Good morning, good morning. I went to bed at quarter to 9, and still it was difficult to get up when the alarm went off at 4;15. I am aching today, still, and heavy and exhausted and sad and overwhelmed.
And how are you doing so far today?
These are the times when I need the hiding places. The big loss is stalking me, and so I curl up on the couch or crawl into bed or wake up as early as I can so that the darkness itself can become a cocoon for me for a while.
Yesterday was so difficult I could barely crawl through it. I was exhausted and overwhelmed, still grieving from Tuesday night. We had watched a particularly intense (and long-awaited) episode of a fairy-tale show we’ve been following (This is Us), which, again, shows a father being protective and standing up and Doing The Scary Things and then paying a price for it; this is a father that the adult children can hold on to, look up to, have as a role model. We watch the family at different points in their lives, and as I watch, I remember the time when I had a much more open-hearted, longing love for my own father, when I wanted to impress him, when I wanted him to see me and be proud of me (I also felt that way about five minutes ago – it never goes away); I heard the adult children talking to and about their dad, and then there was something else, too, and I’m trying to put my finger on just what it was…
I could have had an easier time of this writing, finding the words for It All, yesterday morning, maybe, but I was so exhausted and emotionally hungover and literally in pain when I woke up that when I went to the writing place, all I could do was sit in the dark in my little office and listen to the owls call to each other in the eucalyptus trees down the hill, and listen, too, to the little clock in my office, the one that I bought for my space in the Flood Building and that I keep not because it tells the time (the mechanism bent or broke some years ago and now the hands don’t really move right anymore) but because of the sound it makes, the steady soft solid tick-tock that evokes a place of peace in me, the place built by the grandmother clock on my father’s wall, the one that’s been in my life since I was a child, an infant. That clock meant the place with no rape in it. That clock meant the place with my father. That sound has been an underground accompaniment my whole life.
Something bad happens in the episode we watched on Tuesday night. It’s not that I didn’t know it was coming. I did. But what I didn’t expect was the enormous grief that welled up and filled me until I broke open.
Sometimes the grief is too big to move.
I cried because something awful happens, and a parent has to show up for their kids, put their kids first, put their kids’ needs and feelings first, their safety first – and I wondered what that was like. I cried for a different, loss, too, that old thing with my father, the way I loved him and needed him and admired him and needed him to save me but couldn’t tell him what was going on and even today I couldn’t say why I couldn’t tell him – because I was ashamed? afraid? because I needed him to know me well enough to see that something terrible had happened, something significant had changed, but neither he nor my mother did know me that well, it seems, because they couldn’t see. And maybe that’s asking too much of any parent, that they know their child well enough to notice that a shift in energy or tone or apparent anger or desire not to spend time alone with an adult (see: every single young person who ever had to be alone with that fucking gymnastics doctor) isn’t just teenage angst or something to be ignored or dismissed or downplayed or actively shut down.
(I call the show a fairy tale because in this show, parents notice their kids, every time: Something is wrong, something is off, let me go ask her what’s going on, hey, what’s the matter, and then she tells her parent, and then she can say it, and then something gets better.)
Underneath the grief that makes sense and had words and some kind of clear and obvious connection to the thing we were watching was a huge wave of grief that didn’t have any words at all, and once the show was done and we turned off the tv and wiped away the wet streaks on our cheeks and my sweetheart went up to check on her own son, I went back downstairs, walked into my office which was a safe dark place to crawl into, a kind of hug, and there I started to really cry. The big old grief filled my lungs and throat and bent me forward and then pushed me all the way to the ground and I knelt there and sobbed hard, I lost my breath, coughed and kept sobbing.
It’s not a place with words or explanation. It’s not a place that has sense in it – I might as well tell someone, I just remembered my sister and I were raped through our whole adolescence and no one could do anything about it or stop it and we lost connection with absolutely everyone we loved, even each other – and that just doesn’t make sense, because of course I never forgot that, I never forget, it doesn’t ever go away for me, but some days it’s more present, more available — or maybe this was one of those moments when one more layer of the old buried pain rises to the surface and reaches the air, and, unfortunately, has to take me down to the ground in order to move through me and out into the world.
This is the long work.
