The Secular Power of Coloring Books

Recently, I told a friend to buy some coloring books. Even to me it seems like an out-of-the-blue suggestion, and after I commented on her Facebook post I felt a little idiotic. Who tells a grown woman in a stressful, chaotic time of her life to buy a coloring book?

Me, apparently.

We had chatted earlier about writing, as she is a writer and a full-time caretaker who was worried about not having the energy to write. My responses mostly consisted of kind, empathetic remarks like “are you fucking kidding me? Of course you don’t have the energy to write! What the hell are you thinking??!??!?!”

By the time I got around to making a comment on her post, I realized I needed to be proactive and suggest actual solutions to the problem, as opposed to mere kind, empathetic remarks. So: coloring books.

Coloring books for caretakers. It should be a thing.

Especially for atheist/non-deist caretakers.

My own grieving was highly affected by the fact that I was the full time caretaker for both of my parents as they died. It was only about three and a half years, all told, but it was pretty traumatic. In fact, my therapist suggested that my PTSD and dissociation disorder stemmed more from those years than the actual deaths of my parents.

The literature on full time care-taking is pretty robust these days, and most of it confirms what someone like me already knows: it is catastrophic for our mental health. It is stressful both physically and emotionally. It is a financial strain, it is lonely, and it is depressing. And there I was, in the thick of it, basically alone.*

Again, and as usual, atheists and other non-deists usually have the double hit of not only being full-time caretakers, but not having a built-in support network that religious communities often provide. It’s not true that every church “family” helps their brethren, of course, nor is it uncommon from even the most devout person to insulate themselves from their communities of choice during times of extreme stress. They do, however, have the fallback of prayer and believing that they are being “helped by God” through times of stress, and we can belittle that all we want from a skeptical perspective but they find emotional solace in doing so. Hence the old saw, “no atheists in a foxhole” as most people think that a high-stress environment will inevitably lead to prayer as a coping mechanism, no matter how many of us claim otherwise.

Anyway, there was me, deep in the foxhole of in my early 20s with two dying parents and feeling like my own life was over.

Most things related to “having a life” were beyond me, and I am grateful I did not have to hold down any kind of employment or work on a higher education degree. I had my bachelor’s and my parents had my father’s retirement income, and that at least held us up so I could stay home full time. I call them the “house wife years” because while I was the daughter, I was totally married to that house.

But most of those memories are a blur. I was too exhausted to write or draw regularly, if much at all. I watched a lot of vacuous television, and late at night when my parents were asleep I would sneak out of the house like a teenager and go dance (but not drink) at nightclubs. It was my one of my only escapes.

The other was coloring books.

My mother had picked up the “adult coloring book” habit years before. I still remember the main book she used, it was a very thick book of mandalas, and she never finished it (I mean, it had like 100 pages of mandalas you could color, over 200 drawings). She would retire to coloring books during downward slides of her bi-polar cycles, when she still had enough energy and brain power to be bored but not enough to get involved in projects.

I picked up a copy of the same book when I moved home to take care of my parents (adult coloring books were rare, and variety a pipe dream), and while it was not a constant companion, I remember many mornings and afternoons where I would doodle out colors between the lines, feeling free in the choice of colored pencils and yet not stressed by the requirement of intense creative effort. It was a way to reconnect with myself without stressing about productivity, because there is something about the restrictions of the lines that allows for the colorist to focus on one simple task to the exclusion of other things, but it is not so monotonous as to become taxing.

Coloring books exist on that fine line between drudgery and creativity. Coloring in the lines gives me structure and security while allowing me to flirt with the edges of my imagination. It relieves me of the burden of accountability for my output. That, of course, is usually exactly what a creative person – writer, artist, musician – aims for, not avoids. We strive to produce in some form or another, even if what we produce is practicing our skills. “Write/draw/play every day!” is the mantra, with an assumption of progression behind it: do the thing, every day, responsibly and with dedication, so you can get better at the thing.

On the other hand, I’ve found that coloring in a coloring book is meditative in practice. Or, in lay terms: you zone out. The restrictions of “produce and progress” are lifted and I’m left only with the interaction between myself and the materials (pencils, pens, paper, design). This is a mini-satori in a way, a short brush with enlightenment that cannot be sustained, its value derived from the experience.

