a copy of the sculpture at some point. The opportunity to make the dream of seeing the David a reality filled me with excitement.
I have now seen the David in person in Florence, and he is every bit as beautiful and impressive as I’d imagined. I am still blown away by the fact that Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he created the piece. (And, yes, he was only 33 when he painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling.)
The size of the piece alone is impressive. The statue stands 17 feet tall, and when I stood next to it, my eyes were about at the level of David’s toes. Then, of course, there’s just the incredible detail. One of the friends who came to the Accademia with me is a massage therapist, and as we walked around the statue, she was naming all the muscles. I couldn’t name them; I was just impressed with how clearly delineated they are—and how fleshly and pliable they look. He’s marble, but he looks so real.
Well, okay, yeah, his hands are huge. But they’re gorgeous. I find the entire sculpture incredibly beautiful, but I admit I’ve got a thing for David’s right hand. The tendons, the veins, the knuckles…
Michelangelo believed his task as a sculptor was to reveal what was there in the marble by chipping away the pieces that were unnecessary. I can’t even imagine looking at a piece of marble and seeing something like the David inside it.
The David is located at the end of a gallery holding several other unfinished Michelangelo sculptures, pieces intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Those pieces look as if they are indeed emerging from the marble, being birthed from the stone. They are powerful in their unfinishedness.
Seeing the David was a joy—and my primary reason for going to Florence—and it was the definite high point of the day. For various reasons, the rest of the trip was largely disappointing. I got to see the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and Brunelleschi’s Dome,…
but otherwise I saw very little of Florence, because of our limited amount of time there.
A delicious dinner with friends back in Ramazzano at L’Antico Casale made up for some of the disappointment.
I had to remind myself that it’s not possible to do or see everything. And what I did see was incredible. Thank you, Michelangelo!
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