an intense attack of sorrow

getting set up. Paper taped on the hardwood floors, cardboard wedged in corners and under windows, and lots of plastic still to be draped over doors and windows. UGH.

Yesterday we spent the entire day painting the downstairs, and it was not at all fun. Zero fun. Poor Marc had spent the day before painting the ceiling, after taping and covering everything; we have pine trim around the doors and windows and we didn’t want to paint it, so not only did we have to tape around it, we then needed to drape plastic over all the window frames so paint wouldn’t drip on them. UGH. Not fun. And he did all the harder work, including doing all the ceilings by himself — all I was doing was rolling paint on the walls! Not one bit of fun. Not even a tiny moment, never. I felt nauseated and I just kept wanting to stop, but of course there was nothing to do but to keep painting. (I’m spending today painting the second coat. All by myself. Boo. Also, boring.)

We had music playing in the background, one of my various playlists (one that was short on disco, since Marc, a teenager in the 1960s, hates it) — that was somehow heavily slanted toward Van Morrison. I don’t even know much of his music, beyond Brown-Eyed Girl (I mean, who doesn’t know that song, right?) and one album called Back On Top. That album was released in March 1999, and that was a very hard time for me. The album has a melancholy tone, lots of songs about sorrow and loss, and it just slipped right into my groove, then. I think (and knowing me, this is right) I listened to it over and over and over. Probably nothing but this (again, knowing me).

So there we were, painting, and there I was, feeling blech, wishing the painting were over, but nothing more than that. If I had to label the general tone of my feelings it’d be irritated or something like that, but definitely not sorrowful. As the eclipse approached its fullest here in the Catskills, and the sky darkened a bit, this Van Morrison song came on: Everything I Do Reminds Me of You (not an exciting video, but you can hear the song).

I don’t know why but I became completely overwhelmed and had to lean over and just sob. Ugly crying, face uncontrollably contorted, no sound because the sobs were just too intense.

I miss you so much, I can’t stand it
Seems like my heart, is breaking in two
My head says no but my soul demands it
Everything I do, reminds me of you

I miss you so much, in this house full of shadows
While the rain keeps pouring down, my window too
When will the pain, recede to the darkness
From whence it has come, and I’m feeling so blue

Ain’t goin’ down, no more to the well
Sometimes it feels like, I’m going to hell
Sometimes I’m knocking, on your front door
But I don’t have nothing, to sell no more

I don’t even know who I was crying for/about. At times it felt like I was crying about Jerry, my first husband, the father of my three kids; ever since he apologized to me (such a rare event in my life that someone apologizes) I’ve felt tender towards him again, and he’s in poor health, and I just cried and wished with all my heart that we could be real friends again while there is time. And at times it felt like I was crying about Marc, who has a tendency to say things like, “Honey, after I’m dead maybe you’ll think about me when you walk on the stone path.” A few days ago I found myself feeling how impossible it would feel to go on without him if/when that time comes, how embedded he is in every single thing. I also feel so many other things as well, but those things are true, too.

And at times I felt like I was just sobbing about everyone lost, about all the suffering, about all the sorrow. It was completely overwhelming. Even though the playlist was on shuffle, it played three Van Morrison songs in a row and I just bawled through all three of them. Even writing this post has made me bawl.

Because, you know, loss and life, synonymous in that terrible way.

I have no doubt it was just a convergence of accidental coincidence, the darkened sky from the eclipse and that song coming on and in a time I’ve been thinking about so many things, including Jerry and Marc, but wow it was powerful. I was completely caught off guard by it, and hid myself because I couldn’t possibly have explained it to Marc. I can’t even really explain it to myself.

I’m glad I get swamped by things like that. I get swamped by joy, I get swamped by delight, I get swamped by wistfulness (my favorite feeling), I get swamped by sorrow. Lucky, lucky, lucky me — even when it’s sorrow. I’m very grateful for my complex inner life.

The forecast today: swamped by paint and irritation. Probability: 100%. 🙂

full disclosure

My last posts have focused on the biggest part of my life — the way it’s so happy right now, the way I am so happy right now, and the fact that my life has been peaceful for almost a year and I am eating it right up — and that’s all true.

