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.

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.

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.

The Beaufort Scale

I’ve always been fascinated by the Beaufort Scale. It could be because the concept of measurement itself is intrinsically interesting, but how the Beaufort Scale grapples with wind is a sort of poetry. Its language is simple and elegant, metaphorical. And it’s served as a point of inspiration for:

As I was reading Weather Eye Open last night, a way of using the Beaufort Scale for a poem of my own occurred to me, though it’s not the Beaufort Scale itself I’d be using, but its structure, as a sort of model for organizing my thoughts about grief, from the still point at the eye of the hurricane. So to speak. “Projects” don’t really work for me as such, but I’m hoping that this might help give me some extra tools for handling such fraught material.

Also in the realm of good news, two poems were accepted by a journal I’d given up on hearing from, it’d been so long. Nice to break up those rejections here and there, yes?

And the days go by

Non-writing activities have kept me busy this summer — work, Collected Poets planning for 2012, reading, afternoons at the state forest beach with the boys (that season pass was the best $35 I’ve ever spent!) — July slipped by like a field of fireflies winking out. Despite the surfeit of grief, it’s been nice.

Come September 1, Vincent will begin kindergarten (full-time!) and Aidan will begin attending pre-school (two mornings a week!). So this is a momentous sort of summer after a momentous sort of year.

This morning’s air had a touch of autumn to it, and I saw some leaves already beginning to turn.

My mother’s birthday was on Sunday, which meant last week I dreamed about her every night. A first, the first dream, and then an unimaginable gift, each one that followed. In the first, she’d come back, quite aware that she’d died. We talked about it, how well she looked now, and then she apologized for how she died: “I’ll do better next time.” The sudden sorrow of a dream that had been a comfort. “Next time? You mean you can’t stay?”

Of course not. None of us can.

This week at Linebreak

Many of you will already have seen this on Facebook, but for those of you who’ve resisted the FB-lure, I’m happy to tell you that my poem is featured this week at Linebreak. You can read it here, with a terrific audio recording by Randall Mann. I love how he takes his time, savoring the line endings.

One of the other cool features of Linebreak is their weekly e-mailing. How neat to receive my own poem in my email inbox! Feel a little like a rock star at the moment. You can subscribe to get your own copy of each week’s poem sent directly to you by clicking on the link at Linebreak on the right side of every page.

While you’re tooling around Linebreaks website, be sure to check out their archives, which include other rock stars, such as Emma Bolden, Karen Rigby,  Sandy Longhorn, and a whole host of terrific poets. Yes, I am bolstering my own ego via proximity to their eminence.

Thank you, Linebreak!