Spies

This next song has been with me since it was released in 2000. It’s a Song of Songs in my book because of how it has spoken to me over the last 20 years.

After the turn of the millennium, I entered a very dark tunnel, but there was no light at the other end.  Instinctively I knew I had to keep walking toward the darkness if I was to have any hope of finding an exit on the other side. Retreat was not an option. It was a season of spiritual and personal doubt that was exacerbated by major events, 9/11 being the chief of blows. Everything I believed in was being challenged, but Spies gave me an alternative perspective.

As a writer, I believe and adore the power of words, and how the right word given at the right time can make all the difference in the world.  I love how a simple conversation with a thoughtful person can be life-changing. I may begin feeling one way and by the end I sense my back a little straighter, my head held a little higher. The lyrics of this song has that effect on me.  It turns me from despair to hope on two simple words. 

On my bucket list is to have a pint with Chris Martin and ask him personally where this song came from. Because it was so in line with the angst I was feeling. He begins with:

I awake to find no peace of mind

I said how do you live

As a fugitive?

Down here, where I cannot see so clear

I said what do I know?

Show me the right way to go

That was my prayer verbatim.  I had difficulty sleeping. I didn’t know where I belonged.  I had lost direction. I needed some help. He continues:

And the spies came out of the water

And you’re feeling so bad ’cause you know

And the spies hide out in every corner

But you can’t touch them, no

‘Cause they’re all spies

Who hasn’t felt this way? Surrounded on all sides by personal inner demons, aka spies hiding out in every corner. And I can’t do a damn thing about it.  When this happens, I reflexively begin to agree with this feeling of helplessness. And when I make agreements with the spies, I’ve just signed a contract consenting to their terms.

And if we don’t hide here

They’re gonna find us

And if we don’t hide now

They’re gonna catch us when we sleep

And if we don’t hide here

They’re gonna find us

Panic sets in. Negative self-talk becomes rationalized. I gotta go hide or they’re gonna catch me.

But light can appear in the tunnel in a moment and an unexpected messenger find me and change my perspective instantaneously.  When I awaken to discover that the spies I’m dogged by are just that. They are just spies. They hold no true power other than what I signed away to them in the bogus contract.

Spies came out of the water

And you’re feeling so good ’cause you know

And those spies hide out in every corner

But they can’t touch you, no

‘Cause they’re just spies

Spies from the 2000 album Parachutes by Coldplay

That’s why I’m feeling so good these days, 20 years later.  I see through them. They’re just spies

Latter Days

During hospice I had to train myself to pay attention to Karen’s voice, for there were times I would hear my name called out during the night, only to get up and look in on her and she was sound asleep.  It got to the point when I would wake to the sound of my name, I would stay in bed until I heard another call out. Most often there wasn’t a second summoning. I was hearing something that wasn’t there.

I guess this is pretty common. My dad told me he would often hear my voice calling out to him while he was out on the tractor or working in the barn after I left for college.  I know there are psychological explanations for this occurrence, but my intuition tends to look in other places for explanation, namely in my own heart. It’s not rational and wouldn’t stand up to science, but I find I’m right more times than not.  It’s why I lean in to the inner voice. 

Recently, I had an experience with this next song, Latter Days.  The original version was performed by Over The Rhine on the album, Good Dog, Bad Dog in 1996.  But the one that moved me in a new way is covered by Lonesome Animals on Covers/Lovers released in 2018.  It’s a song with which I was familiar, but it took on a new voice, literally, in this new season. The new singer’s vocal is sparse and breathy, much like I remember Karen’s during her decline.

Early one morning last week, as is my regular practice, I listen to a few songs that are currently moving me.  I got this from Al DiMeola at a guitar workshop years ago. An attendee asked him what music he was listening to and he said, “I gravitate toward anything that moves me. It could be any genre. If it moves me, I pay attention.” I’ve heeded that advice.

But that morning, I heard this song in Karen’s tired and lonely voice:

What a beautiful piece of heartache

This has all turned out to be

Grief is painful, but pain does not have to win.  My faith leads me to believe that Joy is the most powerful condition in the world, because it is the constant temperature of Heaven.  The Joy of the Lord is my strength. Pain is a temporary condition. Joy is eternal. Pain will come to pass. Joy will come to stay.