And just like every other person in the world, my life is complex, filled with sometimes-contradictory experiences and feelings. As I have said before, my own happiness is characterized by a range of different feelings and memories and tendencies, including the ability to hold sadness.  Marnie once said that I feel all the emotions every day and think hard about what they mean, and I think she’s right. (But not all every day, because that would be exhausting.)

dancing with Will at Katie's wedding, a moment I didn't want intruded upon
dancing with Will at Katie’s wedding, a moment I didn’t want intruded upon

Even in the midst of my happiness, sometimes I wake up already crying and missing my son, and I just cry throughout the day. Sometimes it goes on like that for a few days. I’ll be cleaning the kitchen and tears are just seeping out of my eyes. My heart aches, my chest literally hurts. Sunday was one of those days, and when I was driving up to Katie’s house to stay with Oliver while the kids celebrated their anniversary, I found myself wondering how much longer I can bear this pain . . . and feeling like I surely can’t bear it for much longer. I very sadly have a couple of dear friends who are grappling with their kids’ absence from their lives. We talk about this a lot, because it’s a big comfort to share this pain with someone who understands. All my friends are compassionate and kind and loving when I talk about it, but these two friends get it because we’re all members of a club we never dreamed we’d join. A club no one would ever want to be in. (But how wonderful to have that darling little Oliver to spend time with — balm for an aching heart, to be sure.)

So I didn’t write about that when it was happening; I kept it close to myself and wrote about my happiness, which is also true. “Secret” #2 is that I’m drawing, and feeling a story pulling at me that I am nowhere near skilled enough to illustrate. I won’t be showing you any of it because it’s just for me.

And “secret” #3 is that I have a big and wonderful thing in the background (it’s about me, it’s not secret news of a daughter’s pregnancy or anything like that), and I won’t be sharing that until the time is right.

whose heart wouldn't be nurtured by Oliver?
whose heart wouldn’t be nurtured by Oliver?

Three little things to keep to myself, kind of, and this marks another shift in my life. I’ve never really understood privacy where my own self is concerned. I definitely understand others’ privacy, and find it easy to hold others’ secrets — or even just their ordinary stuff, because it’s theirs and not mine. I always wanted to say whatever was true for me, after a childhood of lies. It was almost a philosophical mission of mine, a militant mission, to get to be the one who says who I am and what I’m thinking and doing. Of course, I do write about my son and his absence and how much I miss him, so that’s not private in the same way as the other two things; I just ride those waves of sorrow when they come and don’t write about them every time. That’s not about hiding them and presenting a false story (“Look how happy I am!”), but rather a tender holding of something so personal, a desire to take care of myself as best I can, and it happens in the context of my greater happiness. So within my deeply happy day taking care of my sweet little grandson, and being available to my darling daughter so she had the ability to go out alone with her husband, within that I was also crying and nursing my slashed heart. (That picture of Oliver cracks me up; he’d just gotten up from a nap (nap hair!) and was watching that Disney movie Cars. The hair, the focus, the little hand on his hip….. )

As I told Marnie yesterday, shame is a big enough reason to keep my drawings private — I’m grinning, and wish I could put that word in a smaller sized font — but not too long ago I would’ve shown them and made great fun of myself: look at how badly I draw! I’m glad I don’t want to do that now.

And the big and wonderful thing in the background, oh I look forward to telling you about that one. I know you will be happy for me. I could tell, there’s nothing stopping me, no requirement that I keep it quiet, but I am relishing holding onto it and waiting until it’s ready to tell.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, and again, and again — for 56 more years, I hope — getting older is so magnificent. If you’re already magnificent at 30, that’s incredible and I’m so happy for you and can only close my eyes and try to imagine how amazing you’ll be in your 50s. Earlier this week my incredible friend Nancy and I were talking about aging, and I said, “There are two kinds of people — one kind who thinks there are two kinds of people……[joke]…..–one kind who becomes more and more certain the older they get, and another who becomes less and less certain.” I think that’s true, and I think becoming less certain about things allows new things to happen, new thoughts to emerge, and new ways of being to come forth. It’s not just about aching joints and failing memory; it’s about letting go of things that don’t fit any more. Maybe they never really did, and you just get old enough to finally notice.

