What’s your story?

“What’s your story? It’s all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.” — Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

I’m a couple weeks past the media cycle, I realize, but I’ve been thinking about Scott Simon and his mother, and the brouhaha surrounding his live-tweeting of her death. I’ve read comments to the effect of, How ghoulish/exploitative! and others more passive-aggressively judgey (All power to him, but if my mother were dying, my first thought wouldn’t be to splash it on social media…).

But my favorite response was Brian Stelter’s article in the New York Times, “Goodbyes and Grief in Real Time,” which closes with

“‘We have reached a point in the way we think about our lives where our stories of struggle and loss feel like they no longer belong solely to us,’ said Joe Lambert, founder of the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, Calif. Being able to broadcast them, on Twitter or elsewhere online, ‘feels like a gift to those grieving in our families, our communities and as far as a tweet might reach.'”

While I protest the missing Oxford comma, this is very much in the main of how I feel.

Time was, mourning was a practice, with cultural traditions and strictures. Through those practices — widow’s weeds, withdrawal from society — your community recognized and supported you in your grief.

I don’t want to wear black 24/7, but in our isolation and privacy we’ve lost the very ballasts that can help keep us afloat when we feel as though our grief will sink us. Who could get to your door on days when you’re having trouble mustering the will to get out of bed? Or would even think to check on you? Because, gosh, hasn’t it been a while since you lost your mom/dad/sister/brother/child/dearest lovely loved one? And really, what help would I be anyway?

People don’t know. If they’ve never experienced grief, they don’t know — not how it breaks you open, nor how they can help put the pieces together again.

Twenty years ago, August 3, 1993, my dad died. Suddenly. We reeled with the shock and brunt weight of it.

And one of my clearest memories of the week that followed was of my cousins. They came over, gathered all our dirty laundry — 6 kids’ worth — and took it away with them. They returned with it later, all cleaned and folded… it was breathtakingly thoughtful.

They knew not to ask us, numb and dumbstruck with pain, how they could help. They just showed up and discovered for themselves what needed doing, and then did it, with no fanfare or calls for attention. And I’ve never forgotten.

So now we have Facebook. And Twitter. And new ways of sharing our losses, great and small. And we do. We post pictures, and obits, and the flurry of condolences comes.

This is not in any way a knock against those. I love social media, and those comments of sympathy and support help. Like cards, and flowers, they’re not nothing. Not by a long shot.

But in social media as in life, we’re not so good with the follow-up. We’re quick to let ourselves off the hook and leave it at that. If our friends don’t post about their losses, we don’t mention them. And the grieving sense that extended posting on sadness/hard days/DEATH will be seen as wallowing/attention-seeking. They post statuses of grief thereafter only on anniversaries, some holidays. As if those are the only acceptable days to be publicly bereft once the prerequisite amount of time has passed.

Which brings me back to Scott Simon.

It was so obvious when he began that he had no intimation of what was coming. He thought he was tweeting one more step along the way of his mom’s struggle with cancer. Because you always think you’ll have more time. You think it right up until the minute you don’t.

Reading his tweets, their gradual realization which reminded me so strongly of my mom’s last hours, hearing him speak about it on NPR, was tremendously moving. It did feel like a gift, this sharing of an intimate and painful time. This sharing.

It’s a verb we’ve absorbed into the internet ether, but sharing serves us. Every day on social media we’re writing the narrative of our lives. It’s a big part of how we tell our stories, about ourselves, to ourselves and others. When Scott Simon shared his final days with his mother, he allowed us to share his mother and share her loss, and share his grief.

And through it, feel our own — the grief to come, if we’re lucky, or the grief we carry already, if we’re not.

In a world that values the strong and happy over the vulnerable and bereft, nothing could be more generous.


Autumn nipping at my heels

How on earth did it get to be October already? Georgia is five months old, Vincent’s in first grade, and middle child Aidan is universally praised as sweet and gentle and photogenic as hell:

Photo by nature & nurture

The lateness of the year terrifies me — intimations of mortality etc. — but I love autumn. Kicking leaves on the way to school, woodsmoke billowing from my neighbors’ chimneys, the backyard bonfires of friends to keep cool nights at bay, pumpkins and apples, cinnamon and nutmeg. Each new season shakes up the order of our days, forces rearranging and revisioning, and many days I’d like to just request time to stop now please, I’m not ready for this. But it never does and it never will and on we go, and every day is an improvisation on the one before.

