Understanding my Grief and the Enneagram – Part I

Today’s post is in audio form. It’s about 20 minutes long. I wanted to communicate some new things I am learning about myself as I walk through the loss of my wife and how the Enneagram has helped bring understanding for me.

Make room.

Understanding my Grief through the lens of the Enneagram
Audio by Kevin Shinn, May 2020

Pay Attention To Anger

I watched the video of mistreatment of George Floyd that led to his death.  Afterward, I sat quietly. I pondered this question:

What can I do?

I felt so powerless sitting in my sadness, as I am sure many others felt. What can I do to stop this kind of treatment of fellow human beings?

I turn to the one thing I understand: My Voice.

It is always my desire to use My Voice to help you hear Someone Else.  I continually hope that by writing my story from my perspective, it might give my reader the words to understand their own. 

How can this apply to matters of race? I’m white. Where I grew up, I didn’t know an African-American until I went to college. In my rural upbringing, there were no neighbors, no classmates of color. What can I possibly say that might be of some consolation or bring legitimate hope?

There is much I don’t understand about race. But there is one thing I feel makes the most sense to me, and this is the issue toward which I choose to direct my words. 

Anger has gotten the best of us.

Racism is fueled by anger. And so is every other kind of judgement against another person that puts one in the role of superiority over another. 

Watching the video of the mistreatment of George Floyd produces anger.  It should make anyone mad. George Floyd was a fellow human being. No one deserves that treatment. Anger is the right initial response.

But it can’t be the motive for seeking justice.

Nearly every book on parenting advised me as a young father to never discipline in anger.  It was advice I wish I had heeded more often.  If my anger was not productive in coaxing a 3 year old to change behavior, how much less effective in changing a grown adult?

Anger is like a warning light on the dashboard of a car.  It signals when something is wrong. To ignore it is not helpful. I need to pay attention to anger.

Anger is a soldier in my personal Army of Action. I should never allow it to be in command. I listen to its briefing. I take into consideration what it feels. But Love needs to always be in charge. There is no greater commandment.

George Floyd’s death makes me mad.  But if I am not wise, it will also make me just like the cop that stood on his neck.

Anger killed a man. Let’s don’t let it kill another because it was left unmitigated.

There is a better way forward.

A Lesson From Hank

My dad could fix anything, and I am so grateful he had me right alongside to hold the flashlight on every occasion. In the crawlspace under the house repairing the plumbing, or under the hood of the pickup adjusting the timing, or in the garage changing out the flywheel pin on the lawn mower engine. On the latter, he taught me what a governor was and what it did and why it’s a useful feature to a small 2-cycle engine. He explained, “Yes you could take that off and it would run faster, but It keeps you from burning out your motor.”

As a widower living in an empty nest, I lack a governor. My partner and children provided boundaries and structure that was very essential. I don’t have that now, so I have to come up with a new plan. Hank was the one that taught me this.

There are lots of things I do now that I would have never done prior to her passing. One of which is how I feed Hank.  I toss him the bones from the ribs or the pork butt after braising.  While I cook, I might flick a scrap of meat in his direction. Never thinking twice about it. Until my son came over for dinner.

As we sat enjoying our steaks, Hank stood at attention between us, and in literal Pavolvian response, began drooling profusely, his slobber puddling on the patio concrete. If there was a stare-down contest, Hank would do very well. My son gave me a good observation.

“You trained him to do that.”

He was right.  Hank’s been conditioned to look for food and knows the tell-tale signs that the Boss has something tasty. Even though it was inadvertent and unintentional, I trained him to do that.

I am in the process of untraining Hank, and it’s a slow process. My actions were ungoverned, and now I have to slow things down and change my behavior.

Despite living alone, there are some habits I’ve maintained because I don’t want to have to retrain myself at a later time.  I don’t want to be annoying like Hank drooling on the floor.  I still eat my meals at a table, not in front of the TV. That’s how it was done for years when the family was home. That’s the way I’ll keep doing it.  I shower and shave everyday, like I would do if I went off to work, even though I’ve been unemployed for longer than I would like. I go to bed at the same time each night.  There will come a day when life gets back to normal and I’m not stuck at home all day every day. So I seek to create stability wherever possible.