Right on.

ecstasy, then laundry

laundryThe post title is a straight-on reference to the title of a book by Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.  I was thinking about this yesterday when I woke up, actually, and then as my challenging day unfolded it came front and center. I’ll start at the beginning.

I’ve been staying up too late the last several nights for a variety of reasons, and then sleeping a bit late each morning. It’s not my best rhythm, and when it’s combined with the incessantly gloomy skies we’ve had, it’s not my best head, either. So I woke up late and as I lay in bed doing my morning ritual, reflecting on what I wanted from the day ahead, I felt so flat, so uninspired. Even less than that. So I was thinking about this as a natural part of life: the exciting newness of a change is gone now, and the days are still the same kind of days. Of course. That’s one great thing about change at the beginning — at least the kind of change you seek out on purpose — it revitalizes you and disrupts the ordinariness. For a while, until it also becomes ordinary.

And while I am so very far from enlightenment, I do sit at the foothills of the trail that leads to the path that eventually takes you to the highway that ends up, eventually, at that bodhi tree. At least I have some new skills to help me deal with things. That’s enough.

So I finished my morning ritual, went into the kitchen to make my coffee — another very pleasurable ritual, that — and then turned on my computer, only to find that I had been pretty seriously hacked by someone in Germany. My browser was changed to, and I had been locked out of all my email accounts. While I was in the midst of dealing with all that, which brought its own traumatic memories of our being hacked so horribly in NYC, a friend called with a personal crisis that was just close enough to one I’d had in my life that it rattled my bones. Like a 10 on the Richter scale level of rattling. When I hung up the phone with her, my whole body was shaking and I couldn’t stop pacing in circles. Marc called and I talked to him and broke down crying, remembering my own situation from 2005.

When we hung up, I knew what I needed to do. I changed into my yoga clothes and hit the mat for a vinyasa flow class. I needed to find my way back to the present, back to now, and back to my own body and breath. At the beginning of class my mind wouldn’t stay with me, despite the fact that the class moved quickly and demanded a lot of me, required me to think carefully about positioning my body and breathing. By the end of the hour, as we moved into savasana, I still wasn’t there all the way. I lay there and my old experience was in me so deeply that tears ran down both sides of my face, just missing my ears, in a steady stream. I tried to relax into the earth and just be, and my mind was not still. Then the teacher told a story I’d never heard, about the origin of the pose:

shivashaktiWhen Shiva first saw Shakti, he was so completely struck by her beauty that he fell backwards and lost all desire for anything but that moment. She walked towards him and danced on his stomach, and he had no awareness beyond the moment.

I can’t find that story online anywhere, but it’s so lovely, and it helped me in my roiling moment. I felt Shakti dancing on my own stomach, I felt the ground under my shoulders, and head, and bottom, legs, feet, hands. I felt my breath raising and lowering my chest, and my face and jaw relaxed. It was better.

But it wasn’t behind me all the way, and my shower didn’t move it, breathing didn’t relax it, just feeling the feelings didn’t relieve me into the present moment, a pizza and craft beer at my favorite place in Austin didn’t wash it away. I came home, did the laundry, opened my computer, worked, and lived another day of my life.

022515And that’s what it is. Life is sometimes like that. Inner experiences can whammy you, sucker punch you, just when you least expect them. Spiritual efforts like mindfulness, yoga, meditation, (pizza and beer…..consumed mindfully!) don’t magically wipe everything away. They aren’t magic wands, they don’t eliminate difficulty. But they do help, and they do give me a way to approach difficulty so that I might get something from it instead of just being tormented by it — a seed of wisdom, a connection to the suffering of others, a deeper awareness of my own experience, a more peaceful body. An ability to hold it and know I can hold it, and still engage the world with openness and kindness.

