three things: 12/27/16

1) Headaches, of which I am the chief taxonomist, the God of Knowing, the Linneaus, the Webster. My dad was a headache-haver, I am the inheritor of that misery, and my daughter Katie carries it on another generation. I have a headache nearly every single day, and know the specifics and instigator of so many. There’s the one that exists in the top of my left eyeball (and the very different one that dominates my right eyeball). The one that sits on the top center of my head. The one that presses on my right temple. The one that wraps like a belt. The one that comes from a low pressure system. The one that arises from smells in the environment. The one that comes from specific bad sleep. The different one that comes from insufficient sleep. The one that comes from perfume or cologne worn by others. The one that I get when it’s too cold. Etc. Etc. Etc. The one that’s treated with hot, wet cloths. The one that’s treated with Sumatriptan. The one that’s helped by beer and a Sudafed (only if both at once). The one that’s helped by massage. The one that’s helped by sleep. The one that is helped by nothing. And all combinations of all.

People want to help, and I inevitably hear that I should go to a doctor. But the issue is that I am a headache-haver, and that isn’t treatable. I know how to identify and treat the different ones, so what would a doctor say? You have sinus headaches, tension headaches, sleep-related headaches, you’re sensitive to volatile organic compounds, all of which I already know. It’s a terrible thing, being a headache-haver, because my day can be derailed so easily and often there is nothing to do but wait for the next day in the hope that it’ll be better. This part of the post brought to you by today’s low-heavy-shaggy-gray-sky-headache. I was in my mid-20s when I learned that not everyone has a headache every single day, and it blew me away. Lucky you, if you don’t!

I have 953 pictures of just him, and only 6 of those are from the past 13 years. I always loved this one, he is so beautiful.

2) My son is breaking my heart anew. I got a message from his ex-boyfriend about a box of Will’s stuff — did I want it, or should he throw it away? It’s filled with pictures from Will’s childhood, mementos, gifts I gave him, an album his sister assembled with pictures and letters from us all when she was trying to lead him back to our family, all just abandoned by him. I’m honestly not sure I can bear to collect them, but I know I can’t bear for them just to be tossed in the dump on Staten Island and so I will collect them. They will smell like Will. He told me that Will lost his job in the spring and he doesn’t know if/where he’s working, and that he doesn’t have the same phone number. He knows he is (at the moment) staying with a friend in Sunnyside, Queens, but nothing more specific than that. The thread is getting so weak that allows me to tug him, frayed down to a single twist. Will knows he is hurting me, and that doesn’t make my pain any less, it doesn’t allow me to just reside in anger at him. I still fill the weight of him in my arms, smell the smell of his baby head, smell the smell of his teenage years, hear the sound of his boy voice and his deep man voice. I still remember his humor, his pleasure in beating me at Scrabble, the way he called me Ma just to crack me up. The way he said I’d be Granma Pete instead of just Pete, to make me laugh. It’s holding the full complexity of it all that breaks my heart. If I could simply be furious with him, or let him go, or just feel all the love, it would be so much easier.

3) I’ve been trying to sit very still and quiet with this terrible feeling in order to understand it. I set aside the headache as its own thing, and focus instead on the heartache. Why is it so painful? What, exactly, is the feeling of it? I realized that I feel chaotic and not whole, that this feeling is one of fragmentation, and an inability to cohere. It might cohere if I had a simple story I could tell, if I had more answers (whatever they might be) than questions, if I had a simple set of feelings. Just grief, for example. My mind feels like threads exploded outwards, my body doesn’t feel whole and comfortable, and my feelings are all over the place, changing with my breath. I’m doing my best just to let this all be, to be present with it and not try to force it into one category, one thing, and to notice that I can do that. Super hard, y’all. Super, super, super hard. I keep suddenly standing up and preparing to walk somewhere, but I just take a few steps, turn around, hold my head, and sit down again. This is just part of life, it’s just part of my life, it just is, and it will not always be like this.

apathy is privilege

It’s like a death has happened. Enough people in our country voted in just the right places (note: not the majority of us, though) to elect a demagogue. So the majority of us are grieving, and mourning, and aching, and lost, at the moment. We’ll get ourselves together, we’ll rally, we’ll organize, we’ll work to protect the vulnerable among us . . . unlike the stated plan of the Republicans had they lost, which was to call the election rigged, to fail to concede, to imprison the opponent, to bring out guns and violence. No, instead we will organize and work, once we get through the pain.

But you know, none of whatever Trump does will affect me personally and immediately. I’m white, not a person of color. I was born in this country, and my family has been here for generations. I’m straight. I’m not in the stage of my life where reproduction is a concern. I have a bit of work. I don’t have any family in the military, serving in dangerous places. I’m not disabled. I will be nowhere near our new president so I guess my pussy is safe from him, at least. I don’t have a pre-existing condition that will disallow me from getting health insurance. Of course he will affect me quite personally, down the road, when he ignores climate change, and when he and his Republican Congress gut Social Security, which I’ve been paying into my entire working life and have depended on as a substantial part of my retirement because I am so far from wealthy it’s not funny.