After it was over, and the sobbing was done, I was wrung out and exhausted and sore. I had a headache. I didn’t want to stay down there very long because I didn’t want anyone to discover me and then want to know why I was hiding or what’s wrong. How can I explain what’s wrong? How can I unzip my belly or bones to show what still lives in me, to just show the picture of what’s wrong, because trying to say it in that moment is far too difficult? I managed to avoid having to find the words. I went back upstairs and got into bed almost immediately, my head throbbing, my heart pounding, my eyes still leaking.
And then yesterday I had the hangover. I’d thought I’d wake up and write about what came up for me – sit down at the notebook, let the words find me. But I couldn’t even bring myself to light the candle. I sat in the dark, hurting and tight and exhausted. I just sat for a little bit, then I took my cup of tea upstairs and sat in the living room, looking out at the bridge and the bay, but no words were in me. I was empty. My neck hurt where I’d hunched it up while I cried, my eyes hurt, my head hurt. I had to bake for my Wednesday morning writing group, I had to show up and be a facilitator. There was so much to do, actually. I had to check in about an office space I’m trying to rent, I had to make a webpage to announce upcoming events and stops on the Fierce Hunger Writing Ourselves Whole book tour (every tour has to have a name, right?), I had to follow up with venues about details of the event, I had to pitch other places about possible events, I had to advertise, I had to prep for this week’s Dive Deep meeting, finishing up my notes and didn’t I want to find a short essay for us to read together?; I had email to respond to, books to mail, I really needed to take the dog for a long walk, I had to go pick up prescriptions at the drug store that would help me have more energy, for gods’ sake, if I could just get the energy to get in the car and drive down the fucking hill to the walgreen’s, I should really make a dentist appointment or, you know, find a dentist who will take my fucking insurance, I needed to respond to work posted by writers in my online group, and what else? Make deposits, submit forms to Intersection, bake, write up responses to interview requests, write a short essay for SFSU, read all 95 pages of my thesis-so-far so that I have something useful to contribute to my meeting with my advisor today, and anything else?
All of this would be a lot to try to get done on the days when I have All The Energy, but it all felt completely impossible yesterday. I did manage to bake, and get to Meridian, and work with seven brilliant writers, and that felt like a lot. Then I came home and just about completely disassembled. I sort of moved from room to room, with tea and, usually, something to eat, because if there’s anything that still works, if there’s a coping mechanism that I still get to have now that drinking myself into oblivion is off the table, there’ s food…
I managed to get little bits of work done. I showed up for my online office hours, though no one generally takes advantage of them. I read and responded to Dive Deep manuscripts. I replied to a few text messages, eventually, and a couple of emails, I think. All of that felt like a lot when I had to reach out of the tarpit of grief to reach the keyboard, when I had to unbunch the knot in my shoulders and articulate words when my head was still pounding. Otherwise, I sort of drifted. I tried to read, sat in the sun, watered plants. I laid down in the sun on the porch, and then later, I took a book into the bedroom and thought maybe I’d sleep there. Naps are nearly impossible for me on a good day, though, to say nothing of the days when the past is haunting all around me, extra visible, like a shroud, or an entourage.
(Of course, the news of the day was exceptionally helpful in getting me through my grief and loss and hopelessness and despair. The president wants to mount a military parade (probably literally). Men in Congress protest the resignation of a wife beater, saying, well, he never hit me, he was always perfectly nice to me, I think those women are liars; she could have gotten that black eye anywhere – but, sure, we’re in the middle of A Reckoning.)
I lay on the bed in the sun with a book and couldn’t keep my eyes open. The book was World Enough and Time, and I read about the kind of slowing down we do when we are grieving, or at least the author did when she was in the immediate aftermath of a big break up, how she moved slowly, spent years, in fact, just working enough to pay the bills but then reading, resting, walking, moving very slow. Meanwhile, I listened to my sweetheart in the other room, so competent and functional, making phone call after phone call while simultaneously responding to emails and posting interesting, useful, funny things to facebook. Comparison is the thief of joy, I try to remind myself, but then I just went to another part of the house, so I couldn’t hear her, and it would be easier not to beat myself up for not being more like her.
