Sound Like Where You’re From.

I love certain linguistic accents.  I could listen to Saoirse Ronan and Fiona Ritchie all day. I enjoy how their articulation sounds to my ear. The lilt, the cadence, the emphasis on certain syllables. Could it be because the way they sound seems more exotic and attractive to me? Or maybe it’s because it makes me feel like my Okie elocution sounds pedestrian.  Don’t be surprised if this immersion among the Irish these next two weeks has me sounding like Liam Neeson when I get back.

How does an accent develop?  Why do Midwesterners think they don’t have an accent? Who taught the Irish how to sound Irish?  Or who showed a child in Alabama how to sound different than a kid from Boston? 

We learned it from each other. 

From an early age, we instinctively repeat what we hear. In both language and accent, the words formed and the particular way they sound are an imitation of those we learn from. I could try to sound Irish, but at my age, it would be a difficult conversion.

Already, a few times on this trip, I’ve been asked where I’m from after I’ve opened my mouth to speak. To some, it’s obvious because they predict I’m from the U.S. How I sound is an indication of where I live.

The dialect of social media has a predominant accent.  So does our current political discourse. It sounds like dismissive annoyance and rage. I spend less and less time there because of that. I don’t want to pick up that accent. It really doesn’t matter what side of the aisle or point of view, if it ends up being delivered in the same patois, everyone sounds alike.

Here in Ireland, I’m a little self-conscious about sounding different, but in the realm of social media and politics, I don’t mind standing out from the crowd. I hope my voice sounds like it was raised in another Kingdom.

Homesick

The fascination of transition has begun, and it always starts in the same way when I travel internationally.  It’s the eye for things that are different. Some drastic, others subtle. It always takes a day or two to remember to go to the left side of the car or ask for crisps or biscuits in my food order.  I am, however, smart enough not to order an Irish Car Bomb or a Black & Tan from intuition and not failed experience.

I love eavesdropping on the three French women sitting on the train in the row next to me, even though I have no idea what they are saying.  Instead my mind considers how vastly different their perception of the world is than mine. They possess a language that has rhythm and timbre that sounds fetching.  Much like Celina yesterday at her shop, le chocolat de Fred. Though she spoke fluent English, it was with the winsome accent of her heritage.  The sound of her voice was enough to make me want to stand in the queue and order another savory crepe to hear her say, Oui. Merci.

These initial observations of cultural variance are fun to account for, but they can become the same things that drive a person crazy.  My friends who have lived in a multinational context have told me after a while, the novelty wears off, and the yearning to return to a familiar life takes over. One guy once told me he couldn’t wait to get back to the States to once again sink his teeth into a hamburger and a Snickers bar.  Regardless of the reasons why, these two things connected him to a sense of place. They reminded him of home. His idea of belonging.

Familiarity fosters comfort. It’s another reason why loss is devastating. Not only is the person gone, but so is the lifestyle and the constancy that was attached to them. That good feeling isn’t coming back.

This longing for home isn’t optional.  It’s compulsory. Homesickness is nothing to feel guilty about. But it is something that might need to be set aside for a season.

I remember as a young child getting homesick at church camp. I recall wanting to go home after day one. I was pretty young and it was only for a week, but everything was so new and unexpected to that little boy. I wanted something familiar right away. I cried in the bathroom so I wouldn’t be seen. I wasn’t old enough to have perspective that things would settle down. But I was old enough to feel shame.

In the same heart as that little boy is the yearning to be home.  Not to the empty house I will walk back into on March 19. But back to a dwelling place, to a familiar shelter furnished in the environment of companionship.

Grief is homesickness. 

Unfinished Business

Eleven years ago this month, I took my family to Ireland for a ten-day excursion. After only four days into the trip, we got word that Karen’s dad had passed away.  We were in Galway when the news reached us, so we had to say goodbye to the Emerald Isle and return home. I always felt robbed of that experience, so I told myself I would someday revisit and complete the unfinished business.

I landed in Dublin this morning for two weeks of writing, hiking, listening and observing.  I don’t know why I’m drawn to Ireland over any other country in the world. My last name has Gaelic roots according to Ancestry.com, but no one in my family identifies with the heritage. I think it’s something less cognitive and much more visceral. It’s a feeling that is evoked by music and lore, of ideal and history.

I can hear the Divine Voice in their fiddle, speaking quietly, saying it’s OK to feel joyful, while giving me just as much permission to the necessity of weeping. Music like theirs flows from centuries of life experience, not out of theory. To know Irish history is to know that it’s anything but lucky. They are a people with a past that taught them what it means to grieve, something I intimately identify with right now.