These are the choices that have helped me accept my new status in life. I now see that my Facebook page reads Widowed in my profile. I have to get used to that. And the choice is mine to make.

When Words Become Names

As a writer, I need words to communicate.  And there are many times (like this morning) when I sit down to write and I don’t know where to begin.  I have an idea, a thought or emotion that I want to convey, but I’m not sure from which garden to go out and gather words sufficient for the plate I am preparing.  I can’t draw a picture for you, or play a song.  Words are all I have to use.

I’ve shared the quote by Irish poet David Whyte a few times on this blog. “The language we possess is woefully inadequate for the vastness of the territory into which we have just entered.”  It is a brilliant statement that has guided me since discovering it while traveling in Ireland.  My experience of loss and grief requires a language with which I am not fluent.  I must learn it as I go along.

This is why I’ve chosen to write about my grief journey as it happens.  I’m learning a new language, and I’m using this forum as a means to display my homework. And you get to study and grade it with me.

For the last three months, I have been working with a counselor that understands my sense of shortcoming when it comes to identifying where I felt stuck in grief. I described my dilemma as a jigsaw puzzle.  Most of the pieces are in place. The border is intact, but there are some gaps in the picture and I don’t have the lid to show me what the finished image is supposed to look like. For a long while, I’ve been searching for those missing pieces. And two weeks ago my counselor handed me a fistful of them and said, “I think these will fit.”

And they did.

We had significant conflict that went unresolved when she died.  And those of you who have lost a spouse can bear witness, the feeling of never being able to resolve those issues is hard to manage.  All that I’m left with are questions that will never end up in a conversation in hope that understanding will be met.

My counselor intuitively knows that one of her roles is to comprehend this dilemma, and sit in it with me. While we sit together, she can lead me to know how to turn my insufficient words into powerful names.

My name is Kevin Shinn, but all my life I’m known as Shinn to most of my friends.  When one of my good buddies calls me Kevin, it doesn’t sound right. In that context, my real name is Shinn. That’s the name I respond to.

I’m learning to call my pain by the name it recognizes.

All counselors are not created equal, but the role of counsel is unequivocal. On my own, I am incapable of seeing everything in my heart. Sometimes I need another set of eyes to describe to me what I can’t see, to speak what I cannot say, in order for Truth to set me free. In my case, I need someone to hand me some missing pieces that make the picture on the jigsaw puzzle more complete

Being in this position doesn’t make me weak or somehow insufficient. No one is an island. To think I can figure out this mess of grief all by myself, that’s the thinking that is insufficient. With the help of counsel, I have gone from describing to naming my pain. Despite the unresolved conflict that will never get worked through, I have new power in my hands because I hold new Truth. And Truth will always set me free.

If you are feeling stuck in pain, of grief or otherwise, consider finding a voice that will help you put a name to it. Describing the feeling is the first step. Naming it gives it an identity and makes it much more real. And in the revealing light of reality, pain is far easier to deal with than something hidden in the shadows.

My Lesson from Nature

I don’t pay much attention to news outlets online, but last night I made the mistake of scrolling  through the suggested news clips that YouTube recommended on the COVID crisis and I quickly clicked the X to close the app.  I immediately felt my stress level rise.  Among the suggestions, there was enough confusion just from the headlines of each link alone to make my head hurt.  The opinions (which seems to be what news has become) were polarized and extreme.  It felt like it didn’t matter what the real facts were.  It felt like I was being given a choice to land on whichever topic fit my outrage.  I didn’t bite and swam off in the other direction.

Freedom Apple, weeks after pruning.
Freedom Apple, a few weeks after pruning.

Instead of fueling anger, I allow my attention to be drawn more toward people who have been adversely affected by this pandemic, specifically small business owners.  Because I was one for a time and I know the pressure these folks feel.  If I was still operating in March 2020, I would be facing the exact same dilemma as they are.  I feel their pain.  Mine just happened to start 3 years earlier, under different circumstances. But the end result is still the tie that binds.

In crisis, it is very easy to lose sight of what is true in lieu of all the other noises and voices that surround. This is why I was especially grateful for The Admiral to come alongside and remind me of the things to which I need to pay attention.

