I wrote about Feasts of Liberations this week, a beautiful and grounding practice for when a day or [time period] holds some extra grief and where there is also some liberation to be marked.
What do we do though with the days that are just plain painful, when we can’t conceive of anything beyond existing in the pain, when feasting isn’t a good answer, isn’t possible or isn’t indicated.
Sometimes we know in advance: X date of Hard Month is going to be extra challenging and not-fun.
Or, sometimes this happens too: we forget the heavy anchor a day or a holiday carries and are only reminded when we think we are sailing on our way, only to realize oh right we aren’t going anywhere.
Ahhhh, or we’ve managed to convince ourselves that this year we’re gonna be fine actually, it’s gonna be okay, we’ve been doing greeeat. And then it hits so much harder than anticipated.
And what do we do when we the grief shows up not on a day of known grief, surprise visit! When we are unprepared for how huge it is, grief loves a surprise. All this is what I want to talk about today.
When the calendar pulls sudden grief tricks
I never used to know what to do when the calendar pulls these sudden grief tricks, you think it’s a day and then it’s not, you know?
And then I remember that I have already solved this. Not the grief, I don’t know that I have too much wisdom about that, other than that I live with it: I can acknowledge and confirm that it Really Fucking Sucks.
But I have some thoughts about what we can do on those days that are still really hard, and we aren’t ready to be someone who can hold a feast day to get through it.
My brother and I invented a practice during the first year after our mother died in 2014. It’s not one specific thing, it’s more like a framework, a symbolic ritual that can change shape as needed, something to do when you’re hit by the grief and the not-knowing (not knowing what to do, not knowing anything).
It has a perfectly simple name, we call it SMOPL. Noun and verb.
SMOPL = Something Meaningful On a Personal Level
Something Meaningful On a Personal Level.
Yes, I know, it’s extremely vague. That’s the point. Its vagueness serves as a compassionate permission slip.
So yes, it can be anything
When it comes to our mother, we SMOPL by either doing things she liked to do (reading a book while wearing ten blankets! baking muffins and scribbling chaotic notes all over the cookbook in pencil!), or we do things we think she’d appreciate.
We do Ruth pursuits!
We do Ruth-oriented things.
Or we do regular things in a Ruth-like way.
Or we pause to consider a possible Ruth-perspective as an additional filter to whatever we are doing, which changes the experience.
The yellow house
Back in January I took her to the Desert Art Museum in Tucson, she loved the textile exhibits and wanted to linger at every single explanatory card, and we both appreciated the exhibit on the Dust Bowl immigration more than we expected to.
There were also works by local Tucson artists who had painted barrio houses en plein air and then gone back to their studios and painted a new version of their outdoor painting.
Mom wanted to know if I recognized the yellow house and I did. I will take her there next time.
Sometimes I SMOPL by doing something for me
I go walk a labyrinth when I am feeling [the big feelings], my mom doesn’t really care about labyrinths, she’s more interested in the beauty of the location, what is *that* tree over there, what is that flower called (I don’t know, mom), but walking the labyrinth is a calming, stabilizing and reassuring experience for me, and that counts as SMOPL-ing.
When we drive to the arboretum, that’s more for her. I don’t care that much about the arboretum, but I like listening to music on the way and I like the views. It’s an outing for both of us, and I feel better after.
Heading heartward, again, and hearting headward, maybe also
I don’t think it matters so much what the SMOPL is, what helps is doing a something beyond just staring into space or getting lost in the misery-fog, or the many other forms grief can take (sometimes raging, sometimes flailing, sometimes spacing out for hours, these are things I experience, your mileage may vary).
And I like reminding myself that I am tending to my grief, moving heartward, choosing towards grounding comforts.
Does it matter that she wasn’t that excited about vegan ice cream on her birthday in October? I don’t think it does, the ice cream was for me.
More SMOPL examples
My friend was telling me about a conversation with their mother. My friend’s sister died several years ago, the mother wants to plant a tree next to the house in sister’s honor. Friend is conflicted: what if they move, then they can’t visit the tree.
I told my friend about SMOPLing, and they were very relieved. Because a SMOPL is something you can do in the moment.
The sister can be visited by listening to her favorite song, or making her favorite pasta, or wearing her favorite color, watching her favorite movie, or just doing something she’d enjoy, doing it for her.
