three things: 1/10/17

1)  Are you a completionist? I’d never heard the word until Karen Russell (author of Swamplandia) said it when she was introducing her reading of a Mavis Gallant story in a podcast I listened to yesterday. She described herself as not-quite-a-completionist of Gallant’s writings, and I got to wondering:

Is there a writer whose entire set of works you’ve read? All of them? Not just the big-name ones, but all of them?

I started thinking about some of my favorite writers, and I don’t think so:

my very favorite memoir

Nick Flynn — sure, his big three memoirs (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (x4), The Reenactment  (x2), Ticking is the Bomb), and one or two collections of his poetry, but not all his poetry. Dang.

Cormac McCarthy — Child of God, Suttree, Blood Meridian (x6), All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, No Country for Old Men (x3), and The Road, but not The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, or Cities of the Plain. (Nor any of his screenplays, short fiction, or plays.)

Salman Rushdie — Grimus, Midnight’s Children (x4), Shame, Satanic Verses (x3), The Moor’s Last Sigh, Fury, East West, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Imaginary Homelands but not The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Shalimar the Clown, The Enchantress of Florence, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Luka and the Fire of Life, Joseph Anton, or The Jaguar Smile.

Victor Hugo — only Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris. 🙁

Dante — ding ding ding! Yep! I read The Divine Comedy, which was his only published work. And in several translations — my favorites being the John Ciardi translation, my sentimental favorite because I read it first, when I was a brand new mother, and the edition translated by the Hollanders, which is just extraordinary in every way.

William Faulker — The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom, These 13 (which includes “A Rose for Emily”), but not The Hamlet, The Town, or The Mansion.

Ernest Hemingway — The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Moveable Feast, but none of the rest.

F. Scott Fitzgerald — all his novels: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and The Damned, The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, The Last Tycoon, but none of his novellas or short stories.

this is the edition I have; my copy first belonged to my dad

Kurt Vonnegut — Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan (x???10?), Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle (x7 or 8?), God Bless you Mr Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick, Galapagos, Bluebeard, Hocus Pocus, Timequake, Welcome to the Monkey House, Happy Birthday Wanda June, God Bless You Dr Kevorkian, Wampeters Foma and Granfaloons, Bagombo Snuffbox, and Palm Sunday. I missed a few novels and a bit of his non-fiction.

I guess one approach is to pick writers who don’t write very many books (like Dante). I get on these jags where I fall in love with a writer and just want to read it all, so I dig in. I did that with McCarthy for sure, and Vonnegut, and Rushdie, and Nick Flynn. As I’ve mentioned before, here, I bought these sets of hardback books when I was a teenager, four books by Hemingway, four by Faulkner, and four by Fitzgerald, and read them all at once, which I don’t recommend — especially for writers like those, who have such a specific and distinctive style. It then becomes hard to remember which one was which. (My favorite joke: Now which Hemingway was it where the guy dies in the mud, under the bridge? Oh yeah — all of them! 😉 )

I’m working on Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, completing all their published works to date. And then sometimes I kind of outgrow a writer, I guess; I’ve read so many of their books and I come to feel like I understand them and their projects, and maybe they get a little tired, too, and a new book of theirs comes out and I just don’t have the interest. That happened to me with Salman Rushdie.

Some people love mystery writers and read all their works; Sue Grafton is a good example, with her alphabetical series. I guess I started early, reading all the Nancy Drews, all the Hardy Boys, all the Cherry Ames Student Nurse books, all the Trixie Beldens, and all the Boxcar Children books. It was not the worst habit I formed in my childhood. 🙂 So, you? I suppose you might do this with film-makers too, or musicians! Or actors. Or other artists. Hmmm. Any completionists in this crowd?

2) Do you know about this project? What’s Underneath:

You can click the image to go to the site, and I also provided it in the link, above. It’s a collection of stories (each accompanied by a video) by women (almost entirely, but not completely, and in some cases a story is about non-binary gender) and race, age, weight and size, illness, hair, work, motherhood, gender, identity, sexuality, all the things of real life and how they don’t immediately fit the Barbie image of “American woman,” but how the storytellers have found their way through, because of, despite, in celebration of their differences from Barbie ideals.

