Gifts and Visitations

It’s been just over a month since my dear friend and soul sister Marina died, after a quick and nasty tussle with appendiceal cancer. She visits my consciousness daily, in ways both fleeting and substantial. We talked a lot about the afterlife in her last months. She told me clearly that, when she visits me after her death, she’d make herself known in a way that looks like dragonflies.

The first sighting occurred less than twelve hours after she passed. I was with Bink, walking at one of our favorite Audubon sites. There, a trail unrolls through a little forest before splitting itself in two. To the right, a lovely treed path eventually leads to a small bridged dam, pausing before heading into more woods and on beside a waterfall.

Choice two runs straight ahead at the fork to a wee bridge that cinches a pond on either side. This beckons onto a boardwalk over more water, with an option to follow a path into an almost wildly overgrown bit of land.

It’s a magical place, one that my little family appreciates tremendously. That final Sunday in June was the first time Bink and I had been back since Covid-19 had closed most Audubon trails in mid March. We were delighted to learn of the re-opening, in time to greet the summer growth gracing the land. Across the water, a thick blanket of lily pads hosted frogs napping in the sun. Turtles rested atop rocks protruding from the pond. The air buzzed with insect life.

It was on the boardwalk that the first dragonfly came into my vision. She hung in the air in front of me, sunlight shimmering off her blue-green body. I tried to capture a picture of her, but each time I positioned my iphone she flitted out of the screen.

Soon, I noticed more dragonflies. Different colors and sizes, all dancing and hovering around me and Bink and above the water. Well, I told myself, this is dragonfly heaven! Of course they are here. Doesn’t mean that it’s Marina.

At home a few days later, Superguy pointed wordlessly out the window over our kitchen sink. We have planter boxes and a large pot or two on the deck out there. A lone dragonfly hovered in the thick air between a raised box and the plants thriving in the pot next to it. Thirty seconds, one minute. Maybe two. There she is, I thought. She’s here, he may have said.

Earlier this month, we stayed at a small rental on the Cape for a week. It was a hasty decision we made back in February, pre-Covid. The house we’d rented and loved for years had sold recently, and we were mourning the loss of that sweet yearly week. We’d driven down to the area to look for another option, hoping for something, anything, that would be within a short walk to the beach we love.

We found a cottage and were able to view the inside. It was much smaller than the previous one, paneled in pine that was darkened by age. It was also available for a week this summer! We put a deposit down on the spot.

Marina, whom I’d seen the month before, had not yet been diagnosed with the cancer that would take her life. She’d been tired when I saw her, and only vaguely aware of some indigestion.

When my little family arrived for our July week at the cottage, we went around to the back door to retrieve the hidden key the owner had told us about. There was a metal sculpture on the backside of the house. Hmmm, I thought. Dragonfly? No, it looked more like a butterfly.

We went inside. The small kitchen opened out into an equally compact dining area and living room. There, on a shelf looking out towards the front window, was a colorful square canvas with—you guessed it—a beautiful dragonfly on it. Tears welled up in my eyes.

In the bedroom off the kitchen, the same dark wood covered the walls. Superguy was the one who spotted it first: the sole decoration in that room was a colorful cohort of dragonflies, rendered in metal and nailed to the wall.

A few days after we arrived, my love said,” Hey, did you notice the dragonfly art by the back door?” “Oh, yes,” said I. But I think it’s actually a butterfly. Noooo, he mouthed soundlessly, his silver hair catching the scant light from the back door as he shook his head. We went out to examine it more closely. “See this elongated body? That’s not a butterfly. It’s a dragonfly.” And so it was.

Bink loves to swim. Recently, as she swam in a local lake, her head bowed as she dipped her curious, goggled eyes beneath the surface, M landed lightly on her back. She stayed there for several minutes, not moving.

Another day, a dragonfly appeared on the inside wall of our garage. She just sat there, watching and being watched, for a long time.

I’ve made online connections with others who knew and loved Marina. There have been strings of messages between us, and a tender Zoom memorial service this past weekend. We’re scattered around the globe, yet many of us have had dragonfly sightings in recent weeks.