But the part that has me grieving the most is the threat he poses to others, people who just barely have the same rights I have already, and whose rights will probably be snatched away. Marriage equality, for instance. Reproduction rights, already unavailable to most poor women in my own [current] home state of Texas even though they are currently granted by a Supreme Court decision — which I expect they will try to overturn. Gun reform? Forget it, now. Ending Citizens United? No way. And so all the dark money, all the Koch Brothers etc machinations to make the rich even richer and screw everyone else, that will continue on. Giving refuge to immigrants, that ain’t gonna be happening, no way. Climate change? Oh, didn’t you hear that it’s just a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, and so no worries, man. Fair treatment for women? Tossed back a decade or two, if not more, because you can bet they’ll post Supreme Court Justices, even though they failed to do their job when Obama was obligated to replace Scalia. The sheer irony I choke on is that everything the far right complains about most, corruption and money in politics that keeps the little guy down, they just voted to ensure.

But you know, I don’t have any money anyway, so whatever. I pay 100% more taxes than our president-elect has paid, and there’s not one thing I can do about it. Not one.

Can I, though, sit in my privilege and just shrug, since I won’t be personally and immediately affected? Because my daily life won’t be impacted. I don’t have to worry that a knock will come on my door, or when I’m moving around in the world. I don’t have to worry that I’ll be brutalized on the street because I’m gay, or brown, or of another religion. I don’t have to worry that some ignorant white thug with a trucker’s cap and an assault rifle, newly emboldened by his president-elect who has championed that violence, will kill me. I don’t have to worry that during a routine traffic stop a cop will kill me and get away with it.

Instead, I have to get up. I have to fight. I have to pick which fights I can engage in, because although I want to engage in all of them, I don’t have the available time that would require, and I’m not in any one place long enough to have a sustained commitment to a local group, in a meaningful way. But I have to fight, however I can. I have to be prepared for trouble, because I also have to speak out when I see something terrible happening, whether it’s a cop harassing a black person, a thug harassing a gay person or couple, or a Muslim, or anyone harassing another woman. I have to be honed and ready, and not be caught off guard. It’s go-time, y’all. It’s get off the Facebook meme and go time. It’s speak-up time. It’s speak-out time. It’s self-defense time. Here is a list of outlets you can study to find when and where you can fight back, if you’re interested.

My friends helped me through the worst of the immediate aftermath, and now I’ve found the little crack where the light is getting in. Let’s hold hands and do this. Let’s remember

John Lewis, who has fought for civil rights relentlessly since the 1960s, slow and steady and never giving up, or giving in.
John Lewis, who has fought for civil rights relentlessly since the 1960s, slow and steady and never giving up, or giving in.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been fighting her whole adult life for women and children, and who simply gets up every single time she is knocked down, and gets back to work.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been fighting her whole adult life for women and children, and who simply gets up every single time she is knocked down, and gets back to work. I admire her for this more than I can ever say.
Martin Luther King, who said "I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."
Martin Luther King, who said “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Still waiting.
Fred Rogers, who said, “Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Very hard.
Fred Rogers, who said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Very hard.

These people will be my touchstones, my sources of energy and persistence when mine flags, because mine flags too quickly. Help me, let’s help each other, because I meant it when I said with her that we’re stronger together. Let’s make her rallying cry reality — for her, for ourselves, and for everyone else. I’m still with her.

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

oh yeah, I forgot!

Dawn. Which just happens to be my middle name.
Dawn. Which just happens to be my middle name.

I forgot this is my life.

I forgot that it’s mine to do with what I wish.

I forgot that others are in my life and in my heart, but it’s still my life.

I forgot that I’m the decider (shaking my tiny fist at GWB on that one).

I forgot that there’s still an awful lot of it to come, probably.

I forgot that there are so many things I can do with it, places I can take it, things awaiting me, surprise good and surprise bad.

I forgot that this house is mine and I can take up all the damn space. Drink out of the orange juice bottle. Have gas. 🙂 Walk around at 3am. Sing as loud as I want. Do this and then that just because. Eat M&Ms for dinner if I want, so there. I can listen to The Partridge Family on repeat without (much) shame.

I forgot that I’m a happy person. Gee, it’s been so long I forgot all about it. Remember that time I was stopped by the gate check person at an airport, and when she looked at my ticket she asked me what my specialty was….and I was so confused and almost said, “Well, I’m really good at being happy?” and then I realized that my ticket said Dr. Lori H. I just adore that that was my first and only thought to the question of my specialty.

How could I have forgotten all those things? Grief puts blinders on you in some strange way, like those blinders a horse wears in the city so it’s not distracted by the world all around, by the life all around. So all the griever or the horse can see is just the street in front, under the feet, no other life.