Even their most noted beer has an historic context, having been brewed for 261 years, 17 years before my country was founded.  That leaves 8,739 years left on the 9,000 year lease at St James Gate. This endears me to a sense of place that is unlike my own. Nebraskans might imagine their Huskers playing football for 261 seasons, all of them with a winning record. That might get close to the devotion the Irish manifest.

I look forward to watching what unfolds in the next two weeks. I made the journey by myself because I wanted to be free to see where will the Hound will lead. Down which trails and paths will He take me? I’m eager to find out.

Slainte’

Acquainted With Anger, But We’re Not Friends

A neurosurgeon is experienced in the science and study of how the brain works, but no one has ever opened up the cranium and found the thoughts held by that patient. No one knows the thoughts of a person, except that person themselves.

This makes each of us unique in a very peculiar way.  I have no idea what is going on in your head. I can only observe behavior that your thoughts produce.

I write about grief because you can’t read my mind.  You can’t see my thoughts, but my act of writing can give you a glimpse of what I am going through.

I don’t mind the question, “How are you doing?” Mainly because the answer keeps changing. Answering that question is helpful to me in remembering where I’ve been and mindful of where I want to go.

Anger filled my thoughts in the beginning stages of loss.  This was very unsettling to me. I’m not comfortable with anger.  I don’t like the damage it causes. And I especially don’t like the business of cleaning up the mess that it leaves.  But I knew I had to investigate it. I went in eyes wide open.

I bought a journal specifically for this stage of grief.  I got very honest, more so than I’ve ever done in a writing project.  I had to face the fear of that book ever being discovered. I wrote a disclaimer in the front of it, in case someone ever found it before I eventually burn it.

“On these pages are the thoughts of a grieving man.  If anyone ever finds this, please don’t read it. But if you are unable to discard it, please know that this is my deliberate war between Love and Anger. Like any war, combat is grim and shocking. But I have every intention of seeing that Love is victorious.”

My angry thoughts had to be confronted, or else they were going to set up shop in my mind, and they had no intention of paying rent for taking up space. It was up to me to evict them. I couldn’t hire a surgeon to remove them for me. So I went to work.

I’m much less angry now. I’ve worked backwards through the years and fought through the initial negative emotions and experiences.  I finally found the Place of Good Memories.

Traveling has been my calming tonic in the operation.  I had a lot to suss out. I prefer the space to let my mind wander.

Bring My Flowers Now

I struck up a conversation with a woman standing with the expectant crowd in front of the stage as we waited on Tanya Tucker to perform.  Among the chit chat we exchanged, the subject of past concerts came up. I told her one reason I was down front like this was in solidarity with my daughter, who taught me the importance of getting as close as possible.  I regaled the story of waiting for 5 hours at the barrier in front of the stage for Mumford & Sons. That makes a better memory than being lost in the sea of people somewhere in the middle.

Her name was Nikki. She asked about the rest of my family.  I told her I was recently widowed but that I didn’t want to stop living life, thus taking up my friend’s offer to come to the show. She affirmed that decision. The lights went down. End of conversation. It’s showtime.

The name of Tanya Tucker’s 2020 tour is Bring My Flowers Now, taken from her recent song of the same title. The sentiment of the song is to never wait to express love, but if the thought to bring flowers home comes from the heart, regardless of occasion, then by all means, bring ‘em home.

At the point in the concert where this song was performed, I started tearing up. As I soaked in my past memories, Nikki noticed, reached over and patted my shoulder and gave me an unexpected gift.

“You did that for her, didn’t you?”

I lost it.

Who knew that a simple kindness from a complete stranger would have such a positive effect? It served to remind me of the many times I did bring flowers home for no reason.  And the annual ritual of cutting forsythia in midwinter to force their yellow blossoms to bring a little color indoors to help assuage a dreary winter. And my practice each fall of planting tulips in my garden just for cutting in the spring. 

Yes, I did that, Nikki.  Thank you so much.

We all need more kindness in this world.

Dying to Live

I lived more years with her than without.  There was a time I didn’t have her in my life.  Now I’m back to where I started.

Marriage is a process of dying to self.  It won’t work if both partners are not willing to set aside certain personal preferences and predispositions for the sake of creating an intimate union with each other.  It’s no wonder that many marriages don’t work out. Folks, especially religious ones, who look smugly on those who have separated are missing the log in their own eye. Anyone who cannot see divorce through the eyes of compassion are likely avoiding their own painful realities.