On Tuesday, before the show, before the crying, before the eruption of grief, I’d met my mother for lunch. She moved to the area last year, but I don’t see her all that often because she moved about two hours away (two hours when there’s no traffic, that is, which means never). We met in the middle (though she had to drive farther) and ate Indochinese noodles while talking about graduation ceremonies. I’m finally going to walk; when I graduate with my MFA, it will be the first time I’ve ever participated in a graduation ceremony or walked for a degree, I said. I meant for any of my higher-education degrees – I didn’t walk for my undergraduate degree, and my first MA was at an alternative program that is so small that the graduation ceremony was more like a barn dance (it was held in a barn, and, in fact, I think there was a dance after, right?). Anyway, my mom said, well, except for your high school graduation, and I realized in that moment that I had absolutely no memory of my high school graduation. I remember the tassel hanging on a corkboard in my room, but not the ceremony itself, which would have been enormous, because there were hundreds of students in my graduating class. My mother described how she felt like something was wrong, something was off, that day – it just seemed like I should have been celebrating with my friends, that it shouldn’t have been just the four of us – her, me, my sister, and my stepfather – at the Neon Goose for dinner after the ceremony.
I didn’t ask her why she didn’t ask me that day if anything was the matter, because I already knew the answer. I didn’t say, I didn’t have any friends by that point, because it wouldn’t really have contributed anything to the conversation. Then she said, And maybe I was just remembering my own graduation, how it wasn’t what I’d wanted it to be, I couldn’t go out with my friends because we had to leave that night to go visit my brother in another state – which was how my stepfather manipulated her for so long: making her second-guess her instincts, her reactions, her parenting, insisting that she was too controlling, too overbearing, as a result of unfinished business from her own childhood. Even now, all these years later, knowing exactly what was going on that night at dinner after my high school graduation, and remembering how things felt weird for her, she doesn’t connect it to what she didn’t see or name, but the idea that she was just projecting onto me her own teenage disappointment. Even now she held open the possibility that I was having a really good time, everything was just fine, and the problem was all in her own mind.
I couldn’t say any of this, because it touches on the other enormous thing living in me, the vast continent of my anger, and I was just trying to make it through lunch and eat and make conversation and have some kind of relationship with my mom.
Later, on the phone while I was driving home, my sweetheart asked, How was lunch? The void opened up in me, and I couldn’t answer. What answer is there for that question, for all that lies beneath it? It was-, I said, and then I was quiet. It was-, I tried again. What words are there, what words exist for this thing that just happened, that I tried to do, what words signify when I go to lunch with her, when my sister has her over, when we are still in her life, when she is still in ours, even though – even though, even now, she seems not to be able to come out from under the weight of his brainwashing into the breadth and vastness of all that was lost. (And let me just lean on the passive voice there, please. I can’t be more direct than that today).
It was – good, I answer, finally. And then I try to explain how this happens whenever my sister and I talk about time with mom, how things are with mom. We fall into this void, I say. it happens to us both. It was – she is – we were – and then nothing. Our mouths go quiet, our throats empty, there’s nothing to say, there’re no words – maybe no words big enough, or clear enough, or specific enough for us enough to name this reality that exists among us whenever we share any sort of space in any way, all the history that enters the room with us that no one else can see or even seems to be conscious of, and so much of it is still unspoken, unspeakable. Whenever we try to just simply say how our visit was with our mom, all that stuff we couldn’t say, can’t say, all he told us never to speak, it clogs our throat, even still, twenty-five, thirty years later.
So I guess, of course it makes sense I was tired yesterday and I couldn’t get to that phone call or that email or write another pitch email or get excited about all the events I have coming up in Portland and Denver and Boulder that I need to let people know about. Right? I try to do the thing I invite others to do all the time — be easy with you. Be easy with you, Jen. Be easy with you out there. Sometimes the grief rides up and knocks you down and all you can do is feel it. Somedays you can’t just power through the way Americans are supposed to. Sometimes you’re more human than American. So be easy with you. Sit in the sun (or by the fire) with your tea and read a book if you can manage, and if you can’t, just watch the flames or the birds flicker around. Breathe in and out. Remember that crying is ok here, that you are ok here, no matter what you write or don’t write, no matter the emails you can’t respond to or the work you have to set aside for the moment. You are still ok, just being you. You get to feel this and know you are alive and made it through. You will get to the other side of this. But today there are tears, and that is ok, too.
It’s all practice — life, I mean. Course correction. One more chance to get it right. Be easy with you, all right? And I will (try and) do the same.