I needed those moments desperately. Alone in my own head I could easily drive myself crazy with worry, fear, frustration and exhaustion. Coloring was a way to “get out” of my misery and fear in a creative but not oppressive way.

We need more examples like this for atheist/non-deist care-takers, tools they can use that are not dependent on supernatural or paranormal validation. Care-taking is, in the vernacular, a “soul sucking” job, no matter how much you love the person you are taking care of. It’s a thankless task and very little makes up for the frustration, fear, worry, and exhaustion. As atheists and non-deists, we need to be providing answers to these kinds of dilemmas. Coloring books are an example of a secular tool that can be accessed across cultural, social, and economic lines to help people when they are emotionally burdened or compromised.

All power to the coloring books.


 

*Ironically, during the time I was a care-taker I was involved in the Episcopal Church. Or, at least, I was trying to be. As I’ve written before, it was more a “going through the motions” thing and not something I got any emotional benefit from. Even when I tried prayer, it didn’t do anything to change my situation (no surprise there) or how I felt about my situation. Neither was there a lot of church outreach to my family, certainly not enough to counter the incredible trauma we were going through, and in general we tended to rebuff people who got too close. We were loners by default, a family unit of three iconoclastic introverts who were, at best, agnostic.

 

Death Café, Tallahassee

I went to my first Death Café on Tuesday night. It was held at the Tallahassee Senior Center, which is busy place in the heart of “Mid-Town” Tallahassee, and just a block from where I live.

One aspect that attracted me to the whole concept of a Death Café is that it is secular, and welcoming of all people regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. It’s hard to find that kind of environment or organization when it comes to death, which is so heavily managed by religions.

I’ve known of Death Cafés pretty much since they started back in 2011, and have wanted to attend one.  I even considered trying to host one myself, but with graduate school and then full-time employment, I knew I could not do so effectively. Big Bend Hospice has been hosting them here in town for a while, though, but I did not know that until I saw it advertised on the big electronic sign out front the Senior Center (which happens to be where I wait for the bus each morning on my way to work, so you know, captive audience).

It’s probably not surprising that at 45, I was one of the younger people in attendance. It was about 30 people total, I’d guess, and we were broken up into smaller groups of five-to-eight at separate tables. There was a catered dinner, which was nice, since I had just rolled in from work (carting my backpack and wearing sneakers – bus riders gotta be ready to run, that’s all I’m sayin’!) and did not have time to go home first.

The group I was a part of was made up of people who had both lost loved ones and were also planning their own death/dying management (living wills, funeral arrangements, and such forth), so we all had that in common. There was no one there who was wary of talking about death and dying. Our shells were fully cracked by our life experiences and we were all ready to share.

I can’t say it was a particularly profound experience, but perhaps therein lies its value. There are few ways for non-deists to talk with death or our experiences as grievers in any kind of group setting outside of our circle of family and friends, and so we tend to just stay quiet.

But a Death Café, by its very nature, is designed to be that kind of secular, supportive place. It’s not the same as a grief support group, but then, I’m not at a stage in my life where I feel the need to be a part of a support group like that. I am simply looking for people who share my desire to break the taboo that surrounds death and dying, and talk to them about how our larger society frames our very personal issues. Since that was our common goal, it was a safe and comfortable place for me to participate without feeling judged or marginalized because of my atheism.

I will definitely attend a future event, although maybe not monthly. I’m unsure of what value I bring to the table, honestly, and would generally prefer not to talk about my own experiences but that’s just unavoidable. I do feel like a curiosity sometimes, and have since I was 26: tragedy writ large on memories of a long-dead family. It’s my story and I am comfortable in it, but people often react sensationally to it. That’s boring to me, but I understand how my life story is a little bit of a spectacle. My goal, though, is to try and talk less about “what happened” and more about “how do we function in society, and how ill-equipped is society to deal with us?”

I’m fortunate that Death Cafés are a thing now. I wonder – as I so often do – how different (if at all) my life would be if such resources had existed 20 years ago…

Shards of grief – 20 years later

I respect the power of migraines. I have spent the majority of my life living with people who suffered regularly from them, and I believe that they are as close to dark magic as is possible to exist in our world. I’ve always have and always will feel privileged not to have experienced them very many times.

