Coping with Election Grief: Some Thoughts from a Widower

You know the feeling I’m talking about. You forget for a little while, your day passes along, life begins to feel a little — dare I even use the word? No, I cannot. Because then the moment suddenly hits you again: that jolt, that sledgehammer blow, that sharp stinging stab to the pit of your stomach. That didn’t really happen, did it? Omigod, it did really happen.

The feeling can last for many days. That’s certainly how I’ll always remember November 9, 2015. That was the day after my neighbor and friend Matthew had called me to ask how I had coped with losing my wife when it happened 19 years before. He wanted to know because his wife, the love of his life for the past 30 years, had died that afternoon in a tragic accident. His words set off in me the first wave in a chain reaction of jolts — how could this possibly be? He and his wife Karen were legendary among their friends and acquaintances for the formidable array of recreational activities which they avidly pursued. Karen rode horses and aerial danced on silks and had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with her husband and a group of their friends just the year before. The two of them scuba dived and flew on trapezes; both of them were veteran, highly rated parasailers and hang-gliders. They pursued these activities with a verve and energy that seemed inexhaustible. How could this new reality possibly be real?

And of course, this sad news triggered memories of reverberations of my own experience of loss, the decades suddenly compressing into the present as I remembered the wave upon wave of shock and disbelief and lack of comprehension that would slam against me and then pass and then slam again.

So exactly one year later, November 9, 2016, the day after Election Day, was a grim anniversary for me with a cruel but familiar sense of deja vu — the momentary forgetting, the jolts back to this new reality with our new president-elect. (Even though I saw the collection of cars parked by Matthew’s house on election night which indicated that he was surrounded by friends to watch the results, I can’t even imagine how he got through that evening and the next day, and I haven’t had the heart to ask him yet.)

To this day I resist using the word “normal,” for there is nothing normal about such moments in time like this one. If you feel the same way, your reaction is natural, and that can be the glimmer of the beginning of finding a little comfort in our new plight.

Allow me to offer you a source of guidance: turn to your friends and acquaintances, but especially seek out those who have been widows and widowers for some time. We are practiced in handling this emotion. We are as shocked and appalled as you are, but we also have the added sensation of recognition — we have traveled through this territory before. Here are a few things I have learned from that experience which I am practicing now.

Life does goes on. There’s no getting around that. The late autumn days may be impossibly and insultingly beautiful, mocking your sense of loss with their reminder that some things haven’t changed. At the same time, don’t be fooled by the lure of “this too shall pass.” This will not pass in the sense of going back to what life was like before. Life will go on, but it will never be the same.

Life is short; grieve, but it’s time to get moving.   Some time after my wife Martha died, I read a book on grief by a widow whose husband (if I recall correctly) was a judge and a mystery writer and whose death tore her apart. She described how she would spend hours day after day doing nothing but feeling sad and falling apart. I understood her feelings, but her experience felt foreign to me since I did not have that luxury. I had my two-year son to take care of, and that kept me sane and busy. So give yourself time and space to grieve, but also get busy; there is no time to wallow in that mire.

Move toward the light. The revulsion, the temptations to flee or lash back or give up in despair are also natural. Know that they will recur as these waves continue to wash over you; accept that this is happening and feel them as part of the actions and reactions to the wave energy that is beating down upon you.

But in addition to accepting this natural reaction, resolve yourself to do something that may feel unnatural at this moment: move toward the light. In my case, this means resolving to spend much more time in nature, walk, write, create, and appreciate what I have, as well as supporting those people and organizations and causes and ideas that have evidenced to me that they are spreading light, focused on making the world a better place. Redouble your efforts — retriple and requaduple them if you can — to support the spreading of this light.

As you move toward the light, remember these crucial truths: light is defined by Otherness (that is, the dark), and it is not defined by belief or tribe. Seek to shine the light wherever it needs to go, including within yourself. Seek to expand your light by understanding others and why they chose what they did.  But don’t waste your time on trying to turn darkness into light. If the light you shine cannot penetrate through resistance to facts or insulting communication or hostility to your identity, turn your light away and shine it elsewhere where it can find more light. Keep a sharp eye out on those who seek to take your light from you if they can, but shine your light into those dark reaches every now and then to see if things have changed there.