Through the major losses of the last 3 years, I knew I needed to find a way to drown out the external cacophony of negativity that sought to deafen my ears from Truth. I read some books and listened to podcasts, but none of that information was enough on its own.  I had to come to a point where I had to resolve what I believed about my circumstances, not what someone else was telling me.  Inspiration doesn’t expand me by just letting someone else do the breathing for me. My heart had to eventually take over and start beating again on its own, or else I was not going to sustain life within.

I began to gain clarity when I found a word picture that made sense to me. I’ve tended a garden for nearly 30 years. Every year I have engaged in a singular act at the beginning of each season.  At times the result looks drastic and extreme, but I’ve never gone wrong with this practice.

The word is pruning.

New growth on forsythia 3 weeks after hard pruning.
New growth on forsythia 3 weeks after hard pruning.

Pruning is the act of removing, cutting and discarding certain branches, limbs and vines that stand in the way of productive and fruitful growth.  It’s always done at the beginning of the season, right before new growth is ready to bourgeon.

When pruning is over, it can appear quite drastic, like I was angry one day and decided impulsively to take that anger out on the plant. But pruning is always intentional by the gardener, well thought out ahead of time because pruning has purpose.  It has to be done, and done at a certain time so that the plant can flourish in the entire upcoming season.

I do this every year to my apple trees, but did something even more drastic to two of them.  After the snowstorm of 1997, the one that split all three of my beautiful Hawthorn trees down to the bottom of the trunk, I replaced them with apple trees, hoping to have my own fruit to enjoy from my own backyard.  

But they never bore.  Between the squirrels, the apple maggots and cedar apple rust, I never ate one apple off those two trees.  So after 20 years of trying, I did what any good nursery person would do. I cut them down.  They were not productive.  They required my energy that gave me nothing in return.

What's left of the Braeburn apple tree.
What’s left of the Braeburn apple tree.

In some years, pruning means more than a trim.  It requires full removal in order to make way for something new.

This was the picture that made sense to me through all the loss I had experienced.  I had to see it as an act of pruning.  If I was to ever regain Hope, I knew deep inside I would need to see my circumstances in the light of something good, something that will make my future hopeful again.  

I’m starting to grow again, just like the honeysuckle along my south fence. It’s a hedge that was planted in 1962 when the house was built. Even though I lop off ⅔ of its limbs every other year, the hedge is still growing and providing color to my urban sanctuary.  The pain of cutting back is only for a short moment.  Growth is coming, Fruit will bear. A new harvest awaits me.

Why You Like Baking Sourdough Bread

What’s the deal with sourdough bread? Why are so many people baking it?  It makes some mad because they can’t find flour.  But from my vantage point, folks are having a lot of fun with it. And I’m doing my part to fuel the fire.  I should have kept count, but I’ve given away at least 50 quart containers of my sourdough starter in the last 6 weeks. Along the way I’ve received pictures of the finished products from recipients. It is fun to see all the bread boules, English muffins and pizza that are being crafted.

So what’s up with this surge of interest in sourdough bread?

Behind the obvious answer of being stuck at home with nothing to do and it seemed like a good idea, I think there is a more important discovery people are making.

You’re creating again, not just consuming.

And that feels right, especially to your kids.

Cooking is one of our most fundamental acts of creation.  Animals don’t cook. Humans do.  I believe it reflects more than a function of survival.  I believe it shows our capacity to create. And as is the same with any form of creating, there is joy in the end result.

That joy involves consuming the creation.  The artist doesn’t paint only to leave the canvas in a closet.  The musician doesn’t compose only to never allow the piece to be heard. And the cook doesn’t make food only to dump it in the trash.  All three want their creation to be enjoyed, consumed, taken in and nourished by another.

By learning to bake a loaf of bread, you’re engaging that role of creator.  You’re not just consuming and letting someone else do the creating.  You feel the joy of discovery and learning.  You sense the delight in watching the raw ingredients that your hands mixed into a shaggy ball and watching it transform into a loaf of bread that looks beautiful and fills the house with a lofty aroma that rivals any Yankee candle.

You see the delight in the eyes of your kids because they know this instinctively. Kids love to create and haven’t been fully immersed into a life of consumption.. Getting them involved in cooking at a young age will engage their inner creator.  This will be a gift they will remember and hopefully carry with them for the rest of their lives.