This morning, though, was one of those times. I felt bad yesterday and I shoved that aside but in retrospect — recovering, now, with a slight tension headache and having drunk enough water to piss like a racehorse all night — I realize it was my subconscious gearing up for today.

September 15, 2014.

Twenty years ago today, my mother died.

This is as personal an anniversary as is possible to get, no flags at half-mast or newspaper editorials reflecting on the horror or television specials featuring experts in psychological trauma. Just me and my migraine.

I associate migraines with mother not just because she got them every few weeks, but because my very first migraine materialized the night I realized she really was dying.

I had driven from DeBary back to Sarasota, where I lived, to pack up my independent (if somewhat directionless) life in order to move home to take care of her. I had friends — Tim, Phi, Chris — hovering around me and dealing with their own form of shock. They took me to Barnes & Noble on S. Tamiami Trail (is it even still there, I wonder?) as a way to relax after dinner but like an idiot I settled myself in the medical section and researched colon-rectal cancer. This was in 1992 so the Internet was not readily available to me, I didn’t even know it existed as such yet, so it was bookstore or library, a familiar form of research practice post-college. Book after book told me the same thing: at the stage the cancer was at, Mother’s chances of survival for longer than a year was about five percent.

She wasn’t sick, not the way I had thought, like it was a bad thing we had to confront and conquer.

She was sick, and she was dying.

The sledgehammer hit my brain on the drive home, the migraine appearing so agonizingly fast that I had to pull over and let someone else drive the final mile. I knew what it was, even though I had never experienced it before. I knew what I was in for that night, and also what I would be dealing with when I moved home. Hopelessness lurched through me like flood waters filled with debris.

Phi tried to feed me, Tim radiated peace and compassion, Chris held me. I curled up on the living room floor of Phi and Tim’s apartment and whined, covering my eyes, reduced to child-like efforts to hide from the pain. My mother was dying, and my helplessness to do anything for her or for myself ripped my consciousness to shreds.

This morning, I was reminded of that pain and helplessness as I woke up to the sharp-needle teeth of a migraine gnawing on my brain. It’s a fact that the brain itself cannot feel pain, but the experience of a migraine is that your brain is choking on agony, short-circuiting every thought and sensation.

I managed to crawl to the kitchen for water and aspirin, and stood shaking by my desk as I emailed my boss that I would be out for the day. Only then did I look at the calendar gadget on my desktop and realize, what the FUCK, it’s been 20 years. I kind of don’t remember going back to bed after that, but I did, because that’s (thankfully) where I woke up several hours later.

I have no patience with platitudes but we fall into traps of believing them because it’s just better than being cynical and bitter all the time. However, for every “time heals all wounds” there is “distance makes the heart grow fonder.” Twenty years on, many of the co-dependent and broken aspects of my relationship with my mother have been acknowledged and dragged into the light of day to make way for a weary and sentimental affection, just as so much of the daily horrors of her slow death have become faded shadows of once sharp pain. Part of me is shocked and appalled that it has been twenty fucking years since she died. She would 72 years old now, if she were alive. I can’t even wrap my brain around that, because in my head and in truth she stopped aging at 52.

But two decades have passed, the majority of those years spent spinning my wheels of grief and self-loathing. There were good days, fun times even, but to me now it’s all just a blur of wasted potential. Mother would not approve, but she sure as hell would understand.

The migraine has lifted, leaving me looking at the calendar again with a sense of frustrated wonder. I’ve been floating for the last two months, really, since I had to put my cat down on July 18th, and I think it’s been one long roiling ride through grief leading up to today. I’ve been a little absent from all parts of my current life to a disturbing degree, clawing my way through the daily grind and surfing the internet for amusing memes and bad fanfiction to distract myself from feelings. So of course it all builds up behind my eyes for a 20th anniversary migraine. Of course.

The fact that I’ve been dealing with this grief for this long will never not be stunning. It doesn’t feel like success, or triumph, or even coping. It’s a long narrow corridor of loneliness and sadness that just gets longer every year. Most days it’s easier to look thought the windows to the real world happening outside and not think about her death at all, until the light and the pressure builds up and everything shatters into shards of agonizing pain that is so shocking yet so expected because this is what my brain does when the situations is compartmentalized to the point of cracking the box.

I hate migraines. I hate what they represent for me even more. It’s been twenty years, and I still fear my grief and pain more than I fear the consequences of acknowledging it.