And that’s pretty good.

a healthy mess

It’s been a tough week for a lot of people I know, including me. I was going along more than fine, happy in my quotidian way (like you do), working too much yes, but quietly very happy. Solid. And then the suicide and the attendant crush of news and reports and incredibly horrible things said by some idiots, and stupid things said by people who perhaps just didn’t understand what suicidal depression really is, truly sorrowful and brief memorials by people who knew and loved/admired him, and of course the loss itself. Because Robin Williams was such a huge personality, the news reports seemed to try to equal him. I think it was hard for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, and you already know that and how it was a little hard for me. But you know, I was OK. Sad, thoughtful, sorrowful for his pain and for the kind of pain that brings so very many people to that point, but OK.

tommyThe next night I went to see a performance of The Who’s Tommy, that glam rock opera from the mid-70s. I did not know the storyline at all, just knew some of the songs. Pinball Wizard, See Me Feel Me. My beautiful friends who invited me to see it with them were excited; Karyn is an artist and had seen the costumes behind the scenes and was dazzled by them, by the artistry and color and design of the sets. All I knew was that Tommy was a deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure played a mean pinball—not sure I even knew that it had a storyline, much less what it was. I took myself to a beautiful dinner before we met, bought some books of poetry, and met my friends. We sat in the beautiful bar above the theater and talked in the early evening setting sun, caught up with each other, laughed. The music in the theater before the curtain went up was Elton John. Elton John, the soundtrack of my young life. I was happy and looking forward to it.

donttellBut I’ll tell you why little Tommy was deaf, dumb and blind. He had witnessed something terrible and his parents told him not to tell. Don’t tell what you know, you mustn’t tell the truth. And what he’d seen was so terrible. That started cracking me; telling children that they didn’t see what they saw, or that they have to keep something terrible a secret, those are mindfucks of a royal degree. I have my own experience with that and started crying. People should NOT do that to children. But a few scenes later, Tommy is molested by his uncle. And a few scenes after that, an aggressively sexual woman wants to take him with her, and she’ll return him as “not a man but no longer a child.” Before the molestation scene I took off my glasses, put my head down with my hair over my face, and tried not to make sounds as I cried. The tears were flying out of my eyes faster than I could wipe them away. I felt like vomiting, and was really afraid that I would. My stomach felt full of boiling acid, splashing up into my mouth.

You know, you watch television and movies where this kind of thing happens all the time. I’d bet that a substantial proportion of our entertainment consists of women being abused, raped or killed, and/or children being abused in any variety of ways. There’s a kind of distance with those media, and of course I get up and leave the room, or turn my head, hold my breath, it’s ok. It doesn’t tear me up, I’m used to that being a staple of our culture’s entertainment. But something about that actual boy there, a few yards from me, an actual child, kind of reminding me of my son at that age, and he sat there on the stage rocking rocking rocking rocking back and forth, as I have done many times in my young childhood, numb and dumb, and I could not take it. I had to leave at intermission, and it was all I could do to wait that long.

I was humiliated, though Karyn and Mike were as tender with me about it as you could hope, their arms around me and loving concern on their faces. But was embarrassed to be such a mess. All the others in the theater were laughing and dancing and applauding, and I was sobbing and doing all I could to hold myself together. Trying not to vomit. I got to my car and sobbed and sobbed for a good 10 minutes. Called my husband and just said it all to him, sobbing and sobbing. Finally exhausted it enough to drive home. It wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about my experiences. That’s not why I was so entirely devastated, though I did identify with him. But this happens to children. This happens to children all the time. All the time. Everywhere. And I just lost my ability to tolerate knowing that. Even though it was theater, OBVIOUSLY, it was a real boy on the stage, rocking rocking rocking. I just could not tolerate the knowledge that it was happening to children somewhere while I sat there in my car. Children sold. Children used. Not women or men, but no longer children. Soul murdered.

All night I had the same nightmare, over and over and over, I was in a house with a young boy and a terrifying man was there trying to kill us. He said he had set a bomb and I grabbed the boy and ran out the door, flying down the stairs, and I’d left other children in that house with him. Every time I woke up crying out, “Help me, help me!” And when I went back to sleep, I went right back into that terrible dream, never saving anyone.

I woke up and felt like I had a hangover. Could not really work all day. Had a wonderful visit with beautiful Nancy, my darling neighbor, and spent our time together crying and monopolizing the conversation. Karyn and Mike came to see me, they had been so worried about me after I left the theater. After that time with those three people I adore, I felt like the well was somewhat exhausted, but I still felt numb and drained. Happy hour with a new but familiar-feeling friend, lots of connection and joy, and I drove home with a smile.

