Geez, I’m starting to feel like I’m preaching about this! For the record, I am not the wise woman you think I am. I’ve just gotten good at observing the journey, and sharing what I’ve learned along the way.
Yesterday’s post shared my latest insight on forgiveness, and anger, thanks to an article I read a few days ago. Today, I’m sharing an exercise that helped me–and a lot of people in our grief writing class–get over a major bump in life. (Like, a big rock in the middle of the road kind of bump.)
In hospice, there were certain deaths that were especially hard to deal with, and they weren’t the ones you’d expect. Yes, losing someone we’ve had a beautiful relationship is hard, hard, hard, no matter how gentle or peaceful their leaving.
But there are other deaths we call “complicated”. Perhaps it was a terrible bit of fate: An accident that yanked them out of lives suddently, horribly. Perhaps a suicide, where we are nearly destroyed by our helplessness to change anything. Maybe they were murdered. (This was my first person to write about, because their murder haunted me for decades.) Perhaps the person was struggling with addiction, with all the incumbent behaviors associated with that. Perhaps the person had mental health issues. Or perhaps they were abusive, or narcissistic, or simply toxic, or a sociopath, which feels more like a choice and hurts even more.
They have moved on. But sometimes we can’t.
In our grief writing workshop created through the agency I volunteered with, we dealt with people who were suffering from grief long past the “normal” length of time. (Although in our society, our “normal” is extremely short by any standard.) For many reasons, people could not feel the pain soften enough to take up their “normal” lives again. And because I’m a writer, I geared the class towards people who process life’s puzzles and muddy places through writing themselves.
I put together together various writing activities to use throughout the six-week sessions. But the most powerful one, originally my idea but modified to an even more powerful excercise by my supervisor, we saved for the next-to-last session.
It broke me very single time.
Imagine the person whose death is haunting you, crushing you. Imagine them now, whatever your own religious/spiritual beliefs (or non-belief) are. Imagine them in a different place in the universe, one where they are fully healed and restored to the best possible version of themselves they could be.
Now write a letter, from them, to you.
Every single class struggled with this concept.
“We write a letter to them.”
“No, imagine the letter they would write to YOU.”
“But…they would never do that!” (or “Wha……??!!)
Again, imagine. Imagine they are now a whole, healed, healthy, redeemed entity, somewhere. They are aware of their actions, they are everything you could have wanted them to be, here.
What would they say to you?
Now write that down!
Everyone would struggle with this concept. They hesitated to write. They would write a few words, frown, heave a sigh, look out the window. “Just write,” I’d say. “Just keep writing.”
So they did.
And then the words, and the tears, poured out.
People sat and scribbled for a long, long time. They cried. We cried. I still cry, just thinking about it.
I’d wait until everyone was done. No timer on this one!
And then, we offered them the chance to share, or not share, what they’d written.
Everyone wanted to share.
It was heart-breakingly beautiful. And it worked.
What they’d written was exactly what they wanted, and desperately needed to hear.
It was a tangible exercise in forgiveness. No excuses, no false apologies, probably something that would never ever happen in “real time”, in “real life.” It helped us understand that the person either could not choose, or chose not to be this “whole, healed person” in real life.
Like I learned and shared in yesterday’s post, we cannot change other people. We cannot change the past. We cannot control the future. We cannot control our feelings, only our actions.
It let us finally disengage from the pain, accept what it is, and let go.
It helped us imaginewhat that release, that act of forgiveness, could have looked like, and put it into action, now.
When I ran this class, I ran out of people to write about. Some co-workers (co-volunteers??) had the same problem. And one session, we realized we had all chosen pets to write about! One person imagined so deeply, her beloved dog had “written” “Dear Mom”. I magined my beautiful cat Gomez addressed me as “Kind Lady”, because he knew I wasn’t his mom, but he knew I loved him.
Even as I write this, I realize it’s time to do this again. It’s time to write those letters. There’s been a lot of loss in our little family lately. Time to take my own advice, and take that next healing step.
P.S. If you would like to try this writing exercise, but are a little unsure about it, do it with a good friend or two. Someone who loves you in all the right ways, all the best ways. Maybe you can both do it, together, and share your stories. For some reason, a witness is powerful magic.
And I promise to write about something cheerful next time!
It was the last day of December, the last day of 2018. It’s been a hard year in so many ways. I don’t know whether to embrace or watch with suspicion the dawn of this new one. Do I move forward with hope, and courage? Or do I hunker down until it’s safe to come out?
