October is nearly spent and what do I have to show for it? Not much that I can point to, that I can hold up and say: Here, this is what I have been doing. This is what I made of these days of colorful leaves and cool winds and squirrels burying nuts in the garden, these mornings of wet pavement and afternoons of weak, beloved sun.
Aren’t we all just holding our breath, wondering when we can exhale?
I wake in the night, every night, sometimes sucking air, sometimes with limbs clenched, always the remnants of struggle dreams floating away from me. Always needing to pee, and then calculating if I can tend that basic bodily need without waking the dogs. If it’s early enough that I know they won’t stir and start barking, I stumble across the hall, not as stiff and unsteady on my feet as old Rocky–but I see how things are starting to go. When I return to bed, I wait for the flash of heat to roll through my body, and then I breathe the way the personal trainer taught me: inhale through my back (1, 2, 3, 4) and exhale through my diaphragm, ribs shifting down and back (4, 3, 2, 1). Sometimes it works, and sometimes I pull up a Times crossword on my iPad and hope it will lull my brain, not unlike the way desperate parents will drive a crying baby around dark streets, hoping the car’s quiet rhythms will soothe it back to sleep.
In a moment of optimism last week I bought two skeins of chunky yarn and cast stitches onto fat needles. I’m not making anything in particular. Maybe a pillow cover. It’s not about the product. It’s about breathing, and movements like breath: in, up, around, down, over, in, up, around, down, over. It’s a thing to occupy my hands and mind at the end of the day while giving the dogs some time on my lap and watching TV that doesn’t require much focus.
I haven’t mailed any postcards, made any phone calls, sent pizza to those standing in long lines for hours waiting to vote. I haven’t even filled out my own ballot yet. (But I will. I always do.) I give my extra resources to work, to procuring and setting up and pushing out materials that might help children who might, in some future I may or may not be part of, make good choices when they sit at kitchen tables and fill in small circles, or stand in long lines, or in some other way participate in something that is or resembles a democracy. Lately, every day feels like one long breath: Swinging my legs over the edge of the bed is the start of a long inhale; my morning routines–feed the dogs, drink tea, shower, dress, read–are how I fill the lungs of it; and then the rest of the hours are a long, slow exhale (4, 3, 2, 1). By the time I pick up the needles, there’s little oxygen left to expel.
Sometimes this breathing feels like a kind of faith. Most days, it feels like it takes all I’ve got to keep that inhale/exhale going. Some days, lately, it’s taken more than I’ve got. (Hello migraine, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again…)
When I focus on breathing in the middle of the night, I can sometimes catch the moment sleep starts to sneak in. The colors behind my eyelids shift, fracture, turn kaleidoscopic. I try not to notice. Too much attention sends it running and there I am again, hamster-wheeling in the dark, wondering if I should turn on the light to read or fill in tiny boxes with letters, or if I should try the breathing again. (1, 2, 3, 4) If the breathing works, I won’t really know until I wake that it’s worked. (4, 3, 2, 1) I can only be aware of success after the fact.
Isn’t that so often the case?
Some days I wonder if the breath of my days has put me into some kind of sleep, if I’m just dreaming my way through this month, this season, this year. (This life? Could that be true?) I wonder if the steady rhythm of these days is lulling me into something without me even really knowing it, like all the babies in the backs of cars whose cries finally stop.
But what can you do? As we’ve been told, it is what it is, and we have to keep things moving.
This weekend I’ll pick up a load of firewood and stack it behind the garage. I’ll take down what’s left of the tomato plants, gather up the onions still nestled in the bed, tuck garlic starts in to the soil. I’ll soothe Rocky when he needs soothing (more and more now), and cook a pot of some kind of soup. We’ll watch a bad movie or two, and think about starting a puzzle (that we probably won’t start). I’ll clean toilets and fold laundry and wipe down the kitchen cabinets, as I do every weekend. I’ll try to catch up on work (or I won’t.) And, if it is all just a dream, I guess I’ll be glad it’s not one in which I need to take a final for a class I never attended, or am somehow living again with people I thought I’d broken free of, or am running through air that sucks at my legs like quicksand as I’m trying to flee something that wants to hurt me.