When I was driving to meet my darling friend for a drink, I was thinking, “What a mess I am.” I’d thought that when I was so upset while monopolizing the conversation with Nancy. “What a mess I am.” I am, and I am not. I’m tenderhearted, I’m open, I’m connected perhaps too easily to suffering, there are too many terrible things I can understand for personal reasons. After my 55 years of being here, like most people I’m intimately familiar with all kinds of terrible ways of this often-hard world. But usually I don’t get so knocked back, so wrenched open, so unable to stop crying. What a mess. I did feel like a mess, unable to get myself under enough control to stay in the theater, and unable to enjoy a back-and-forth with Nancy, instead seeking her care for my own pain. But I don’t really think I’m a mess. Not really.

As my friend and I were saying over drinks, it’s an “and” world. And so I am a mess AND I am very very strong. Perhaps you might call this rationalization (and perhaps it is), but being able to be open to and bear the pain of one’s own and others’ suffering is strong. It requires strength, at least. I am not crumbled, fractured, broken, unable to go on. It was a painful few days, a reminder of the suffering that so many people live with, and that kind of broke my heart. I have one of those magic hearts, apparently, that breaks pretty easily and reassembles itself pretty well.

the oldest swimming pool in Texas, Deep Eddy. I've been swimming there for FIFTY YEARS oh my god.
the oldest swimming pool in Texas, Deep Eddy. I’ve been swimming there for FIFTY YEARS oh my god.

Swimming this morning, and working the rest of the day. That’ll help too. Sunshine on my startlingly white legs, bravura in my bathing suit out in the bright light, cool water all over my body and on my face, drying in the sun, and maybe even eating an ice cream sandwich, if they still sell them there. It’s Friday y’all. It’s been a hard week. Be very very good to each other. xoxo

the last of those anniversaries

There was a 17-day period last year that was the worst of my whole life, and I cannot imagine such a thing will ever happen to me again. Nearly my whole life crumbled under my feet, and very little was the same at the end of it; mercifully — an enormous mercy — I still had my precious children and I was still alive, but everything else was gone. My granddaughter. My daughter’s desperate longing to be a mother. My marriage. Where and how I lived. My dreams. Poof.

this was me then, a year ago yesterday. makes me cry to see all the sorrow in my exhausted face.
this was me then, a year ago yesterday. makes me cry to see all the sorrow in my exhausted face.

One year ago yesterday I boarded an airplane with three giant suitcases filled with clothes. I didn’t have a key to anything or any place. I flew away from New York, believing I’d never live there again. I left friends, hoping to stay in touch. I left a small number of books, planning to return to pack and ship them. And that’s it. Me plus clothing in bags. Been there before, never thought I’d be there again. (But I survived.)

One enormous loss was the belief that finally I’d never have to move again. I’d lived at the same address for six years, longer than I had ever lived at one address my whole life. Three times as long as I’d ever lived at one address, actually. My 80th move took me there, and I believed — finally, I believed — that I wouldn’t ever move again until I was dead. I fought my way to that belief, resisting allowing myself to believe it out of fear, fearing that becoming comfortable about that would make the pain unendurable if I lost it. But finally I did come to believe it. And the pain was in fact almost unendurable when I lost it. (But I survived.)

One year ago yesterday he drove me to the airport and spoke sharply to me on the way, making me cry even harder. He helped me get my three enormous bags into the airport and then turned and walked away, and I stood there in shock. (But I survived.) Here’s what I said about it last year:

Yesterday was machine gun fire, a giant rollercoaster, take your pick of metaphor. After getting an hour’s sleep, we left for the airport and wrestled my three giant suitcases to the airline check-in desk. Southwest Airlines agents are perky and seem to assume that everyone they encounter is a  happy person, going to a happy place (!) oh-so-happy! She kept apologizing for having to charge me for a third bag, and was insistently pressing on me about the trip while in my head I was screaming, I’m moving, these are all my clothes. This is my husband — we are leaving each other, I am moving, please stop. I sat alone at the gate for a very long time, stunned and blank.