The word is deference.  I adopted this word early on.  It means humble submission and respect. At first marriage felt like it was leading me into a world full of grey where there was very little right or wrong. I later learned that I was color-blind.

Over the years of my marriage, I started to see how it was coloring my world, not making it monotone.  When our first child was born, it felt like an invasion of our private time together. But as I submitted to the restrictions that came with being a parent, I saw life differently.  I no longer focused on the loss of freedom. I could see the beauty of this woman and the tiny little humans that made their way into my life.

In this transition, I lost some of myself. There were things I enjoyed that I could no longer do.  I couldn’t stay out as long as I wanted. I had to be home a certain time each night. I had to check in if I was going to be late.   To each of these I chose to defer out of kindness and consideration of this new life. 

Ultimately, I was gaining something, not losing.

Now that this partnership is gone, it’s back to just me again.  It’s like I’m 22 and fresh out of college, but with the perspective of a 56 year old mind.

I have 30 years of being shaped intimately by the lives of three unique, special individuals.  I get to go through another transition with the exact same regard.

Do I major on what I’ve lost or on what I am gaining and becoming?

Keep Setting The Table

I opened my home to friends last night. It felt good to cook again. It felt even better to set the table.

She left her earth suit on the rented hospital bed in the side bedroom four months ago today, shedding it for something new and more fitting and suitable to her true nature.  I lost a life partner and the mother of our children that day. But there is one thing I did not lose, and each day I am discovering more of what I stand to gain.

I didn’t lose my identity.

She was my companion and meant to be that.  But she was not to be my identity. She was never to be my reason for getting out of bed, going to work and raising a family.

About a month ago, I listened to my heart tell me how much it wanted to start setting the table again.  As I allowed myself permission to engage this inner exchange, I noticed something occurring. I started feeling really happy.  I got lost in the reverie of past memories of setting the table. I remembered many of the people I served. I remembered many of the friends that served alongside me.  And the other recollection…  

The food was secondary.

I’ve always had this hierarchy, that food serves people, not vice versa. I wrote about it in my book on page 87 in an entry titled The Soul of a Chef. Wrapped up in my identity as a chef is the desire to nurture and edify.  Cooking is about comfort. And providing comfort is a reflexive response when I see a need. I want to help and one of the most fulfilling ways is to cook for people.

Last night was a step in that direction. It was my first solo flight in my house in many years. It reaffirmed the part of me that is uniquely mine, not because of who I was once married to. It was an opportunity to let that part of me be seen again.

I may never own a restaurant again. I’m getting too old for that grind.  But I most certainly will always be cooking as a means of taking care of people.  I plan to always keep setting the table.

Love is Watching Someone Die

One of my many cherished memories with my family when my kids were young is traveling together.  We visited England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales on two different occasions. In dad form, I forced everyone to simplify and reduce all possessions to three items; Coat. Backpack. Suitcase.  Any time we left a hotel or train, the checklist was called out. The response was to be, “Check.” Then off we went.

I also came up with a phrase on our journey that sticks with me today.  Before we would move on from a city or destination, I would ask the kids, “Did we do what we came to do?”  This means, we came all this way, speak up now or regret it later. In the words of Hamish from Braveheart, “I didn’t get dressed up for nothin.”

As I reflect back on my nearly 30 years of marriage, it’s hard to not focus on the things I wish I would have done or said differently.  But those are the small things compared to what I accomplished. There are more important things that I can grasp as I walk forward into my days ahead.

I watched a woman die.

And it wasn’t a quick death either.  It was a long, slow process. A caregiver understands that one of the biggest burdens to carry is the weight of waiting.  It’s not called a Waiting Room for nothing. Sitting and waiting. Waiting for the nurse to call her name, saying the doctor will see you now.  Waiting for test results. Waiting for surgery to be finished. Waiting for her to wake up, Waiting for chemo to finish the slow drip, And the worst of all, waiting for her to die.

Watching someone die is like being voted into a fellowship in which no one seeks to hold office.  It was forced upon me. I couldn’t respectfully decline. I didn’t get to have a say. I just had to wait and be sworn in.

But I did what I came to do.

I signed up for it. For better or for worse, for sickness or in health. Thankfully I didn’t understand the fine print at the time. I didn’t know that it would include watching a woman die. I didn’t know it meant having a ringside seat, feeling the fight right alongside her. I felt the reverberation of each punch. I now know the smell of the fight, the scent that lingers long after the bell rings and the body goes down on the mat.