Diane Goldie

The one I most want to share is by London artist Diane Goldie, whose piece is called “Maybe I’m not ‘fuckable’…That’s fine, I’m not for you to fuck.” She is “a larger, menopausal, 51-year-old woman. I am not invisible.” When she was 13, she was raped by a 36-year-old pedophile. “After he raped me, I lost ownership of my body,” Diane says. “It became the vehicle in which I pleased other people.” I get that. Her video is no longer available on the What’s Underneath site, unfortunately, but I can share this, a video of Diane in conversation with Sue Kreitzman about wearable art. As you can guess by her picture, she isn’t trying to be invisible.

Me, I have a huge craving for a pair of cherry red tartan plaid pants and a close-fitting cherry red blazer.

3) I love this quote, which I saw in the caption of a beautiful photograph by author Maggie Mackellar, who lives on a farm on the east coast of Tasmania:

“…beauty & grace are performed whether or not we see or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Annie Dillard

In addition to her gorgeous photography (I linked to her Instagram account above), she’s just the most beautiful, eloquent writer (two books published so far, she’s working on her next one). She published a three-part series last fall about her father’s death; this link will take you to the first piece, which will then lead you to the other two. Anyway, Maggie knows very well about suffering, and perhaps this is what helped her recognize the power of the Annie Dillard quote about beauty and grace.

It’s there, beauty & grace, even if you have to look very very hard. Even if the day feels heavy and ugly, even if you look out your window and see gray and brown and filth, even if you’re just sitting in the same old place you always sit, beauty & grace are happening somewhere — maybe you don’t see it right now but it is. When I’m having a hard time seeing it in my surroundings, for some reason I always think about the glacier valley we walked through in Norway — Lyngsdalen — and that no matter what’s happening, those mountains are just standing there over that valley. In the months-long dark, they stand there, and maybe the Northern Lights dance through the valley, or maybe not, but they stand there, solid and present no matter what. Whether anyone is looking, whether war is raging somewhere, whether I am lonely or bleak, those beautiful mountains are standing over that valley.

I walked there. I drank handfuls of cold glacier water out of that river running through the valley. It’s doing its thing RIGHT NOW.

The least we can do is try to see the beauty & grace where and when we find it. That seems like the least we can do. See it, notice it, take it in.

Flying day for me, back to Austin — xoxox

waiting for Oliver

Generally speaking, I write my posts the day before they publish, and schedule them to publish at 7am the next day. I’ll definitely be doing that when it’s time to go to the hospital to await Oliver’s arrival in the world. These last days carry their own worries, but I believe with all my heart that he will get here just fine and we’ll all cry and cry and cry with joy and see that our worries and anxieties — though understandable — were all for nothing. My sweet Katie and Trey, and my sweet little Oliver, a newly constituted family of three. And me, Pete. (People are asking me why he will call me Pete. My beloved grandfather, Big Daddy, called me Pete — my last name at birth was Peters — and that name just means so much love to me. My kids’ dad called me Pete, some of my friends call me Pete, and years ago I realized that I wanted my grandkids to call me Pete because to me it means love, and it circles back to Big Daddy.)

ANYWAY. In earlier versions of my life I made a lot of stuff. I was a weaver, a spinner, I used natural dyes to dye the yarn I spun, I quilted, I tatted, I made bobbin lace, I made all our clothes, I smocked dresses for the girls, I knitted, I made small pieces of furniture, I baked all our bread and made all our jams and generally speaking, if it could be made by hand I made it by hand. Picked around on a banjo, picked around on a guitar. But then I started college, and then grad school, and then very busy jobs, and then I moved to New York and had zero space for the accoutrements of a making life. I kept up with knitting and knitted a bunch of sweaters and scarves and socks, stuff like that, but didn’t do much else.