 

because tumblr. because.

I’ve started a companion tumblr for this blog: http://atheist-grief.tumblr.com

It’s basically designed to be a “sound bite” type of blog, with reblogs of other tumblr posts and link-posts to articles/websites I find online that are interesting.

This blog will remain more a longer-form essay style publication, which continues to be an evolving beast as I find my voice in this topic.

Thanks for your continued support!

I get to expert things?

I was talking to my colleague Jennifer Miracle about blogging and specifically about my upcoming debut as a columnist for Atheist Republic, where I will be writing about grief and mourning issues. I was talking about how I don’t feel much like an expert on the topic, especially since I’m not a counselor or therapist trained in grief issues, and her question was, “Well, who is the expert?”

And I couldn’t tell her, because I can’t think of one.

Carol A. Fiore has written irregularly about atheist grief issues, but doesn’t seem too active on the subject these days outside of a few articles for Grief Digest. Her book detailing her relationship with her husband, his death, and dealing with her grief as an atheist is due out this year, though.

My resources page highlights a few (very few) other blogs and articles that are worth visiting, and I especially recommend the facebook page Grief Beyond Belief founded by Rebecca Hensler. But that’s pretty much it.

I’m totally not prepared to be “the expert” nor do I find it helpful to think of myself that way. I have to re-iterate that I’m not a professionally trained counselor or therapist. I’m a librarian whose parents died when I was in my 20s. That is pretty much the extent of my “expertise.”

Yet, I feel the need to have a role in talking about atheist/non-deist grief and mourning issues. We are a very small minority of people world wide, and our support structures are few and far between, especially if our families are religious. I’d love it if I were just one of dozens of bloggers currently writing about this topic, but I’m basically one of two. I’m certainly the only one who has been doing this regularly for several years (that I know of). That doesn’t make me an expert, just persistent — because I feel this is important, and I can’t seem to let it go.

That will have to be enough.

Salvation from Sin

A surprising title for an atheist blog about grief, but I find both concepts fascinating. I’ve wondered for years why we need them, why we created them in the first place.

I joined a friend at a Unitarian Universalist service this morning, and was thrilled that the speaker did his whole talk about the notion of salvation and sin. He was grounded in the Christian tradition, so of course there was a lot of references to god/spirit entities, but he discussed these concepts in very secular terms.

He used a definition of sin originated by theologian James Luther Adams: “sin the act of ignoring the demands of mutuality.” Salvation is the removal of sin, that is, the act of acknowledging mutuality which, I suppose, in the Buddhist tradition is simply practicing compassion.

We seem to complicate these ideas needlessly by filtering them through religion and philosophy.

I trip over these concepts a lot in regards to grieving, because so many people try to ease the pain of grief by implying that the dead person is better off, with the presumption that their soul has gone to heaven or “a better place”. The whole concept of religious salvation is most often understood as otherworldly — salvation is something that awaits you later, after you die. Or that earning salvation in this life grants you special privileges in the after-life.

But I think salvation is another word for enlightenment, which is itself another word for “being present, being compassionate, in the moment.” And this is important for grievers, because it is easy to get swamped in our emotions and forget that we are part of a greater whole. As long as we are alive, we are members of our society and our family and our planet’s biomass. We ignore the mutuality of our lives at our own peril. This is the “sin” that non-deists need to be concerned with.

Being “in the moment” does not mean wallowing in pity. There are times when emotional windstorms sweep you under and there is nothing you can do other than try to stay afloat. Those moments pass, though. Then we are left to drown in our sorrows or to confront our place in the world with whole-hearted compassion.

I don’t fear religious words like salvation and sin because their source is often a reflection of basic humanity. We can take these terms and use them as short cuts to deal with our own emotional world, without conceding to supernatural/paranormal entities.

How are you practicing sin? Where is the salvation in your grief?

 

 

Poppa’s Boots

They don’t fit me, they are too big. Which, I guess, a father’s shoes should always be: too big to fill. They are military boots, worn in and proud, and they get shuffled from corner to corner of my house because I can’t wear them, and I can’t get rid of them, and I can’t pack them away (like so much else I have sitting around in trunks, bins and boxes).photo of my father's boots

They are artifacts of Troy, pieces of history I barely remember myself at this point. My father stopped wearing those boots when he retired from the military in 1975. I don’t remember seeing them on his feet, even though I do remember him in his uniform and his flight suit. I’m sure I saw those boots in action at some point but mostly I remember them sitting around in his closet. He kept them even though he had no reason to, and I guess I’ve inherited that along with the boots. He kept them for 20 years past his retirement and I’m sure I’ll keep them for longer than that.

