Travel as Catharsis, Travel as Opportunity

SultanAhmet Mosque

SultanAhmet Mosque

I just recently completed a little bit more then 2 weeks of vacation in Turkey. To say I was nervous about this trip would be an understatement. I have not taken a “real” vacation in 5 years during the time of my wife’s illness and subsequent passing. I took time off while she was sick of course but that was to help her more at home, especially at the end when I took more and more time in order to help give her medications, bathe her, carry her from room to room, change her oxygen machine filter, etc.

After she passed I took most of the month of January 2013 off, but I spent it grieving and a large portion on the phone with her credit card companies and insurance and all the other bureaucratic nightmare that death brings. From then until this vacation I had taken a day here or there or a weekend here or there, mainly to just recharge the batteries – sleep in a little extra, go hiking, things of that nature.

So knowing I was going to be in Turkey for over 2 weeks should have filled me with excitement, instead I was filled with trepidation. What if something goes wrong? Will my son be okay with his grandparents? I’m traveling to Turkey during Ramadan, how will that effect me? How will it effect the country?

I remember arriving in Istanbul and driving to our first lodgings and seeing the city and knowing I was beyond the point of no return. And I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into! But with the help of good friends who kept me laughing and seeing the sites and the amazing history it was fine. That is not to say it went off without any bumps – I was in Capadoccia in central Turkey later and found myself depressed. I missed Joan. I remembered that she had always wanted to visit that place and see the sites. And I found the Turkish people around me chattering and laughing to be very isolating. I am a very international person, and have traveled all over the world – so someone speaking another language at me or around me doesn’t usually bother me. But perhaps because I was sad at being alone, hearing others laughing and talking about things I could not understand felt cruel and isolating. Luckily it was a passing thing and with sleep and rest I was able to move past it.

And then something magical happened. I found myself in a small town in central Anatolia called Beysehir. This is an ancient town with a covered bazaar and a 750 year old Seljuk mosque. It was quiet the people were friendly and it sits on the shores of a beautiful lake.

 

Beysehir

Beysehir

After seeing the lake, which has a turquoise blue water, I was invited to an iftaar (a large meal eaten at the end of a day of fasting) with local businessmen from the town. It was here that it was suggested to me that opening a boutique hotel here and advertising package tours of the region could be an option. This is something I had never considered before and I felt the world open up in front of me. Here I am in this beautiful country, filled with generous and decent people and an avenue opens up that could change my life. What better way to spend a vacation after losing someone you love, then to have a lifetime opportunity fall on top of you?

From there things only got better. I traveled from there to the ancient capitol city of Bursa and again found new vistas opening in front of me. Here is an ancient leafy city filled with history, but also only a few miles from the ocean on the Sea of Marmara (on the Bosphorous), with natural hot mineral springs, and a cablecar lift that takes you up to the top of one of the high mountains surrounding the city – here there is an alpine climate, hiking and a ski resort. Opportunities for skiing in the morning and going to the beach in the afternoon.

I met with businessmen there in Bursa and again in Istanbul and was surprised when I talked to them how little planning or movement they had in the IT industry. Many of them relied on IT for book-keeping and keeping chemical formulas and the like, but none of them had considered security, emergency backup solutions……and just like that a new idea struck me – another idea would be to start an IT consulting business in Turkey. Why not? Bring Wifi solutions, network security, etc. to the businesses there.

Of course nothing is going to happen immediately. I am back in the US. I need to focus on my job, making sure my savings are in order, talk to potential business partners both here in the US and in Turkey. But with any luck I may find myself back there again in a year, except this time to stay.

The other concern about Ramadan was a non-issue.  I was able to fast just as the locals do, I was able to participate in all the rituals.  Hearing the call to prayer 5 times a day meant that I did not have to worry about when it was time.  In Turkey during Ramadan everything comes alive after dark, after the iftaar fast break meal the malls and shops are open, there are lights everywhere (it is after all a lot like Christmas in the US) and the people are friendly.  Special prayers are offered in the evening and I was welcomed at every turn.  

So this trip gave me much to think about as far as future life plans and opportunities.  But spending time in prayer and reflection in a country where this is encouraged and is not seen as something to hide or dissimulate about meant that I spend a lot of time kneeling in prayer and praying for my son, for myself, for Joan, and for humanity at large.  The process of spending much of your time surrounded by other people also praying as fervently as you meant that I could feel the sharp edges of the shards of my broken heart soften.  They are not healed and will always ache, but I feel better inside and outside in ways I didn’t realize were possible before this trip.