During this shelter-at-home spell, I spend most of my day in acts of creation,. I bake, make music and write. Most recently, the chief act of my creating is my yard. I love fashioning beauty through plants and landscape. But at the end of the day there is an incomplete feeling. I can’t invite people over to consume it.  I do it for the pleasure it brings me, but that’s not enough.  All creation needs to be enjoyed.

Intellect and Intuition

While faith is a central theme of how I live and make decisions, I realize it’s not for everyone.  I’ve known many friends over the years who have decided faith is no longer something relevant to them. There are lots of reasons against a life of faith that make sense to me. especially intellectual ones.  Mainly because I don’t consider myself as an intellectual.

I did not do well in apologetics class in theological school because all the arguments were designed to speak intellectually about faith.  I don’t process faith that way. I’m much more intuitive. If you tell me that faith doesn’t make intellectual or scientific sense, my reply is the same, “You got me on that one.” I appreciate intellectual drive. It’s just not the only thing that motivates my thinking. I’m not wired that way. I possess more than intellect to pay attention to.

As a student in my 20’s, there was no seminary course on this, but I have dreams and visions.  I have done so my entire adult life. Many of these have outlined some of my future life events and have been very accurate. Yet these didn’t fit into the box in which I was studying.

I am intuitive. Some describe it as a feeling in the gut.  That’s not the way to do science. But it is the way I choose to do faith. Leaning into the bent of my heart has made faith so much more relevant to me now in mid-life.  

I spent the first part of my life trying to fit my faith into an intellectual system that it wasn’t designed for. Now that I have given myself permission to explore intuition, an entire world has opened up to me. It doesn’t make sense to an intellectual, but it does make sense to an intuitive like me.

Even this decision was an act of faith.

Giving Away An Unusual Gift

I cry a lot. I bet I cry every day. Sometimes several times a day. But probably not for the reasons you are thinking.

There are more than just tears of grief.

I felt my eyes well up as I caught a glimpse of the waxing gibbous moon in the eastern horizon through the tongues of flame reaching up out of my backyard firepit last night.  My song of the day moved me this morning. I could easily go on and on.

I would not have openly admitted this until recently.  What changed my mind was a conversation that revealed this admission.  “I wish I could cry like that.  I haven’t cried in years.”

And it wasn’t a guy admitting this.

I’ve never bought the idea that men don’t cry.  However, I was convinced to purchase the image that never showed them. But I returned it to get my money back.  I didn’t need that depiction any longer.

Through conversations with my grief counselor, she is convincing me that the ease in which I can cry and hold emotion is actually a gift, not a curse or a quirk. And all gifts are meant to be given away.

I believe the response of tears is one of the most amazing features in the physical body.  It’s a release function.  It allows something to be expelled from the body that should not stay pent up. To shut down this function is to inhibit the body from working properly. The absence of tears should signal concern.

There is a big difference in propensity and ability.  Some people aren’t “cryers” like me.  Strike that up to personality type, conditioning, permission, etc. But to lose the ability to shed tears is another story.

Tears can make people feel awkward, but  even this reaction might be the appropriate response.  If my eyes might leak as I listen to you tell your story, and it makes you uncomfortable, what does that say about us?

This subject is so relevant, Dr Brene Brown makes her living teaching about it.  She has one of the most viewed TED talks in history. She describes the inability to be vulnerable is one of our culture’s most devastating losses.  Her work is incredibly important in helping me restore my truest heart.  Tears are an indication of vulnerability.  They send a signal to others that it’s OK to feel this way and that you aren’t alone.

Flotsam and Jetsam

On the first day of class, the Dean of Students at the theological school I attended in Northern California gave a very important introduction.  I still remember it very clearly 33 years later.  He made a statement that made some students very upset.  I know better now what he meant and why he said it.

He said, “Some of you aren’t going to survive this class, and I need you to know that’s OK.”

He proceeded to describe the toll that theological studies can have on a person’s faith.  It’s intended to do that.  It is designed to challenge belief.  And some aren’t meant to go down that road.

And he was right. After that class, some took offense to what he said. Those were the same students that went back home mid semester.  Their faith was not in a condition to explore this new territory. And there is no shame in that realization.