There is a me you would not recognize, dear

Call it the shadow of myself

The hardest part of watching someone die is to have to see that person in a condition that is so far from their original state of vibrance and vigor.  Karen was strong, independent, athletic and always on the go. She hated losing that independence and becoming unable to even get to the fridge for a drink of water.

And if the music starts before I get there

Dance without me, you dance so gracefully

I really think I’ll be okay

Karen was chronically late everywhere we went our entire marriage. She also really didn’t like dancing, but would defer to me on occasion. She was too self-conscious. This was her way of saying I won’t be there to dance with you, but I’ll be OK without you. Please carry on. Don’t wait for me.

They’ve taken a toll, these latter days

Nothing like sleeping on a bed of nails

Nothing much here but our broken dream

Oh, but baby, if all else fails

Nothing is ever quite what it seems

Song – Latter Days · Artist – Over the Rhine
Album – Good Dog Bad Dog ℗ 1996

We had our share of challenges during our life together. One third of marriage was consumed by cancer.  All our businesses failed. We went bankrupt. That’s only part of it all. But despite how it all seems, there is a firm foundation on which I can still stand and rebuild with Hope. Nothing is ever quite what it seems.  This is the message with which I emerge. Yes, they’ve taken their toll, these latter days, but…

…there is always Hope. 

All These Places Feel Like Home

Listen to The Beauty in Grief Playlist on Spotify

I dream a lot at night, and my dreams are not always rational or coherent.  But I take them very seriously and write them down so I can remember them and call on them at a later time.  I don’t really consider why there was a recurring green giraffe. What makes the most sense to me about a dream is its emotion. Fear I can understand and unpack.  The green giraffe I can’t. So I pay attention to what makes sense first and go from there.

To me, songs are like dreams.  All the lyrics of a song may not fit my experience, but there might be a verse or stanza that seems like it was written directly to or for me.  This first song has become an anthem for me in my newly initiated life. I like the whole song, but the opening verse speaks of what is unfolding in front of me. 

This could be the very minute

I’m aware that I’m alive

All these places feel like home.

From 2003 Final Straw by Snow Patrol,

I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to travel since Karen passed in November.  Currently I find the road is a better companion than the empty house. Nothing against Hank the Dog. He does the best he can, but he can’t silence the four walls that tell their stories whether I want to hear them or not.

I don’t ever want anyone to ever feel like my experience in grief should be theirs.  I can only bear witness to what is happening in my soul. This is why I feel compelled to write about it right now. I don’t want to wait until it’s over to say something.  My writing is like a flashlight, searching for a path out. And if it brightens your way, then let’s walk alongside each other. Together we’ll find our way out. And I’ve made a new friend as a result.

I’ve been to some beautiful cities in the last two months and I’ve reconnected with some beautiful people. I’ve gathered with them around incredible food, inspiring music, dark coffee, in the confines of an airplane, and in the serenity of a ferryboat. I left tears in each place. But they weren’t just tears of sadness. There were many moments of transcendence, of awe and wonder.

All these places feel like home.

In order to live my life to its fullest, I’ve discovered I must be willing to feel every single emotion that comes my way. To the degree that I refuse to be present in the valley is the degree I am unable to experience the bliss of the mountaintop.  I can’t just choose the good and ignore the painful. I can’t make music on my guitar without a string held in tension between the tuning peg and the bridge. It’s this tension between two opposing points that causes the vibrations that can be turned into music. It takes both.

I feel the fruit that is starting to be borne out of the loss of my wife is a new opportunity to become more and more alive.  I’m less fearful today than ever before. I’m less afraid of what others might think. I’m less afraid of my past mistakes. That’s why I can sing along:

With a name I’ve never chosen

I can make my first steps

As a child of 56

Today’s a new day. Make it count.

Put a Pin In It.

The Friday evening after Karen’s memorial service, a gathering of a few of my dear friends and family members met in my backyard around the firepit to continue on in honor of Karen.  The weather was unseasonably warm for November. The waning gibbous moon was beginning to rise in the east. Glasses of Karen-pour whiskey were raised to the “Tornado of Hospitality,” the term that was so aptly coined by our pastor that day.  I could feel that this was going to be a night to remember. And indeed it was.

