What kind of stories do we need right now?

Carrie Snyder offers an invitation: Find a sunflower. Hold it in your hands. Ask it a question. Listen to the questions it asks you.

Carrie’s sunflower prompted her to paint her office door bright yellow. It urged her to get on with living. We all seem to be in limbo right now, or maybe the bardo, and without a compass. There is no map of this place we find ourselves in, Joanna Macy says.

But there are sunflowers still.

Not in my garden, not this year. The closest I could find were these coneflowers: Rudbeckia laciniata “Autumn Sun.”

coneflowers: a story we need

I call them ballerinas. Don’t the petals look like a dancer’s graceful skirt? I wish you could see them when the wind blows through.

Where will you dance us to, ballerina?
Where will we go?
We could never find a place more beautiful than this:
The only home we have and all we need.
What can you tell us, ballerina?
About how to care
For each other, for ourselves?
For the only home we have?
For the stories we need?

More than anything right now, I need stories that can help me understand what I went through with my mother in the last months of her life. I found such a story the other night, late, when I couldn’t sleep, again. Funnily enough, I found it on Laurie Doctor’s blog. Laurie months ago posted a poem by Herman Hesse: “When I Go to Sleep.” I told her it was helping me with my insomnia. She made me a gift of the poem in her beautiful calligraphy folded into a hand-painted box with the message “Dream with your hands” and sent it to me all the way from her home in Kentucky. I treasure it, and I’m still amazed Laurie took the time to make such a beautiful gift for me, a reader.

a story we need: dreaming with our hands

Herman Hesse: a story we need

I often recite the Hesse poem silently in bed to help me sleep, but two nights ago I returned to Laurie’s blog, where I found a story I deeply needed: “Every journey has secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” — Martin Buber

Like me, Laurie travelled hundreds of miles to be with her elderly parent. Like me, her parent had a spouse whose family had not spoken to Laurie’s in years. Like me, Laurie was determined to “give the benefit of doubt and just see what [would] happen.”

She tells her story in four parts.

I. The Story as a Sacred Map

Laurie writes: “How can I begin to tell the transforming effect of having a story, which becomes a sacred map inside you? The map shows the next step, and the road is a pathway to traverse the human dilemma—the impossible circumstances we sometimes find ourselves in.”

The impossible circumstances I found myself in:

For thirty years I promised my mother she would never have to go into a nursing home—her greatest fear. I was completely willing to look after her. I would have turned my life upside down to do so. But her partner put her in a nursing home and I could do nothing about it. He held all the legal cards and made it difficult for us—my mother’s daughters, and Mom—at every turn. Every system we encountered favoured him as spouse and disregarded us as daughters.

Laurie writes: “Like Odysseus, I knew I had to prepare to meet the Cyclops, within and without. The Cyclops has only one eye, and therefore no depth perception. The Cyclops does not care who you are, does not listen to reason, and cannot be confronted directly.”

My mother’s partner didn’t care who I was and wouldn’t listen to reason. I didn’t try to reason with him. For three months, for her sake, I chose not to confront him. In the end I lost the story I carried as a sacred map. I confronted the Cyclops directly. He called me a lying bitch and threw me out of my mother’s house.

II. Signs Along the Way

Laurie writes about finding a wooden oar small enough to fit in her pocket, which she recognized immediately “as the one belonging to Odysseus.” For her, finding the oar was “confirmation that [she] had both the guidance and the tools [she] needed to navigate this ocean of grief, conflict and misunderstanding.”

I constantly found signs that confirmed I was being guided and given the tools I needed to navigate that ocean of conflict and misunderstanding.

III. The Funeral

A pandemic prevented us from holding a funeral for my mother. My grief at being unable to gather with those who loved her to honour and remember her knows no bounds. It is an ocean I cannot seem to navigate.

IV. The Return

I left my mother on March 24th, twelve days after the pandemic was declared. Mom had been in a deep sleep, unresponsive, for half of those days. I was afraid if I stayed on the island any longer I would not be able to get home. And after three months away, I needed to be home.