I suspect that if they had fit, I would have worn them. Since they didn’t (and that’s probably for the best) they are simply here, sitting around, indicating the presence of someone who isn’t alive and hasn’t been for 17 years.

These are ghosts, to me. I don’t believe in supernatural spirits following me around, even if in moments of fancy I imagine such things. No, ghosts are these: objects connected to memories and feelings. Ghosts of my father are his boots, and his wristwatch, and so many other bits and pieces of his life that orbit me still. They bring him to mind at unexpected moments, live like shadowy creatures just out of touch of my day-to-day routine.

One day they won’t be there, just as he’s not here now. I don’t look forward to that day.

Skeptic’s Inspirational: November 18th

Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow. ~ Melody Beattie

Commentary: We can drive ourselves into an early grave with worry and regret — modern medical science is discovering more every day about how damaging emotional stress is to our bodies. The basic building blocks of health are sleep, nutrition and exercise but if we spend every moment of the day angry or sad because we are focusing on the negative aspects of our lives, we will make ourselves sick. Pithy quotes like the above are not simply about inspiration, but about living a more fulfilling and happier life. Being grateful is not a cop out or a misdirection from “reality”, it is a way to train our minds to think positively. Life itself will always be stressful in a variety of ways and degrees, but how we let that affect our health and our futures is our own decision to make.

Affirmation: Today I am grateful for my past and the present moment. I am alive and I am full of potential, and I have the chance to create a fulfilling future.

Death and Social Media

I often question the value of this blog. After all, while grief is a permanent state its intensity varies over time and circumstances. I’m not sure, either, what I have to offer is very much by way of comfort. I don’t coat grief with a film of sentiment, because to me a vitally important part of grief is anger, and allowing that into the discussion tends to scare some people away.

My uncertainty is evident by my lack of updates here. Yet, this blog is probably the project that is closest to my heart above all of my other writing and professional work.

This was brought home to me recently by the experience of NPR reporter Scott Simon, who tweeted from his place as witness to his mother’s death. At first glance such a project sounds cheap and shallow, the kind of tweeting that makes everyone uncomfortable due to its inappropriateness.

Simon somehow, and by his own reports unwittingly, turned it into a profound study of the human experience. He was a loving son whose affection for his mother was evident in every tweet he sent out. By turns heartbreaking, funny, and insightful, his tweets reflected not only his mother’s wonderful personality but the strength of their relationship. Sharing that via a social network enriched the lives of all of us who were watching, and gave him an outlet for his grief that reached out to thousands of supportive people.

And that is my reason to keep this blog going, right there. Social networking (and I count blogging under that umbrella of services including twitter, facebook and G+) can show the worst of us (some subreddits are proof of that) but in some situations, if used with the same honesty and sincerity we treat face-to-face interactions, they can be a positive, enriching force in our lives.

So I’m continuing with this blog. Maybe just posting once a week, I don’t know. My schedule is busy. But this is important, not just for me, but (I hope) for anyone who stumbles across this place.

Skeptic’s Inspirational, August 23rd

Quote:
Someone was hurt before you, wronged before you, hungry before you, frightened before you, beaten before you, humiliated before you, raped before you…yet, someone survived…You can do anything you choose to do. ~ Maya Angelou

Commentary:
Fortitude is not simply about survival, which is important but not particularly special. Survival is the starting point, which we sometimes forget in the midst of the stress and trauma of life. Fortitude is making the choice of how you want to live your life despite all of that. Maya Angelou reminds us that everything has happened before and will happen again in the course of human history; our choices are what define us as individuals. Relying on our own sense of fortitude—of positive action—helps us make the right choices for living a better, more fulfilling life.

Affirmation:
I will not be weighed down by tragedy, pain, suffering and fear. I am strong and step into the unknown with faith that my fortitude will set me on the right path. My life is not defined by what has happened to me or the mistakes I have made, but by the strength of character I envision with every positive choice I make.

#

Theme for August: Fortitude!