grief

such collisions

I dream, as I often do, of water. Great, wide pools of it – brown and blue and green. There is a tightness in my chest when I awaken. I have held my breath too long.

It is still early, still blue black night, and across the way, through the neighbor’s window, I see a man sitting on his bed. His short gray hair is clipped close to his head. I cannot tell whether he is alone, but I wonder what he is doing, why he is awake now, what made him sit upright in the unforgiving fluorescent light of his room in such small hours.

I am anxious. I am preparing for a trip and I feel unready. All around me, people I know are grieving. So many things we have lost. So much we know will pass through our hands, even as we clench them.

I spend a few days at the beach and I take Anne Carson with me. In writing on the “phenomenology of female pollution in antiquity,” she begins:

As members of a human society, perhaps the most difficult task we face daily is that of touching one another – whether the touch is physical, moral, emotional or imaginary. Contact is crisis. As the anthropologists say, “Every touch is a modified blow.”

It is an essay about boundaries. And about how the view of women in antiquity is as transgressors of these. Also:

Women as wet (Hippokrates: “The female flourishes more in an environment of water…. The male flourishes more in an environment of fire.”)

Women as formless content, without boundaries (Plato: “receptacle,” “reservoir” which is “shapeless, viewless, all-receiving,” and which “takes its form and activation from whatever shapes enter it.”)

Women as shapeshifter, monstrous (Carson: “Mythical women frequently violate masculinity by enveloping male form in a fatal formlessness, as Euripides Klytemnestra encloses Agamemnon in a ‘garment that has no boundaries,’ as Sophokles’ Deianira covers Herakles in a ‘vapor of death’ that eats the form of his flesh….”)

In the evenings, I text my friends, and this is a form of collective grieving. I avoided B. today, one will tell me. B., a man who is not her husband but who at the grocery store, asks her of her days, and they talk there, as the carts roll past them. He is young, attentive, focused; things now that her husband is not. He asked me about…. He remembered this story I told him… When he sees me, he brightens.

Anne Carson again on the representation of women in antiquity:

Emotion is wet. Emotion is a liquid “that pours into people and dissolves them.”

and also:

Of all the emotions, by far the most devastating are those of erotic desire, for love combines a liquescent effect with fiery heat.

It’s like he sees me, she says, like he sees that I am there, in front of him.

And another friend, in describing a recent argument with her husband: “I stood there, shouting, do you see me? Do you see me? I am standing right here. Look at me.”

I find some photographs from several years ago and I try to organize them. Here, a trip to Orlando one early spring. It was still cool and the chill in the air took us by surprise. Here we are on the Cape in late summer. And here, our son was so small as he clung to the carousel pole on his molded, unblinking horse.

I remember being so happy. Or am I now imposing a sheen of happiness, at this distance?

I am not unhappy. Emotions come in waves. Although now, in mid-life, it seems a steadier tally of losses – from the mundane to the divine – that can be difficult, at times, to absorb.

At dinner, an old friend catalogues her losses of the last few years. Her mother, her father, her brother. Her best friend’s divorce. An old love who returned to her life after decades, only to leave again.

She says: I can’t get out from under this tidal wave of grief.

In the mornings at the shore, I walk. Overcast hours, gray skies. Light rain. In the distance, by the lip of the ocean, I see the silhouette of a man lifting a child to his shoulders. This simple act. How it buoys me. I am embarrassingly sentimental. “Maudlin,” my mother might have said. (“It takes one to know one,” I would have said back.)

Anne Carson, ibid:

Wantons

This condition of dry stability is never attained by the female physique, which presumably remains cold and wet all its life and so more subject than the male to liquefying assaults upon body and mind, especially those of emotion. That the female is softer than the male and much more easily moved to tears, pity, jealousy, despondency, fear, rash impulses and sexual desire is a communis opinio of ancient literature, voiced by such widely differing temperaments as Aristotle, Empedokles and Semonides of Amorgos. Throughout these sources, greatest attention is given to the emotions of love. Women are assumed to be markedly more open to erotic desire than men and sexually insatiable once aroused. A long tradition concerning female lechery derives from this assumption, of which a few examples may be mentioned. Aeschylus warns against the “blazing eye” of a woman who has once “tasted man” and deprecates female license as “ready to dare anything” for love. Sophokles observes that even women who have sworn to avoid the pain of childbirth cannot resist sexual desire. The lust of women is a frequent joke in Aristophanes. Alkiphron characterizes female sexual voracity as a “Charybdis,” warning another man that his hetaira will swallow him whole. Both Hippokrates and Plato promote the theory of the “wandering womb,” an explanation of feminine hysteria which is posited upon women’s uncontrollable longing for sex. Aristotle takes female depravity for granted as a consequence of feminine weakness and a reason for marrying girls off not later than the age of eighteen. In the Greek historians, whenever mention is made of a society or state of affairs managed by women, it is assumed that such situations would feature total female promiscuity. For example, Philo of Byblos, accounting for traditions of matrilinear descent in antiquity, explains: “They traced their descent on the mother’s side because women at that time had intercourse casually with any man they ran into.” Philo takes it for granted that, unrestrained by an alternate system, women would incline to complete wantonness.