When Katie was pregnant with Gracie, I made a little quilt for her. As I’d always done, I hand pieced and hand quilted:

I’d never machine quilted a quilt, partly because I take such pleasure in making tiny, perfect stitches. And I love the way hand quilting looks. I was probably 80% finished with Gracie’s quilt when we lost her, and the quilt sits in the top of a closet, unfinished still. I’m going to finish it soon for Katie and Trey.

So the time came to think about Oliver’s quilt, and Katie found a pattern she just loved. It’s very bold and graphic, abstract animals made with the drunkard’s path pattern if you know that one. As always, I hand-pieced the top, including all the sashing strips. I embroidered the little black eyes and noses on the animals, and then it was time to quilt it. Partly because I was running out of time, and partly because of the style of the quilt and blocks, I decided to machine quilt it. I WAS TERRIFIED. I was afraid I’d ruin it, that all the hours I’d put into it would be for nothing, that Oliver wouldn’t have a quilt (at least at the beginning, I could always start over). For this quilt, I thought a meandering free-form style of quilting would be good but I am not a meandering free-form kind of person. I like straight lines, square corners. If you knew how many hours I spent floating in anxiety about screwing up this quilt, you’d pat me on the head and hand me a glass of wine.

My sweet friend Karyn invited me to her house to use her sewing machine, which had what I needed, so off I went with gratitude for her ongoing and deep generosity. The quilting was so much fun, now I want to do that kind of quilting again. You should know — and you’ll see it if you know the first thing about quilting — that I have NO idea what I am doing. I always just teach myself as I go, and there are certain parts of the process that I have no idea how to do so I flounder ahead and do my best. Maybe I’ll take a class.

too lazy to remove the platform around the machine to fix the bobbin. sheesh.
too lazy to remove the platform around the machine to fix the bobbin. sheesh.
those yellow gloves have little knobs of rubber-type stuff that helps me grip the quilt to move it through the machine
those yellow gloves have little knobs of rubber-type stuff that helps me grip the quilt to move it through the machine
and here it is -- a blurry picture because I was holding the phone over my head and trying to shoot straight down to get the whole quilt in the shot
and here it is — a blurry picture because I was holding the phone over my head and trying to shoot straight down to get the whole quilt in the shot
and this little label on the back, For Oliver <3 Love pete.  It makes a little pocket, because little boys love pockets.
and this little label on the back, For Oliver <3  Love pete

And so there it is. My first grandson’s first (made-by-me) quilt. Except for my anxiety about ruining it, every minute of making it was so much fun. The day I quilted it at Karyn’s (Tuesday) (and thank you again, Karyn, for your generosity and for being part of this quilt), I stayed up until 2am to finish it. I had to tie off and hide knots, I had to embroider and attach the label on the back,  and then I had to cut, prepare, sew on, and then hand-finish the binding. So much work and so very many hours spent, each one imagining that little boy, each hour spent with a heart full of love for this rainbow child, this precious boy whose life is going to be drenched in love.

It’s Thursday, it’s nearing the end of March, and today is the first day of Spring. With all my heart, I hope this new season sweeps away the various hardships of our long and hard winter and brings renewal and joy to your life, as it is going to bring to mine. xo

Grace Louise

A year ago today, Katie delivered little Gracie, her full-term stillborn daughter. It was just a knot in the umbilical cord, and I haven’t yet been able to figure out if that makes it even worse. Some days it feels like it does. There was nothing wrong with Katie or Grace, she would’ve been perfect, fine, alive.

It’s been a hard year. My own grief is probably 80% for my dear, dear daughter and her terrible loss and suffering, but there is a very potent ache and suffering for the loss of our little Gracie. Her quilt and Christmas stocking remain unfinished, and I think that’s such a good metaphor for this lost member of our family. Perfect and beautiful, but unfinished.

Gracie shows up most often in my dreams. In fact, a couple of nights ago I had a dream that was very clearly about Gracie, and I woke up in such terrible grief I was crying. But today we are all remembering October 21 of last year, the biggest tragedy my little family has experienced, by far. My divorce from my kids’ father was wrenching and devastating, but we all lived. It pales in comparison to this.