Everything is connected (or: what if we imagine that everything is connected)
Like how I light a candle when I don’t know what to do, a candle is a default SMOPL, the ritual that reveals if another ritual is needed.
You can light a candle or a candle in your mind. Blowing a kiss out the window becomes a candle.
And actually anything at all can be another form of lighting a candle. Breakfast tacos are a candle? I say yes. Absolutely.
Many possible available forms of [this is a candle and I am lighting it now].
Similarly, any tree can be a friend of a tree you want to visit.
Kind of like how I believe all cemeteries are connected, but also that anything can be a proxy cemetery.
Like how I went to Santa Fe to visit the grave site of Waverly even though it is in Seattle. I don’t know if that makes sense or not. It does in my heart. When I pick up her book, I say, I visited you. Communing with my bookshelf is a moment of SMOPL too sometimes.
Everything is connected and fractal. Or it is if I want it to be, the imagining does the work.
How do you find a SMOPL
Obviously whenever we talk self-fluency techniques, we keep in mind that People Vary, situations do too.
Maybe you’re already getting an intuitive hit, or idea sparks for your own SMOPLs. Maybe you don’t know for sure yet but you know which clues you want to follow.
Or it’s still a mystery and this is something you want to journal on or skip some stones to find out more.
Possibly SMOPLing isn’t what your particular situation needs right now, and that’s a form of useful clarity too. In that case you can add it to the repertoire of [techniques for later] or toss it completely and invent your own thing, I’m not married to any of this.
And if you’re actively seeking a SMOPL of your own, I hope this is giving you possible starting points.
More ways to SMOPL, for example
Sometimes I scatter things that are not ashes, because I don’t have ashes. Old dried herbs you aren’t going to use work well, or gathered leaves.
Sometimes I just do something the person in my mind would definitely do, or do something in a way that is uniquely theirs. I read a book the way my mother would (last chapter first!).
When I listen to the song Short Skirt Long Jacket, I dance-walk around around the room and clap my hands above my head the way Srul did the first time he played that song for me. Sharp as a tack. CLAP.
When I feel a strong feeling about people I miss (alive or not), I do something small for them, make them tea, read a poem out loud, go do something I know they’d enjoy, or do something I enjoy in a way that includes them.
Why the practice of SMOPL is so useful
For two reasons, I think, at least two.
A SMOPL subverts the cultural expectation to hurry up and be okay
Our culture is so painfully lacking when it comes to loss, so inadequate at acknowledging grief at all, never mind the immensity of it, never mind at acknowledging that it doesn’t end, you don’t get over losses, you just get more practiced at day to day functioning.
We have to be in our grief while living inside this cultural expectation of Hurry Up And Be Okay, and that is exhausting and stressful.
That cultural expectation of Just Be Okay Already is cruel, it’s unfair, it’s honestly fucking impossible, and it does a lot of harm.
A SMOPL is a way for me to remember that I am in process; my grief is real, legitimate, sometimes intense and overwhelming, and it is something I am in ongoing relationship with. It’s my grief party and I’ll cry if I want to! 🎶
A SMOPL is concrete and do-able
And the other reason I love a SMOPL is how it gives me something to do, a small, concrete, do-able mission. Here’s an action I can take in the moment.
Something tangible, palpable. Sure, it’s symbolic but also I can perceive it with my senses.
Light this candle. I can do that. Make these muffins. Maybe I can’t do that today but I can make an ingredients list. Find out when the museum will be open? Sure.
Flowers in a jar? I can make that happen, and if I can’t then I can draw a flower and it will be a placeholder.
Side note about not rushing things
If you can’t think of a SMOPL yet for your situation(s), no worries, no stress required here.
I have found that often a SMOPL reveals itself to me in right timing. Aka cosmic right timing, not necessarily as soon as I am hoping it will, it’s a practice of trust.
Maybe just planting the seed of [this exists as a possibility] is enough for now.
Sometimes I wait for the SMOPL to find me, and I try to just trust that I will know when I know. And in the meantime I light a candle or make waffles, or stick a candle in a stack of waffles.
Whatever I have energy for is a good start. It all counts, I believe that.
Clue-searching to help with grief
One way I like to SMOPL when I can’t think of a good way to SMOPL is going for a clue walk. You don’t have to walk for a clue walk, I have conducted these while seated in a chair, standing at a crosswalk, waiting at a red light.