Dean Cate was gracious in describing a very harsh world we were all about to enter. He was a wise man and one of my favorite instructors in my two and a half years there.  It was a profound experience for me. I’m still connected to most of the life-long friends I met there. I’m grateful for the testing of my faith that began at that time.

I’ve found that faith is a very personal possession.  When I was a young man, I took my cues from older folks to help me sort out what I felt I should believe.  Over time, as my discernment deepend. I started to toss overboard the flotsam and jetsam that slowed me down and would prove useless the further I explored my life of faith.

I like where I am today. Sometimes I go back in my mind to that young man sitting in Dean Cate’s classroom and remember his earnestness.  I tell him thank you for enduring those days.  I’m convinced that the work he did then prepared me for the difficulties of my recent past. He made me a better man today.

I made this song to remind me of those days and to look forward to what will unfold ahead

Listen to All Things, ©Kevin Shinn, 55 Degrees 2020

Who I am Influences What I Do

Warrior recently reminded me that part of the pain of my grief is like physical therapy.  I’m not just dealing with loss. I’m also pulling on the scar tissue of past wounds that may have healed improperly having been joined as one flesh for so long.

Loss isn’t just caused by death.  A partner can go missing in other ways.  The pain of life can prevent one from showing up, leaving the other to ponder, “where did they go?” Death finalizes that question and renders it moot. 

All loss isn’t equal. But all loss must be grieved.

As I mentioned yesterday, this stage in my process has me contemplating who I am now that I no longer am intertwined with another person. I am coming to some significant conclusions.

Since I am stuck at home, being out of work for almost a year, I don’t have a job telling me who I am. A profession is a safe way to describe to others my place in this world.  I still tell folks I’m a chef when asked in conversation what my line of work is.  Mainly because it’s easier and I was one for a long time and I may still return to that work once the country opens back up.

But what I do does not define who I am.

I am known by many names; chef, baker, author, gardener, musician, poet, caregiver, etc.  All are descriptors of things I do that would make that name line up.  I built a restaurant and worked in its kitchen for 10 years, therefore I am a chef.  I love baking bread. Calling me a baker isn’t a stretch.  A distinction I am learning to make with my grief counselor is this; I define these titles.  They don’t define me.

I don’t know how long I’ve got til the Number of My Days is complete.  My dad passed when he was 75. Using that as a benchmark, I’ve got 19 left to go.  I don’t want to waste a single one.

There is a central reason I am known as chef, baker, author and so on.  These are correct  because they are planted, rooted in and grown out of my truest identity.  I am a Creator.  I have an obsessive drive to build and make things that did not exist previously.  Food gave me an ideal workshop for this identity to flourish. It was extremely rewarding to take a wagon full of raw vegetables, and with the help of a few others, create a menu and dining experience unique to that one Saturday in time.  That was more than the act as a chef.  I was a Creator.

Another way this identity is manifested now is through my writing.  I have been given some type of gift to create new thoughts with words that grow out of feelings and experiences.  Based on your comments and feedback, what is very natural and second nature to me is received by you as deeply kind and profoundly reassuring.  This is more than being an author. I’m continuing to create something that would not exist without me.

I’ve got some gas left in the tank, and I plan to ride hard til The Number of My Days says I’m done.

This is the force that is shaping me today.  It is why I am compelled to get up and write something daily.  It’s not my job.  I don’t get paid to do this. I’m at this keyboard this morning because of who I am.  I’m creating Hope.

It’s not enough for a Creator to merely create.  That’s the easy part.  The risk comes in the act of sharing that creation.  Any artist knows this trepidation. I’ll admit every time, without fail,  I hit “publish” on the WordPress tab, self-doubt is lurking nearby. I wish I could eradicate it. I just don’t let it keep me from posting.

I’ve started creating music again, and I am in this same dilemma.  Why am I exterting this effort if it’s just to stay on the hard drive?  Creators don’t build to hide.  We do it to bless.  So here’s a new creation I will offer.  As a person of faith, this coronavirus circumstance is testing that faith.  What do I believe? Will I allow these circumstances to hinder me, or is there Substance on which I can actually rely?

In this time of scarcity, I choose to live and create abundantly.

Click to hear, Abundance by Kevin Shinn

Make today count.