Death Cab has a song that touches on this feeling, titled What Sarah Said. It expresses my experience of sitting at the bedside quite well:

As each descending peak on the LCD 
Took you a little farther away from me
Away from me…

The waiting room is a difficult environment because…

Cause there's no comfort in the waiting room 
Just nervous pacers bracing for bad new

As a young man in my 20’s, courting my girl, I never included this sentence in my love letters to her…

But I'm thinking of what Sarah said 
Love is watching someone die…

Love doesn’t always feel good. But Love is always Good.

What Comes After “I Do”

About a year ago, when I was seriously considering writing the history about my restaurant, a fellow author gave me this advice.  She said, “If you’re gonna write a memoir, write it all. People can tell if you’re holding back.” I took that counsel and wrote the story as best I could recall.  I’m glad I took the risk. I ended up with a better book, one that I am more proud of had I not been honest and just told the nice stories.

The book was written before she passed. And now that I am continuing to write, I have the same opportunity to be open.  A good brother told me over lunch recently that he hears a new tone to my written voice. “You’re more kind,” he said. I told him thank you for pointing that out, because it’s not accidental.  I have a new sense of intentionality now.

The biggest commitment I ever made in my short life was to make a vow to one woman, to love her as best I possibly could, regardless of sickness or health, for better or for worse, until death brought that responsibility to an end. I assumed that it would have been my death that completed that bond, and certainly I didn’t picture it being over somewhere in the middle of my third quarter.

As I reflect on this loyalty, I have nothing else that comes close to a vow like this.  My children, of whom I am most proud and happy, are now delightful, independent, and responsible adults.  That goal of child-rearing is fulfilled. After these two responsibilities, nothing else comes close to that level of weightiness.

With this actualization comes new liberty.  I now can ponder what is next? It’s my belief that the Kingdom of Heaven is never in retreat.  It never reverts backward. It always advances. It is always moving forward. My best days are not behind me.  Instead, the best is yet to come.

By this I don’t mean I’ll have a better next marriage or raise new and better children.  Faith sees what the eyes can’t. I see new assignments in my future and I am choosing to start today, amid my grief.  I will hold both firmly, letting go of neither Hope or Loss.

I think this is what my friend sees in my writing now. I’m more free. And freedom is hard to hide, and impossible to fake.

I’m free to be more open, more hopeful, and more kind because of this new place in which I find myself.  I can be more honest and can take more risks to love others. I am unreserved to be hurt by the process. 

The Warrior and I always remind ourselves, “This is the way the day got started, and it only got better from here.”

Make today count.

Desire or Demand

Grief is such an illogical expression.  Thoughts, feelings and experiences don’t always make sense, but that doesn’t make them any less important to understand. That’s why I’ve chosen not to approach my grief from a rational mindset.  The heart knows reasons that reason doesn’t know.

A contrarian thought that I’m currently exploring is to not be afraid to want something I can’t have.  My faith tradition taught me to fear my Desires. They were not to be trusted because it was assumed that Desire would lead me astray everytime.  The underlying assumption of this position is that I only want bad things, that I am incapable of wanting anything good.

I lived under this yoke for many years, until I learned to trust my heart again.  Faith saved me from this barren wilderness. Somewhere along the way, my childhood innocence to dream was taken away.  As I grew up, I lost an important part of what it means to be human, not just a child.

My logical mind as an adult examined the pain of grief and came to the conclusion that Desire was my biggest problem.  If I didn’t want so much, I wouldn’t hurt so much. The solution to the emotional math was to remove Desire from the equation. Less desire = less pain.

I now see for me, this is a terrible answer.

Desire is the reason I get up in the morning.  It’s why I write. It’s why I love to cook. It’s why I collect friends. It’s why I got married and raised children.  Desire got me through the hard times of heartache over 30 years.

And at the same time, Desire is why my loss hurts so bad.  I didn’t Desire being a widower at 56. I desired a long life together.

But if I didn’t want anything, I would have gotten just that.

The reason I am willing to want what I can’t have is that Desire knows no boundaries.  The end game of my Desire is not fulfillment. Instead, it is to constantly keep reaching, knowing full well that I may never grasp it.  

When Desire gets seduced by Demand is where it goes astray. If more men understood this, less women would be mistreated. 

It’s crucial to want. It’s a travesty to demand.