ODE TO AUTUMN / Susan Browne

Thoughts are mist. I’m restless,
yet tired as an old leaf. I yell at the yellow trees,
I see you! See me!

The light going to dark, a friend in the hospital, surgical
saw slicing his cranium, then what, radiation, chemo.
Pour another glass of wine, cook that salmon, it’s fake,

farm-raised, good although something dangerous in it,
you could investigate but why
be completely clear about semi-edible poison?

We’re cleaning out our basement, gleaning
for the holidays, searching the furrows of ornaments
for the cardboard skeleton to hang on the door.

Things multiply, ooze out of their cells. Plenty more
to replace everything. Have you noticed the ripening
of drill bits, cars, jeans, medical plans

few can afford. O, we go like leaves,
a wailful cliché however it happens,
lost cricket in the hedge-row, bleating lamb.

I glare at the mystery until I imagine
sitting on death’s branch, gazing out on rooftops
hours by hours, the rosy-hued peace,

the sky reflected in the neighbor’s pool.
Climb down through a melancholy choir
of gathering gnats and pow, it’s blue,

sun igniting water. Then cool cement,
and drowsy perfume of woodsmoke, just-cut
grass. Close your brimming eyes,

hear your heart’s soft treble,
until you’re lifted like a rain drop in reverse
into the tattered pearl of a winnowing cloud.

(from Zephyr by Susan Browne [Steel Toe Books, 2010])

Taste of Summer

There are some books, some poets, that I instinctively associate with winter — Leslie Harrison’s Displacement, Frost, all the Russians (accurate or not) — but who do you think of as a summer poet? Lyrical, fulsome, hot… give me some recommendations. I’m in a mood.

Life is bursting at the seams here. In addition to the day-to-day work of work and parenting, I’ve been a madwoman of creativity.

In the kitchen.

In the last week I’ve baked Portuguese sweet bread, chocolate drop cookies, cinnamon-swirled brioche loaves, and strawberry jam.

And I’ve written exactly one and a half lines of poetry.

Cooking fits well into the balancing act, especially baking — outside of the mixing, so much of it is passive, letting the oven do all the work while keeping an eye on the time — but the still center I need to write is harder to come by these days.

Yet, at last, the high tide of grief has begun to ebb. Has bowed and taken its place several steps behind the new ruler of the household. I felt so overwrought through most of my pregnancy, so bereft, I couldn’t imagine…

The boys resemble their dad — the brow line, their cute button noses — and so does Georgia, though her  look is softer and clearly feminine.

But her long fingers, with their perfect little fingernails — her hands are an inheritance from my mother.

The poems will come, as will sleep, and normalcy (of a kind).

But this, this is fleeting. In the face of such spectacular vulnerability and need, this being that I created cell by cell, how can I feel anything but blessed.


When feeling no longer evades

Despite everything I knew and felt, two of my dearest friends died gasping for air. Another couldn’t stop her pain with morphine, so she disconnected her feeding tube. Still another has the same kind of cancer, and after a heartening remission it’s back with a vengeance. Two other friends are sitting with the niece and nephew, who have just had to pull the plug on their mother’s life support. All of them are sitting there at the mother’s bedside as I write, enduring the umpteenth day of death. It’s not a snap. My mother-in-law, while visiting us at our summer home last September, fell down the stairs at 2:00 am, alone, and died — she lay where we found her, five hours later, at the bottom of the stairs, in her moon-and-star pajamas. The idea of death is always a simile — old as the hills. It can’t hurt me. But the images have to be borne, and they are unbearable. In them, knowing and feeling fight for my soul, as if one or the other could win it. The evidences are as recalcitrant as they are unignorable. I suffer them as I will never suffer my own dying. In them, I feel the legacy of what befalls us — the Latin cadere, “to fall,” gives us all that “is the case” — casualty and cadaver too — and even grammatical case, as I was recently amazed to discover, comes not from the word meaning box but from the past participle of cadere, making nouns more fundamentally moving than we like to imagine.
…When feeling no longer evades, and thinking no longer avails, the two become woven together. You feel knowing can’t save you; you know feeling can’t save you. Their famous battles fall away, and in a flash or stretch, depending how things go with you, you do a lot at once: holding back while you hold forth, bearing down while you bear up.