 

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When is My Time?

I feel sometimes as if disaster trails me.

Despite loving and caring and tending and making sure to see,

I feel some days as if I have inherited the wind.

Yet I have not troubled my house but worked to keep it together despite all storms.

And I have worked hard to stay good in all my many forms.

Why then am I battered?

My emotions scattered?

My life seemingly in tatters?

To be born again, to rise from the ashes is all that matters!

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Spiritual Renewal After Loss

The below article was published at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/altmuslim/2014/07/ramadan-2014-spiritual-renewal-after-loss/#ixzz36LGtB7bL

As part of my #30Days30Writers project at Patheos. Please go there to check out the other articles that have appeared or will appear over the rest of the month of Ramadan.

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This Ramadan marks my second since my wife lost her battle with cancer. I was afraid it was going to be as empty and as painful as my previous Ramadans. For me, Ramadan wasn’t so much of a spiritual oasis where you purify yourself or work to strive closer to God. No. For me it was an agony – something to be endured.
The reasons for this are multifaceted.

First and most obvious is that I was born and raised in the West. The concept of fasting was not just foreign, but hunger itself had probably not marked my family’s door since that first winter when one of my ancestors came off of the Mayflower. So the idea of fasting was not something I was used to and thus after accepting Islam, I found it difficult to make it through a month-long fast. I cheated often and made excuses at other times. I was never proud of myself, but I was not used to it.
The next reason, which dovetails into the one above, is that as a convert to this religion I found Ramadan to be a very lonely time. My late wife was a convert too, and she also complained about it often. Ramadan is a spiritual holiday, but it is also a very communal holiday. Families cook together, plan activities together, go to the mosque for special prayers and so on. As a convert I was always on the outside; once I had gotten the big grins, handshakes and slaps on the back, nobody told me how to make the most of Ramadan. Nobody became close enough to me to invite me to Ramadan events.

How can you participate in your community if there is nobody to welcome you into it and nobody to explain it to you? Thus, many Ramadans came and went with no support and no information on what programs our local mosque had and no invitations to meet or break our fast with local congregants. Ramadan was a time of isolation from the community and a time of hunger — a combination that was never fun.

Later, when my wife became sick with the cancer, Ramadan became difficult because I had to take care of her. Her illness meant that she did not have to fast; but as her caregiver, I had to fast while also feeding her. And later, when she became much sicker, it meant that I had to bathe her, carry her, change her bandages, give injections, etc.

We tried hard to make the month happy for our son. Every Friday he would get a small gift (crayons, markers, coloring books) so that the holiday meant something special to him. And then of course on Eid-al-Fitr, we exchanged gifts like it was Christmas. Thus our son looks at Ramadan as a special time. But for me, the burden of making the holiday special for our son, which I willingly carried, ended up making the holiday that much harder.

Last year was the first Ramadan since my wife passed. The whole year leading up to Ramadan I was numb. Things passed with a blur. I honestly do not remember last Ramadan. In fact, I really don’t remember anything about the entire last year . I worked hard to just keep things moving. Drive my son to school. Get him to violin and soccer practice. Make something for dinner. Cry uncontrollably. Repeat.

So, it was with a great deal of trepidation that I greeted Ramadan this year. My personal history with this biggest of Islamic holidays was against me. But as Ramadan approached I felt something shift, I realized that Ramadan and the fast that accompanies it is a purifying force. An opportunity to begin again and fix myself spiritually – this mirrors the new life I am determined to build now that my wife is gone and not missing any opportunities that may come my way in my life.
So my attitude towards the holiday changed. My son and I put up Ramadan lights (inside the house so as not to freak out the neighbors), and we went to the stores and farmers markets and stocked up on ingredients for suhoor and iftaar meals.
We recently moved to a new home in a new neighborhood, and I purposely went out of my way to find a mosque I was reasonably comfortable with. I collected information on mosque iftaars and also on the evening taraweeh prayers.

On the first night of Ramadan, my son and I went and stood up with our brothers and sisters at the mosque and offered those taraweeh prayers. I felt the stress bleed out of my heart. Between rakats, I made fervent du’a to God to help me with my persistent loneliness and to help me with moving my life forward.

And do you know what? As I knelt in prayer, even though people surrounded me, I suddenly felt I was alone with God. A feeling of complete peace came over me and I felt years of stress and worry lift from me. I cannot explain it other then to be thankful for it. I left those prayers feeling as though the stress and cares I have struggled under for months and months had been washed away. I felt happy and found myself smiling and joking with my son as we headed home. That feeling stayed into our first suhoor, and I hope will continue through the whole month.