Remembering all this brings the terrible pain back into my chest, the blankness back into my mind, the tears back into my eyes. Waiting for me in Austin was my beautiful and devastated daughter Katie, reeling and blank from her daughter’s funeral just a couple of weeks earlier. My solid and loving son-in-law Trey, reeling too. And they opened their arms, their home to me. They absorbed me with love, put their aching arms around me. There was so much to do — I didn’t have a fork, even. I landed at the airport around 1pm on a Saturday, and by 3pm that same day I’d rented my place and bought a couch. The next Monday Katie and I drove to San Antonio to pick up the car I’d bought.

Somehow, Katie and I bought all the things I’d need to make myself a home. Somehow she found it in herself to press me not to shortchange myself and just get junk, knowing it would eventually make me feel terrible to be surrounded by plastic, temporary things when I felt so temporary myself. Somehow she and Trey helped me make the transition two weeks after I arrived, leaving me to grieve alone in my new home, and leaving them to return to their own lives alone together to continue their grief. (And we all survived.)

A year ago yesterday I stood on scorched earth, a place I’d stood many times, a place I feared ever standing again, a place I believed I could never endure standing again. A year ago yesterday I and my life were saturated by loss and devastation. (But I survived.)

A year ago yesterday, one of those extraordinary serendipitous moments happened to me, as they frequently do. On the flight to Austin, I turned a page in the book I was reading and came upon this poem, the most perfect thing I ever could have read:

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

The poem gave me strength and courage, as did knowing that Katie and Trey were waiting for me, and boy the poem was the truest thing ever. I was not done with my changes; I will not be, until I draw my last breath. I had so much pain waiting for me, when I thought I’d already endured more than I could. I had so much heartbreak waiting, when I thought my heart was already shattered completely. I had so much growth ahead of me, when I thought the root was dead, finally, killed by too much suffering at the end of a life of too much suffering.

What I didn’t know, a year ago yesterday, was everything. I didn’t know the pain still to come (so glad for that); I didn’t know the harshness January and February would bring me (so glad for that); I didn’t know I’d find such beautiful things in myself, I didn’t know how strong I am even though I thought I did; I didn’t know my life would become better than it has ever been, filled with so many people who would just open their arms to me and take me in. I didn’t know I’d build a home for myself. I didn’t know I’d be surrounded by people. I didn’t know I’d thrive. And I certainly didn’t know I’d find my way back in New York City regularly, I certainly didn’t know I’d find some way to stay connected to my husband, I certainly didn’t know (and in fact would’ve bet everything against it) that he would change so much, so deeply, and in the ways I most needed. I assume I’ve made similar changes. I didn’t know I would in fact get to travel — didn’t know I’d go to Java and Bali, didn’t know Sri Lanka would be in my future, a year ago. I didn’t know that from my place of such tremendous want, I’d end up with such enormous surplus.

Just goes to show you. It ain’t over til it’s over, no matter how it looks in the dark. Katie, Trey, thank you for the ways you gave ME a home and a safety net, and all your love. Marnie, Tom, thank you for your optimism and support, assuring me I would be better than I dreamed. All that isn’t limited to a year ago yesterday, of course — it came before and it continues after that anniversary, but when I was at my greatest need, you held me. For such an unlucky person I am the luckiest person in the whole world.

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

the motherless we

Last night I saw Neko Case perform at Austin City Limits. I first fell in love with her when I heard I Wish I Was the Moon, which I played over and over when Marc and I were falling in love, so it also has those emotional connections for me. It’s a gorgeous song even without all that.

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Something about her music has always resonated for me — her style, her powerful but so sweet voice, her lyrics.  In promoting her new album (“The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You”), she did an interview in which she talked about a deep depression she just came through after the loss of both her parents and other people in her family. In the course of the interview she said that she was very close to her grandmother but she didn’t like her parents. Something about the way she said that, the absolute finality of it, struck me. She said she’d been an orphan her whole life and that’s when I knew why I recognized her. I wrote a short story once that included a sentence that said, essentially, my parents gave me up but kept me with them. My own long, roundabout way of saying that I was an orphan (although I think actually being an orphan might’ve been much better).