–Heather McHugh, “Poise and Suspense,” from Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play, edited by Daniel Tobin & Pimone Triplett


Winter Ghosts

I’ve been negligent. As I become more obviously pregnant, folks are so obviously and loquaciously delighted, and yes, this new baby, this unexpected girl, is a much-needed bright star in a dark year. How lovely to talk about impending birth instead of death! But it’s exhausting being so grateful all the time. I find myself staying home, avoiding the phone.

I’m a tempest of hormones and grief, and the person I most want to talk with about it is gone, the source of my pain.

I don’t need bucking up. I don’t need to be told how lucky I am. Dad was 49 when he died; he never saw his children into adulthood, never knew his grandkids. And that sucks. And it sucks that they didn’t get to grow old together. Mum was at our weddings, got to be a grammie to our kids, but she still cried in her room at night, missing her lost-too-soon husband, her life’s companion. And having had Mum for her 68 years doesn’t make her death any less of a loss to me now.

Because wonderful things and terrible things happen right alongside each other. But the wonderful things don’t “make up for” the terrible things. They’re not two sides of the same coin or balances on a scale. Life never balances out, and some days that knowledge is harder to take than others.

Kevin Prufer has a smart piece up over at About a Word on sentimentality (which is a sort of reaction to or expansion on his involvement in the Symposium on Sentiment in the new issue of Pleiades), and he says “sentimentality often involve[s] reducing an emotionally complex situation into an emotionally simple one.” And I think that’s what I’m getting at. This urge to tidy things up. It’s not just that it’s premature now, because it’s always premature.

More than that, it’s a falsification. Life is ever so much more than glass half empty/ glass half full.

It’s good to be thankful, count your blessings. But it can become simplistically reactionary, a sort of emotional shorthand that denies acknowledgment and validity to the full range of individual experience. And when that denial comes from without, from others who insist you must “accent-uate the positive, elim-inate the negative,” it feels worse than a lie. It feels like an erasure.


Auld Lang Syne

I don’t want to let the year end without saying that, for all of 2011’s sorrows, I am deeply and heartfelt-fully grateful for my family — my boys, my husband, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, etc. — and all my loyal and loving friends — virtual and otherwise. You remind me of what’s true and dear in life, and hold my hand on days when I don’t need reminding but just need a hand. May the new year bring you all and mostly good things.

Baby @ 20 wks
Our new edition, due to be released May 1, 2012...

The Writing Blues

Aidan at work on his magnum opus.

My children are ever so much more productively writing than I am. Vincent’s discovering the discoveries and challenges of reading and writing, and Aidan is doggedly working on his own mysterious pages.

I, on the other hand, have written exactly two poems since my mother died. That Salamander will be publishing one of them in their next issue is some consolation, but I’m feeling the pull and tug of the writing bug.

After Aidan was born, I buckled down and wrote a poem a week, and kept at it consistently, for a long time. Not all were worth keeping or working on, but the regularity of effort kept my mind chugging.

But now, sometimes, a lot of times, I just feel stymied. What to say that’s not about my mother and how intensely I miss her? (Which is responsible for the silences here as well.)

I’ve reached that stage where I’m weary of talking about my grief. I miss her. It hurts. Nothing helps, nothing will help, because she’s not coming back. Emotionally I accept that, but I’m just bored with myself.

I’m not unaware of my life’s many blessings, not least of which is a plenitude of love, my dear family, this unexpected gift of a new child in the spring.

I’m also grateful that I live a life saturated in literature: Tupelo Press, the Collected Poets Series, the support and love of poet friends — it’s a financially precarious life, but I love it and am thankful for it.

Which is to say, I love my life. To paraphrase the film, “Super 8,” (which I also loved), bad things happen, but I can go on. I can live, and can live happily.

I guess I’m just trying to find a way to write about this abiding sadness that doesn’t feel maudlin or self-indulgent or tedious. It’s one thing to bore myself; it’s unforgivable to bore others.