I have no illusions; I still will struggle with my loss going forward. I will have days of frustration and loneliness ahead. But this Ramadan feels more like a new start then at any other time since my wife passed. And, I feel like I have reached a level of maturity with my Islam. I worry less about fitting in and more about making the faith and community fit me.

Ramadan is about so many things. Purification. Re-aligning our souls towards God. Charity. Community. This year after having gone through the fires of loss and change in my life and having been burned badly by it, Ramadan means a new beginning and new opportunities to be a better Muslim, and more importantly to be a better human being.

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You have no idea about my loss

I have written a lot about the loss of my wife 17 months ago.  I have grieved, I have struggled with loneliness, I have continued to struggle with insomnia.  But there is one subject I have not written about:  the terrible things that some seemingly decent people have said to me about the loss, perhaps not realizing that it was insensitive or even harmful.  So I figured I’d make a Top 10 list in order to keep some humor in it…..otherwise I might be tempted to hunt these people down and hurt them.  

10.  “I know how you must feel.”   Actually unless your own wife or husband or life partner just died you honestly have no idea what this soul-destroying pain feels like.

9.  “When my 90 year-old grandmother (insert aunt, uncle, grandfather, etc.) died I was just as miserable”  Um…..your geriatric and no-doubt much loved relation lived a long full life.  They were happy, sad, had a career, fell in love (perhaps more then once)….and then did exactly what we all do after a long full life – they died.  This is in no way similar to my wife who died at the age of 40 without finishing her graduate school, without seeing her son finish middle school, without getting to travel and see the places she had always wanted.  If your 90 year-old grandma didn’t get to do those things, she had a whole lifetime to do it and obviously spent too much time around the house.

8.  “I can’t even imagine what I would do…”  Well for you it is all imagination.  Thank you very much for reminding me that my raw pain is very real.  I think I’ll go shoot myself now.  (not really)

7.  “I can identify with your pain.”  Well blow me down like a feather, you can identify with my pain??  Okay, tell me about the death that gives you that identification.  Or do you mean it is more like a identification card, that has given you the license to stand in my pain for a second, sort of like sun-bathing?  Either way, they aren’t giving out licenses and you never ever want to identify with this – I am forced to and I don’t even want it.

6.  “You can have a life again….”  I didn’t realize that the existing life I had with all of the love I had needed to be traded in like an old car for a new model.  I had a life and I loved every second of it, and now I am adrift in a sea I don’t want to be in without any direction.  It is true I have a new life and I must embrace it, but smacking me in the face with it or implying that it will be fun or exciting doesn’t help me.

5.  “You will love again, don’t worry.”  This is a true statement.  But it was said to me only 2 months after my wife died!  The last thing on my mind in the first year after her death was not on loving again.  It was just pain and this comment is just insensitive in so many ways.  As if the love I had from my wife was somehow something you can turn off an on like a lawn sprinkler.

4.  “It is very sad for your son, but like me you’ll get over the loss….”  This came from a person who had been divorced.  I got very tired of divorced people trying to compare the failure/loss of their marriage with the loss of life of my wife.  Something happened in your relationship to cause your marriage and love to die and that is traumatic – I totally get that.  But there is really no comparison to the death of a wife or husband.  The loss of a relationship in which the person goes away and has some nominal connection (visitation etc.) is not even slightly close to having the person you love and still loved at the time they died never come home again.  Ever.  Oh and I am glad you are sad for my son….apparently your tears do not extend to any sympathy towards me.

3.  This one is a tie:  “You cannot dwell on the past.”  & “You really did love her a great deal didn’t you?”  I get the first comment, if I’d been grieving for 2-3 years and was still struggling with melancholia this would be a friend giving me a kick in the butt.  But I got this from several people within just a month or two of the funeral.  Um……I’m not dwelling in the past, I am living in the agony of my present – and if I want to dwell on my 17+ years with her then I damned well can do that.  The second quote is just straight up insensitive.  I am a tangled broken remnant of a man now because I honestly couldn’t stand my late wife…….really??  Of course I loved her, I didn’t care for her for 8 years and watched her slowly die because I didn’t love her.  What would possess you to say this?

2.  “I lost my dog last Fall and I was broken, I can only imagine how it must be for you.”  Must. Control. Fist. Of. Death.  I actually got this a couple of times.  Let me be very clear here, I will run your fluffy dog down under the tires of my car if you think that is even remotely near the loss of my wife.  The loss of your non-sentient pooch may have gotten you all weepy, but you have a serious priority problem and empathy problem if you bring this up with someone who just lost their wife or husband or life partner.

