For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

– W. S. Merwin

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The Layers

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.

– Stanley Kunitz

Lucky

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no.

Into the big enamel tub
half-filled with water
which I had made just right,
I lowered the childish skeleton
she had become.

Her eyelids fluttered as I soaped and rinsed
her belly and her chest,
the sorry ruin of her flanks
and the frayed gray cloud
between her legs.

Some nights, sitting by her bed
book open in my lap
while I listened to the air
move thickly in and out of her dark lungs,
my mind filled up with praise
as lush as music,

amazed at the symmetry and luck
that would offer me the chance to pay
my heavy debt of punishment and love
with love and punishment.

And once I held her dripping wet
in the uncomfortable air
between the wheelchair and the tub,
until she begged me like a child

to stop,
an act of cruelty which we both understood
was the ancient irresistible rejoicing
of power over weakness.

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to raise the spoon
of pristine, frosty ice cream
to the trusting creature mouth
of your old enemy

because the tastebuds at least are not broken
because there is a bond between you
and sweet is sweet in any language.

– Tony Hoagland

Heartbroken? 6 Ways to Pull Yourself Back Up

Illustration by Rebecca Clarke

Possibly the best grief/loss/breakup advice ever, given by poet, heart guide, compass Sharon Olds. From Oprah.com

Married for 30 years and the mother of two children, Sharon Olds was suddenly informed by her husband that he was leaving her for another woman. This fall, in her astonishing book of poems Stag’s Leap, she describes her experience—from the grief and betrayal to her life-expanding discovery of her own freedom. Here she reveals some of the small, tangible things you can do that helped her though the loneliest times—then and now.

1. Tell People
In the city and in our summer community, there were several groups of families my husband and I had been close to for many years. I felt guilty about the pain they were going to feel for us (me) when I told them about the divorce, as if we were harming the community. At the same time, I knew they needed to know. So I crept from apartment to apartment, then from house to house, like a Typhoid Mary—a Divorce Shary.

After I delivered the news each time, our friends immediately looked terrible—wide eyes, altered color. Their shocked reactions, though, helped. I was over the illusion that if I remained quiet and polite maybe events could reverse themselves, but I was also still in denial. Visiting these close friends, telling them the truth, acknowledged that some kind of death had happened, the end of a marriage. It moved me forward, and the empathy that people showed me reminded that I was still loved.

2. Carry a Power Hankie
I’ve always had weakness for certain kinds of handkerchiefs—not lace ones, hankies with pictures. My favorite is my California (the Golden State) hankie with a map with illustrations and lot of golden poppies. And I have heaps of others, too, some of which I’ve made myself.

As a child, I saw hankies as tokens of womanly power, emotion and beauty. Mothers carried them, and grown-up older ladies who also wore stockings and gloves. Hankies seemed to imply good luck, too, and maybe magic. What might a magician draw out from under a hankie? Easter eggs? Babies?

I still think of them that way—as tokens of power. During the divorce, I made sure to carry a few with me in my purse. Even now, I rely on them. When I’m teaching at New York University, I spend three nights a week in the apartment I have lived in for 40 years. The rest of the time I spend in New Hampshire. On gray, gloomy days, while I’m doing the commute on the train, I’ll pause a moment and pull out of my purse a dark gold and scarlet and cerise and indigo and green hankie!

3. Write What You Really Think
I think that whenever we give our pen some free will, we may surprise ourselves. All that wanting to seem normal in regular life, all that fitting in falls away in the face of one’s own strange self on the page. From the day my husband told me he was leaving, I was writing—a lot. I wanted to make something of my altered life, to break into song, to cry out on paper. Reminding myself that no one else would ever see what I wrote—with my ballpoint pen in my wide-ruled spiral notebook—helped me be less censored and less afraid. Later, I could decide to show or not, because whether anyone ever read it was not the most important thing.

Writing or making anything—a poem, a bird feeder, a chocolate cake—has self-respect in it. You’re working. You’re trying. You’re not lying down on the ground, having given up. And one thing I love about writing is that we can speak to the absent, the dead, the estranged and the longed-for—all the people we’re separated from. We can see them again, understand them more, even say goodbye.

4. Find a New Familiar
Before the divorce, I lived in New York. Now I commute to New Hampshire, and I have noticed myself, in an almost painless OCD way, looking for a few favorite sights along the way: the golden statue (Nike?) on a tall pole in the Bronx; an old broken-down footbridge in a field in sight of the Atlantic shore; a long narrow boardwalk, in three parts, from a house on a hill to a little pier.

The familiarity of these places makes me feel as if the whole Northeast corridor of tracks is my home. They comfort me. They make me feel welcomed. I even have names for some of them: What I call the “Old Spool Factory,” an old big stone building with round windows, and what I call “the Weir,” a place where high water broke through a dam near an old mill a couple of years ago. The train goes by very fast—swoosh!—golden and brown foam!