Happy Tuesday, y’all, I hope it’s a beautiful day.

good thing of the day: memory. just think how awful it would be to forget.

meeting up

Well, I have to say that of course there are good ones and bad ones, like everything else, but Meetup.com is the most amazing resource for finding a social network, as long as you’re willing to put yourself out there, interact with complete total strangers with an open heart, and let the poor fits roll off your back. (That is an excruciatingly tall order for a shy kid who also happens to be depressed, though I am getting so much better.) As long as those willingnesses are in place I highly recommend meetup, even if you’re not new in town but just want to turbocharge your social life, find new friends, or find a gang. I joined 15 meetups here in Austin in an effort to find a new social world and explore my interests with other people:

I’ve had one bad experience, with the knitting meetup (though perhaps I bear a responsibility too, since I was in the throes of the bleak black nonstop crying depression when I went), but otherwise it’s been a fantastic experience. Last Saturday I found My Gang, a bunch of wonderful, warm people who took me in as one of their own, who brunched with me, talked and listened to me, commiserated with me, gave me recommendations, held my hand and smiled at me, and danced with me. I can’t wait to see them again. I’ve never had a gang! I wasn’t that kind of kid. I was the kid with scabby knees lingering near the fence at the edge of the school grounds, with greasy hair and one book under her arm and another close to her face. With crooked glasses and unkempt hair. And a wholly terrifying back story, a secret horrible life at home. My only friend back then was the other school outcast, whose great sin was that she wore pantyhose in 5th grade — the thick beige kind, with snags and pills. Only teachers wore pantyhose, but Pamela (also referred to in gossipy whispers as “trash”) wore them too. So yeah, that’s the kid I was. And those kinds of kids don’t really have gangs. But now, at 54, I have me a gang hell yeah.

Last night I went to a happy hour that was only open to women, and DADGUMMIT Y’ALL those women were amazing. They were all mostly my age (this being a “boomer” meetup after all), and you get a buncha 50+ year old women together and whoo boy. It reminds me of a joke I’ve heard a few times, making fun of that trashy store Forever 21, which apparently sells kind of slutty clothes. The joke is that Forever 31 sells yoga pants and white wine. The women at the happy hour were not having any of it, they had already spent their lives taking care of men and children and parents, they knew wine and they read books, and they had opinions, dammit. Mercifully (and this is because I’m in Austin) they were of similar political mind to me, and the language was salty, the opinions were passionately shared, the book talk was relentless, and the lives were rich and fascinating. Lots of the women were new to Austin, some coming back like me, others coming from elsewhere in Texas, and plenty coming from other states. I sat next to Dee, who just moved here from Seattle, and found a kindred spirit. We chattered throughout the happy hour. I’m Comanche, she’s Kiowa (her grandparents came from Oklahoma, obviously). I met a woman who is also an 8th generation Texan (!) and we talked about injuns and rambling and history and roots.

It was so much fun.

Things have shifted inside me, and lest you think “gee, that was quick, in and out!” I think I’ve been deeply depressed for months and only just realized it, finally, when the nonstop crying started. All medications work quickly for me, which is a real treat (especially with antibiotics, hallelujah, and antidepressants). I’ve been able to read more of Parallel Lives, which I heartily recommend. It pulls you in with the first sentence, and paragraph, and a little later the writing feels denser, more Hungarian-translated. Perhaps, though, the difficulty is my temporary inability to focus very well (even my eyes can’t focus! fascinating) but it’s really got something worth sticking with. I can’t explain it well yet, maybe when the rest of the glass gets cleaned I can say it more clearly. I decided I wanted to own a hardback copy because it’s obviously a book that I’ll want to annotate and re-read, so luckily I found a brand new copy from another vendor through Amazon, for $9. With free shipping (since I’m a Prime member). That’s pretty good! When I can get more engaged with the book, I’ll say more but for now, I really recommend it.

Tonight I meet my gang at Pinthouse Pizza for conversation, pizza, and handcrafted beer. I really look forward to seeing them. It helps me enjoy the rest of my time alone, knowing that at some point I’ll be seeing people I can talk to, because you know the forks just don’t talk back. I’ve tried. They’re terrible conversationalists. “How the hell did you get in the refrigerator? What the hell?” I ask. They’ve got nothing.

Partly because the glass bottom boat is starting to gleam; partly because I actually have people to talk to when I want; and partly because, I think, I’ve grieved so intensely for the last three months that perhaps I’ve got it mostly done, I am feeling good in my quiet and peaceful home, on my quiet and peaceful street, in my busy and getting-rich life. Everything in this old world is multiply determined, so there are probably a lot of other factors in this, but I honestly don’t care why. I’m relieved to find some peace, and some happiness, and contentment with the solitude and pleasure with the social stuff. I’ve been a life-long member of the Overthinkers Club, and I’d really love to turn in my card if I could figure out how. Getting older helps, getting relief from depression helps, and learning acceptance helps too, learning that not much is really under my control.

Happy Thursday, everyone. I hope it’s a good day for you, with something wonderful that you don’t expect.

good thing of the day: people. people who need people. are the luckiest people. in the world. and i need y’all, real bad. 🙂

a how-to guide

I am a strong person, I believe that. I’ve been trying to be honest here (and in the rest of my life) about what it’s like to be going through the devastation of the past two and a half months. I think a few people mistake that honesty, misinterpret it, to mean something else—weakness, even—but that’s their deal, not mine. To me, a big part of being strong is being able and willing to feel whatever there is to feel, not to pretend it’s not there, not to hide from it, not to ignore it, but instead to stand there, with as much strength as possible, and face it.  When I was in college, and had three young kids at home and no help, I had to get it while I was sitting in class; I didn’t have the luxury of time to let my mind wander during lecture and then get it later. I had to get it right then, be present, pay attention. And I think of this period of difficulty in a similar way; whatever is happening to me now, I want to go ahead and experience it and face it and deal with it while it’s happening so I don’t have to handle it showing up later, or over the next however long it might reappear.