There are so many ways to be an orphan, and it’s a mistake to compare suffering, it can’t be done. But if your mother dies and you are an orphan, it’s simply different from if your mother hates you from birth. Having your mother hate you from birth is different from having your mother give you up for adoption; in some way, there is love there—a mother who gives up her child is probably hoping someone can give her child what she is unable to give for whatever reason. It still probably feels like an abandonment to the child, and that’s surely awful. But there are plenty of kids born to mothers who simply hate them. I was. 

There’s something about those of us whose mothers hated us from birth, and always hated us thereafter. There’s a certain wariness to us, a certain kind of unfillable hole. But it’s so big, the hole is almost more than what’s left around it. As poet Matt Rasmussen said in his beautiful poem After Suicide, “a hole is nothing but what remains around it. While I was watching Neko Case perform, another motherless woman, I was thinking about what it means to be hated from birth, when the one who gives birth to you hates your very existence, when you are a curse, a ruination of her life. You have ruined the life of the one who gave you life, so what does that mean for you? There are so many ways to feel worthless, but being hated by your mother is so very deep and old it’s just invisible. You don’t feel worthless, you are worthless. For some of us, it’s not theoretical, it’s not a conjecture, it’s not a temporary state or a phase you pass through during adolescence. For some of us, it just is.

Of all the various family members I’ve adopted over the course of my adult life, I have never found a mother. My first mother-in-law Ruth was very good to me — very good — and she loved me and I loved her. But whether it was something in her or something in me, she never felt like my own mother. I am forever grateful for how good she was to me, and for the love she gave me, but she wasn’t my mother.

I have no idea what a mother’s love feels like. No idea. I try to imagine the inverse with my kids; I know how terribly much I love them, how my own life is a kind of tent over all of them, encompassing them, giving my life all its meaning. I hope they feel how very much they’re loved, and I believe they do, but I can’t figure out how it feels to have that. I’ve had adopted fathers and felt like they were fathers to me, but it doesn’t cross-filter into letting me know what a mother’s love feels like. It’s so funny how absolute it is; I can do things to give me the vaguest sense of what it might feel like to be in space, for god’s sake. I can get into deep tanks, I could go to Space Camp in Huntsville and do some kind of simulation thing to really help me know what it might feel like to be in space. Outer space, since I’m an old-timer. But I do not know what it feels like to be loved by a mother.

Luckily, though, I have my children. Some motherless children do not have their own children, and I can’t imagine what that feels like. The space reference makes sense to me here, because there is surely nothing holding that woman down, nothing anchoring her. I don’t have a tether holding me from my back to behind me, but I do have one holding me from my front outwards, to my children. Those connections give me my real life.

So many of the songs in the concert last night had lyrics that got at the motherlessness. There were lines about mother and poison, about needing but there being no mother’s hands. She didn’t perform this song last night, and I’ve posted it here before, but this song could only have been written by a motherless person.

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Lyrics here. It’s a part of that song — no one will believe you, you won’t believe it, but it really happened.  Of all the difficulties I suffered through, being a motherless child is the pain that lingers after all these years, the gaping hole around which I exist. If you have a mother, even a difficult one, I don’t think you can begin to comprehend, just as I can’t comprehend what it’s like to have one.

Ah, such a sad subject, one that is always with me.  Even when I am happy, I can touch that hole so very easily. I’ve talked in my blog before about my tribes (with two follow-up tribe posts), and most of those are tribes I claim with pride or identity. But the tribe of the motherless is a heavy-hearted tribe, a sad and empty tribe, and we cannot provide each other comfort or understanding, because being motherless is a singular experience. We’ve taken too much into ourselves, we’ve turned inward too much. It’s too personal.

I hope you have/had a mother, and I hope you felt her love. If you didn’t, like me, I hope you have children. But if you didn’t have a mother and you don’t have children, I hope you can transform that sorrow into art like Neko Case does, so brilliantly. Here’s a link to her new album on Amazon, $11.75, and here it is on iTunes, $10.99. There’s not a bum song on the whole album. Click this link to hear the rocking rocking song I’m a Man, on YouTube. As I write this a couple of hours after the concert, I think the song is still making my blood vibrate.