5. Hold Your Own, Even if You Have to Hold onto a Chair
Slowly, over the years, my feelings of being torn apart by the end of my marriage quieted down. But once single, I realized I was still a fairly dependent person. I was not always really standing on my own feet. I was still afraid of people, and—except when I was writing —not self-confident. When I met with other professors at work, and they expressed opinions that I disagreed with, I would say, “That’s interesting.” Or “I see what you mean,” instead of directly debating them.

So I pushed myself. The first time I said, “I disagree with you,” to a colleague, I had to hold onto the back of a chair, my knees were shaking so. But I did it. Being more assertive made me feel as if I might be able hold my own in a new relationship—or gave me the hope that I’d be able to.

6. Claim Your 50 Percent
This one took a long time. What helped pull me back up from the devastation of the loss—the shock and horror of suddenly not seeing my husband or living with him anymore—was to see my part in the long success and eventual failure of the marriage. We’d had a lot of good years; then our lives slowly changed, our characters changed, and we were not so well suited to each other anymore. He just realized it long before me. As I began to be able to see some of what happened (not all) from his point of view—his wish to be with someone more like himself, someone not a writer—then I didn’t feel like a victim but more like an equal. As one of the poems in Stag’s Leap says:

50/50 we made the marriage
50/50 its demise

Seeing yourself as responsible for the quality of your relationships, as a prime mover in your life, I think is a bold, amazing step. How freeing, to know we too can act, and that our own choices have helped bring about the joy as well as sorrow in our own lives.

Material Ode 

O tulle, O taffeta, O grosgrain—
I call upon you now, girls,
of fabrics and the woman I sing. My husband
had said he was probably going to leave me—not for sure, but
likely, maybe—and no, it did not
have to do with her. O satin, O
sateen, O velvet, O fucking velveeta—
the day of the doctors’ dress-up dance,
the annual folderol, the lace,
the net, he said it would be hard for her
to see me there, dancing with him,
would I mind not going. And since I’d been
for thirty years enarming him,
I enarmed him further—Arma, Virumque,
sackcloth, ashen embroidery! As he
put on his tux, I saw his slight
smirk into the mirror, as he did his bow tie,
but after thirty years, you have some
affection for each other’s little faults,
and it suited me to cherish the belief
no meanness could happen between us. Fifty-
Fifty we had made the marriage,
Fifty-fifty its demise. And when he came
home and shed his skin, Reader,
I slept with him, thinking it meant
he was back, his body was speaking for him,
and as it spoke, its familiar sang
from the floor, the old-boy tie. O silk,
O slub, O cocoon stolen. It is something
our species does, isn’t it,
we take what we can. Or else there’d be grubs
who kept people, in rooms, to produce
placentas for the larvaes’ use, there would be
a cow who would draw from our womb our unborn
offspring, to make of them shoes for a calf.
O bunny-pajamas of children! Love
where loved. O babies’ flannel sleeper
with a slice of cherry pie on it.
Love only where loved! O newborn suit
with a smiling worm over the heart, it is
forbidden to love where we are not loved.

-Sharon Olds

The Pull

As the flu goes on, I get thinner and thinner,
all winter, till my weight dips
to my college weight, and then drops below it,
drifts down through high school, and then
down into junior high,
down through the first blood,
heading for my childhood weight,
birth weight, conception. When I see myself naked
in the mirror, I see I’m flirting with my father,
his cadaver the only body this thin
I have seen–I am walking around like his corpse
risen up and moving again, we
laugh about it a lot, my dead
dad and I. I do love being like him,
feeling my big joints slide
under the loose skin. My friends don’t
think it’s funny, this cakewalk
of the skeletons, and I can’t explain it–
I wanted to lie down with him,
on the couch where he lay unconscious at night
and there on the deathbed, let myself down
beside him, and then, with my will, lift us both
up. Or maybe just lie with him and never get up. Now that his dense
bones are in the ground, I am bringing
my body down. I’m not sure
how he felt about my life. Only twice
did he urge me to live–when the loop of his seed
roped me and drew me over into matter;
and once when I had the flu and he brought me
ten tiny Pyrex bowls with
ten leftovers down in the bottoms.
But when, in the last weeks of his life,
he let me feed him–slip the spoon of
heavy cream into his mouth
and pull it out through his closed lips, I
felt the suction of his tongue, his palate, his
head, his body, his death pulling at my hand.

– Sharon Olds

 

I’m reading a lot of poetry about death and grief as I write a training for vigil volunteers in hospice. I don’t know how to teach these feeling and experiences without poetry–the music, the pointer, the closest thing to truth.

“A Gift”

Who is that creature
and who does he want?
Me, I trust. I do not
attempt to call out his
name for fear he will
tread on me. What do
you believe, he asks.

That we all want to be
alone, I reply, except when
we do not; that the world
was open to my sorrow
and ate most of it; that
today is a gift and I am
ready to receive you.

– Kathryn Starbuck

“Trout”

I do my best
to keep pointlessness
at bay. But here,
wet above my
knees, I let it fly.
Here, hot and cold,
fingers thick with
thinking, I try to
tie the fly and look
for the net, loosening
the philosophical
knot of why I came
here today, not yet
knowing whether
I’ll free or fry
the rainbows
and browns once
they’re mine.

– Kathryn Starbuck