So it’s terrifying at times, and I feel terrified. It’s so sad sometimes that I have to lie down and clutch the furniture to bear the sorrow, but I do that, and then it eases. It’s lonely, so I sit with the loneliness and try to understand it. It’s empty, and so I absorb the emptiness and try to feel that, and think carefully about how to fill it in the most meaningful way. The losses feel like a tsunami, and so I try to anchor my feet and absorb the wave and still be standing when it washes away. When happiness, or even joy, appears, I try to open my hands and arms and soak it up and get as much restoration from it as I can. When I feel the truth of there being no one here to take care of me, no one to pet me or give me a hug when I’m having a hard time, no one to rub my back, I try to face that feeling and then take good care of myself. It’s hard. It’s exhausting, on top of the exhaustion from grief.

Some people have been very good to/for/with me, good at helping, being there, doing what they can. And other people have pointedly not. I haven’t been surprised by who falls into which group, especially the not-helpful group, though some of the helpers have been a little surprising — not that they helped, but that they were particularly thoughtful in a specific way, usually born of having experienced hard times themselves.

I don’t know how useful this how-to guide will be, because it may be so idiosyncratic to me that it won’t apply to others. That’s probably true of a couple of items, but I’ll bet it’s generally good. If you have a friend or acquaintance who gets blasted by life, here is my advice:

What to do or say:

  • Just say you’re thinking about her! That’s helpful. If it occurs to you to drop a little note of some kind, even a text or an email, you might be surprised just how much it can help. You might send it at just the right time without knowing it (because for someone facing a lot of stuff, it’s actually always just the right time).
  • Listen. That’s always good.
  • Real mail! Man alive, I can’t tell you what that did for me, the several times someone went out of their way and sent me something in the mail. I got the boost when they asked for my address (a real boost that day), and then a surprise second boost the day the mail arrived. It can just be a small thing — you know how great it is to get real mail.
  • If you’re nearby, propose meeting for a drink, or coffee, or a walk, or a movie. Be specific! She’s probably glad to do something you suggest, and unable to suggest something herself. People in sorrow and trouble welcome distraction, even when they are trying so hard to be strong. You can let your friend set the pace of whether to talk about the trouble or not, and just follow her lead.
  • Periodic short encouraging notes. And really, brief is just fine, it does the trick.
  • Be patient.

What NOT to do or say:

  • Just for a while, handle your own little problems, or turn to other friends. Just for a while, don’t make demands on your overburdened friend. If you hear her say that she’s feeling fragile and her resources are low, take that information as a cue not to ask her to handle your life too.  (And p.s., it doesn’t count if you make a demand but say, “I probably shouldn’t be asking you.”) And then, especially, do not be critical of her for not helping you. Of course, if something big happens to you, good or bad, share it with your friend anyway.
  • Don’t comment on the “drama.” No one but an actress likes to be told that, in the first place, but in the second place who would ask to have a string of terrible things happen, who wouldn’t be so overwhelmed by it without it being labeled “drama!” There’s something kind of blaming in that, or at least it’s so often used that way that it carries the connotation, whether you mean it or not.
  • Even if you think her grief is dragging on too long, keep that thought to yourself. If you just have to talk about that, talk to other people, though who likes to be gossiped about behind their backs. (But if it’s really getting worrisome and you are scared for your friend and her well-being, you might eventually ask, in a loving way, how she feels she’s getting through the grief, to open a conversation.) If you’re feeling this way, instead take the opportunity to quit thinking about your own irritation or annoyance and think about helping her.
  • Don’t simply say, “If you need anything — anything at all — just call! I’m serious!” Or if you do, don’t sit by the phone waiting, because that call isn’t going to come. Really, you’re just saying that to make yourself feel better so you can believe you helped (and we all know that, because we’ve all said it, and we’ve all heard it). So don’t do that — there are very very easy things to do that really will help, and won’t demand too much of you. Like a quick email or a note.
  • Do not be impatient. If that’s too hard for you, then do what you have to do for yourself, of course, but don’t take it out on her. She’s got all she can do trying to be patient with herself, I’m pretty sure.

And one between here and there: If you are the primary support to someone who is in need, be sure to rely on your own support network! As my friend reminded me (and I know very well from the first 6 months of last year), it’s draining and exhausting being the primary support to a suffering person, and if you get plenty of your own support, it’ll help keep you from doing things on the “don’t do that” list. But more importantly, it’ll help you keep going, too. We’re all so connected to each other.

So that’s today’s how-to guide, born of a particularly hard day.

good thing of the day: thoughtful friends and family, blue skies, and inner strength.

so touched by the human condition (+)

I was watching a PBS show called “On Story,” where entertainment creators talk about their process. The particular episode I watched was about making comedy work, so it was writers of Seinfeld and Freaks & Geeks and Curb Your Enthusiasm talking about how they made their stories work, and what worked of the stories their writers brought. Inevitably, they said, what worked were the concepts that were from someone’s real life. And then Alec Berg, a writer for Seinfeld, said that even in the emergency room, there’s someone trying to make a joke, trying to make the situation lighter. And that just touched me so much. Because it’s what we do, isn’t it? Someone tries to help, someone tries so hard to remind the suffering people of other things, to distract them. And isn’t that so dear? Too many times there is little or nothing to do to help someone, and we all know the agony we feel when we face that, our inability to help. So our hearts reach out, we do these little things, these tiny little connections, because we long to ease another’s suffering. 

