A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Slowing Down

 Today is my “day off.” With no commitments, I get to work on my writing, which is my favorite thing to do. The conundrum now is: which project should I work on? I could write a blog entry I’ve been planning called “Solace” about peaceful times in this difficult winter (inspired by Mary Oliver and a church service using her poetry), a blog currently titled “Remembering Hope” (inspired by Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming and a Homecoming celebration for a friend’s teenage child), an essay on Gratitude for an upcoming contest, or another final chapter for my memoir, a chapter I’m excited about. So many excellent choices! Or I could write this blog entry. 

With fatigue and my commitment to continue being part of the wider world, I don’t have time to do as much as I’d like to. Actually, I never did.

A week has passed since my last blog entry, and I used to post weekly, so maybe it’s time to do this. Or maybe not. Perhaps you’ve noticed I’m not blogging as much as I used to. Last spring, I consulted my writing teacher about what I should do to move towards publishing my book. (I’ve been working on it for 12 years now, and I think it’s time.) I read her the list of things I thought I needed to do: 
o  Finish book: Find readers and a writing group
o  Publish shorter pieces
o  Bulk up blog
o  Look for contests
o  Read good books, including some related to my theme and/or topic
o  Apply for the Tin House conference in the summer and ask for a manuscript review
o  Other?
When I asked her what more I should do, she said I should do less. When I asked her what to cut, she didn’t hesitate: the blog and Tin House.

I thought of the 6thcentury B.C. poet Lao Tsu’s writing. “One must know when to stop,” which has been my mantra for decades, informing my decisions to leave my marriage and my career. 

“Perhaps,” I thought, “it’s time to stop writing this blog.” Then I thought, “But I like writing this blog, and readers seem to appreciate it.”

So instead of stopping, I’m slowing down, which is what I’m doing in much of the rest of my life, too. In fact, a draft pitch for my memoir begins, “Anything that slows me down is a gift. Even brain tumors.”

But I wonder if you’ll stay with me in my slowing down. I hope so. You, too, are a gift.

Saturday, January 19, 2019


Early last Monday morning as I lay in the warm bed, I heard Ann talking in the other room. To be on the phone so early was unusual, so I was alert when she came in the room. She was sobbing. When she told me about our friends’ tragic night, I was stunned and just kept saying, “Oh my God.” As torn as my heart was, I didn’t cry. I struggled for a deep breath, and my throat ached because my body wanted to cry but was holding itself still. 

This inability to cry has been a lifelong disability. I’ll go months without crying, and when I finally do, I can’t stop. I sob and shake like I have a high fever. I sobbed at my first wedding breakfast and again when I told my parents I’d left my husband.  I sobbed when I came out to myself as a lesbian and when a woman going through the coming out process committed suicide. I sobbed again before brain surgery, when Ann said our dinner blessing on her own because I was shaking too hard speak it: “Oh God, Remind me all of life is grace. Let me respond in gratitude.” I didn’t feel grateful, not at all, and I wondered if I ever would again.

There are of course other times when I’ve cried, but not nearly enough of them. At my last meeting with a therapist after I had divorced my husband and come out as a lesbian, my therapist told me, “If ever you haven’t cried in the last few weeks, see a sad movie or do something to make yourself cry.” She told me women cry on average 3 or 4 times a month, and I should strive for that. (The innerwebs agree. For example, according to Psychology Today women cry on average 5.3 times a month.My therapist said not crying but holding my emotions inside could lead to depression. (The innerwebs also agree crying has significant health advantages. )

Ann, who is emotionally present, cries like a Texas storm. Her skies are blue and sunny. Then suddenly a dark cloud covers the sky and pelts down a waterfall. Then it’s sunny again, and the world is fresher for the wash. I wish I cried like that. But I don’t.

My tears come more like a lid that’s super hard to unscrew. I work and work and work at what seems impossible. If it ever comes loose, I’m relieved. If not, I shrug and go on without it. 

Our church and our friends are grieving. Perhaps we need to cry, to sob, to wail, to keen. Pastor Ann’s sermon Sunday was about grief, about the importance of ritual, music, and friendship as we grieve. She and others read poems, music that stirred my tears.

For me, there was solace in these poetics of pain, and from some writers solace in grief, such as in the poet Rumi’s “Birdwings.”

Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you are bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralysed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birdwings.
Rumi’s solace is not about life returning to normal. It’s about continuing to move, not becoming frozen in grief.

I don’t think the pastor said much about Job, the Biblical character who honored God and yet lost all that he loved. His story seems to raise the question, “Why do good people suffer?” As I remember (but couldn’t find on the innerwebs), the story originally ended with a man bereft and grieving yet still faithful. Perhaps not satisfied with this ending, someone gave the story a more earthly ending, and that’s the one in the Bible: Job’s family is reunited, his home and health restored, his possessions returned and his wealth multiplied.
The first version seems truer. After loss, it seems to me, we do not return to the same beings we were before. Our previous world is not restored. 
Pastor Ann was wise not to go to Job, but to go instead to our poets who teach us, not that pain goes away, but that in pain we deepen. We learn that life goes on, but we live differently than we did before. We are forever different. 
This our poets know, so we go to them in times we do not understand. I think of grief as described by the poet Emily Dickinson:  
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
   For me, the ending’s complexity feels true: “– then the letting go –” Letting go of what? Pain? Life? Hope? Despair? Yes, I suppose, all of that. And none of it. It's danger feels true, too: "Remembered, if outlived." We can stop in grief, be mired in it, become concrete, a pillar of salt, a fist.

Grief’s story has no easy ending. No ending really at all. Just change. And to get to that change, I suspect we have to cry as we recognize and grieve our losses. And maybe those tears are where wisdom lies.