At the same time, spend as little time as possible in the backwaters of your life.  For me, this means paying even more attention to what I consume: looking at much less mainstream media and TV; watching sports is out (except for soccer; that’ll take a longer time to work out of my system); rationing of Facebook and web surfing; and removing consumer products from my life produced by those who have expressed their active support of values in opposition to mine.

Well, one hell of a gauntlet has been thrown. This is serious now. So I’m off to an event being held by a friend who is putting into practice what I’m saying here.  Words are important, actions much more so. And remember that, if you’ve ever spent any time in the ocean bodysurfing or simply frolicking, you know something about how to handle waves. Don’t just stand there rigidly and let them knock you silly. Respect their power and respect your ability to respond to them, move within their power, even use them to propel your life in new, sometimes painful but sometimes joyful, unexpected ways.

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Time to Retire an Old “Friend” (?)

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Yesterday, I decided that it was time to retire one of my “beach shirts,” a short-sleeved, vertical striped button-down casual one.  I’ve had this shirt for at least 23 years; once it was a full-duty casual shirt, but eventually its main role became that of a reliable beach companion. In fact, I’ve taken it to the beach every time I go for over 20 years. I wore it at the beach just a month ago this past August.

It’s not really appropriate for social wear anymore. The collar frayed open a long, long time ago, and strings are continually popping out there and there all around the collar. Even so, the looks don’t bother me, and the frayed collar never rubs my neck or causes any discomfort, so it had remained quite suitable for “I don’t care what you think about how I look” wear on many occasions. What pushed the shirt into retirement territory was my discovering a couple of rips in the back of the shirt itself.  Maybe it’s an arbitrary line, but for me when the body of a shirt develops sizable rips, that’s means it’s become a rag.

At least that was my first impulse. But I got a few interesting suggestions after I posted a picture of the shirt on Facebook. One suggestion was to duct tape it back together. I appreciate the sentiment behind that suggestion, but I don’t need to hold onto the shirt that much. It wouldn’t feel the same (either physically and emotionally) with duct tape on it, and it would need a lot of duct tape, especially after I ripped one of the tears all the way down to the bottom of the shirt. I have other old beach shirts, and I’ve had this one such a long time that I am ready to let its beach shirt days to be over.

Another suggestion was to turn it into napkins. An intriguing idea… sounds like a lot of work though… but I decided at least to look it up on Google. It turns out that everyone from the Happy Housewife to greenworlders to Martha Stewart has instructions for how to do this (the search on the words ‘how to turn an old shirt into a napkin’ produced over 1.13 million results). However, it takes a sewing machine, which I don’t have. Still, I’ll keep the shirt at the top of the rag pile and try to remember not to use it as a rag, in case I get the ambition to borrow a machine and undertake a sewing project after all.

A third suggestion was that there was a short story in that shirt. This suggestion is the easiest for me to do, so here goes.

I’ll start with a small confession of sorts: a particular story about this shirt did not come to mind. This is not the case with some of the other beach shirts I own. There’s the one with horizontal orange and white stripes which I’ve also had forever (i.e., ~25 years or so) that has a small rip in it which I made not long after I got the shirt; it also has a couple of grease stains on it from my bicycle chain; the stains have faded but are still visible decades later.  There was a time when I considered it to be a relatively nice shirt, and I remember being mad at the time for being careless because the shirt was relatively new then but already had a rip and stains on it. Now, those are merely marks of character.

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Then there are the two button-down shirts of similar vintage — one blue, one sea green — which I got at a thrift store in Pennsylvania for $4 each. I actually bought four of them at the time; one was peach-colored, the other one I don’t remember now, but those are gone. I remember being proud of having gotten such a bargain then; talk about being a bargain now (at about 15 cents per shirt per year)!