Over a three month period in 1981, when I was seventeen, I attended three funerals on my mother’s side of the family. This was my introduction to grief.
We didn’t talk about grief. There were tears at the funerals, but not many before them and none that I can remember after. Communal tears, that is. One of the funerals was for my beloved grandpa, and I cried for months over that loss, but always privately.
Maybe it was my family’s ways, or maybe it was the time; Kubler-Ross’s Death and Dying had been published only 12 years earlier, and I think we didn’t have the same understanding then that we do now about grief. More and more, I understand that seminal events in my life happened a significant amount of time ago–long enough to be part of an earlier era, an time qualitatively different from the one we’re all now in. Living with a young adult will do that to you.
On the morning my daughter leaves for her new life on a different continent, I see a garbage bag on the floor of her room, next to items that look like they could be trash. “Oh,” I say, “is that stuff to throw out?”
“No,” she says. “Those are my protest supplies.” And then I really see the items: gloves, safety goggles, duct tape, a water bottle. When I was 22, I didn’t know what to do in the event of getting tear-gassed, but she does. I attended my first protest at 25, and it felt more like a parade than a meaningful political action; I wondered what the point was. Times have changed.
I also didn’t really know how to grieve, despite my three funerals at seventeen. Maybe that is why, this past year, I have been grieving all the losses from that year until now. Deaths, but also other kinds of loss, too. Loss of geography, loss of dreams, loss of beauty and agility, loss of relationships and hopes and beliefs and faith. Loss of ways of living. Living through late middle age in the midst of myriad forms of breakdown will do that to you.
I have been crying for weeks, tears coming over everything and nothing, beyond my ability to control. As a child, I could always control my tears, and I almost never let anyone see me cry. I didn’t cry often, and I took some pride in that. I remember being both mystified and somewhat scornful at my mother’s softness, so near the surface that she cried at such things as the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I remember looking over at her when the fictional news team huddled together and sobbed, only to see tears rolling down her face. I poked fun at her for that. “But it’s so sad!” she said.
Yesterday, after writing the previous paragraph, I watched that episode again, and, like my mother before me, I cried. At twelve, I’d had no context for the loss landing on Mary, Lou, and Murray. Now, I do.
Even at seventeen, I didn’t really understand what I was losing, what had been lost, though I sensed something of it. The day after the fourth funeral, I sat in my English class and listened to my teacher talk about asteroids that could hit the earth and end all of life as we know it.
“If that’s the case,” I said, “what does anything that we do matter?” I felt so weary, so numb. Even my resilient family had struggled to get through a third funeral, and I couldn’t stop seeing the faces of my cousins who had lost their 40something dad to a heart attack.
The teacher made a comment about me being a fatalist and shifted the discussion. I don’t remember how or what he talked about next because I started to shake, and then I couldn’t stop, and then tears started, and I was mortified and frozen and didn’t know what to do or how to get out of the unthinkable situation I was in.
“Can you take her somewhere?” I heard him ask my best friend, and she led me to the hallway and we sat there for the rest of class, until my body slowly calmed, until the bell rang and I could return and get my books without having to have everyone stare at me. I wiped my eyes before retrieving them, and then I went to my next class. None of us–my friend, my teacher, any of my classmates, or me–ever talked about what happened.
On my daughter’s last morning at home, we talk about what love is, what it means to love someone. It’s a topic we’ve visited more than once since she came back to me in May. I have tried to explain, and to understand myself, why I love the people I do, and what love means to me, and why I want them in my life, close to me–even if we have differences, even if they have at times hurt me. Not so long ago, confronting my history with romantic love, I wondered in a therapist’s office if I might be incapable of love, if I even know what love is.
“Are there people in your life that you will always care for, no matter what they do?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, of course,” I answered, without hesitation, a list of those people filling my head. “Then you know how to love,” he said. “You know what it is.”
From the moment I picked my daughter up at the airport in May, I knew that whatever we were going to have in our time together would be impermanent. The plan was never for her to stay. In my social media feeds I see friends with young adult children who have not moved away. They live nearby, and their parents regularly post photos with their children and grandchildren doing all the kinds of mundane things I long to do with my children in the day-to-day of life: Attending games and performances, picking out pumpkins, eating dinners, celebrating birthdays. I am so envious of these friends, who have what I, because of my own choices, haven’t had with my parents, and what I am now not likely to get with my daughter, because of hers.