n.b.: “any man they ran into”

Beware, men: such collisions! 

vigil

It is early when I walk with K. on the long, tree-lined boulevard, and we watch as the dim pre-dawn light gives way to morning.

“I feel like I’ve spent the last month in hospitals and at funerals,” she says. The elderly uncle’s passing was sad of course, but the one that really haunts her is the man who was in a coma. “He was there for weeks. I sat by his bed and read to him for hours.”

“The first few days he was there, so present, you could feel it,” she says, “you knew he was there. But by the end, he was just gone. I watched – I could see the life just drain out of him.”

She nods to the runners who are coming at us from the opposite direction – her neighbors. The damp leaves are slippery underfoot.

“It’s supposed to rain this afternoon,” she says. We walk on a bit in silence. She says, “I guess we knew that days like yesterday couldn’t last forever.”

I take my daughter out last night, just the two of us, and we catch up on the varied and sundry dramas that define her tenth-grade life. “I declare this the year of social awkwardness,” she had said in September, and it has played out, more or less, as she expected. We are at a crowded little café in an area of the city where we are not likely to run into anyone we know. She has dyed her hair again – purple this time, and she shrugs off the glances – the curious and the critical – with an ease that I – twenty-five years her senior – have yet to master.

She gestures with her hands as she speaks. Her fingers are long, her movements graceful. Between conversational bursts, she picks at her apple crumble and sips her vanilla chai, which she has declared to be unequivocally “delicious.”

In her early school years, she was criticized for terrible handwriting. I expressed mild outrage at this, thinking that perhaps her teachers were too rigorous in their attempt to find areas for improvement. But when the sheet came home with tips and exercises that parents could do to help, it was M. who spent the after-dinner hour with her while she practiced the “wheelbarrow:” M. holding her feet up while she walked on her hands around the coffee table and from one end of the living room to the other.

Whether this strengthened her hands and fingers, and whether her writing was better for it, I cannot say with confidence, but the time they spent together, and the quiet moments after when they would sit, side by side on the couch, ice cream sandwiches in hand, stand out in my memory as hours of particular and shining grace.

On the walk, K. and I talk about work. About the next thing. We are always, it seems, trying to move things faster. The language we use feels forced, pre-packaged: we are scaffolding solutions, we are leading change, we are fostering sector-wide innovation. She is a poet, but she struggles. Her interests are so broad and her capacities so deep that she is pulled in all directions. Make time for the writing, make space for it, we say to each other. But this is, of course, easy to say in the early morning light, ambling down a leaf-strewn pathway.

When I get back from the walk, M. and the boy are drawing at the kitchen table. When he sees me, my son throws his arms over his paper, shouts, “I’m making a surprise for you, don’t look!” I catch a glimpse of hearts with arrows through them and what looks to be a giant floating basketball. “I’m not looking,” I assure him as I sit down across from them.

For a time, the room is quiet. They go about their projects and I watch them, their brows furrowed in concentration. The tip of my son’s pencil breaks and the sudden sobs that come up in him seem to carry whole lifetimes of anticipated disappointment.

This afternoon, as predicted, the rain comes. The sky is dark and the air turns cold. A postcard announcing an event at the Convention Center has been tucked under my windshield wiper and the rain has made a soft pulpy mess of it, leaving inky bits of paper smeared across the glass.

I am thinking of the man that K. read to in the hospital. Did he hear her? Did he know the vigil she kept for him?

And I am thinking of the children he left behind. Of all the things he will not know of them. That they will not know of him.

And of the fragile threads that hold us all in place – to each other, to our lives, to the damp earth beneath our feet. Of the rain that continues, relentless. The darkening sky. 

life is as long as it needs to be

Not far from the house where my family lived when I was high school and college, there was a reservoir, in the center of the town. Often, on weekend nights, I would take my friends there, and we’d park on the dirt road that ran along side and climb up to the tiny observation deck – a concrete area just large enough for a group of three or four teenagers to lay out a picnic on an old beach blanket and lean back on our arms, faces lifted to the night sky.