I couldn’t think of a similar story behind this striped shirt, so I cheated a little bit; I got out some old photo albums to see if I had any pictures of me wearing the shirt in the past. Sure enough, second album, first page I opened, I found a this picture of me holding my son Chris as a baby — not sure where, but it’s from September ’94. (Note how the collar was still in fine shape then.)

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Finding this pic so quickly fooled me into thinking that I would easily find other pictures me with wearing this shirt, but that was not the case. Looking through albums and boxes of pictures, I encountered lots of other shirts along the way, some forgotten but now fondly remembered for a moment. There were also pictures of me wearing other shirts I still have, including the blue and sea green and peach $4 shirts at the beach and elsewhere. Surprisingly, I discovered pictures that showed I was wearing the orange and white striped shirt on the day Chris was born. (Well, it was mighty hot that day, but still: nice enough at the time for ‘expectant father at hospital’ wear, apparently…)

Eventually, I came to realize that it didn’t matter. I could make up my own stories about my shirt, even if they weren’t specific or even accurate. Walks along the ocean strolling past crowds of beachgoers or in solitude. Casual meals at outdoor cafes in the city on mild summer evenings. The mild but welcome surge of excitement as the act of packing this shirt in a suitcase signified the onset of another vacation. This shirt and I have been through a lot, good times and bad times, and it’s not too much to say that we’ve become friends of a sort after all these years. Clothes like these make it easy to tell stories about them and to understand how we form attachments to our things. Even so, it’s a friend of a different sort — one I can, if a bit reluctantly and sadly, throw away. Or perhaps repurpose — because maybe this is one of those things that deserves a better fate…

Keep in Touch: A Tribute to Jay Cross

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(from Informal Learning, p. 7)

Last night I called a dear friend whom I hadn’t spoken to in a while. Too long, in fact — again. You know how it goes. You think of the person(s) and say to yourself, ‘I should get in touch with him/her/them.’ And then life intrudes, and you forget about the person until the next time you remember.

Eventually, usually, we get in touch — we overcome the inertia, or something overcomes it for us. In this case, calling my friend was the first thing that came to mind when I asked myself how to pay tribute to Jay Cross.

I learned on Facebook a few days ago that he passed away, unexpectedly and far too soon, when a tribute to Jay appeared on my news feed in which a FB friend was quoted.  Then more tributes started showing up in my news feed from several more of my FB colleagues.

I’ve known his work for some time, and my Seven Futures of American Education book cites his work in three instances: one related to the history of online education (p.42), one related to his work on informal learning (p.21), and a third one which relates to the value of networks and connecting, how “networks increase their value exponentially by increasing the number of interconnected nodes, and connecting networks to other networks accelerates their growth” (p.158; also see the cited source below).

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(from Informal Learning, p. 3.)

I’ve tried to apply these insights in my professional work; recently, for example, I collaborated with two colleagues on writing a paper on definitions of e-learning, a term which Jay is widely credited with inventing. We presented this paper as a conversation starter at the recent OLC conference in Orlando, with the explicit aim of connecting this work with as many other people, institutions, organizations as were interested.

Many of my FB colleagues knew Jay much better than I did; they had met him in person or had worked with him directly. For me, Jay was one of those people whose work I admired from afar when I first encountered it. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I could actually communicate with him someday. The possibility seemed remote and slight. Then social media came along, with its capacity to connect people. Jay and I became Facebook friends, and we even interacted a couple of times, exchanging comments about his postings. Certainly modest in comparison, but enough that I feel OK about referring to him by his first name, and still in its own way a little dream come true thanks to the power of networks.

Then I made a mistake. I thought to myself, maybe I’ll get to meet Jay in person some day. That was not the mistake; the mistake was in thinking that I had plenty of time for this. I’d made this mistake before with people I’d known, and news of Jay’s death reminded me of the regret I’d felt from taking such things for granted.