A clue walk is not about the walking, it is about being extra attentive and observing in a new way. Though sometimes the meandering part helps too.
A clue walk is where you wander or look around (in your living space or work space, on a street, in a store, in a park, location irrelevant) and notice what you notice. What do you observe?
For example, right now, in this moment, as I sit writing, if I pause and breathe, what do I notice?
I notice the light on the mountain, a tipped over chair on the porch, there is a bird on the ace of swords card. I have looked at this card a hundred times easily and never saw the bird.
What do these clues tell me? The light on the mountain says I will be here again tomorrow, the chair says small adjustments, the surprise bird says flight can be grounding.
SMOPLing with the calendar
October is basically one long SMOPL-ing for me, February has a lot of SMOPL needs. The older I get, the more SMOPLing I need, because the losses just keep coming.
It’s good to know when you might need one, and it’s also good to keep an ideas list somewhere (maybe in the Book of You), in case you need one and weren’t expecting it.
You can think of this as an ongoing experiment. We try a thing, it helps or it doesn’t, or it helps more than we thought it would but not enough (wow is that ever a thing), we make notes, adjust, try again. We keep going, we brave our way onward.
Summing up and offering you one more fun more word!
SMOPL is a useful technique or approach for a painful day and also a good call when it doesn’t feel right to have a feast day, the energy isn’t there or who knows, a feast day just isn’t the answer for whatever reason.
A SMOPL is helpful when the feelings are extra-complicated.
And! A SMOPL day is also a form of Namjooning aka getting out in nature, visiting a museum, prioritizing quiet contemplative time, in the spirit of Kim Namjoon from the band BTS.
Some people have the minhag of taking a Namjooning day to celebrate his birthday, but you can go namjooning whenever you are able to make time for it, just like a SMOPL!
You can SMOPL as a form of namjooning or go namjooning as a form of SMOPL-ing, how’s that for a sentence.
What I wish for
I wish for great comfort for all who need comfort, in a wide variety of sources and forms, surprise comforts, built-in comforts, the expectation that it’s okay to need to be comforted.
I wish for a culture that is infinitely kinder, about grief and loss, and about everything. About how people vary, and grief looks different for different people at different times. I wish for more compassionate approaches.
And I wish for a world in which SMOPL-ing can be more overt, more socially acceptable. What did you do this weekend? I went to the art museum with my dead mother.
Or: I like your hat! Thanks, I’m SMOPL-ing for someone and it required a costume!
And I wish for ease, sweetness, for us to be received and perceived as human beings who grieve. And we don’t just grieve people who are no longer here, we grieve lots of things. We grieve situations, lost love stories, friendships and other relationships, places, past homes, animal friends, jobs, truly no shortage of losses in this life.
So yes, I want a better world, and that includes space for the big feelings, to grieve casually or deeply, tiny monuments, places for grief picnics. I don’t know what else, but we can dream it up together.
Calling all SMOPLers! Play with me in the comments (I love company)
You are welcome to share anything that sparked for you while reading, any SMOPL rituals you already have, or ideas coming up for things you want to experiment with. SMOPL-experiments!
You can leave pebbbles -o- or light mind-candles, or actual candles if you have, or eat tacos as a substitute candle, I receive it all with love.
One of the beautiful things to me about community is the way we can make room for each other to experience what we are experiencing. Big love to everyone.
FLASH (flood) SALE TIME! Announcement!!!
As some of you know, I have been dealing with kind of a lot, a fire in my tiny trailer, then flooding, and now a personal emergency that is taking precedence over fixing the damages from either of those.
So we are having a FLASH sale on one of my favorite ebooks from the vault of things I’ve written over the past seventeen years. It’s called Saying Everything Twice (Saying Everything Twice), I wrote it in 2014.
It’s about lots of things, the first year I spent nonverbal, what I learned, challenges I processed in my journal using self-fluency techniques, resulting insights. Definitely a settle in, make tea kind of read… 😘
Anyway, it is temporarily BACK, super on sale, a way to read my thoughts that are too intimate for the blog, and to help out with my various things that need fixing, and I am so appreciative of everyone’s kind generous wishes.
Here is the button to purchase my 113 page ebook, Saying Everything Twice! (Saying Everything Twice)