One night, it must have been in late summer – it was warm and the sky stayed light long into the evening, three of us – N., S., and me – had come from some party, where N. had managed to sneak out a half bottle of Absolut Citron, which was, as I recall, the preferred spirit of the day, and we headed up to the reservoir to finish it. The light was blue, and we sat there in the stillness, heady and flushed with drink and youth.

It was then that S. told us about how sick she was. How her illness was progressing, accelerating. She didn’t know, exactly, what it would mean, but that she wanted us to know. We cried and held each other. In that unabashed fervor of our late teens, we declared our love for each other, told each other how beautiful we were, how we’d always be there for each other, no matter what. And in some ways, I think, we were.

At her funeral, barely ten years later, I stood in the back of the church, with N., and with S.’s husband. They had been married two years. We told him how much we had loved her. How much we knew she had loved him. How great they were, together. He was quiet, mostly, let us go on, but when he said, “She was just so easy to love,” we all broke down again, sobbing, holding each other up.

Even when my father lived with us, it was as though he was more imagined than real. I have a few images of him – standing hunched over the kitchen sink, too tall to stand comfortably; awkward in a suit at some family occasion, a pink striped dress shirt, a burgundy tie that does not sit flat on his chest; behind the counter at the Italian grocery store where he sometimes worked, a dingy apron tied around his waist.

It does not seem odd to me then that I have a memory of him, but I can no longer recall whether it is memory or imagination, or perhaps something that only happened in a dream. We are walking in the park near my childhood home. I am disappointed about something. He is comforting me, in his way. The air is cool. The leaves are starting to turn, although they are not yet in full color. He walks with the slight limp that would become more pronounced as the years went on. He favors his left leg, so we walk slowly.

There is a bridge over the narrow part of the river that runs through the park. We are standing on it, looking down. Just below the surface there is movement, but it is difficult to see too clearly.

He calls me his “bunny duck,” a name that I loved as a child, but I am now, in this memory, at an age where it makes me blush. I squirm at the utterance. Life is longer than you think, he says. You will get the things you want, but they may come looking different from what you expect.

I ask him what he means by that and he says: I know, it’s hard to understand. But you will, some day. You will see it all come to you, in time. Life is as long as it needs to be.

Just after my daughter was born, S. and N. visited me in Providence. It was August, Z. was just barely a month old. She was at that stage where she would sleep soundly for hours at a time, so we took her to the park, let her sleep there in my arms, while the three of us talked. S. had gotten married the year before. N. was still searching. We were all happy, in our way. Or at least, happy enough to laugh easily in the bright sun. To remember the things we had thought we wanted, and to list what we still thought possible. For me, a move back to New York. For S., a trip to Ireland. For N., to build a house in the Catskill Mountains.

Although I try to resist the impulse to cast a veil of sentimentality over the scene – sitting there, cross-legged on the ground in front of an old stone fountain, which had been dry for decades – it’s hard not to see a kind of untarnished simplicity in that moment, in that afternoon. In that long, sultry summer. It was the last time the three of us were together.

I have a recurring dream in which I am having a dinner party at my home. It starts out as a few people, but suddenly, becomes thirty or forty people, coming to the door, one after the other. I don’t have enough chairs. I haven’t made enough food. I am running around, panicky.

There is always a man – sometimes it is someone I know, have loved, but sometimes it is a stranger. Sometimes, it is my father. He is there, and he wanders around in the background, oddly familiar with my home, as I rush from task to task, trying to accommodate this growing crowd.

In the dream, nothing ends well. The walls of my house fall away. The guests argue over chairs. A child is crying. The man has disappeared. It is at this point that mercifully, I awaken.

My father used to tell me that when I was very little, he would carry me up on his shoulders when we walked down to the park. That he thought I would be scared the first time he lifted me up. You were so quiet, he said. I’d ask your mother did you look happy, were you frightened, and she said no, no, that you were just sitting up there, smiling. He’d say: I held your little hands in mine, and you never made a sound the whole way there. Or the whole way back. At some point, you must have gotten too big to carry that way. But I don’t remember when.

a prayer for the day

I wake in the night to my son, climbing into bed. He smiles as he crawls between us, then settles in, spreading himself out like a starfish. I think for a moment about trying to make a deal with him: “If you can go back and sleep in your own bed, like a big boy, we can put a magnet on your chart,” but I am too tired for negotiations, so I pull the comforter tighter to my chin and turn away.

