A Personal Reflection of Charles Bukowski’s Poem, Bluebird

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My dad. I’m fairly certain he had a bluebird in his heart, so deep down not many knew of its existence.  He passed away 5 years ago, alone, in the bedroom he rented from a minister who ran a “sober” house.  A house in which 4 men, all strangers, each inhabited a bedroom and shared the common spaces.  Like college roommates without any connection to each other whatsoever.  And minimal conversation.

Of course, when I called my sister to join me in saying goodbye to his body, stiffened in an upright, seated position, we noted that his blaring tv was set to a sports channel, and we wondered what he had been watching for his last moments.  He hated sports.  We sent him off, packaged in an awkwardly shaped body bag to the the local medical school, and emptied his room.  There was a backpack tucked deep in his closet, filled with emptied Jim Beam bottles.  He had a couple drawers of clothes, and a laptop.  And, propped on his dresser, a framed photo of us taken during our childhood.

Our mother was forbidden from visiting.  She was, as he claimed all too often, “an asshole.”  Theirs was not a civil divorce.  His girlfriend of 15 years had evicted him a month before he died.  He clung to his cell phone, undoubtedly hoping for her call during his last day.  She never phoned.  I could only imagine the drama they had shared.  God knows, we witnessed 20 years of it in our own house.  The angry silences, the excuses after his late nights, half-concealed bruises on my mother, the slurred rants, plates smashed against walls, the tears.

Clumsily moving aside these images, I choose to focus on others.  The drives to school, windows rolled up, cracked open just a touch, so that the cigarette smoke could meander up and out, but only after leaving us with its stench.  We carried the lunches he prepared for us . . . the mini pizzas accented with added mozzarella and slices of lunch meat.  We didn’t have the heart or courage to tell him that by noon, the cheese and meat would have congealed into a cold mass.

He would sing sometimes, eyes closed, head tilted upward, smiling and feeling every word of Bridge over Troubled Water.  When we scattered his ashes in the ocean, my sister and I anchored our canoe, shared stories, and sang his favorite Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel songs.  We knew song was how he allowed his bluebird to appear.

I wondered how long in the past it was that others could see that bluebird as well.  So many secrets that, like the bluebird, peered out every once in a while.  Secrets that forced my dad to guard that bluebird fiercely from a childhood spent moving from family to family after some hushed abuse, mysterious not-to-be-shared time as a sharpshooter in Vietnam-era Southeast Asia, countless fights, a lackluster attempt at self-employment, and failed relationships.

Somehow, I have a confident knowing that today, my dad’s bluebird is perched next to him, both of them singing wholeheartedly and with so much feeling.

Healthy Habit: Spit it out!

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“Cervical cancer. You’ll need chemotherapy and radiation.”

This was the way my dear friend was told she was sick.  No emotion at all in the delivery, flung from across the room.  Like a clean, crisp swipe of a sword through the wisp of hope reaching for a false alarm.

“Do you have any questions?”  So many.  But even I, sitting as support, and rarely at a loss for words, had a difficult time imagining which to ask first.  So, we said no.  And the doctor left the room.  So much for my role.

I was dumbfounded.  How could an oncologist share that diagnosis in such a cold way? I imagined him breaking the worst news to people day after day, and I wondered how he dealt with such a difficult task. Maybe he had to numb himself just to cope. Regardless of his reasons, I wanted him to acknowledge my friend’s feelings, to sit next to her while he shared the news, and exhibit some sense of empathy.

Instead, it felt like there was no room or time for emotion. There were labs to be drawn, paperwork to sign.  My friend never shed a tear until she was alone at home. What happens to our bodies when we don’t feel safe expressing emotions? I know from personal experience that what goes on in the privacy of our minds directly influences the way our bodies function.

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During my pregnancy with my second child, I had silently stressed about my very sensitive boy having some sort of toddler breakdown when a newborn stole the show. I did realize that first kids survive the arrival of a sibling all the time, so I chalked it up to pregnancy hormone-induced anxiety and kept my craziness to myself.

Once I went into labor, my body decided not to cooperate. Despite laboring actively for more time than it would have taken me to walk a marathon, really slowly, I was stuck. Not even halfway there. As the hospital staff readied an operating room for my cesarian section, my brilliant doula quietly asked me if there wasn’t anything I was worried about. That I should verbalize any concern I might have.  I let the cat out of the bag and told her I worried that my son might never forgive me for producing a sibling.

Well, guess what?  Instantaneously, I became violently ill; one of the delightful signs that birth is imminent.  Well, imminent, as in after an hour of pushing.  My doctor was floored.  Note to self: do NOT stuff feelings.  Ever.