Sometimes, I hear Marina talking to me. It’s reassurance that all is well, that she is indeed in bliss. There’s more, though.

Marina was an artist. Like many creatives, it took her a long time to truly and firmly believe in her art. It was only in the last two years she was financially able to cut her “real world” work to a minimum and give her deep attention to the gestation and birth of her evolving artwork.

She first knew me as a young poet. At twenty, I was untamed and bohemian. Poetry poured through my fingers when I sat with a journal. Through the years, my visiting time with Marina was often spent making art, with hours of talking and laughing punctuated by periods of absolute, easy silence.

One of the gifts my friend tried to give me over the last few years was what she called the YES, AND. Marina understood the constraints of my life circumstances over the past few decades. Through my descriptions, and the perpetual need to do careful advance planning for our scant visits or even our phone calls, she had a good sense of what is involved with parenting a child who has significant special needs.

She knew that I love my daughter without limits and beyond comprehension, that my commitment to her wellness and growth is lifelong and unwavering.

She also knew how I longed, long to have great expanses of unfettered time to write and paint and make art with beach stones and fully explore the wellspring of creativity that has always been part of my bone structure.

“Don’t starve your soul,” she’d say. “YES, you are an amazing mother. YES, your daughter needs you. AND—make time for the art. You have books inside you and your painting is full of Goddess energy and whimsy and you need to let it out. Don’t let it die.”

Sometimes, I accepted the gift of her words graciously, gave them a nod, then dove right back into the thick stew of my life. A few times, I let her words really penetrate. Paintings would come to life in snatches of time. Poems would press themselves out in pieces on my Mac, waiting patiently to be shepherded into something complete and satisfying.

When Marina extends her energy into my moments now, she knows I feel her offering gifts again. If she were in the flesh, she’d say YES. It’s a full plate. Covid has magnified it all. Bink will always need. AND you need to tend your whole garden, sweetie. The whole damned thing.”

–Melinda Coppola

Dragonflies

Image by Rona Kline

Image by Rona Kline

As I write this, my dear friend Marina lies dying in a lovely room inside the oldest house in an historic and pretty New Hampshire town. A wonderful woman who worked with her in the local general store has taken her into her home. Hospice has set her up well with a hospital bed that adjusts in many ways and keeps moving different parts of her body to prevent some of the pain associated with not being able to get out of bed.

A mere six months ago, Marina was celebrating the purchase of a little house in New Mexico, old stomping grounds for her. She envisioned growing old there while making her art and reconnecting with the culture in an area of the country she has long loved for its people and its wide, open skies. She planned to move there this month, just after celebrating her solo art show at The Newton Free Library the first week of June.

Covid 19 would likely have postponed the show, as it slowed or halted so many things. The pandemic burst into dominance at the same time that my friend had a scan that looked very suspect.

Her journey has been fraught with suffering and pain as the diagnoses and prognoses grew increasingly dark through the weeks. She has had deep sorrow, and also joy and gratitude and acceptance. I’ve written a bit about this already, and it isn’t actually what I’ve come here to the page to say.

We humans can be so apathetic about being incarnated. We act as if we have unlimited time, as if each day isn’t positively bursting with beauty and grace and opportunities to bring meaning and comfort to at least one other being.

Many of us are quite good at identifying what we don’t want and don’t like. We tend to focus on those things, and it can feel easier to blame the ensuing feelings on outside circumstances. We seem to expend enormous energy tearing each other down.

Though I am a great advocate of the practices of presence and loving kindness, I’m far from immune to the easy drop into anxiety and despair. I can make an impressive list of Everything That Sucks as fast as the next person. I can bemoan the ways in which Other People are directly contributing to the pain and suffering of the larger world and to my own little sphere as well. I can list twenty ways the shutdown has created enormous distress and anxiety for families like ours that include an individual with special needs.

The pandemic and cancer diagnoses are among the teachers that remind us how little control we actually have over many of the circumstances of our lives. Those same professorial forces can illustrate our superpowers. We all have them. Most days, I think, we can choose to do and to be in ways that can make an enormous difference to all living things—people and animals and trees and flowers. We can choose to be present with each other, to listen deeply and hold each being with respect and regard and learn great things that can alter the ways we treat each other and our earth.

