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:

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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.

“hardest day #3”

​The truth is that they’re all hard days, now. For the last week, every single day has been the hard day, and every single tomorrow has held another variety of the hard day. It was a week ago that Katie learned that Grace died — just 7 days, last Friday, a week ago today. How can that be possible? That day, that Friday, was the hardest day. Saturday Katie was induced. That was so hard. Sunday at 3:08am she delivered Grace and held her, and eventually left the hospital with only Trey’s hand in hers, another hardest day.  Monday, hard decisions to be made. Tuesday, hard errands to be run. Wednesday, a hard conversation to be had. Thursday, hard and painful tasks to do. And here we are at the third in a series of hardest days, the funeral. 

I haven’t been to a funeral in so long, and in fact, I’ve only been to five in my life: Big Daddy’s (my grandfather, who was in his 60s and died of cancer); my father’s (he committed suicide when I was 23); Ruth’s (my sweet former mother-in-law, who died of cancer); Kiki’s (my sweet former father-in-law, who died of Alzheimer’s); and Sue’s (my friend Peggy’s mother, who died of ALS). That’s it. I don’t remember very much about Big Daddy’s funeral; I don’t imagine it was a very big group who gathered in Graham. I remember my father’s funeral, a very small gathering at a lonely graveside in Taylor, TX, and I remember Ruth’s funeral, a huge Catholic mass followed by a great big joyful wake, and I remember Kiki’s funeral, a huge Catholic funeral in San Antonio, crowded with friends and family mourning that sweet man, and I remember Sue’s funeral, a smaller and quite moving service in a lovely church in CT. 

Grace’s service will be very very small, just 10 people — a portion of the immediate family (all of Katie’s immediate family, plus Trey’s parents and one sister). Instead of using the large chapel-type room at the funeral home, we’re using a small room off to the side, the scale appropriate to the size of the little casket as if such a thing is even possible. Small flower arrangements, so as not to dwarf the tiny thing. The impossibly small heart-shaped urn that will hold Grace’s ashes once she is cremated, engraved with her name and the single date, of her delivery. A couple of photographs, one of her profile from the ultrasound, and one taken after her delivery, of her sweet little hand.​ And then us, crowded around. An officiant saying some words. And then we leave and return to Katie’s house. Sherlock and Peggy sent food, and we 10 will sit and put it in our mouths, grateful for the way it will allow us silence in each other’s presence. And then everyone else will leave, and then tomorrow Marnie and Will leave, and then one day soon I will leave.

Temma sent me these beautiful, beautiful words while I was composing this post:​

Sun taunts the mourner.

Blue stuns the
eye.             

A passage has occurred. 

I do feel taunted, and stunned, and I’m still trying to comprehend this passage. ​I do not know how we will endure this morning, even as I know that we will, without a doubt endure it.  We will be isolated in our grief and we’ll be clinging to each other desperately, trying to save ourselves and trying to save each other.  The death of an infant — a stillborn infant — violates everything we think we knew about life and what’s right and what’s possible and what’s fair (even though we also know too much about life and that what’s right has nothing to do with it and that fair happens in a board game where you have a set of rules in your hand). 

​Goodbye, Grace Louise Lowery. I loved you so very very much.

how do you do the next thing after this?

A couple of nights ago, Katie asked Trey before they went to sleep, “How does it get better?” And I loved that specific question, because of all the ways she might have worded it, that version contains the possibility that it can and will get better. There’s a possibility. How do we get there. We can’t see it now, we have no idea how to get out of this terrible room, and if and when we do, we’ll also have to figure out how to feel ok that we left the room……but we think there is a way out.

There are so many layers to moving on. The least important layer is a social one, a kind of pressure that (at this point) isn’t coming from anyone external to me but only from my worries — at some point people will be real tired of hearing about this. It’s awfully soon to even have this thought, and right now it’s nothing more than a thought, a tiny point of anticipatory awareness. Another layer is guilt, obviously; gosh, here we are laughing?! Seriously?! Does that mean we cared so little? How could we be laughing at a time like this — or that, or the next, or the next. Partly because we’re in the lull between things — the funeral is Friday at 10, and there’s not much to be done now but wait for it — I find my mind drifting to other things. I haven’t been able to read, but in Myanmar I read seven books and I’d like to talk about one or two of them here. Right now, the impulse to write about other things is all I have; when I sit down to do it, I just go blank. But one of these days I’m going to be ready to write about other things. As someone wrote me in an email, you get tired of FEELING so much.