I know all about the relationship between suffering and attachment. Maybe in my next life I will learn how to love without attachment, but I don’t know if I can in this one. I don’t know if I really want to.
There were so many gifts in these months we got, this unexpected time. Perhaps the biggest one was an opportunity to learn again, more deeply, that everything is impermanent. When I cried at the thought of her impending departure–which I did, frequently, almost from the time she arrived–I wasn’t mourning just the loss of the alternate life I dream of in which we live closer together, but also of all the lives we’ve already had and no longer do. I have grieved over not just an anticipated loss of the young woman she is, but also the earlier passing of all the girls she once was: the baby who laughed with delight when she discovered her feet, the toddler who worked and worked at learning how to dribble a ball, the child whose favorite color was rainbow, the teenager who mapped her future in color-coded spreadsheets. They are all gone, along with the lives we lived when they were here. To the list of Graces now gone I can add another: the young adult who worked remotely from the back bedroom during the pandemic, and sipped cocktails with me on warm summer nights, and woke up early for long zoom dates with her boyfriend in a time zone 9 hours different from ours, and argued with me about communism and policing and relationships, and cradled her old, dying dog with a tenderness I hope she might someday extend to me, if a time comes when I have difficulty finding my feet or knowing where I am. She is gone now, or going, and I will never have her–the person she’s been these past months–back.
After the summer of 1981, my family was never quite the same again. How could we have been? That pow-pow-pow of grief changed all of us. I didn’t understand that then, the way I do now. I thought I was only missing the people who no longer sat at our holiday tables. I didn’t know that I was also losing an earlier version of all who remained, and of the family we’d once been. Many of my tears this summer have been for that earlier family, which exists now only in memory. I miss us so much.
I’ve been learning that grieving can be a long time coming. Or maybe that it’s a thing that’s never really done.
I have a recurring dream in which I’ve lost a season. It’s usually a spring dream, and–somehow, impossibly–it’s the end of summer. But, wait, I’ll think in the dream. It can’t be time to go back to school. Where did the summer go? I’ll think of all the things I wanted and didn’t get to do, and I feel panicky and cheated. Then I’ll realize I’m dreaming, and that I have not, in fact, lost the summer, and relief washes over me. One day in Grace’s last week here, I got disoriented about where I was in time, the way I do in the dream. For a moment, I lost what season we are in. Something made me feel like it was still summer, and I had to tell myself: No, it’s October. It’s not summer any more. But then it felt like it couldn’t be October, because I hadn’t really had summer, just like in the dream.
I understand my confusion. The whole summer felt like a bubble in which we were all suspended in some time out of time. Having my daughter back in the ways I did, after having earlier let her go, while we both prepared ourselves for what’s coming next, felt like simultaneously living in the past, present, and future. Where were we in time? Who were we? Everywhere and nowhere. Everyone we’ve ever been and no one we’ve ever been and everyone we’ll someday be.
The day she left was unseasonably warm. After returning from the airport, I pulled spent tomato plants from their box and filled the compost bin with cedar branches Cane had trimmed from the tree that overhangs my shed, sweating in the sun. That evening, I sat on a front porch with friends and we talked how we might continue to safely meet when the nights turn cold. It felt like a summer night.
But, the next morning I woke to rain and dark skies. The patio furniture was soaked when I put the dogs out to pee, and they stepped gingerly on the wet pavement. The power flickered off and then on again, while I worked on these words, and just like that, the season had undeniably changed.
When my children were babies I began writing poems after a long dry period. I’d thought I’d lost my capacity for writing poetry–too many demands and not enough resources–but somehow, amid mothering two babies and working full-time, I completed a book of poems.
Clearly, capacity wasn’t quite the issue. (Not to discount that. Lack of resources is a true barrier, and I’m not suggesting that it isn’t. It was, and has always been, a factor for me.) What helped me overcome my capacity issues was a drive to record what we were living. I wanted to remember it, and I was afraid the memories would be lost in the blur of feeding and changing and grading papers and fatigue. Committing them to words committed them to continued existence; each poem became conduit to a specific memory I can now recall and relive, at any time.