Each life is precious. Life itself is an exquisite gift. Everyone has a story, everyone carries pain and joy. We are all works in progress, weaving tapestries of our memories and experiences. No two will look the same, and we have so much to teach each other.

My friend has stopped eating and drinking, and she is mostly nonresponsive now. I know that she’ll graduate into the great love that surrounds us and created us. She knows this, too. “Look for the dragonflies,” she told me a few weeks ago. A few days after that, “Look for dragonflies. Especially the unusual ones.”

Dragonflies represent transformation and adaptability and wisdom. They are associated with water, that magical, life-giving, shape shifter element that adapts to every container and circumstance. My friend has had one tattooed on her left arm for quite a long time, now. I didn’t tell her that I’ve never felt a strong pull towards them. I know that is about to change.

–Melinda Coppola
Post Script: Marina Powdermaker passed away in the first hour of Sunday, June 28, 2020. She was two months shy of her 59th birthday.

Little Big Thing

“Stay in awe of life. The little things are the big things. “ ― Richie Norton

“I’m cold.” Bink had just gotten up, a good hour later than she used to get up on any given pre-Covid Monday.

My eyes scanned her body, noting the hybrid pajamas I’d hastily grabbed for her to put on after her bath the evening before. The top, a pale pink waffle weave that had seen better days, was from a winter set. The sleeves had been cut shorter so they wouldn’t get wet when she washed her hands. She was sporting knee length summer-ish bottoms, made of a lighter weight fabric in a brighter shade of pink. They, too, were once part of a matched ensemble. Sets of things don’t stay together for long in our house. Her feet were bare.

“Hmmm,” I said. “You could put on a sweatshirt, and maybe some socks.”

Individuals with autism can have great difficulty with body awareness, which includes processing sensations and emotions. It’s only in the past few years that Bink has been able to identify a recent feeling or experience, and relay it to me within a few moments or even a few days. This happens sporadically, and I don’t take it for granted. Someday she won’t have me to instinctively understand her and help interpret her actions for a world that can’t. Though she will never live alone, and will always need help, any gains she can make in the self-care department will contribute to her comfort.

She trundled off towards her room, and a few minutes later I heard her addressing me as if I was right there with her. I sighed, feeling the familiar words rising in my throat. You need to come to where I am if you want me to hear you. I would have had to yell them down the hall, though, so I stuffed them back down into the room inside of me where I store frequently used sentences and expressions.

When I entered her bedroom, which is pink on pink and accented with more pink, she was standing in front of the closet looking in. “Mommy I don’t see the sweatshirt.” I instantly understood that she was looking for a hooded, full- zip sweatshirt. After all, that’s the kind we’d both been wearing recently on our walks outside. Let’s wear sweatshirts, I’ve been saying, as much to myself as to Bink or Superguy, as we get ready for our strolls and our hikes.

I pointed to one of her many pink crewneck sweatshirts that she’s been wearing all winter and most of this cool spring. “These are also sweatshirts,” I said, knowing she knew this, too, in some currently inaccessible part of her brain.

We moved through our morning rituals, which go something like this:

Bink texts me a question. A typical question might be Why did ______________ (insert the name of a teacher she had back in, oh, 2001) say such-and such (she’ll repeat the words that were said to her, verbatim) in a block voice on a tears boy Friday? I create my best guess answer for that day and video it back to her. If she likes my answer, my tone of voice, or the image that goes along with the video, she’ll save it and watch it over and over. The questions can be quite repetitive, and my answers may be as well. When this is addressed, she’ll say, “I’m just trying to understand it.”

Next, she texts me a short statement, something like Mommy has pinkalicious hair. She’ll await my brief, verbal response—Yes I do! Or thank you.