I don’t have anything new or insightful to say about our family’s loss; I’ve grieved and grieved over this past year, and witnessed Katie’s and Trey’s ongoing grief and efforts to find their way forward. The sharpness of the grief has lessened for me, into something like a dull ache that can still stop me, but I don’t experience that every day. It comes in waves. Three weeks ago I was putting groceries in my car at the supermarket and got hit by such a powerful wave of grief and anguish, I had to stop and get in the car and burst out crying, clutching the steering wheel to steady me. It lasted for five minutes, and then I continued putting away the groceries. It’s like that. Grief is an animal that has its own life and it takes up residence. It hibernates sometimes, but it’s still and always there, waiting for you.

And so today I can only acknowledge this one-year anniversary, and honor the memory of our little Grace Louise. We all loved her so much. I didn’t write a post on this day last year, obviously, but I wrote a lot in the 10 days afterwards. This post, written the night before I left to return to New York — never dreaming of the devastation that awaited me — is the most ‘popular’ post I’ve ever written. It has been shared widely, it received a lot of comments and caused so many people to write me private emails, and it’s received the most hits of anything I’ve ever written. It’s titled ‘notes from the mother in the middle of the night‘ and I think it really captures the moment in a way that is true and honest. I cannot read it without crying.

Poetry is such a comfort, and in the days around our loss I posted a good bit of poetry. Sometimes the comfort is nothing more than a clear articulation of the formless feeling that haunts you, but that is a comfort. I just found this one, and it speaks to the effect of time, how easy it is to forget, and how awful it can be.

GRIEF, by Stephen Dobyns

Trying to remember you
is like carrying water
in my hands a long distance
across sand. Somewhere people are waiting.
They have drunk nothing for days.

Your name was the food I lived on;
now my mouth is full of dirt and ash.
To say your name was to be surrounded
by feathers and silk; now, reaching out,
I touch glass and barbed wire.
Your name was the thread connecting my life;
now I am fragments on a tailor’s floor.

I was dancing when I
learned of your death; may
my feet be severed from my body.

Today I am also flying back to Austin so it’s a difficult day in so many ways. Tomorrow will be better. I know it will. xo

sacred and profane

Durkheim thought the distinction between the sacred and the profane characterized the essential place and role of religion — religion was about sacred things, taboo things, things set apart, and the rest, the mundane ordinary concerns, were profane. It wasn’t a distinction between good and evil; the sacred can be good or evil, as can the profane. It was an idea that received a lot of criticism, and was pretty quickly dismissed as not being a universal distinction, but it’s a mistake to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Maybe the problem is the various other ideas that connect to “sacred,” or maybe it’s a limited conception of what the word ‘sacred’ means. If we pull outwards a bit and think that sacred relates to existence, to the 4am questions of life (assuming the 2am questions are smaller, she is so mean to me at work, i forgot about paying that bill don’t forget tomorrow, what am i going to do about this weight i’ve put on) — the 4am questions, what am I doing with my life, how did i get off track with what matters to me, those are sacred. They’re existential, about our existence. Why did Grace die? And now what will we do? Sacred.

When you spend a lot of time amid sacred concerns, returning to profane matters is hard. This is one reason soldiers struggle on re-entry, why they don’t feel as close to others as they do to their fellow soldiers. Compared to life and death, who gives a crap about doing the grocery shopping? Compared to being punched in the face by the loss of a child, . . . whatever. This thing is happening, that thing is going on, the other thing needs attention, blah. Hard to muster the oomph to tend to it. Yesterday, my first day at home, passed in a blur. What did I do? I don’t even know, really; we took a walk in Riverside Park (chilly!), which I remember because I took a picture of it and facebook friends like and comment on it. Oh — yeah. I guess I was there yesterday. I ate breakfast and dinner that my husband cooked for me, excellent meals if I stop and think, remember them. Huevos rancheros for breakfast. Lemony garlic shrimp for dinner. Yeah, those were good meals, he’s such a good cook. But what else did I do? All day long, what did I do? I don’t know. It was all trivial.