So what does that mean for my friend, for health care professionals that deal with sad situations every day, for worried parents or children, or anyone who happens to feel feelings? According to social psychologist James W. Pennebaker, talking or writing about problems or worries helps improve health. In his book, “Opening Up,” Pennebaker reveals that individuals who experience the death of a loved one frequently develop health problems the year following the death if they choose not to talk about it.  Those who are able to express their emotions end up developing significantly fewer health problems during that time period than their silent counterparts.

Actually talking about how we feel also helps us process and resolve fears.  One UCLA study took a group of spider-phobes and exposed each to a spider. Out of four groups, only the one in which subjects expressed their feelings about the spider (“I’m terrified!”) were able to move closer to it at the end of the experiment. Even using language to disempower the spider (“that spider can’t hurt me”) had no effect on the subjects’ fear.

So? Feelings should be aired out. Talk about them. Maybe not with the  person standing next to you in line at the post office; choose someone you can trust, and who won’t judge, correct or fix you.  It doesn’t mean the situation that created those feelings will be resolved, of course, but it may prevent any further harm that harbored fear, sadness, or worry can cause.

Depressed girl gets counseling and comfort from a caring therapist.

If you’re not one to talk about your personal business, or your trusted, non-judgmental ear is unavailable at that moment, write about it instead.  You don’t need to show anyone else your writing, so if you’re not into sharing, this is the method for you. Take the time to put pen to paper when you are going through a tough time.  Write about the incident that upset you, or whatever you may be feeling, and don’t hold back.  Let those ugly, crazy, perhaps embarrassing, emotions spill out on paper, and if you want, destroy your writing when you finish.

It is so easy to shelve our feelings as we move through our days. For many, keeping busy creates a safe distance from those feelings, but the price of avoidance may be high.  For your own wellbeing, steel yourself and address even the hardest emotions at some point.  Sit with them, feel them, and express.  Moving them along and bringing light to them will make you happier and healthier.

Beautiful young woman jumping on a green meadow with a colored tissue

Really, Einstein? Ditch my People?

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If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.”   – Albert Einstein

I’ve never really connected with this quote.  It seems like such a pessimistic point of view.  Like the way to be happy is to create distance from our people and favorite things and attach to achievement.  Goodbye, whiskers on kittens.

Today, I ran into it again and it took on a whole different flavor.  It made sense.  Either I’ve become more Einstein-like (very likely), or perhaps I’ve evolved emotionally another notch (I’ll take this option as well).  You might be thinking that I’ve barricaded myself away from my family and have donated my favorite pillow to a good cause, but I’ve done neither.  I’m actually living quite happily surrounded by both.

The past month has been a bit funky.  Not George Clinton, good funky, but funky in a disturbing way.  My roof surrendered to the rain.  My garbage disposal quit, and my pipes clogged.  Water rerouted to all the wrong places.  A passing ruffian removed my super-cute, berry-colored Kate Spade purse gifted to me by my family from my possession.  He took it from my car through the passenger side door and made a run for it.  I happened to be sitting in the driver’s seat at the time.  One of my children, who shall remain unnamed, created a bit of drama.  Nothing major, but enough to make waves in the household for a couple of days.  There is a chance my husband and I had different ideas about how to manage this disruption.  Funky.  Funky, but fine.

But guess what?  All is well.  Great, even.  We have a shiny new roof on the way.  I’ll be sure to have friends over for a glass of wine and some roof viewing when it’s ready.  What fun!  The water is all running appropriately now.  I’ve pulled an oldie but goodie of a bag out of retirement.  It’s dotted with memories.  A formerly beautiful leather tote spattered with spit-up, spills, and wear to boast a fine patina.  A kind woman discovered my pink purse in the bushes and returned it to me, noting that we ladies need to stick together.  She filled me with soul-felt appreciation.  It was drenched with rainwater, but also contained my keychain from my first day at Barnard College and some photos that miraculously survived the water.

My anonymous child created an opportunity for renewed communication in the family.  “How was your day?” “Good.” “Fine.” “Okay.” was momentarily replaced with talk about expectations, love, emotions, and the stuff of self-help books.  We, too, became shiny for a while.  I’m pretty sure we’ve upgraded and are all a bit closer now, too.

So, Einstein, I see your point.  My most important goal is to appreciate the good in life, to keep happy memories close to my heart, and roll with the adventures we face with grace and to learn the lessons they hurl our way.  Possessions are ruined, stolen, and lost.  People make mistakes and may disappoint.  Life’s funky foibles can serve to expose what really matters and wash away the cluttering debris.  Beneath the stained, aged, and sometimes battered exterior of our lives lies an intricately woven web of memories, connections, feelings, and growth.  My take on this quote?  Stockpile in your memory those experiences that have set your soul aglow, love deeply, ride out the bumps, and you will develop a fine patina of happiness.