She scrawls in her Dream Journal after that, and asks me to read it aloud. These entries might be just a short sentence or two, or they might be a few pages long. At times, they read like recalled dreams might, with odd events like swimming in dream halls or being told she must have a bowl of beads without holes for breakfast. More often, they seem to be just thoughts, usually of the song reference type that frequent her brain in awake hours. “The man sounded like Al Simmons and John Langstaff on Johnny’s Fiddle.”

Welcome to the magical mind of my daughter.

On this particular Monday, we’d gone through our morning triad. Typically (pre-Covid) she’d begin obsessing about some detail of her upcoming day or week that she was worried about, but in these long weeks of Shutdown when all her typical activities are cancelled, she mostly fixates on The Plan. Lunch, treat, where we will walk or hike, and dinner options. Instead, she said,” I was cold in the night.”

Fabulous. Another example of her blossoming ability to identify an experience she has and convey it in a way that others can understand, in a matter of hours or days as opposed to years! I took a good long moment to savor this, then turned to her and asked, ever so gently, “Hmmm. What can we do when we feel cold?”

Bink can tell you what day of the week your birthday will fall on in 2024. She can spot triplicate numbers on the license plate of a car that speeds by so fast I barely notice the color. She can recall the exact words and tone of voice used by anyone who’s ever scolded her, and can likely remember the day, month and year it happened, too.

The integration of other concepts that seem so basic to many of us, like knowing when to don and doff another layer of clothing or a second blanket, is much more challenging for her. The first step—identifying the discomfort— seems to be happening more often for Bink. Little victories like these seem even sweeter during this period of shutdown, with more time to notice them.

Time, Place, Classroom

WHEN

The world gets so noisy. Too many voices
straining, pushing past their natural limits to be heard. Our small ears can’t discern provenance or factuality. Reactions quicken, turning knee-jerk, protective.

WHERE

There is the place where trees thicken into extended families, root systems entwined beneath the earth. Look for the leafy canopy that forms an arch. You’ll know it when you arrive. There are plenty of seats to be had, and no prior coursework is required.

WHEN

Class begins just after the tree frogs cease their urgent croaking. If you prefer to tell time mechanically, it’s around 3am. The instructor will sweep in on a dark, cool breeze. Plan to sit awhile. Class ends at chorus call, when the winged ones stir and lift their beaks to sing the dawn into being.

WHAT

The velvet hour, the lull between cacophonies. Your professor is the apparent silence. You’ll be asked to get very still. Open all your senses, and train them towards the slightest movement or sound or scent. Your assignment: to glean the evidence of life happening all around you. It is in the soil beneath and the trees above. It’s in the air that hangs or wafts or hurries by. It hums steadily in the space you thought was filled with quiet.

Listening is sacred. Listening is a practice.

Listening is a sacred practice.

I marvel at the way it is possible to hear what we already know in someone’s else’s words, when we get quiet enough for long enough. When that happens, things can suddenly sound new and full of meaning and promise, and this is what we do for each other, when we show up and open our ears and hearts, the ears of our hearts. When we
press ourselves into the present exactly as we are, wounds and all, open to a new way of being and seeing.

Consider the way we can make a gift of our listening when we give our earnest attention to others, especially those whose lives are quite unlike our own. By truly receiving their words, we can be a mirror through which they can see their own humanity and beauty reflected. We can give each other new vision and energy and this, too, is what we’re here for, to show each other, again and again, what might be possible.

Listening is a sacred practice.

–Melinda Coppola

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Collateral Sorrow

Art by Marina Powdermaker


It’s been a time of times, a steady landslide of uncertainties. Yes, the Covid, the shutdown. Yes, Bink and so many other adults with disabilities being home all day every day for many weeks, with all the usual programs and activities canceled. Yes, the mass suffering and loss that has accompanied this pandemic around the globe. Like so many others, I’ve been all over the place emotionally and mentally.

All that has paled, though, in comparison to another great big unfolding. Marina, a dear friend of mine, has been diagnosed with a rare and very aggressive cancer. Stage four. She lives in a different state, and I haven’t been able to see her.