None of us gets out of this alive. We suffer. Terrible things happen to us, and we try so damn hard. We slip and fall, trouble finds us when we’re minding our own business, we betray ourselves, we do shameful things out of our own pain, we have dread secrets we hope no one discovers. But we try, so hard. We want good things for ourselves, we want good things for other people. We think we’re not such good people, but really we are.

And story shows us who we are, even if it’s stretched out pretty far. I’ve always thought that Tolkein’s trilogy was really the story of Sam’s faithfulness, his loyalty to Frodo, come what may. The beauty of that part of the story always reaches me, no matter how many times I read the books. The Wizard of Oz, about our deep misunderstanding of ourselves, that we go in search of what we had all along; we think we’re stupid so we want diplomas, but we were always smart, all along. (OK, that was kind of personal there.) We’re not here for very long; we appear and disappear, and flail our way through this life trying to make our stand, leave our mark, express ourselves — and isn’t that the tenderest thing there is? How can you feel anything but tender toward us?

There are terrible people — this isn’t to deny that there are terrible people. There are people who scheme, and who just want to stir up trouble, and people who have no conscience or qualms about destroying others. That’s true too, of course. But in a way doesn’t that make the rest even more precious?

I’ve got a bunch of stuff to share, some links and a poem, so hop to it:

And finally, Temma sent me this poem that someone shared in her poetry group meeting last night. She knew what it would mean to me, and to be honest, it’s so hard for me to read because it breaks my broken heart so so much. But it’s so true, so I save it here, and share it in case you like it too.

Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied (Edna St Vincent Millay)

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied  

Who told me time would ease me of my pain!  

I miss him in the weeping of the rain;  

I want him at the shrinking of the tide;

The old snows melt from every mountain-side,  

And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;  

But last year’s bitter loving must remain

Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.  

There are a hundred places where I fear  

To go,—so with his memory they brim.  

And entering with relief some quiet place  

Where never fell his foot or shone his face  

I say, “There is no memory of him here!”  

And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

Happy Thursday y’all. Be really good to someone today.

good thing of the day: blue skies! beautiful, beautiful blue skies, never to be taken for granted — and days of rain help me remember that.

waiting

This is surely one of the most common experiences in life, isn’t it. Waiting. Kids often say they are just waiting, they can’t wait, to grow up. In high school, kids can’t wait until they’re out of the house, until college, until this or that. Some people hate waiting, find it dreadful and frustrating and trying on their patience. Some people come prepared for situations where they might have to wait (knitters are great at this, with little projects in their bags; readers too, with books stashed in bags and in the car). Generally, I’m pretty good at waiting, although like everyone else, if I’m really stressed out waiting is hard.

Of course you can construct nearly everything in life as waiting, I guess. You’re waiting to go to the grocery store, to get gas, for dinner. But sometimes the waiting is bigger, more life-pausing, and it feels like everything else is on hold. I have felt like that much of this dreadful year.

For the first six months of 2012, my husband was enduring the most harrowing medical treatment and our lives really were on hold. At the beginning, I told myself (and we told ourselves) that it would be important for me to keep on with my life, to continue going out, not to imprison myself for the duration. But it was just so hard, just so horrible, he was so terribly ill, he got sicker and sicker and sicker, and I got worn down from caring for him and daily fighting with the insurance company, and it didn’t take long until I was just under siege, with him. We were waiting for the treatment to end in June, then we could resume our lives. On hold. Come on, June.

Then there were a couple of very happy, carefree months of just living. The worst waiting I had to do was for it to be time to leave for Myanmar, boo hoo poor me. We came home from that great trip and I was happily waiting the couple of weeks until it would be time to go to Austin to help Katie and Trey with baby Grace.

And then we got that terrible, terrible news, and the next period of waiting began. Waiting for Grace to be delivered, waiting for the funeral, the cremation, waiting until it was time for me to return to New York. And three days after I got back to New York, the decision to divorce…..so, waiting the 10 days until my flight back to Austin. Numb, sitting around staring, unable to do anything but wait. Sitting on hold and letting the hours pass. I arrived in Austin, found a place to live, and waited the couple of weeks until I moved in. Katie and Trey were so welcoming and gracious and kind and wonderful, and yet still I was waiting for my new life to get going, to move my new things into my new place and then figure out how to live my new life. Waiting for that to start.

It feels like most of this year I’ve just been waiting to live my life. They were exceptional experiences, and back-to-back. It’s easy, from the outside, to think well you’re living your life, or you didn’t have to be waiting. You could’ve been living your life, nothing was stopping you. But the things that happened this year were just so oppressive, or  so thoroughly life-changing, there was nothing to do but wait.

Last weekend I packed up my books and put them in UPS’s hands, and I’m waiting for them to arrive. Some are due by the end of today, and it appears some are due by the end of day tomorrow, so I’m kind of stuck here at the house, just waiting for them. That sucks, but it’s small potatoes waiting. When they arrive, though, and I unload them into my bookcases, settle my other little belongings in, find spots for my few little precious things, my move will be complete. I still have some shopping to do; I need a table by my leather chair, some assorted things here and there, some plants, things like that, but again: small potatoes.