The moments I wanted to pin to memory weren’t big ones. A nurse’s comment in the NICU, a bedtime bath, rocking a toddler back to sleep in the middle of the night, wondering if it might be the last time I’d do so. I had no fear of losing the bigger moments, but I wanted to capture the small ones in greater danger of being lost to a multitude of days.
As my daughter prepares to leave home again, in a different, more permanent way than she has before, in the midst of so many different kinds of fall, I’m feeling driven to purposefully remember again, to put moments and images into words. While I was awake in the middle of one of this past week’s nights, the phrase “exquisite pain” kept floating through my head. Earlier that night, we’d sat at the kitchen table, talkingtalkingtalking about her plans and what they do and don’t mean, about times with her grandparents, about choosing (or not) to play board games with children, about her hopes and intentions, about home renovations and what they’ve meant and mean to us, about red and green flags, rings, forms of marriage. Even earlier than that, we’d had tears and a coming to understanding over words I’d tossed out carelessly–except, of course, the feelings (neither mine nor hers) weren’t as much about the words as about so many other things, and as I sat at that table under its amber light in the waning of a very early autumn night, I could feel what I often don’t in the moment: That this would be a night that lives in my memory, a few hours extraordinary, in some part, for its ordinariness in the midst of the profound. I could see them fusing to a Before that I will long for in the coming After, the way I long for so many things now gone.
It has been a season of ordinary embedded in extraordinary, this time of pandemic and unrest, fire and smoke. As I anticipate her absence, it is the small, ordinary moments I have been hardly able to stand the thought of losing. When I look back over my life, it is seemingly unremarkable moments that rise to the surface and trigger the deepest grief: morning sun shining through my grandparents’ kitchen window and Paul Harvey’s tinny voice coming through the kitchen-counter radio as my grandpa spread butter on toast; sitting at a department store lunch counter with my grandma after an afternoon of shopping, fingers in my pocket playing with my first pot of lip gloss; a rainy Saturday afternoon snuggled into my dad’s recliner with a book in my hands, a fire burning in the fireplace and The Wide World of Sports theme song playing on the TV, feeling snug and happy and so glad not to be that skier tumbling over and over and over down a mountain in an agony of defeat.
Similarly, what I want to remember of this time are only snippets, quick snapshots of memory:
The Hannah Montana theme song playing in the room across the hall while I edit her graduation video.
Catching the moment the solar patio lights blinked on as we sat beneath them on a warm June night.
Shopping with G. for clothes at a vintage emporium filled with racks and racks of clothing originally sold in the decade she was born. “I didn’t own this exact dress, but I owned this dress,” I tell her, holding up a wide-wale corduroy jumper from Eddie Bauer, remembering the early-teacher selfI once was, when I was only three years older than she is now.
Sitting side by side on the couch at the end of an evening, each of us holding a dog swaddled in a blanket, rising oh-so-carefully and carrying them to their beds and hoping, as one does with infants, that they won’t stir and need to be soothed back to sleep.
Hearing the low murmur of her happy voice through the wall as she talks with her love, half a world away.
Stopping at McDonald’s on a Friday after picking her up from work and getting french fries and Cokes because it’s “Frie-day,” the car filling with her music and a salty-oily-sweet smellthat reminds me of her high school years.
I don’t have in me, right now, whatever it is that poetry requires. Maybe it’s because I’m 20 years older and it takes more out of me to process grief than joy. Maybe it’s because I’m coming to understand, in new ways this week, that we are in collapse. Or, that we have been in a long, slow collapse for most of my life.
(I remember an afternoon in the late 70s, in my grandparents’ living room on a bright day, a conversation in which my grandfather drew comparisons between the United States and the Roman empire. “All empires fall, Rita,” he told me. “I’m so old it won’t happen in my lifetime, but it very well could in yours.” I sat on the floor, picking at the pile of a soft, cream-colored rug, wondering what downfall would mean for us, thinking of Britain, which seemed to have come through the loss of their empire OK, and hoping that our fall could be more like theirs than, say, that of the Russians.)
