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.

A few of my favorite things

It’s getting to be ludicrous how lax I’ve been as a blogger, so I won’t even bother apologizing but will just skip right on by. Because  the year is late and time is short but there’s always much to be thankful for:

  • Journals whose new issues include my poems, to my everlasting gratitude and delight:
  • Homemade mascarpone, for which I have no photo, but I promise you is rich lovely velvet and divine on pumpkin bread.
  • Big fat novels like In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin (I’ve read, loved, & what’s more own every book he’s written) and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.
  • Late fall days, made for sinking into the couch with hot sweet and creamy tea and one of those good books. Distract the kids with a Can You See What I See? book and you’ll have some time to yourself for your own reading.
  • Poetry: Braiding the Storm by Laura Davis, Mother Desert by Jo Sarzotti, Afterworld by Christine Garren…
  • My mother’s old wooden rolling pin. This week alone I’ve used it for making apple pie and Christmas ornaments with the boys. A well-used and well-loved hand-me-down.

In the failing afternoon light we hunted up more candles — the nubs of old tapers and half-spent Christmas pillars. As I warmed up some canned soup on the stove I was reminded how my father would cook chestnuts and popcorn on its top. “Dad would have enjoyed this,” I said softly to the air as I stirred the pot, and I saw the pain of remembrance flicker across my mother’s face. I don’t know if silence or remembrance is best, but I was longing to press a hurt simply to remind myself it was there.

— from “Storm,” in Five Thousand Days Like This One, by Jane Brox

  • You, if you’re still here, and even if you’re not. Thanks for thinking of me every now and again.

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])

The Big Poetry Giveaway 2012 — The Results

I’m later than I intended, but I’m sure you understand. But here at last are the results of my contribution to Kelli Russell Agodon‘s Big Poetry Giveaway. I chose the winners using the Random Number Generator. Last year I posted pictures of each result, but I don’t have time for such fussiness this year, so I hope you’ll just trust me.

To recap, this year’s prizes include a chapbook and 4 journal subscriptions (1 year each). The winners are:

Thanks so much to everyone who threw their names in the ring! I’ll contact the winners shortly for their addresses. New blog post coming soon, but in the meantime…

Georgia Revello Gauthier, born April 30, 2012.

The Big Poetry Giveaway 2012!

Tomorrow is April 1, the first day of National Poetry Month, which means it’s once again time for the Big Poetry Giveaway, a blog event created and organized by Kelli Russell Agodon where poets and poetry lovers giveaway two books of poems on their blog. Please visit her blog to get the full list of participants.

To play, all you need to do is leave a comment on this post. Usually, I then choose the winners, using the Random Number Generator, on May 1, but since I’ll be in hospital with the new baby then, I probably won’t have the chance to post the winners until around May 7.

This year’s prizes include a chapbook and 4 journal subscriptions (1 year each):

Let the games begin!

*

I forgot the “about me” segment… Since I began this blog 4 years ago, my life has gone through seismic changes. From running a wonderful indie bookstore to working for my favorite small press, babies (babies! Me!) (and still another to come!), and last year the loss of my mother, my grief over which has rather taken over the world since. I keep no hard and fast rules regarding what I write about here, except that I tend not to mention my husband too much because he’s not comfortable with that. I have a chapbook, but it’s not part of the giveaway because I don’t have any copies. I’ll amend that one of these days — I think my local indie down the road still has a couple. I’m selectively submitting my full-length manuscript to a few very particular presses and contests, so knock wood that I’ll hear good news on that front one fine day. If you have a question you’ve always wanted to ask me, feel free to include that with your comment entry below!

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...

“Every lament is a love-song.”*

Many summer Sundays growing up, my family would get up at dawn, skip church, and instead head out to the beach at the Myles Standish State Forest in Carver, MA. Not just my immediate family, but a huge swath of aunts, uncles, and cousins — Mum was a Georgia girl, but Dad was born & bred in Stoughton, MA, the youngest of 8 — that side of the family is massive.

The beach opened at 8am, so we’d get there around 7:30 — which meant we’d have to leave home around 6:30 — and park on the side of the road in the long line that had already formed. Then we’d wander up & down the length of cars, looking for our cousins to play with while we waited. As 8 approached, we’d all scurry back to our cars, willing our folks to hurry up and park. Whichever family cohorts parked first would commandeer a bunch of picnic tables to put together.

We came equipped with table cloths, paper plates, mugs, & plasticware; ropes to tie to the pines and hang our wet towels on; gas stoves for making tea & coffee and cooking bacon & eggs; my cousin Dianne always brought Dunkin’ Donuts; and of course hot dogs and hamburgers and chips. There were two big boxes of provisions at the house that were never unpacked, only added to.

First in, last out. The sun would be setting, we’d have changed out of our bathing suits into long pants and sweatshirts, and still not want to leave, climbing the empty  life guard chairs to avoid the clouds of black flies. But the beach closed at 8pm, so eventually we’d have to go.

But it wasn’t time to separate from the larger family, not yet. First, we drove to  Erickson’s, a roadside ice cream stand in Carver, not too far from the beach. My childhood tasted like banana ice cream — was there ever a sweeter end to a summer day?

It’s been eleven weeks since Mum died. The more days that pass without her, the emptier they feel. My southern mother loved the summer, loved the heat, the beach, even though she never learned to swim. She’d wade out to about mid-thigh, and then sit in the water for a while. That was enough for her.

The raw anguish and outrage has burned out to a dull and ragged ache. Things happen, good things, and I’m happy. I can be happy. But I feel the lack of her only more every day. If a happy thing falls** in the forest but I have no mother to tell it to, does it really happen?

The longer she’s gone, the harder it is to pretend she’s not — we’d have spoken, seen each other, so many times by now. I can accept the awful wrongness of it all, say, Yes, my mother is dead. But still my heart protests: it is awful, it is wrong. Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.*

* from Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff

** from “Duino Elegies: The Tenth Elegy,” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Despite it all…

…I know I’m lucky. I’m lucky that I was born to a great mother, that I loved her and told her so all the time. That I was able to be there for her and that she let me care for her was a real blessing. A critical illness has a way of burning away all the inessentials. The pain I’m in now is because I love her so much — my grief is the best tribute I can offer.

I’m lucky that I have so many sweet and thoughtful friends who thought of me and how difficult Sunday would be for me, and reached out with comfort. I know there will be many such hard days ahead, but I confess I didn’t handle this one very well.

And I’m lucky I have these boys, and their patient father, all of whom look stricken every time I go out “for poetry,” but let me go nonetheless. The poetry is returning — a new poem last week, another brewing — but nothing could happen if they didn’t give me a little space to maneuver.

And I like to think they’re discovering the exhilaration of creating for themselves…

The Big Poetry Giveaway 2011 Winners!

Thanks so much again to Kelli Russell Agodon for putting this whole shebang together, and thanks to everyone who participated. National Poetry Month is one of my favorite times of the year, but this year I’ve been otherwise occupied. Thanks all of you for coming on by and helping me keep my head on straight.

And now, what you’ve been waiting for. Remember, if you don’t win, that lit journal subscriptions are the most affordable ways to sample a wide array of poetry. The winners, as chosen by the Random Number Generator (and you’ll note that the numbers run from 1 to 45 — while there are 47 comments, 2 are trackbacks):

Winners, look for my email announcement in your inboxes — congratulations and enjoy!