And still, I have a sense of waiting it out. This year is nearly done, and I feel like I’m hiding from the holidays. It’s hard to be reminded that it’s a happy holiday season, that families are doing big family things — we’d planned big family things, too. Before. Once the holidays are past, I’ll be ready to get going. My place will be complete, a new year will spread out in front of me, and it’ll all just be up to me. I look forward to that more than you can possibly imagine.

I’ve collected some open tabs I thought I’d share here too, in case some are interesting to you:

Ah, dang, I had some others but I seem to have lost them! Rats. As my old Texas grandmother would’ve said, live and learn, die and forget it all. Yikes, kind of bleak. 🙂

Happy Thursday, y’all. I hope you’re just waiting for happy things — family to arrive, presents to open, good things to come. 

sno(w)ball

You know how this kind of thing goes, the way it grows with its own momentum. I’m certain it’s happened to you — here’s how it happened to me yesterday.

I didn’t sleep well the night before, for starters. I kept waking up and feeling unsettled, anxious, kind of scared, cold, lonely, alone. Finally, I woke up at 5:00 for good, and at 5:30 I got out of bed. The house was very cold, so I shuffled into the dark living room and got the fire going in the fireplace. That was the only light in the living room, but the Christmas lights on the patio were tossing in a soft light, too. I made my coffee in the dimmest light possible and brought it in front of the fire, where I sat, shivering, waiting for the warmth of the fireplace to seep into my bones. I felt so alone in the otherwise-lovely space. As the morning lit up the sky, I thumbed through the newest issues of The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, flagging articles to read later, stopping to read the poetry and look at the cartoons. Yeah, maybe I was going to be OK today after all.

I worked for several hours then decided I’d better run to the market before it got too crowded. I was mostly OK, holding that line of being OK even though it felt kind of fragile. But OK. There are two big grocery stores near me, and the nearest one is slightly more expensive, and fancy (Randall’s, it’s called). Well, this Randall’s is either so fancy they incorporate mood lighting into the shopping experience, or their lights were half burned out. Either way, it was kind of moody and nice. I hate the glare of supermarket lighting. So the moody lighting felt kind of OK, I was still hanging onto that line, and then the song Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas started playing. Like the mood lighting, it was a quiet version of the song, a tender version, nothing jangly and upbeat about it at all. And all of a sudden I felt the huge cracks in my broken heart and had to run out of the store and sit in my car and cry for a bit before I could go in and finish shopping. I returned to the store hoping for something more annoying, like Jingle Bells.

So what happens then? You know how this plays out: Now I’m weepy. I’m so sad. I want to help myself, I want to shift my mood, feel a little better, but any music that might help me do that is just too wrong, too far away from how I’m feeling. So I find a song that doesn’t feel so jarring, and it’s also moody and quiet, and sustains my sad feeling. (By the way, if you’re ever looking for that kind of music, I can’t recommend Max Richter’s 24 Postcards in Full Colour strongly enough.) And now my sad feeling is even deeper, so I’m farther away from happy music.

Sure, you can sit there in your smug happiness and tell me I was wallowing. 🙂 But I beat you to that explanation, I got there first. I knew it. But if you can’t wallow in the depth of the Christmas season when your marriage is ending and you’re starting all over[again] and your granddaughter died, when can you wallow, I ask you.

I could really eat a pink snoball right about now. Emotional eating, my strong suit. Never the white ones, oh no — only the lurid pink ones. Because if you’re going to eat crap, you might as well go all the way.

Here’s a short piece from the Max Richter album I mentioned — see how moody? Doesn’t it just beg for a snoball? Or maybe a big pile of chocolate?

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.

getting somewhere, the mix tape

1)  Yesterday morning was rough, man. Rough rough rough, rougher than anyone expected (and we were all expecting rough). When Katie and Trey came home from the crematorium, we sat in shared stunned silence for a bit, each lost in our own deep and awful suffering. Then, because you can only do that a little bit at a time, we watched Arachnophobia. It was stupid, and just what we needed. Katie’s aunts and uncles gave her and Trey the gift of a new tree, in Grace’s honor, for their front yard, so we’d tentatively planned to go select one if they felt like it.  Thankfully, they had a sense that it would be helpful so we gathered ourselves together and headed out. Lunch at Shady Grove, one of my favorite weird Austin joints (I had Frito pie! Frito pie! Frito pie!), then down Bee Caves Road to the nursery and they found a tree, a Texas red oak. The aunts and uncles will have it planted for them, as soon as they’re ready. It was just the right thing to do, after the dreadful morning — a reminder of beautiful blue-skied days that also exist, a daily and seasonal reminder out their front window of their dear Grace, to accompany the constant reminder in their hearts, and a connection to the living that’s going on all around. It probably seems much more of this to me than them, because they’re still numb and in different grief, but I know it’ll come to them in this way, when they’re ready. 

I’ll be heading home tomorrow, on Friday. My time here is winding down. It’s time for them to grab their life by themselves and reconfigure it together. It’d be too early (to me, the mama!) no matter when I went, and this is best for them — and that’s what matters more than anything else.

2)  On facebook and here on my blog I requested book recommendations and got a whole bunch of good ideas. I’d requested books that grapple with big life things and that aren’t silly. Here’s what I got, in case you’re ever looking for something like that: (edit — aaargh! None of the links work! I’ll have to figure that out later, sorry…..)