Maybe I’ve finally realized that making that mistake once is once too often. So last night I called my dear friend whom I hadn’t spoken to in a while. We’re making arrangements to get together for dinner, to catch up with her and her husband, to make sure the connection stays strong. We laughed about how the two of us, for some reason, still prefer the phone to communicate with each other, even though it seems quaint — and perhaps an unnecessary barrier. Next time, we’ll use email, and we won’t wait so damn long. And I’ll contact the next person with whom I need to keep in touch.

A Twinkle in the Eye: Remembering Dad

As a Father’s Day tribute, here’s what I said about him at his memorial service in February 2009…

dad pic from photo

After reflecting on remembrances of my dad that I wanted to share with you, several themes emerged, some expected, some surprising — cars, trains, Pennsylvania, being there, rootedness, modesty, and a twinkle in the eye.

Modesty was a surprisingly strong theme. My dad wasn’t a self-effacing person, but I don’t remember him ever bragging or calling attention to himself. He did many things in his own modest way.

He was a modest socializer. During his parental life at least, his socializing consisted of visiting close friends and family, vacationing with Mom’s relatives, and avoiding non-family social gatherings like the plague. But he had a knack for starting up a conversation. Once about 12 years ago we were vacationing in Avalon, NJ. My sister Candie and I asked my parents repeatedly what they wanted to do while they were there — visit the local gardens, go to the beach, do something? ‘Nothing — we’re fine just being here.’ So my sister and I went off visiting and swimming and all; when we came back at the end of the day I asked Dad how his day was. He started talking about a doctor he met from Philadelphia and about this guy’s life and family and — “Dad”, I interrupted him — “you haven’t gone anywhere all day; how did you meet a doctor from Philly?” It turned out that he sat on the front steps of the beach house on Dune Drive, greeting people as they walked by, striking up conversations; and apparently, this actually works — at least it did for him.

He was a modest rebel. One of the modestly rebellious things my dad did on more than one occasion was to take the family out for a Sunday drive — on a road which hadn’t been opened yet. So, for example, we were surely one of the first families, if not the first, to travel down PA 283, the “new” road between Highspire and Lancaster. I still remember the ride — going right around the “Road Closed” barriers, driving down this brand new four-lane road all by ourselves, my mom pleading “Jack! Slow down! What if the bridges aren’t done yet?” That prospect added even more excitement to the ride, but dad worked for PennDOT, so he knew that the road construction was complete — I think.

He was a modest pioneer. The progenitor of the Sener family in America, Gottlieb Soehner, got off the boat in Philadelphia in 1749, and promptly took part in that great American tradition of the westward migration. It’s just taken our family a little bit longer. To my knowledge, it took our branch of the Seners over 200 years to migrate across the Susquehanna River, thanks to my dad who settled our family on the West Shore just outside of Camp Hill around 1952. Then there was the Great Move of 1967 when we migrated an additional three miles westward to Good Hope Farms, where he spent almost all of his remaining 41 years. By my calculations, if our branch of the Sener family had continued migrating westward at this pace, we would not have reached Pittsburgh until the year 2859. But then again, this was a man who thought the idea of my going to college in Ohio was positively exotic.

HO train and map pic

Of course, this all makes sense because my dad was a Pennsylvanian through and through. Most of the childhood memories which have come to back to mind over the past several days — playing in Little League games, getting Dum Dum lollipops at the barber shop on Railroad Street in Shiremanstown, riding the modest rides at Willow Mill and Williams Grove amusement parks, watching Bears hockey or high school basketball playoff games at the old Hershey arena, buying toys at EJ Korvette’s and the Middletown Merchandise Mart and Joe the Motorists’ Friend, which despite its name sold cool toys — are of things he enabled to happen at places close to home, well within the state borders, and long gone or no longer used.

Even more important to him than sense of place was a sense of rootedness. His home was meant to be a place where family and possessions could gather, relate, endure. One of our cherished family traditions perfectly embodies this: the Christmas tree platform. Under the tree were Lionel HO gauge tracks and trains and the timeless village of Plasticville; later came the Model Motoring race cars. One year we got really elaborate and set up three conjoined platforms in the basement with trains, village, race cars, and a slot car track. In other words, vehicles that make their journeys without ever leaving the comfort of your home, and that stay on track, mostly — although we reliably got yelled at when we tried to crash the trains or cars on purpose. And, of course, trains, village, race cars, slot cars, and many of those toys bought when we were kids are still down in the basement of his house — gathered along with countless other objects of relative enduring importance.