You know what people say (me too, I’ve said it) — keep a gratitude journal. Well, guess what! I do. I’ve tried a dozen different approaches, spiral notebooks, text or Word documents on my laptop, pages on my blog, special bound books, all kinds of things. I keep them for a while but eventually stop doing it, as much a function of routine and technique as anything else. I find it simple to think of things I’m grateful for, that’s never the problem. And in the periods when it’s hard to find something I’m grateful for, the search itself is meaningful — that’s when looking hard helps the most. My sister told me about a very elegant system called Grateful160, and it’s just what I need, technique-wise. Every evening I get an email that’s some variant of this:

You can request an email once or twice a day (or 3 or 4 times), and you have a choice of morning and/or evening. I can even respond on my phone, so if I’m out somewhere, it’s still simple enough to hit reply and record what I’m grateful for right then. Then, once a week, the system sends you the week’s entries. You can also go to your page on the site to read or edit them, at any time:

Lately, the things I’m grateful for are large-scale, sacred kinds of things. Ritual. Peace. Strength. Beauty. Love. As I re-enter my regular life they’ll probably become smaller (after this week anyway, with the election on Tuesday [hope I have something to be grateful for there] and my birthday on Tuesday, and then a weekend in the Catskills). Or maybe that’s the challenge — to dig deeper, to keep finding sacred things in myself and my life, even when the events of my life become more profane. 

I feel like I’m just watching my life and the world right now, in some way — like there’s a pane of glass between us. It’s clear glass, it’s not obscuring the view, but it’s there. It’s not that I don’t hear what you say to me, it’s not that I’m not paying attention, it’s just that it doesn’t stick, it slides right down the glass. My experience isn’t registering either, nothing sticks. I see and hear and smell and taste, but in the next moment it’s simply gone. I’m sorry if you have to tell me things over and over, and I assume this is temporary, a function of my blanked-out mind in the face of Grace’s death, something I still struggle to believe is real. Wait, what? We’ve been waiting all this time! What? We’re all ready for her. What? 

I look out the window and see that it’s a beautiful sunny Sunday. The sky is a beautiful shade of blue, the brilliant sun is slanting toward me in its autumn slouch, the air is nicely cold and the radiators are hissing. There’s a palpable sense of time and place, I can see that through the glass.

notes from the mother in the middle of the night

In a few hours I will take my suitcase in hand, and Katie and Trey will drive me to the airport. Usually, when it’s time to go, I feel a twinge and an ache to leave my daughter but I’m also looking forward to getting back to New York, to my own life, knowing that Katie and I will be in regular touch with each other, and that I’ll see her as soon as I can.

This time, though, it feels unbearable to leave. It feels impossible, really, and without being maudlin about it, I’ve been crying for so long I’m feeling like I’d better get a glass of water or I’ll dehydrate. It’s that kind of feeling where your chest literally aches, where you feel a giant hole in your middle, an emptiness, something is gone and you don’t know what to do. Where the hole feels like you might fall in and everything around you will fall in too, the world will get pulled into the hole because it’s so deep and black and filled with gravity.

It occurs to me that my sweet daughter is feeling a much worse version of this, for her own sweet daughter. And I’m indulging my pain and grief like a baby — wah wah wah, poor me — when I have the opportunity to come back and see my daughter again, I can call my daughter on the phone, send her emails, read hers back to me, hear her laugh and cry. She doesn’t have that possibility with her precious daughter.

And yet my pain is quite terrible, for my dear daughter. See, she’s this very sweet girl, quiet in a particular way, with the sweetest little smile, and a deep deep kindness and love for her family. She’s eloquent but she doesn’t know it, and she’s solid as a rock. I recently learned that my blood grandmother’s last name was Steele; I never knew that, I only knew that her name was Clara. My last name is Stone, it was my grandfather’s name too. I am of Stone and Steele, and I’m pretty strong but Katie’s strength makes me pale. She has the strength not to look away, the strength to get out of bed and to laugh, every once in a while. The strength to let that sweet smile come to her lips now and then, and to let tears roll down her cheeks.