  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green — reading this one first and it’s amazing so far. Seriously. Original and big and smart.
  • Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking 
  • Didion Blue Nights 
  • Pomegranate Season by Carolyn Polizotto 
  • Resilience by Anne Deveson 
  • Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent. 
  • Stones from the River – Ursula Hegi 
  • History of Love – Nicole Krauss  
  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer 
  • Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie  
  • A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry  
  • The Cunning Man – Robertson Davies  
  • Broken for You – Stephanie Kallos  
  • The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Lemmon  
  • poetry of Louis Macneice  
  • Robin Romm’s memoir The Mercy Papers
  • Margaux Fragoso’s Tiger, Tiger  (memoir)  
  • The Dovekeepers  
  • A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle   
  • The Gate to Women’s Country    
  • Mating, Norman Rush    (an anthropology grad student crosses the Sahara for love to get to an experiment in screwing up the natives)   
  • Cement Garden, Ian McEwan (three kids left unsupervised after their mother dies descend into uncivilization)   
  • The Innocent, Ian McEwan (1950s Berlin) 
  • What Maisie Knew, Henry James (James from a child’s point of view, Maisie knows everything!)  
  • Civil Wars, Rosellen Brown (civil rights activists in the South get custody of racist children, a marriage falls apart)  
  • Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey  
  • Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus  
  • The Great Fire, Shirley Hazzard 
  • The Mitford Girls by Mary Lovell 
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog
  • When You’re Falling, Dive

3) One thing that has been so great through this tragedy is the way in which big help comes from surprising quarters (in addition to the unsurprising quarters….we’re very lucky in our misfortune). I have friends all over the country and world, from (a) being 53 and (b) moving around a whole lot, and they’ve come through in ways I wouldn’t have expected, given the fact that we don’t see each other. One of my friends from graduate school, a guy I liked a lot but never got to know in depth (a real loss for me!) sent me this wonderful note: “I read an essay by a Christian monk once who talked about the difference between “suffering against the grain” and “suffering with the grain.” He argued that sometimes, life is painful, and if you try to run away from that fact, distract yourself, or fight that feeling, then the long-run impact is that you exhaust yourself and feel worse than you have to. I’ve always liked that idea, and it feels honest. Sometimes life is awful, and trying to change that artificially causes bigger problems than just accepting that life is going to be sad for a time.”  Isn’t that such a great distinction? And such help it gave me when he sent it.

4)  This is an oldie but a goodie, and the fact that I wanted to track it down tells me that light is returning to my spirit, and that there’s room for more than just grief inside me now. My dear friend Dixie (more like a sister, she is my former husband’s cousin) has a little granddaughter nicknamed Peanut. WELL. Peanut is hysterical; as her father says of her, she can go from 0 to Joan Crawford in 4 milliseconds. Peanut is 4, I think, and one of the most original and funny people I’ve ever heard of. Peanut’s mother posted this on facebook several months ago, and it makes all of us laugh hysterically:

Peanut is composing a little ditty at the piano. She’s got some pretty fitting minimalist music going and the following lyrics:

All my days. All my life.

It was terrible. Terrible.

Running. Running. Running out of candy.

Missing my friend’s party.

I couldn’t take it anymore.

She threw oranges at me.

I called the police.

I couldn’t take it anymore. 

This may be the most awesome thing Peanut has ever done.

I think so too. A couple of days ago, Katie mentioned it out of the blue, with a big smile on her face — medicine for us all. Thank you, Peanut and Heather and Dixie.

5) And so to life. I know there will be sorrow and waves of grief to come, too-quick reminders of the Grace I’d dreamed, concerns for my daughter and her husband, and anniversaries that creep up. There will be difficulty in NYC as it recovers from the big storm, problems I don’t even know about yet. There will be muted joy for my birthday, but there will be joy because I love celebrating my birthday. It won’t be the birthday I thought it’d be, but it is my birthday and I’m damn glad to be here. And there will be everything else too — little happinesses, big ones, dull times, big joys, strife, irritations, surprises, the whole big buffet. And I cannot wait for it all.

being still and quiet

My goal today was to begin working again. Yep, that was my goal. I opened my laptop and went to my work email, responded to some of them — the easy ones, the people who have become something like friends — and then went downstairs. Got some more coffee. Piddled. Decided it would be a “big help” if I cleaned the kitchen. Did that then came back upstairs, opened my laptop. Decided some cherry Pop-Tarts would be a treat. Toasted them and came back upstairs, glanced at my laptop, decided I needed to wander downstairs.

Talked with Trey and Katie, wandered into the kitchen. Wandered upstairs, turned around and came back down went back up to take clothes out of the dryer. Plopped them on my bed. Back downstairs.

IBC root beer, that’s the ticket. Popped the cap, brought it upstairs, opened my laptop. Facebook. NYTimes. Emailed my husband, back downstairs for cheetos. Back upstairs, really need to work, Lorraine, I know it, shut up, back downstairs. Another cup of coffee, that’s it. Back upstairs, gotta help my sister identify a painting, very important, must do that. Check the NYTimes, how’s the storm.

Really need to work maybe some ice cream, yeah that’s it. Back downstairs. Flail, flail, flail. Junk food, junk time wasting, can’t read can’t work.