The news about her condition came at about the same time everything began to shut down. In a dizzying 9.5 weeks she has been through a surgery that was far more extensive than she expected, dealt with the after effects of that with multiple pain medications that haven’t worked very well, grappled with treatment plans. Each subsequent appointment with specialists has brought grimmer news, with predicted possible life expectancies going from a possible two years down to months. Yesterday a doctor told her that if she opts for no treatment at all, she may only have “days to weeks.”

She had a chemotherapy port installed in her chest, but crippling daily and nightly pain led to more diagnostics, and then confirmation that the cancer has spread into her bones. Radiation, which can’t begin until next week, may help the pain but will delay chemo. The first available chemo appointment may be almost two weeks away. She’s been told hospice is not an option if she opts for chemotherapy. Can you imagine riding on this monstrous roller coaster, exacerbated by Covid complications that keep her from close contact with those she loves? If ever there is a time someone needs hugs and loving touch, this is it. Her beloved cats, whose affection has been balm to her, had to be rehomed due to her inability to care for them.

During this turbulence, Marina, who has given me permission to tell you about her, dipped into Laurie Wagner’s free offering of her Wild Writing course. Each morning for 27 days, participants received a video of Laurie reading a poem, and were encouraged to use the lines as a prompt for free form writing. I’ve yet to take one of Laurie’s courses, but I’ve heard many good things.

Marina is a multimedia artist. She’s never considered herself to be a writer. During the Wild Writing course, she wrote on the days she could manage it, and she’s shared some of her words with me. Such raw and achingly beautiful writing! I keep telling her I want to see it all on the page, and online, for everyone to experience.

I’ve been pretty blocked (understatement) in my own writing lately. It’s true that my main daily focus has been keeping Bink occupied and well fed and reasonably content. There hasn’t been a lot of time for writing, or editing. My bitchy inner critic has also been strident in her attempts to silence me, and I’ve let her. There have been pockets for painting and drawing, but those creations seem to be content with five or ten minutes of attention in between the cycles of care giving.

There is so much I want to say, about endings and beginnings and life and death and change. If Marina can pick up a pen and allow such fierce and tender writing to come forth in the midst of her great challenges, than I can certainly let some of my own wordy impulses break free and overwhelm the block. I can do this in her honor.

For today, just one more thing. Please check out Marina’s art HERE.
She does layered, amazingly textured pieces that, like opals, look different in every light.

Take good and gentle care of yourself, and maybe go call or text or write someone you care about. Tell them a specific something you love about them. The world and all her people need more love.

–Melinda Coppola

When all this is over…

WHEN THIS IS OVER

Bring bread,
chewy and warm,
wrapped in that red
checkered tablecloth
that always sings
picnic,

which is short for
happy family,
easy friendships,
peace and plenty
in our town
state
country
planet.

We never went on one,
a picnic,
not once in all our
together years

even though we had that red
checkered cloth,
and enough love
and hope
and time.

Bring bread, baby,
while we can still bake
and chew,
while we can still be
alive together,

while earth still
hosts the wheat, the rye,
the farmer, so trusting,
sowing seeds.

–Melinda Coppola

Prospecting for Grace

Praise

The faithful sun,
generously stirring
energies of Earth
and atmosphere,
coaxing every green thing
towards the rising
song of spring.

Parents
walking with their children
outside, smiling
and laughing, nodding
at neighbors
out washing their cars.

Quieted streets
yielding their usual
ruthless noise
to melodious birdsong,
squirrels rustling in the brush,
the wind whistling
in the still bare branches.

Moon, conducting
the rise and fall
of seas everywhere,
the call and response,
organic and lyrical,
in all bodies of water,
even ours.

Every incremental sign
that goodness and hope
are alive and well,
seeding us with patience
through this reckoning time—

There I’ll set my gaze,
invite my pen to praise
all that.
Praise all that.

–Melinda Coppola

The Uninvited Guests

What a time! We are seeing and hearing wide ranging effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on, it seems, every populated part of our planet.

In our corner of the world, Bink’s autism and accompanying dependence on schedules has collided headfirst with current realities. Every activity in her life, from her weekday program to her favored leisure activities, has been cancelled. Much of the structure she counts on has fallen away. Anxiety and perseveration, already frequent visitors in our home, have announced their return. They brought lots of luggage, too, apparently planning to stay awhile.