I made a discovery that night that had not dawned on me, but everyone around the circle made a similar comment about me. 

  • “Shinn gave me this song back in 1999…”
  • “I still have the mixtape that Shinn made me when I was in a bad place…”
  • “I remember the concert Shinn and I went to…”
  • “I knew we were going to be friends when we started talking about Coldplay’s Parachutes.

Music is a way I chronicle my journey and my friendships.  Ask me what I was listening to after my dad died. I’ll tell you that some of the songs on Moby’s Play were comforting to the point I thought they might have been divinely inspired.  David Gray’s White Ladder was the music from 20 years ago as I started into a season of spiritual vagueness and wandering.  The song, Up To The Roof by Blue Man Group helped push me toward opening bread&cup

When I was in high school, I got a flat tire on the way home from a ball game and had to pull over on the side of the highway.  I was sick, throwing up and too weak to want to change it, I laid down on the bench seat of the F-100, turned the key backward to power up the radio and listened to 97.5 KMOD, an AOR station out of Tulsa, OK. Stations those days did Midnight Album Hour where they would play an entire record album without commercial interruptions. At 12am, the songs of Nine Tonight kept me company till I fell asleep and waited for daylight.  To this day, when I hear Bob Seger sing, “here I am, on the road again…” I remember that night clearly.

For my next few posts, I want to share some songs that are important to me and explain why they hold such revered place in my heart. One guy around the fire described this connection as a way of putting a pin in a moment so it can be remembered. Songs mark my map. I’ll be curious to know what songs mark yours.

What’s The Book About?

My book is scheduled to ship to LNK late next week and I’m very excited to get it into your hands to read and remember the place that I loved creating.  At 275 pages, 166 full-color photographs, the finished hardcover product is beautiful, reflecting the talent of the team that worked so diligently to bring it to fruition. The first question most people ask: “What’s the book about?”

I labored a couple of years over the decision on whether to write the book or not.  I was asked point blank why anyone would want to read a book about a restaurant that failed? That questioned stumped me, and I initially agreed with its assumption.  I failed, so dig the hole, bury it and move on, right? But I could not get away from a higher thought. Something kept persisting, something bigger than I was willing to consider.

Is the story larger than the restaurant?

I eventually came to the conclusion that yes, it is larger, because I came to a point where I could see a different story.  My eyes shifted from loss and failure to seeing what I gained as a result of having to finally close the doors.

I found Hope.

There was a time not too long ago when Hope was in very short supply in my life. All I could see was Despair and it was doing its job crushing any Hope that I had left.  Depression is called that because it presses in from all sides, leaving little room for rational and reasonable thinking. I look back with a nauseating grief remembering how I felt during that time.  It’s terrifying and I don’t ever want to be there again. If my story can provide a little of the Hope that was extended to me in my darkest hour and help someone back away from the ledge of Despair, I will be glad I took the risk to speak up.

There is a term in psychology called Object Permanence.  It begins in early childhood development around 4-7 months. A child is learning that when the ball isn’t visible, it doesn’t mean it is gone forever.  This is why peek-a-boo is so fun for little kids. They think mom and dad are magicians by pulling a ball out of thin air. I suffered from a lack of object permanence with Hope.  Loss and failure blindfolded me so I couldn’t see it. I was almost convinced it was gone forever. I needed some important people to assure me that Hope did indeed exist. I had to trust the eyes of others who could see what I couldn’t.

I didn’t just write about cooking and print a few recipes.  I tell about what was going on in my life that led me to take the huge risk to open a business of which I had no prior experience. I’ve included some of my past writing about Karen’s journey with cancer.  You’ll get a glimpse of what it was like to have our community rally around her. The thread that you’ll see woven throughout is how Hope was always a part of everything, from the inception to its decline. Hope keeps drawing me forward through another loss as cancer finally took Karen away.  It’s a story that isn’t fully finished. It goes beyond simple food and drink. Way beyond. I hope it will inspire someone to not give up.

The best is yet to come.