I know I’m not really leaving her all alone here. She’s with Trey, and they’re so good together, and helping each other. But I’m the mama, and even though she’s 30 years old, and married, and settled in her life, she’s still my sweet little girl and she’s hurting more than she’s ever hurt before.

Life is so difficult at times, and the pain is deep. In the quiet of 2am, it’s so easy to touch all the losses of life, to remember the pain that finally eased off and became bearable, that wound its way into ordinariness. Even though this song is about a different kind of loss, the tone of it, the feeling, feels just right to me in my heavyhearted night. It’s Bob Schneider singing the acoustic version of Losing You:

[embedplusvideo height=”379″ width=”625″ standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/KGtYGpPXwW4?fs=1&hd=1″ vars=”ytid=KGtYGpPXwW4&width=625&height=379&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=1&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep8522″ /]
God almighty. I am grateful to be here, I am grateful for all the experiences of life, I accept them and want them, and this pain now, this grief, this watching my beloved girl suffer so much, it’s hard going. It’s hard. It hurts, it fills me up and takes away my words and leaves me dumb.

I’ve always loved this picture of Katie, because it’s characteristic of her. She’ll sit like this, listening to people talk, filled with her thoughts. I’ve looked into those green eyes so many times over 30 years, I’ve brushed and braided that thick pretty hair, I’ve dried her tears and kissed her cheeks. And now there’s not a damn thing I can do, and it’s excruciating, mothers, it is.

It’s a crying night, I suppose. I imagine that before she went to sleep tonight, in the bedroom right underneath the one I’m in, Katie cried a lot too. Two mothers crying for their daughters, so much love and pain in two big hearts.

ghats

In the fall of 2006, as a slightly delayed honeymoon trip, my husband and I traveled to India. I’d always wanted to go to India, so it was a dream fulfilled. I remember coloring maps of India in elementary school; the shape of the country became burned in my mind while I colored oh-so-carefully within the lines. When I grew up, my favorite authors were Desi — Rushdie of course, but also Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra — and my dreams were embroidered in those rich colors. Also, Marnie went to India when she was a student at Smith College, and it was particularly meaningful to her (and she was the first big traveler in our family), so I was eager to also see Marnie’s India.

And we hated our time there. It’s the only such trip we’ve ever taken. Every single night, for the more than 2 weeks we were there, I dreamed I was being torn apart by wild dogs. In my dreams, I’d jump to the top of a building and the wild dogs would follow me, tearing me apart on the rooftop. I’d climb trees and they’d tear me apart. My dreams really captured my experience of being there, of being grabbed and harassed, of being lied to constantly (“no miss I cannot take you there, that shop is closed/it is a holiday/I am taking you here instead”), of being plucked at and tugged on. It was relentless. Afterwards, people asked me if it was about the poverty, shaking their heads in dismay, but it was not about the poverty. There is terrible poverty in other places we go in SE Asia. It was crushing, being there, and it smashed and destroyed my dreams of the place. Fair enough. My dreams were child dreams, literary dreams, the dreams of a silly little white girl, privileged beyond belief.

The only exception was Varanasi, on the Ganges. This was a place Marnie had been, so I was especially eager to see it, and it was . . . I don’t even know how to describe it. Here’s how I described it when I was there, and there are some photos in that post.

If you are lucky, in India, you get to a place like Varanasi and die there; it’s an exceptionally holy place. If you can at least have your body taken there for cremation, that’s also quite good. On this ghat, we witnessed five cremations later that night, and it was word-stopping. We sat in a small boat, in the middle of the Ganges River under a full, huge moon, and watched. People were busy, milling around, paying little attention, tending to this ritual that’s a part of life and a very good thing. The untouchable people tend to the fires, and when the fires die, they sift through the ashes and retrieve gold or whatever other precious things remain, before pouring the ashes into the holy Ganges, where people are busy bathing and performing pujas and other daily rituals of their lives.