They are moving a bridge here and now that I am awake, I can hear the pounding in the distance, its steady drum beat, punctuated by jackhammer bursts. This is, I suppose, what we have to look forward to – this nightly serenade of the urban landscape.

We bought this house in 2005 – giddy with its grandeur – a stately old Victorian with a steeply-pitched roof. The entry way left us breathless when we saw it for the first time – high ceilings, wood floors with mahogany inlay, the wide staircase with dark wood banister curving up as far as we could see. It spoke of another era. We made up stories about the lives we’d live in it.

We were planning for a baby. This baby, the one whose bony elbow bruises my ribs in the night. We were not yet expecting, but expectant. Hopeful.

Several of my friends are planning for babies. Hoping. It is hard for me to imagine starting now. My daughter is just a few years away from college. Just thinking about babies makes me tired, makes my arms ache. Weeks away from my fortieth birthday, I am grateful to think that as far as children go, I have done what I will do, and I will not do it again: That at least, behind me.

My mother was 44, my father 47 when they adopted me, and then my sister three years after that. “The happiest days of my life,” my mother would often say, and even as a child, I remember feeling a bit of sadness for her, wondering why there was not more happiness in those first forty-four years.

I know what she meant, of course. Watching your children grow into the world is a heady thing: the inexplicable joy of seeing the world through their eyes, bearing witness to their moments of discovery, to the expressions of their raw, unfiltered passions.

Sunday, in the park with friends, we watched our boys strut across a raised platform, brandishing their wooden swords. “You have to watch our show,” they shout, as we sit in a patch of shade, grateful for a few minutes of adult conversation. The worlds that 5-year-olds create and inhabit are glorious, but exhausting.

We talk as we often do about writing. One of us teaches, so we talk about that. We talk about the lives we live here, and the lives we have known in other cities. The siren call of New York, always. About the choices we have made and the choices we did not realize we were making until we lived the results of them.

My mother’s father, I am told, arrived in New Bedford on a whaling ship from Rio de Janeiro. He left his ailing father and his anxious mother behind in Lisbon, where they wrung their hands and prayed the rosary, lighting candles in the windows.

“Rio was no place to live,” he had told her. It was a dangerous, lawless time. When the sun came up on the dusty side streets of his neighborhood one morning, it revealed the bodies of three men scattered in the courtyard, dark red blood running into the gutters. “That was the morning I knew that nothing was there for me in that city of death.”

In his pocket, seventeen dollars. On the ship, he befriends a man who gives him the address of a boarding house in New Bedford.

Her mother was an island girl, watched the men build their lives around the sea. Their life was a rugged one, and her beauty rugged, too. She had thick dark hair and olive skin. Her hands were strong. Their courting, as the story goes, was simple and knowable.

They married in an old stone church on the banks of the Acushnet River. She had white daisies in her hair that had been plucked from her bouquet.

They had two children before my mother was born, two boys that did not survive. After my mother, another girl. Then, another stillborn baby before the last child, a girl, my aunt.

From there, the stories all are written.

We live these lives half in the dark. We marry, we raise our children, send them off to places we have not seen. We love each other, or try to love. We map out what we think our lives will be. And all the while, we carry with us the knowledge that all this will end, that the end is built in to the beginning. Our fragile human bones.

Recently, I received some terrible, sad news. A 42-year-old woman, the daughter of family friends, took her own life after years of struggle with depression. We had spent time together, in the grade school years, L. and me. She was older enough than me to be preoccupied with very different things – chief among them, as I recall, a band called Menudo.

One afternoon, she made me call a radio station, pretending to be a television reporter (“You have a great voice,” she said. “You sound like Kaity Tong.”) to try to get free tickets to a Menudo concert. I do not understand the logic behind this, but at that age, when summoned to service, I complied. She gave me a script to read (something along the lines of: “Hi. I’m Kaity Tong from NBC news and I’d like tickets to the Menudo concert on July 7….) She made me call several times. Needless to say, whatever powers of oral persuasion I may have had at 12, I was not able to secure the tickets. I told her this, gravely, confused by my task, but disappointed nonetheless at the failure. She hugged me though, tightly, and laughed. “That’s OK. We’ll try again later.”

L. was boisterous and her personality was big. Her laugh was loud and infectious. When I saw her, at least, she was always exuberant. I did not see the dark days.

Our lives took separate paths and we did not stay in touch, but occasionally, I would hear news from my family about the various milestones – her first marriage, her divorce. Her remarriage. Her many years of trying to have a child.