Moving on will include allowing there to be other babies in the world, other mothers and fathers of little ones. Moving on will mean being able to see their joy, to ask how the baby is doing, even to be excited over all the little moments. When friends have babies, they won’t balk to tell us, they won’t whisper about being sure not to mention this to them. Then, I guess, we’ll be back in touch with the excitement we all felt. Before. And boy are we not there yet, of course. But one of these days we will….right?

Trey will go back to work, one of these days. He deals with people who are unhappy with their custom installations — first world problems if ever there were any, and so pale next to his pain. He’ll have to do that. Katie will go back to her pre-Grace life, with the beautiful nursery upstairs and no longed-for and deeply loved child tucked into the pretty crib. I’ll go back to New York and try to let my dreams of Grace swim and float away, settle down into the recesses of my beating heart so I can carry them around a little more easily. We’ll laugh again, a few seconds here and there, a longer patch, maybe even a carefree Sunday afternoon. We’ll bear our way through the upcoming holidays, and then 2013 will start. We all have keepsakes, little photographs, notices from the newspaper, cards and condolences, impressions of her footprints, and we’ll find special places for those things so she’s just right there with us in some way as we move on to the rest of our lives.

I’d posted this poem by Ellen Bass here a few weeks ago; it’s explicitly about grief, but I’d found it meaningful in some other context. Here, though, it fits squarely with grief and moving on, our looming and thoroughly impossible-seeming task:

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even

when you have no stomach for it

and everything you’ve held dear

crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,

your throat filled with the silt of it.

When grief sits with you, its tropical heat

thickening the air, heavy as water

more fit for gills than lungs;

when grief weights you like your own flesh

only more of it, an obesity of grief,

you think, How can a body withstand this?

Then you hold life like a face

between your palms, a plain face,

no charming smile, no violet eyes,

and you say, yes, I will take you

I will love you, again.

No one is spared the experience of death, and almost no one gets away without feeling grief in the face of it.  Even as we secretly think, yeah, but you got to at least hold your baby and hear her cry, or well, at least you just miscarried so early, or at least you got to have your child with you for X yearsor well we all expect to lose our parents/grandparents/friends so at least that’s “normal,” the fact is that death is absolute and shocking in its foreverness, and awful and isolating, no matter what. The most horrible part of it can be that life simply goes on, and that we will, too. 

boundaries

I’m an open book. I have no problem at all talking about how I’m feeling, telling you my thoughts and how I’m dealing and grappling with things. Unfortunately, because the early years of my life were so dramatic and beyond proportion for what most people deal with, and unfortunately since I have no problem talking about them, I can be shocking to others at times, even though I certainly don’t mean to be. I don’t talk to shock, I talk to share and connect. When I try to think about the concept of “boundaries,” I gather I should not talk about some of the things I talk about, but when I think through that issue, I think I have nothing to be ashamed of — others did things to me, I have no reason to be silent, there is no shame in having been an innocent child. So you can see that I ​don’t quite get this issue that’s so clear to everyone else.

And here, in the wake of Grace’s death, my impulse is to talk, to tell the stories of this experience, to share them. I keep writing and deleting, because this time there is a boundary that’s clear even to me. This is Katie’s and Trey’s experience. This is their loss, their grief, their burden, their nuclear impact, it’s not mine to talk about. Of course there are aspects that are mine: I’m Katie’s mother so I’m dealing with my child in pain, and if you’re a mother, you know what that means, the impossibility of just letting it go on (as if I can do anything about it). I also lost someone, a child I’d been dreaming of, a child I’d been longing to see and hold and kiss. A child whose profile I gazed at a dozen times a day; I kept her most recent ultrasound picture on my computer desktop and on my phone, for a quick glance or a long lingering gaze, soaking her into me. So I lost her too — and it’s not the same but it’s my loss.​