The Scent of Death

I’m not sure why, but my sense of smell is acute.  It’s not like I worked at developing it or practiced in the off season to improve.  But it’s a part of me that I’ve learned to lean into and enjoy. It helps me in my cooking and management of a kitchen.  I could walk through the front door and have an immediate impression that something is wrong. Burnt black beans smell like a cigarette ashtray.  I know this from experience. Occasionally if a cook tried to pass off a pot of beans that were scorched, I wouldn’t even have to taste it. I could smell the damage. And a quick spoonful affirmed my suspicions. Staff knew at that point; dump the beans and start over.

This sense might be genetic.  My dad always bought mom very nice perfume for Christmas.  This practice became his tradition and when I got married, I tried to carry it on with Karen but she was too frugal or shy so she would only wear it on special occasions. I tried convincing her it was paid for, and it can’t be enjoyed in the bottle on the shelf, but she still left a handful of bottles behind.

For what would be our last Christmas, I told her I was going to get her one more perfume. I asked if she would leave the others in the closet and exclusively wear the new.  I wanted her to wear it constantly, and she did. Even to the first chemo treatment, I told her I didn’t want to remember the clinical smell of a doctor’s office. I wanted to remember something beautiful.

There weren’t a lot of occasions in the final months where she got dressed to go out, but she would put on a spritz of the new fragrance at home in deference to me, even though she didn’t really want to. “I don’t feel the way this smells” she protested.  I defended, “Thank you. You’ve proved my point.”

In the narrative of the Old Testament, incense was used in conjunction with the sacrifices that were made to atone for the sins of the people.  This involved the killing of animals, a practice with which I am familiar. Not on an altar as a priest, but as a cook on a butcher block. When an animal is drawn, its insides don’t smell very nice. Blood, gas, fecal matter all come purging out with the intestines and organs.  It’s not a pretty sight, but it is a part of the food chain, and it was a part of the Old Testament worship tradition.

To address the stench, the priests would burn an incense.  This was not your Nag Champa or any other stick they found at the head shop. It was a proprietary recipe with expensive ingredients that could not be used for any other purpose than the animal sacrifice.  It would fill the air and mask the smell of death. When citizens would smell that particular smoke, they knew a sacrifice was being made. It became their Scent of Death. Unauthorized use would result in punishment of death. This aroma was taken very seriously. 

When Karen went unconscious in her final six days, I found the bottle of perfume and told her that I was pulling out the $150 air freshener. Daily I would mist the air and her bedsheets.  This was my Scent of Death. A beautiful aroma to associate with a sad moment.

Today, I keep that bedroom door closed, but when I need to, I go in and sit on the bed, smell the air and let it trigger memories. And let Grief do its thing.

The Body Keeps Score

As many of you can tell from my Instagram posts (@breadandcup), I’ve been traveling a lot these last two months. I love to travel but did not have the opportunity for several years. Since a college student, I’ve always had the desire to set out on the road to step into the unknown. Sometimes watching a passing freight train produces that curiosity of jumping on and wondering where it would take me.

There were many people at Karen’s memorial that came from long distances who I had not seen in many years. I felt so bad that I couldn’t say thank you personally to everyone with a hug and face to face acknowledgment.  But in my emotional state that day I knew I had to make a choice to limit the interaction to family and only a few select friends. 

As the last guests left my house and city, I began to entertain the idea of finding some of these friends that made the trek to Lincoln and travel to see them on their home turf. And I’ve done just that.  It has proven to be a significant part of my grief process.

What the travel has done for me is to make room for grief to unfold.  The moments that emerged were surprises, as is the case with grief. But had I not carved out the place, I would have been less likely to have these experiences.

If I ever write about grief in the future, it will probably be more of a pamphlet than a book. It’s because what I am learning about grief is fairly simple. While grief is different for every individual, everyone will benefit from simply listening and paying attention.

I have been reading a book titled The Body Keeps Score. The simple premise is that my body retains more information than I can ever imagine, especially from traumatic experiences, but also from happy moments.  My body holds the keys to unlock these past encounters so I can make sense of them and eventually find healing from the bad, but also in celebration of the good.

On Saturday morning, I took a walk through downtown Tulsa and immediately began to feel something unusual.  I could not put my finger on it, so I reckoned I should listen and pay attention. At that point I realized that I was standing in front of the hotel where Karen and I spent our first night as a married couple. I melted in emotion.