Laurie writes: “I knew, like Odysseus, my focus needed to be on getting to the other shore.”

I drove all night. It felt like Odysseus’s 20-year voyage, with all the monsters, sirens, and storms he met along the way. There was no moon. I hit black ice. I fell asleep at the wheel five times. How I made it home alive is a wonder I will never understand.

All I knew was that I needed to get home.

I have been home six months, grieving, trying to ground. For a long time I couldn’t “feel the oar inside me … the fortification that is so needed, especially in these strange times.” In losing Mom I lost my “inner reference point.”

While I was there with her, I was blessed. I was “a collaborator with the divine.” I could feel it. I trust I still am. I know I haven’t really lost my reference point. As Laurie writes, Home is inside me: the place where I belong, where I am recognized for who I am.

Where will you dance us to, ballerina?
Where will we go?
We will never find ground more sacred than this:
The only Home we have is all the story we need.




10 Responses to “What kind of stories do we need right now?”

  1. Joan Conway

    Leslie, I am crying as I finish reading your post. The kind of crying that comes when one’s heart burst open with all of the beauty, fragility and struggles of simply being human. Thank you for sharing your journey with your Mother in such a soul filled way. Thank you for sharing the link to Laurie’s blog, a true inspiration to receive such a precious gift from some-one that you follow, again such an affirmation of our generous spirit . This comes at a time that is very synchronistic for my own journey. Blessings to you.

    • commatologist

      I’m so happy to hear from you, Joan. I went looking for your blog recently and found it … gone. I’m feeling another sharp loss this month – no sitting around the fireplace drinking wine with you and Judy and Adrienne at the end of a brilliant day at Rural Writers. 🙁 This damn pandemic. Has it kept you from meeting with your drumming group? I hope all is well with you and your chapbook project. Love and blessings to you.

  2. Laurie Doctor

    Leslie, I am deeply moved by your story. Your heart is so visible, as I know it always was to your mother, who knows you like no other, and is not fooled by the Cyclops. I am sure she felt you even when she could not open her eyes. What a small miracle it is that our stories are entwined together, and in the bigger picture we are together in the same story. I lost my mother about 10 years ago. It has taken time…it seemed a long time before I could feel her near again. But now I can, and I feel her helping me in ways she wanted to while she was here, but wasn’t able. I don’t understand how any of this works, but I am grateful. I know you will find your own ritual to honor your mother’s death…it took me lots of months….what a strange and difficult time this is. Your ritual will be meaningful, and invite all the presences that have guided you, and your mother, along the way. It reminds me of that line from Rilke’s poem; “I don’t want to think a place for you, speak to me from everywhere.” Your writing, and your generosity, is a gift to this world. Thank you.

    • commatologist

      Thank you, Laurie, for sharing your story and also for this beautiful post. As you so often do, you’ve said some powerful things that jolt me into a deeper knowing – my mother isn’t fooled by the Cyclops, and I will find my own ritual to honour her. I’m trying to write about her now, and that, I know, is an important part of it.

      I love that you can feel your mother helping you in ways she couldn’t before. I know the truth in that, because it’s how it has been for me with Dad – I couldn’t feel him near me for a long time after he died, and now I do.

      Thank you for the Rilke, for your vision and perception and extraordinary ability to connect everything. For being here in the same story. Thank you.

  3. theresa

    Know this to be true: “While I was there with her, I was blessed. I was “a collaborator with the divine.” I could feel it. I trust I still am. I know I haven’t really lost my reference point.” Always.

  4. Carrie

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Leslie, and for the additional pain caused by the circumstances of your mother’s passing. May the gifts of poetry, storytelling, and coneflowers continue to speak to you, and offer solace.

  5. Ana Lisa de Jong

    It was humbling to read this Leslie, your way with words and your honesty opens a door for us to share your experience in a way we are not able to have with more guarded writers. Thank you for sharing your story and your pains, we do hold them reverently.

    • commatologist

      What a beautiful thing for you to say, Ana Lisa. Thank you so much. Leslie


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