1.  “Your loss reminds me of how lucky and blessed I am.  Thank you.”  I remember when the person who said these words to me said them.  My wife had been dead only 2 weeks.  I was so completely blown away that someone could say something so insensitive that I literally just sat their staring at this person, unable to talk.  A day or two later I seriously thought violent thoughts towards this person (and I am a very peaceful person).  What would possess someone or give them the emotional maturity of a vole to say something like this?  Yes, your wife loves you still and is still there every day when you come home – and my loss reminded you of this.  But to shove it into my face was beyond rude.  You get the #1 prize.

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Anxiety

First day back at work after losing someone. I remember it well.

Widow in Training

I almost called this post fear, but that’s not what I’m feeling. Fear was when I thought I might lose Heck forever. It was heavy and dark and inescapable and when it grew in me I recognised it very clearly as a distinct emotion I’d never had before. Now that I have lost him, fear isn’t relevant anymore. I’m back to feeling anxious and I no longer have my emotional support.

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In the morning I plan to go in to work. I thought the idea of facing people would be the hardest part of that, but as the hour grows closer I find myself unbearably anxious about more existential issues. It’s been months since I’ve been to work and months again since it was a normal routine, before Heck was even sick.

The idea of waking up to an alarm clock freaks me out. The thought of walking up the…

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To Be A Rock?

I seem to bounce from one heartache to another

One tragedy leads to hope which leads back to sadness

I am never wholly broken

I am never wholly complete

I am cursed to love too easily

To empathize too much

It is time to harden

Time to be a rock

Time to be uncaring, unfeeling…..lithic

Yet even the rock is worn away by the elements

I don’t want to be a rock…..and yet…..I hurt.

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Another Father’s Day

This will be my second Father’s Day alone. I’m really not sure how I’m supposed to feel about it. My first didn’t even register – I spent the first year after losing my wife in a literal fog of grief. All the days blended together in a dark place without sunlight, Father’s Day was not noticed any more then my own birthday was. If I am honest with myself I have not had a Father’s Day in several years. In the year that my wife died I was too busy taking care of her 24 hours a day to even notice it. And the year before that I remember she was in the hospital for yet another surgery and so I cancelled Father’s Day. So this year, as the grief subsides and I am actively living I am taking more notice of things. My son’s birthday, his graduation from 8th grade…all the things that I have ignored for years suddenly have a spotlight on them.

So what does Father’s Day mean for me now? It means ironically focusing on my son instead of myself. I got up this morning and made a large breakfast. This is not something I usually do, but I felt compelled to make a production. And you know what? I enjoyed it. Mixing the dough and then rolling it out for biscuits. Frying up some turkey bacon and then making eggs. Taking the finished biscuits out of the oven and letting the house fill up with the smell. The smell of it all waking my son and bringing him downstairs in his pajamas. Seeing his face light up when he saw all the food I’d prepared. This is what makes Father’s Day.

At the end of the day Father’s Day is about fathers and their children. It is ironic that when my wife was pregnant I was hoping to have a little girl. I am not sure why. I think I just wanted a little girl to cuddle with and spoil. But I was gifted with a very thoughtful and intelligent son who has weathered his mother’s long years of terrible illness. A son who held his mother’s hand as she slipped away never to return. A son who after all the pain has managed to keep his academics afloat and thrived in school. He is a very empathetic child and deeply influenced by those around him. This can be a good thing in that he watches the news or talks with his friends and actually is concerned about someplace in the world he has read or heard about, or a friend that has gotten hurt. But it can also be a bad thing. When I am sad or depressed, and I have been a lot lately, he gets concerned and begins to exhibit behaviors that he should not. Sort of regressing into childhood. Nothing alarming, but concerning nonetheless.

I am blessed to see another year through. But I worry that as the years go by I lose my growing son a bit more. That is the way of the world. He matures and finds his independence. In 4 short years he will be out on his own making his mark upon the world, and the number of Father’s Days ahead with him dwindle. I fear being alone probably above all fears I deal with. Starting a new career? Exciting! Moving into a new home in a new town? Fun! Making new friends? Wonderful! But the isolation of being alone and not belonging to anything or anyone terrifies me.

I am a father and it is Father’s Day. This is my day, and yet it is my son’s more then my own. Perhaps some day it will belong to me.

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