The morning after the presidential “debate,” I read a piece that describes what collapse can look like. According to the writer, a Sri Lankan born in the early years of his country’s civil war, it looks pretty normal, for many people. It looks a lot like the collection of memories I shared several paragraphs back. In reading the piece, and thinking about it, though, I realize there are other moments in my memories of this summer, too, that I didn’t list above:
Noticing, on a walk one day in July, a couple in a broken down camper parked next to a grassy median dividing my neighborhood from a freeway onramp. Noticing, in September, exiting the freeway on my way back from getting groceries, that the median is now–like so many small, grassy places in the city–filled with tents, and the curb once empty except for the camper is now lined with cars.
Waking in the middle of a night when my daughter was out and seeing that she didn’t text to tell me she was home, and my body flooding with adrenalin as I shot from my bed. Noticing, as I moved down the hallway, that the light I’d left on for her had been turned off, but not believing that she was really home, OK, until I opened her door and saw her sleeping in her bed.
Driving downtown and seeing empty storefronts, boarded windows, and graffiti-covered buildings. Fighting the usual traffic and feeling sad to see another high-rise taking over the block that once housed our favorite food carts. Abandoning our quest to go to Powell’s because the line of mask-clad people waiting to get in stretched down the entire, block-long length of the building.
How leaves on my willow turned dark brown during the days of hazardous air, and how we tried to tell ourselves that maybe it was just the leaves getting ready to fall, the way leaves do. How, in the week of the debate that revealed–again, but in a slightly new way–what peril we are in, we noticed that there are now only green leaves on the tree and told ourselves that the tree is OK. (Though the ground beneath it was littered with the dried, now–black bodies of the ones that turned dark.)
How do you send your child half a world away when your country is in the midst of collapse? How–if she is so lucky to have that chance–do you not?
The words of the essay I read the morning after what was supposed to be a debate–in which the President signaled to the Proud Boys who marched in my city the previous weekend and who live all around me that he is aligned with them–ring painfully true:
I lived through the end of a civil war — I moved back to Sri Lanka in my twenties, just as the ceasefire fell apart. Do you know what it was like for me? Quite normal. I went to work, I went out, I dated. This is what Americans don’t understand. They’re waiting to get personally punched in the face while ash falls from the sky. That’s not how it happens.
In February I left my parents’ house knowing I would see them in March, but I didn’t, and now I don’t know when I will see them again. In March I left work knowing I wouldn’t see students and colleagues for a while, but would again, surely, before the end of the school year. Now I don’t know when I will see them again. In a week my child leaves me, and, while we have plans for when we will see each other again, I know now that I don’t know when I will see her again, and that my plans are as fragile–and perhaps already as dead–as those leaves that fell from my weeping tree.
But also: I have not been punched in the face. My parents live, my paychecks arrive, my child is going where she wants to go, healthy and safe. We eat meals under patio lights, made with food bought from stocked grocery stores, and we shop for clothing, watch TV, and fret about how to best care for our dying pets. We get takeout, and drink cocktails, and set alarms because we are living in a world in which being in particular places at particular times still matters.
I cry nearly every day, my body like a sieve, but the tears come and go swiftly, like thin clouds that intermittently block the sun. I have not been punched in the face (yet), but I do keep tripping and skinning my knees.
I can look back over the whole of my life and I see moments where I knew–I knew–things weren’t right, that the center wasn’t holding. For godsake, I became a high school English teacher because by the end of the Reagan era I was worried about the health of our democracy, and teaching children how to read, write, and think critically seemed the best contribution I could make with my particular set of talents and skills.
But there are all the other moments I can see, too. Sun streaming through windows, a child’s warm weight on my chest, words gathering around a kitchen table. That essay brought a kind of comfort. Yes, we are in collapse. We have long been in collapse. So: No, I am not crazy to see things the way I am seeing them. But also: Maybe collapse isn’t quite what I’ve feared. Aren’t all of our lives, always, in some kind of collapse, always moving from something they were to something else they will be? Isn’t everything always fleeting, our world always ending? Isn’t that the exquisitely painful truth of what it means to live?
There are many reasons to write, but this is mine: To capture the ordinary gorgeous of the everyday however I can, so we don’t forget what we once had, and can see what we still do.