I struggle with how to talk about it here, because I’m keenly aware that this situation isn’t about me, and Katie’s experience is not mine to discuss. I’ve tried so hard not to do that here, not to talk about what she is going through in any detail. I’ve tried to keep my talk focused on my own experience, but even that is bounded by my daughter’s experience. There are aspects of what’s been happening that were my experience, and I want to write about them, but I can’t because I respect her privacy and her suffering and don’t want to add a mustard seed to it. So I’ll turn to friends, I turn to my personal support people and will probably talk about it until they’re all tired of it. There are things I need to talk about that will be very very hard to hear, and I need to talk about them. Mainly, though, it’s the basic problem of grief — the length of it, longer than people might think it should take; the oncoming days that are marked in some way to the grieving but invisible to everyone else (this Saturday is Katie’s due date, for instance); the rollercoaster nature of it, taking us out of a moment all at once and without warning; the ways we’ll notice that we’re laughing, or thinking of something else, and then feeling so guilty for that; and then there’s the long-term project of finding a place for the deep emptiness of it.

I’ve had the opportunity to mother my kids during this period and it’s been so sweet. I tuck them into bed, I breathe in their foreheads, I stroke their hair off their faces. I cook them dinner (actually I help them cook dinner for us all), I go grocery shopping with them, I assign them chores, I am probably being too bossy. I fetch drinks and snacks, I suggest ways to pass time — we play cards, we make popcorn and watch tv, our family’s historical ways of passing time. ​Each day Katie and Trey have their list of impossible tasks and Marnie and Will and I try to find some way to help while they’re gone, and failing that, some way to busy ourselves until they return. I try to moderate tiny bursts of internecine squabbles, and I try to see that I am also getting what I need to keep going. I try to notice when Trey is quiet, because he is grieving in the midst (the intense midst) of Katie’s family. We are his family but we are not his family, so he is doing what we’re doing, but with strange people all around. To us, he’s just Trey, our family, but I try to remember that he didn’t grow up with us. Poor Trey, poor Katie, poor all of us.

Thanks again for the great many kindnesses you’ve shown us — words and notes and cards and flowers and even food. 

the fragility of things

  • Marnie said a couple of days ago how awful it is letting people know such terrible, tragic news over email, or in a facebook post, and I’ve also struggled with how you spring our kind of news on people — even in person, or on the phone, there’s just a dreadful moment before you tell someone. I understand Marnie’s point about electronic sharing, and also feel like it’s a blessing, in a way, because we only have to say it once. We can prepare how to say it, and then it’s done. Unlike adult deaths, when a baby is stillborn, there was this great expectation, everyone knows it’s any day now, are you feeling contractions yet, any news? So yes, there is news.
  • Grace Louise died because of a knot in the umbilical cord. That’s all. It was obvious when she was delivered, but the autopsy and tests showed unequivocally that ​nothing else was wrong. While that’s a great thing for future pregnancies, for this one it’s devastating. The if onlys are thick in all our minds. There is a haunting going on inside us, things we think privately that are too hard to share, thoughts and what ifs and wonderings, too impossible to even say out loud, even if we weren’t so desperate to spare each other, in case others hadn’t thought about them.
  • It seems like an outrageously stupid design — bad evolution, bad bad bad bad — putting a baby in a large space filled with fluid and a long rope-like thing on which the baby’s life depends. Ropes get tangled. And tangles get knots. Stupid idiotic design.
  • Of the great many​ cliches that abound, you do see who people are when you’re at one of these existential hinge moments, as I call births and deaths. It’s not as much about the people who hear about it and don’t even acknowledge it (and there are plenty of those) as it is about the enormous grace and compassion of most people. There isn’t anything to say, no one can come up with a magical phrase. There isn’t anything to do, though flowers are thoughtful and cards are sweet. But nothing can affect or transform the reason we’re all here. Nothing at all. I clean and sweep and organize and mow their yard and shop for groceries and make dinner with my kids and big deal. But it’s what there is to do. We’ve all been so touched by people’s heartfelt efforts to say something, anything.
  • My little family is together here, for the first time in years, and it’s the worst kind of gathering you can imagine. And we all came into it at our worst, already exhausted, for our own individual reasons. We are all here without our own support people around us, we are all physically exhausted and it just gets worse, we are all facing something we’ve never faced and have no idea how to do it, we bring our interpersonal histories with each other and some bits are prickly and unsettled, and we are all managing unimaginable grief, each with our own particular flavors. So we are all our worst selves, trying and wanting to be and do our very best.  It took me a while to realize this structure, and after I told Marnie and Will how it seemed to me, I think it helped them. We have to be patient with each other and let things go, try to help each other when our worst self pops up because we’re all just trying so hard.
  • I’ve seen a side of my daughter Katie that strikes awe into me, the kind of awe that leaves you without words. If you were to write a guide, summoning everything you knew about life, bringing in what research shows, what philosophies and religion show, what your best experiences have shown, it would still pale beside Katie, and Trey. Where and how they are gathering the courage and strength they’re managing is a mystery to me. They aren’t looking away, they aren’t running away, they’re standing there together, facing every little thing even though they don’t know how they can do it, or how to do it. Grace’s body will be cremated in the next few days and they will be there together — not because they think they possibly can bear it, but because not being there with her at that time would be even worse. They tell us this and we all balk and quail and draw ourselves in, and they sit there side by side, looking at each other with tears running down their faces but with solidness. I feel very small beside her.