“She just wants to have babies,” her mother would say. “She can’t do the one thing she wants to do.”

Dawn is breaking here. I think of my own dark days. I think of L. and how if you were in a room with her, and she was laughing, it was impossible to imagine darkness. I think of the women I know. Of my own children. I think about the day that is about to unfold before me. Like so many things these days, I don’t feel ready for it. Don’t feel qualified to rush ahead into these days, these months, this lifetime – this unknowable, baffling lifetime. That our lives are what they are – that mine is mine, and that L.’s was hers – stuns and stupefies me. May all of us – the living and the dead – find our peace.

pea shoots

Earlier this year, in the spring:

I am standing at the check-out line at the Whole Foods - the big one, on North Main. I am looking at my list - hastily scrawled on a slip of paper with orange ducks on it - and the young man behind the register asks: “Did you find everything ok?”

The answer, of course, should be: “Yes, yes thank you.”

But, today, I take the bait: “Actually, I was looking for fresh pea shoots, and I wasn’t able to find any.”

“Oh, I can help you with that.”

The moving belt that takes my items closer to their waiting bags, stops. 

He’s on the phone, calling the produce department. (“Produce,” he says, shaking his head. “Those guys are the hardest to get.”)

“I’ve got a customer looking for pea shoots.”

He nods, hangs up the phone. 

“They’re going to check in the back, but he thinks that’s it for today. There will be a delivery tomorrow morning, if you want to come back? After 10?”

I smile, thank him. “OK, I’ll do that.” And I think, yes, tomorrow, before I pick up the wine and flowers, I’ll swing by for the pea shoots. 

He carries on, dragging my items one by one across the scanner, and I think about my mother, what she would think of me, standing here with my micro greens, my sheep’s milk cheeses. 

My mother passed on to me her grocery shopping tips: Think about the layout of the store. When you make your list, group all the similar items together, and in the order they appear in the aisles - produce all together, and at the top of the list, then meats, then canned and boxed items together, then frozen foods, and last, dairy. This one I still do. It amuses M. to see my list - a bunch of items at the top of a sheet of paper and then a handful more at the very bottom with big spaces between. 

The other tip she swore by - bringing a small calculator with her and entering the price of each item you put in the cart - I have long since given up. 

My bags are overflowing. I have not thought about cost. We are entertaining guests this weekend and in the life I have now - so far from that of my mother and her pocket calculator - I am excessive:

Arugula to be dressed with cippollini onion vinaigrette; fresh ricotta to be spread on crusty bread with a drizzle of local honey and a sprinkling of sea salt.

Anjou pears so ripe and beautiful they make you want to cry when you bite into them - their flesh so tender, so white, the juice filling your mouth, running down your chin. The word luscious was invented for this. 

Fresh English peas, fiddlehead ferns, artisanal cheeses shaped like tiny inverted thimbles. 

A parcel of chocolates so pricey that watching the young man scan it makes me blush.

For a time, my mother worked as a grocery store cashier. There were years that she had trouble finding the work that she was trained to do - secretarial - and took instead, whatever assignments the temporary agency required, whether it was telemarketing or childcare, or late-shift grocery story check-out. And on most afternoons, when my sister and I would arrive home from school, we’d lie on the living room rug, watching MTV, eating tootsie rolls and “american” cheese slices until our stomachs ached.  

The transformation happens slowly, over time, from that first moment when you realize that the world you grew up in is not the world in its entirety. And you start to understand desires, aspirations, ambitions. Hunger. And you begin moving in the directions that your hunger dictates. But you don’t always feel it happening. 

Instead, you see yourself one day, as if looking down from a great height, fussing over pea shoots at an overpriced grocery store, in an expensive haircut and vintage-store jeans. You’re holding the keys to your hybrid. At home, in your overpriced house, your family waits for you. There are rose bushes lining your walkway. A purple clematis climbs up your back fence. And without warning, you think of your mother and her pocket calculator. You think of her hands, when she places them over yours as you sit beside her hospital bed. When she tells you, tears in her eyes, that there is not much money to leave you. When she hands you a small black booklet, shaped like a passport, that has recorded each transaction, each deposit into a savings account, for the last nineteen years, for as long as you have been her daughter. When she says that it is not much to show for a lifetime, but that it is for you. 

I tell this little incident - about the pea shoots - to my friends, to our guests over wine later that weekend, and to anyone who will listen. Not the part about my mother, just about wanting the pea shoots. About that moment of thinking “Who am I? And when did I start caring about pea shoots?” And we laugh, each for our own reasons, each with our own stories to tell.