I need to just sit still, just be quiet, just be, for a while. I’m partly on Big Profound Period Overload, and I’m partly exhausted emotionally, and I’m out of pocket, not here not there. It’s hard to do nothing, but it’s hard to do anything, too. My husband and son are in NYC, where the big storm is hitting, and I’m not there. My daughter Katie is at sea in her grief, and I cannot do anything but bob in the sea near the shore, no matter how much I want to be out in that deep water beside her because our losses are so different.  I think I’ll take a walk and just be quiet, not glance at my phone, not listen to music, just be outside. 

This is what it’s like to be going through my life right now.

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.

misperceptions and how-tos

This part of our life has taught my family a lot of different things, and many have been wonderful. People suffer with you, people want to help, those you least expect are often the most touching; brittle bits drop to the side because it turns out we all know what’s most important. There have been great experiences to relish in the midst of such pain and suffering. And here are a couple of misperceptions we’ve encountered:

  • When a child is stillborn, immediately before birth, do not lump it in with miscarriage. This is the death of a child, but painful in a different way because we didn’t get to hear her cry, learn her laugh.
  • Surprisingly to me, and to Katie, the tangible things aren’t as gut-wrenching as we thought. We come across little socks, we go into the nursery, and it’s sad — oh definitely, it is sad — but it’s not nearly as sad as we expected it to be, because she never wore those socks. That room wasn’t her room. It was prepared for her, but she never lived in it. We finger the little socks we find, stuck to clean laundry, but they don’t make us cry too hard. The real grief comes in other ways. 

So many of you helped us and we noticed, even if we have been too lost in our shock and surprise to comment. If you wonder what helps, for future situations, here’s what has helped us:

  • Simple acknowledgement — and in ninja fashion, too. There aren’t any words, we already have learned that as we’ve tried to help each other. We don’t expect you to say the magic phrase because we know there isn’t one. If you acknowledge what has happened, we feel comforted and less alone. The ‘ninja fashion’ bit is that we are dazed, in disbelief, and cannot engage in lengthy conversation. The last thing we can do (sorry) is take care of you too; we’re doing all we can to keep breathing. So when you acknowledge what has happened and do not linger, we feel the simple comfort and it helps us keep breathing. Thank you for that.
  • Cards and flowers are lovely, and they’re really just material manifestations of your simple acknowledgements. We have vases of flowers all over the house, and they’ll wither pretty quickly because we don’t have it in us to care for them, to extend their fresh lives. We open the door, we sign the delivery, we take the vase and look around for a place for it. We read the card, we are touched that you thought of us. Someone thinks to add your name to the list for thank you notes, one of these days. The air smells sweet from all the flowers.
  • The huge extra step of food, in this day and age — especially in a situation like ours, where there isn’t a great big funeral with dozens of people coming back to the house bringing food. When we got home yesterday, about as bereft as people could be, a delivery man brought giant pans of lasagna, spaghetti with giant meat balls, rolls, salad, and dressing. All we had to do was open the containers and fill our plates. It was amazing, and a huge, huge blessing — especially to me. Taking care of everything in the background has of course fallen on my shoulders — the mom, the adult present — and trying to figure out meals for everyone all the time is its own stressor at this time. So just once, not having to do that, was like having a mom come by for me. And we have leftovers. One of Marnie’s friends sent giant pans of macaroni and cheese. I have to say, these gifts of food were wonderful and I’ll do the same for people in the future. The food deliveries were ordered by people living in Connecticut, and in Chicago, delivered to us here in Leander, TX. What a world, and what a gift.
  • Tiny tiny touches, just single-line notes “I’m thinking of you today.” I was stunned by how much those tiny touches helped me. I didn’t need to respond, nothing was asked of me, it was just a tiny reminder that I am in someone’s thoughts and prayers. And there were many of these each day, so it was just so warm. I’ll do this for others, too.

Here’s what does not help:

  • Forcing your particular beliefs on us, or telling us how we should be thinking about things. We are not religious, and we do not mind if you pray for us, but if you want to lecture us in any way about how you see things, what your framework is, what you think Grace is doing, why this happened, you simply make things worse. Since we don’t think that’s your intent, please know that it feels this way to us. Your thought is surely not “I’m going to force my beliefs on them” but rather (we assume) you are trying to help us. We have our own framework, and we are grappling with this in our way. Prayers are welcome, preaching is not.
  • Don’t tell us that there will be other children in the future. We know that (we hope for it, anyway). It does not comfort the loss of this beautiful child.
  • IF the exact same thing has happened to you (so, if you’re my friend and your daughter suffered a stillbirth; or if you’re a friend of my daughter and you have suffered a stillbirth), telling us that you understand can be helpful as long as you don’t take the opportunity to go all up into your own story. But if your niece had a miscarriage, or if you knew this guy once whose girlfriend had a child who died, please don’t tell us you know how we feel. I promise that you only know how we feel if the exact same thing has happened to you. And even then, maybe you don’t, just as we don’t know what you felt in the same circumstances. 

Marnie and Will are gone, now, back to their homes, and when Trey’s family returns to their home tomorrow, we’ll be down to the work of trying to figure out how to live, now. It’s cold here in Austin, and gray, and my spirits are low today.

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.