widening the backdrop


I was listening to an interview with Marie Mutsuki Mockett, author of the book “Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye” on All Things Considered yesterday. It was broadcast in this half hour piece of the show that plays on our local station during the late afternoon, and then that same half hour is repeated later, usually when I’m in my car on my way home from work. I was partially listening the first go round – I heard enough to know that I wanted to look up the interview later and listen more carefully – but then it played again while I was in the car and I connected with her words so intensely that I started to cry in my car.

She talks about Obon – a period where the spirits of the ancestors return – during which there are lantern festivals held in many places in Japan. You can purchase a paper lantern and write down the name of the person you have lost, and you set the lantern onto the water just as the sun is setting. It’s still light, but then it’s dark, and there is this sea of light floating off towards the horizon. And suddenly your focus changes from the single lantern in front of you to the hundreds of lanterns in your wake. She talks about how she initially felt after the loss of her father – how she just wished that her pain could get smaller, shrink somehow. She eventually came to the realization that the pain would not shrink because she couldn’t love him less or miss him less, but that she could open up more to the world around her, and slowly she started to feel like that pain, although it was the exact same size, was a bit smaller in comparison with the vast world around her.


It was at that moment, with those words, that I could feel it. I could feel the very physical way that my body has curled up on itself for awhile now. I can very distinctly put myself back onto my bed in those first moments of knowing that my niece was gone, and how my body twisted into a groaning knot. I can feel how tightly coiled I was as I sat on the wooden pew at her funeral. I know how we spent that whole long winter retreating into the smallest footprint within our house, clustering together, perhaps without even realizing it. I have the imprint of the chair on my back still from where I sat and cut those evergreen paper branches for hours on end, without stretching. That feeling of tightness is so close to the surface that it can be conjured up quite easily. I told M this as I cut the wreaths and evergreen garlands for the holiday cards this year – just that act of sitting down for an hour with the same green paper and the same orange handled scissors brought it all back, the way our bodies folded in upon themselves, tighter and tighter.

She put words to the way that I’m feeling these days. Like I’m unfurling and stretching in ways that I had forgotten. I halfheartedly tried to articulate my desire to further open and strengthen myself this year in this post. Mockett’s description of that openness was exactly what I was trying to say. I have to flex that muscle a bit to get it working again – it’s been so much easier to say no, to recede, to back away. But I realize that I have to use it, and it feels good to use it. I have to stretch my body in new ways, I have to open my mind to other’s ideas that aren’t necessarily the ideas that I typically hoard and nurture within me before sharing. I have to find meaningful ways to connect to others and do things for others. I’m ready to nurture and care for this little place we call home, and make it stretch a little more to accommodate our growing girls and growing interests. We have curled into tiny corners of our home for so long, and it has waited patiently for us to return to it.

Listening to that piece made me more aware of what is driving my intentions this year – to stretch my body, to craft a home, to open up more in my writing. It has nothing to do with goals of perfection – the perfect body, the perfect kitchen, the perfect blog. It really has to do with openness. Less opening, the verb, but more openness as a practice. Widening the backdrop of this life a bit.

We have to negotiate this world where we know the worst can happen because it has, and the only way to move forward from that point is to let that pain float on an endless open sea with others.

10 Responses to widening the backdrop

  1. Phenomenal. The last paragraph caps off a beautiful piece. You are becoming my favorite writer.

  2. This is so lovely. I am working on a piece for a newsletter about how grief has changed me and this is similar to what I’ve been trying to articulate. It’s not a silver lining, but an adjustment of perspective.
    Brooke recently posted…So I Guess I’m an Early Riser Now*My Profile

  3. I love this. The lanterns and how one small becomes many, big. And even better articulated, open.

  4. a beautiful, beautiful post. thank you.

  5. A good read tonight, and that feeling…one I will never forget. You are a beautiful writer!
    Courtney recently posted…so sorry for the confusionMy Profile

  6. Beautifully said.

  7. I heard that moving story on NPR, and this is beautiful, too. Then seeing that the first comment was from your dad made me tear up. Peace to both of us.

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