I walked into the lobby and memories came back like a dam bursting.  I was immediately washed downstream into a place without cancer or financial stress.  I found myself in a season of love and delight nearly 30 years ago. I couldn’t tell if I was happy or sad. But I knew it was important nonetheless.  But it would not have happened if I hadn’t listened and paid attention.

I continued on my walk through downtown Tulsa, home of magnificent highrises in the art deco style architecture. The same feeling came over me.  What’s continuing? More listening. More paying attention.

I found me and my dad.

Dad loved wrestling, or ‘rasslin’ as we called it in Oklahoma.  On Monday nights in the Civic Center in downtown Tulsa, he would take me to see guys like Danny Hodge and Cowboy Bill Watts put on their show.  On these outings as a little boy, I recall seeing these big ornate buildings and especially the NBC bank building that had the flashing light beacon on top that signaled green for good weather or red for imminent threatening weather. As I paid attention to the score that my body had kept all these years, I felt as a 56 year old man the closeness with my dad on those trips as a 10 year old boy.

I continued walking and paying attention.

I turned the corner and saw this building in the corridor of other skyscrapers. I bet you feel something similar to what I did.  “That sure looks like the World Trade Center.” And we all have the score of that day etched into our bodies. 

As I returned to the apartment where I was staying, I came upon a circle of sculptures.  This one was titled Freedom from Polio. It depicted a little girl tossing away her crutches and stepping out uninhibited. But it was the smile on her face that broke me into more tears. I imagined that’s what Karen’s face looked like when she finally shed the hindrance of cancer.

Freedom from Polio

Listen and pay attention to your body. It’s kept score all your life. It wants to tell you something. You can’t change the score, but you can change the game.

Is this still true?

Years ago, in response to cancer’s invasion, Karen put these 6 words on the west wall of our bedroom.  It took until last year for the truth of them to fully sink into my being.

Truth is like that.  I can mentally agree with a statement while at the same time not feel it in my bones.  I can try to convince myself that it should be true, but there is a significant amount of resistance in my emotions that doesn’t want to accept it.

How could the best be yet to come if my wife is dying of cancer?  How could the best be yet to come if it takes her away from me? How could being alone be better than growing old with my partner?

These were questions I used to challenge that statement on the wall each morning as I woke and saw it there. Sometimes it felt like it was mocking me and taunting my unbelief. “See, it’s not true.” I’m glad to say that I now wake up with a different perspective of those 6 words.

As a person of faith, I have access to certain experiences that I would not otherwise encounter without faith. Hope is one of those.

The epiphany came through a short little prayer, one that I’m sure most of you can recite.

It’s called The Lord’s Prayer, which I always found an interesting title since the prayer includes a request for forgiveness of sin, which Jesus didn’t have any.  Maybe we should call it the Disciples Prayer or the Prayer for Everyone, since that’s who it’s really for.

As is usually the case when I hear a Heavenly Message, it came in just a few words.

On earth as it is in heaven.

It’s my belief that Heaven is a place of perfection.  It’s a realm I was made to live in. It’s a place without sickness and without strife.  It’s why I hate those things. There was no original plan for them. I wasn’t fashioned to be sick.  I was intended for so much more.

The little prayer gives me permission to acknowledge what I am in need of right now.  I need certain things on a daily basis. I need awareness of my Heavenly Father. I need food and clothing.  I need forgiveness, both to offer it and receive it.  

Implied in the little prayer is a place where all of these things reside in abundance; in heaven.  Since they exist there, I have been given permission to freely ask for them to be a reality in my day to day life here. On earth as it is in heaven.

When I find myself in short supply of Hope, I’ve been told how to ask for it. There is no rationing or scarcity. There is plenty to give away. This is why I now believe, the best is yet to come.

What I’ve Learned About Death and Dying

Dogs are amazing creatures and my mutt, Hank, is no exception.  

In the first week of July 2019, Karen’s condition had deteriorated to the point where all of us involved thought this would be our final goodbye. Hank also became aware that something wasn’t quite right in the house and his demeanor changed. On July 3rd, I went to the back door like I always do first thing in the morning to let him out to do his business.  But this day was different. He went to the threshold, stopped, sniffed the air a few times, then came back in the house without going outside. 

I can only speculate, since I’m not a dog, nor do I pretend to understand how dogs thinks.  But I do know that his behavior coincided with what I was feeling.  Death seemed present and imminent, like it was surrounding my home, seeking for whom it may devour. Something was amiss. 