T​hank you all for the words of kindness, for the backchannel messages and emails, and for the way you’ve helped me and my family feel just a little less alone. The funeral will be held on Friday, a very small little service for immediate family only, and Marnie and Will return to their homes on Saturday. It’s good, we’re peeling away slowly from Katie and Trey, rather than all at once leaving en masse. I’ll stay until they’re ready for me to leave, and it will be very hard for me to leave when the time comes but the time will come, one of these days. Until then, I’ll come back here when I can, to my little pillbug palace.

it all can change in a single moment

​My little granddaughter Grace has died. She was just 8 days away from her due date, and for as-yet unknown reasons, she simply died. Yesterday morning I received the unimaginable call from my poor sweet daughter, for whom this is unimaginable-er still. I am flying to Austin, leaving for the airport in less than an hour, and will arrive during my daughter’s labor. My other children are coming too — Marnie arrives half an hour before me and we’ll go to the hospital together, a blessing, and Will arrives tomorrow morning. At least we will all be together for the next stunning days.

I tried to get a few hours of sleep but I just lay in the dark, listening to people laughing on the street — so hollow for me — and my husband snoring, and finally I just got up. While I feel utterly alone, I know I am not. Friends rushed to me yesterday, words of love and comfort have surrounded me, phone calls and emails and texts and messages, all from people who love us and who tried to find words even though there are none.​

Love Sorrow
Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must
take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her
into her little coat, hold her hand,
especially when crossing a street. For, think,
what if you should lose her? Then you would be
sorrow yourself; her drawn face, her sleeplessness
would be yours. Take care, touch
her forehead that she feel herself not so
utterly alone. And smile, that she does not
altogether forget the world before the lesson.
Have patience in abundance. And do not
ever lie or ever leave her even for a moment
by herself, which is to say, possibly, again,
abandoned. She is strange, mute, difficult,
sometimes unmanageable but, remember, she is a child.
And amazing things can happen. And you may see,
as the two of you go
walking together in the morning light, how
little by little she relaxes; she looks about her;
she begins to grow.
~Mary Oliver

The next days will be among the hardest in my life, and I’m so grateful for all the love around me, and for all the love my family has for each other. Grateful for having had the opportunity to love this little girl with all my heart for almost 9 months, grateful for the hours I got to spend thinking about her while stitching her quilt, and knitting her stocking. Grateful for the little peeks I got at her beautiful profile, from the ultrasound pictures. I hope I get to hold her, and I hope Katie does, for her sake, though it will feel impossible in a way I cannot imagine.