It’s a worldview I know little about (obviously, if you do and see how badly I’ve missed the edges of this), and it was difficult to be a witness, sitting there in all my white-girl-Americanness. I wished I understood it better, I wished I had some of what they had, a sense of the cycle of it, a sense of the cremation as a meaningful piece — just a piece — of the whole. When we were first driving into Varanasi, our taxi driver pointed out a stretcher on the side of the road covered in bright cloth and a growing accumulation of flowers; he said “there’s a dead body, they’re taking it to the ghat to be cremated.” There’s a dead body, not someone’s dead body. They’re taking it to the ghat, not him or her. The person was gone. I was simultaneously struck by the impersonal distance — the “it”ness — and by the deep wisdom of that understanding.

My little granddaughter Grace’s body is being cremated this morning. I wish I could be there, and I wish there were flowers, and water nearby, and the smell of very special woods, and the smells of life, instead of a cold American crematorium. But it’s all the same — she is gone, she came and went and left us with things we will cherish, things we don’t even know yet, and this is just her little body, nothing more. And I say that, and it makes me shake with the jarring wrongness, because her little body is all we ever got to know of her. Although that’s not true, either; Katie knew her for her whole life, and Katie knew that she was a quiet little girl, not rambunctious, a little hiccupping girl. Katie held her and loved her for every moment of Grace’s existence, from beginning to end. Katie, an extraordinary mother, held her and loved her and will see her daughter through to the very end.

This is the final huge hurdle, today. We’re mostly coping by not thinking about it too closely, and by trying to figure out how to mark the day, to honor the day in some way. And we’ll be crying.

the farcical nature of language

So here’s the essential problem with language, in my opinion. It’s not that we may mean slightly different things in the words we choose; it’s not that we may mean something different than we’re actually communicating; it’s not that we leave unstated what may be the most important thing but think we said it; it’s not that the listener may be taking in something different than we’re intending. Those are problems, definitely, but they’re not the biggest problem, as far as I’m concerned.

You know how you may just be sitting there and someone asks you what you’re thinking about? And you were thinking, but you can’t say what you were thinking about because you were thinking about so many things at once? And the thoughts were not bound up in words, so when you start trying to tell what you were thinking, everything disappears from view and you have to give an answer that’s just wrong in every way? “Crickets. I was thinking about crickets.” But you weren’t, there may have been a cricket in there somewhere, but it’s just the only concrete thing you could grab to answer the question. I’ve always thought of it like a sky full of balloons, and I just have to grab one of the strings and pull one balloon down — “oh, red. I was thinking of red.” But I had a sky full of balloons.

So here’s the problem. I am always thinking of Grace (“she’d be a week old today”) and of Katie’s and Trey’s loss (“how are they bearing this”) and of my dreams (I think I see Grace crawling around, I feel her sleeping against my shoulder), and I’m thinking of other things too — books, what I’m doing today, the work I’ll have to get back to tomorrow, somehow, my husband at home, Marnie and Will, the storm, the election, whether I’ll put on mascara today or maybe I shouldn’t because I still cry too easily, popcorn, Myanmar, my feet are cold, what’ll we do for dinner tonight. All those balloons are in the sky, along with hundreds of others. And yet to talk to someone, to write something here, I have to pluck just one down, because I have to form a sentence, a starting sentence. And the sentence has to come out in words — starting somewhere. A linear form for a cloudy circular swirl. As soon as I write one sentence, it seems to anyone outside my head that this is what I’m thinking about, and there’s the farce. I’m thinking about all those things in the sky, and Grace and Katie and Trey are all the red balloons.

So when I write about what I’m reading, or what I did today or will be doing, or when I write about the big storm in New York, or when I write about something else, I will also be thinking of Grace. One thing I decided to do was to close each post with a thought of Grace, or Katie and Trey. They’re always there, and this will let me acknowledge the constancy of my thoughts of her so I can also talk about the rest of life.  And always I’ll carry little Grace with me in my heart.