Over the course of exactly one year (she was diagnosed November 02, 2018. She died November 02, 2019) I had a front row seat to observe Death and the tricks It tried to employ up to the point where the number of her days were complete.  I took notes.  Here’s a bit of what I learned. 

As a person of faith, I believe death is the final spirit that holds any remaining power over me.  Everyone I know and love will eventually die, myself included. When we got the bad news on Friday, November 02, 2018, I made a decision that day.  It was a decision Karen misinterpreted, because she immediately asked me why I didn’t seem upset. Worry has the tendency to be intimidated by Peace.  One of them will eventually win.  I told her it was my choice to decide which one will be victorious. 

Throughout the year, my decision to cooperate with Peace would be challenged almost daily.  Death didn’t seem near yet, but Death commands an army of negative spirits. The chief of these spirits is Fear.  When Death gets directly involved, Fear volunteers to go to work offering the only thing it possesses; Fear.  In this way, Fear is singular in its threats against me.  As a person of faith, I possess other weaponry that I can call up in my defense. I have Love, Joy, Patience, Kindness that are glad to help me take on Fear at any time I need. 

In the last six days of her life, Karen was unconscious and unresponsive.  I knew Death was close by.  I felt it stirring.  On the third night of those six, I had five dreams involving the death, including the death of Hank.  But that next morning, I went into her room and sat in the chair that many of you sat in to say your goodbyes. I told Death that even though it would eventually complete Its assignment, none of his other troops would be allowed. Fear, Worry, Doubt, Anxiety and Panic would not be welcome in her room or in my house. 

When the Number of Days were fulfilled early Saturday morning, Death took her body away. I went in to the living room where Hank lay.  I asked him if he wanted to go say goodbye to Mom. He looked at me, got up quickly off the floor and ran in to her room, jumped up on her bed and laid his head on her legs. 

He was saying goodbye. 

He seemed to understand my decision.  He and I were not giving in to Fear, even though the grief process was beginning.   

Snow Angels

More from the archive. This one from 2010. Another reminder that writers write the things they need to read. The lessons I’ve learned about grief along the way are never wasted. This is important music to me. I hope it speaks to you in the same way.

FROM THE ARCHIVE: DECEMBER 11, 2010

I was talking with The Future the other day about Christmas music and our discussion led to bands that feel the need to make a Christmas CD and how often these kinds of albums don’t seem to measure up to anything else the band had recorded.  I asked him if he had ever heard of Snow Angels by a group called Over The Rhine. His immediate response was, “Well, that’s not really fair to include them in this list.”

What he meant was, it’s a little like stacking the card deck, or pitting men against boys. It’s just not like all the rest.

I just recently discovered Snow Angels this year, even though it is a 2007 release from OTR. I can easily say I have no other Christmas recording like it.  The only downside I can think of is that I might listen to it too much and thereby lose some of its savor.

Christmas is thought of as a happy time of celebration.  All the commercial images we see portrayed are happy people shopping for gifts to make people even happier. The food you serve makes you and your loved ones happy. We want it to be this way, but the reality of the holiday doesn’t always deliver that same end result.

Snow Angels has a way of expressing this darker side without being morose, despondent or hopeless. It allows you to acknowledge the emotion of loneliness that comes from being without a loved one during the holiday, while not encouraging you to wallow in pity.  It says that sorrow from loss is natural, because that person meant something.  It does something very few works of art can do; it encourages you, in the Words of Solomon, to grasp one and not let go of the other. To hold joy in one hand, and grief in the other is very difficult to do, if not near impossible.

My Christmas this year finds me tussling with these kinds of juxtaposed feelings. I hold the ugliness of Karen’s cancer in one hand, and the relief of her recovery in the other. I grip the sadness of a boy leaving for college, and at the same time, clutch the hope of a young man growing to maturity to change his world. I hang on to the quietness of the house during this season, while not letting go of the memories of children who daily took inventory of the presents under the tree, waiting eagerly for the day they could tear into the wrapping.

Listening to Snow Angels offers me the opportunity to survey both sides of my story, to reach out and embrace either side at will. The road up to the mountain leads through the valley. It can’t be circumvented, try as I may.