Will we get through it? Of course. Many have far worse situations. This is, however, a particular kind of challenge for Bink and others like her. She asks many questions, and fully expects me to have the answers.

Longing

to help you know
in your bones, child,
in your bones,
this will pass.

This will pass and
I’m longing
to have you know
we will again be free
to dip in and out
of those beloved scrawls
on your wall calendar—

horse riding,
and art class,
the candy and craft stores,
restaurants,
swimming at the Y,
and your weekly volunteer job
neatening the bins
at the toy store,
pricing stuffed animals.

You will
once again
return to your day program
where you may even welcome
those groups
you do not love.

I know in my bones,
which are just older versions
of your own,
that this will pass by,

all things do,
and we will re-rise,
rise again,
grateful and eager
to push forth into the
too-loud world,

carrying earplugs
and fidget toys,
your soft pink ball
of yarn.

Until then,
my frightened
full grown child,

I will be here,
right here,
to answer your questions,
daily, hourly,

No,
this won’t for last 100 days.
No,
this won’t be for your whole life.

Yes, we’ll go out walking
today
and tomorrow,
and every day.

No
this won’t be forever,
No
I don’t know the day,
the hour
it will end.

Yes,
the power will stay on,

this will pass.
I’m longing
to help you know
this will end.

—Melinda Coppola

Communicable


PROPAGATION

I’ve taken to humming
in the produce section
while caressing the plums,
sneaking sniffs
of the cilantro,
eyeing the lemons,
audacious in their yellowry.

It’s a low, soothing thing,
the thrum of air
over vocal chords,
nearly a buzz,

and I am almost
a bumblebee,
hovering over color,
circling the end caps

as I admire
the mottled plantains,
the papery shallots
with their secret,
chambered cloves.

Outside the store
there are doomsayers
on every sharp corner,
the shattered remains
of a national normalcy
cutting feet,
drawing blood,
speculation,
and despair.

Even the sunlight
serves only to magnify
the sparkle of
all that broken glass.

The lines in the parking lot
seem repainted every night,
with more space
between the spaces,
to keep the usses
from door-dinging
the thems,

but inside
the flamboyant vegetables
nestle up to their neighbors,
fragrant fruits
and bags of nuts
coexisting,

and there I’ll go
humming and hovering,
covertly cross pollinating,
to propagate
a kinder world.

–Melinda Coppola

BEGIN AGAIN


BEGIN AGAIN

“Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Begin again is the dry brush dipped into water. The soft tip touching dark blue, then medium green. The hand holds it steady over the welcoming canvas for a moment, then escorts it down to the wide, white surface.

She knows this first brush is delighted to be employed in this way. She is certain that each tool and supply she will be guided towards will co-create the picture that wants to bless the canvas with form and color.
—————————————————————

Begin again is the woman opening her purple 2020 calendar book with excitement. She is looking at the weekdays, the squares and numbers and day names that make up those blocks of time. She does the math, deducts the hours she will spend giving care, the appointments and commitments she has already made. She subtracts an approximation of the many miles of driving she will do, transferring loved bodies from place to place. What is left? What is possible? She begins to block out the writing time. Four minimum hours a week, six even better.

Whispers of worry float into her mind and cloud her vision. The scribbles already residing in the blocks on her calendar pages seem to expand as she gazes down at them. Will she be able to keep sacred those chunks of time she will set aside? Will she stay focused, or will she allow everyone else’s needs to usurp that free-ish time?

Those are the old patterns, she tells herself. In 2020, she must allow the writing to become one of the priorities. Set the minimum hours and let the pen form the word WORK in the possible spaces her calendar provides. Honor the time for writing as she would her other must-dos. The books inside her need to gestate and be born.
—————————————————————
Begin again is pink and lavender, with streaks of pleasing gray. Begin again is sweet and just a little spicy. It feels good in the mouth. Begin again wants to marry All is Well and settle happily inside her chest.

–Melinda Coppola