I could go on, but perhaps you’ve guessed what I’m really up to here. Because what I remember first and foremost about my dad is his love of telling stories. I hope that the stories I’ve just told echo his love for telling stories, and perhaps they help you remember him fondly through stories he told to you over the years.

Storytelling was perhaps his favorite way of communicating. His stories were characterized by understated humor and never-stated but common themes: the everyday absurdities of working for the state; what people were doing now — neighbors, former neighbors, people you grew up with but had forgotten about, people you didn’t know at all; highlights of trips he clearly enjoyed after having groused about taking them right up to the day of departure. But he didn’t tell stories to convey life lessons or important information, or to persuade, or even to entertain. For him, telling stories was a means of personal connection, of being there, of being rooted in a way he enjoyed. So at some point in his telling a story, usually related to a twist of plot or humor, you could reliably count on seeing a twinkle in his eye.

The day before he died, I talked with him on the phone. To be perfectly honest, the conversation did not make a whole lot of sense at the time; he told a story which involved a store where they displayed and sold model trains, the prospect of franchising that store nationally and making a healthy profit from it, and a boy who got a green lollipop. My sister Patty told me later that he was animated and lucid for an hour or two afterward. I suspect a twinkle in the eye was involved as well.

Thanks, Dad, for all the rides, for being there, for embodying the value of rootedness and the gentle gifts of modest pursuits, and for the twinkle in your eye.

Easy as Pie: Remembering Mom…

As a Mother’s Day tribute, here’s what I said about her at her memorial service in December 2007…

Pecan (pronounced

Pecan (or as Mom would have pronounced it, “peek-in”) pie, Mobile, AL, June 2013. She would have approved…

My own remembrances of my mother that I want to share with you are prompted by something near and dear to both of us:  baked goods.   When I arrived at my parents’ home the day after she died, I found a pan of chocolate cake brownies with chocolate icing on the kitchen counter.  Apparently she’d made it for my sister Candie and her husband Dave for their planned visit today to do some work around the house.

At first it was very strange to see a pan of brownies which had been made by someone who was no longer alive, let alone that that someone was my mother.  A friend whom I told about this later commented that it must have been difficult to eat those brownies.  No, I replied, it wasn’t difficult at all.  I finished off about a quarter of the pan over the next two days.

In fact, it is altogether appropriate that one of mom’s baked creations outlived her, since I can honestly say that she was one of the best bakers I have ever known.   She made the best chocolate cake ever.  The recipe has coffee, which I don’t like at all, and vinegar, which makes no sense to me, and yet the result was always sweetly sublime.  The jars upon jars and tins upon tins of toll house cookies she made for the Christmas holidays were something I always looked forward to.  And her shoo-fly pies were for me the standard of all shoo-fly pies – nice and gooey on the bottom, cakey in the middle, and not too dry on the top, none of those dry crumbs you get in store-bought pies.  And what better excuse could anyone have for eating flour, sugar, and butter in large quantities?

I hope you understand that when I talk about these baked goods, I am really talking about her, and about what I learned from her baking.  If food is love, as my sister Patty likes to say, then Mom shared a tremendous amount of love through her baking.  Her chocolate cake taught me that you could put things together that you didn’t like or couldn’t understand and still somehow make them work out wonderfully in the end – a valuable life lesson.  It wasn’t just the dates she put in her toll house cookies that made them extra special, but the abundant generosity they represented.  And from her shoo-fly pies, I learned the value of setting high standards and sticking to them – plus the value of allowing oneself to indulge every now and then.  Most of all, I learned how to bake from her.  Although I will never make a pie crust as good as hers, thanks to her I will always know that there is more to baking than making the perfect result.   Thank you for baking, mom, and for everything.