I’m a fan, and not just because I love her poetry for what it is to me. I used several of her works when I created a grief writing workshop as a hospice volunteer. Her poems are accessible, full of the beauty of small moments in nature, with a big bang of wonder and insight inside. They always draw a gasp of amazement, and they often make us cry.
I don’t know much about her. I only recently discovered she was in a relationship with a woman, Mary Malone Cook, for over 40 years, and her partner died in 2005 I didn’t know about the hardship and abuse she suffered as a child. I didn’t know she lived in Ohio but took up New England as her home years later. And as I read “Blueberries”, with her musings about eating blueberries year round, something new for her, I wondered where she lives now.
And so I Googled “Mary Oliver where does she live now” and came across a Wikipedia entry. And found this somewhat disturbing entry in “Critical Reviews”:
Vicki Graham suggests Oliver over-simplifies the affiliation of gender and nature: “Oliver’s celebration of dissolution into the natural world troubles some critics: her poems flirt dangerously with romantic assumptions about the close association of women with nature that many theorists claim put the woman writer at risk.” In her article “The Language of Nature in the Poetry of Mary Oliver”, Diane S. Bond echoes that “few feminists have wholeheartedly appreciated Oliver’s work, and though some critics have read her poems as revolutionary reconstructions of the female subject, others remain skeptical that identification with nature can empower women.” In The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review, Sue Russell notes that “Mary Oliver will never be a balladeer of contemporary lesbian life in the vein of Marilyn Hacker, or an important political thinker like Adrienne Rich; but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”
I had to stop reading.
Who are these people??
Who are they to judge a poet’s work based on how “political” her thinking is, or how much she aligns publicly with her gender?
My husband, an English major as an undergrad, contemplated a career in academia briefly. He says this is exactly why he didn’t pursue it. “It’s just academic-speak”, he says.
I think it’s more than that.
Someone is saying Mary Oliver is “not doing it right”.
They are saying she is not enough.
Jon said, “You read poetry? I haven’t read any poetry since college!” What?!“You haven’t read “Wild Geese?!”
by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Even as I tried to read it aloud to Jon, I knew I couldn’t. Tears were already welling up. I handed him my phone to read it.
Or how about “Summer Day”?
by Mary Oliver
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I’ve rarely enjoyed poetry “analysis”. I’ve never understood the desire to write in specific forms or meters as a professional challenge, unless the rhythm and patterns lend themselves to even deeper feelings of connection. (As in Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”:
by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
I understand there are hidden gifts in complex musings, and challenges that can deepen our experience. It’s like doing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle as opposed to the 5-minute versions that always appear in our local newspaper.
But there are reasons it’s okay for poetry to be accessible, and simple.
It’s okay not to speak for everyone. Geez, white guys of Northern European descent have been doing it for years.
It’s okay for a writer to simply share what’s in their heart.
It’s okay to make people cry with our beautiful words.
If I Wanted A Boat by Mary Oliver, Blue Horses
“I would want a boat, if I wanted a
boat, that bounded hard on the waves,
that didn’t know starboard from port
and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed
dolphins and headed straight for the
whales, that, when rocks were close,
would slide in for a touch or two,
that wouldn’t keep land in sight and
went fast, that leaped into the spray.
What kind of life is it always to plan
and do, to promise and finish, to wish
for the near and the safe? Yes, by the
heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want
a boat that I couldn’t steer.”
What do I hear in this?
It takes courage to let go of trying to control our future.
Or this one:
WHAT GORGEOUS THING
by Mary Oliver
I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning. I like it
whatever it is. Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can’t and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.
It tells me it’s okay to seek solace in the tiny moments in life. To hold the simplest things and see. To listen. To wonder.
They won’t fix everything. Maybe they won’t fix anything.
But if they give me a teensy break, a moment of relief and respite, I’m taking it, with gratitude.
Fortunately for my mood today, I came across this lovely article by Ruth Franklin in The New Yorker: What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand. It helped me back to my happy place. Still, a few off remarks: Oliver didn’t write much about her lover, and she rarely writes about the dark places in her life. Such a lack “…flattens her range….” in the opinion of this writer.
Whatever. I’ve been writing articles, essays, and blog posts for almost two decades. I never write about my relationship with my husband, and although I write about what it feels to be in dark places, I keep away from the deeply personal. And don’t bury myself in the dark.
I don’t, except in my “blort book”, because it’s my dark place. Yes, it’s part of me. But I get to decide how much I share, and when, and how.
When I’ve had suicidal thoughts (and I’ve had them all my life), I know what they are: A response to the despair and hopelessness I’m overwhelmed with. I also know it will pass. It looks like an escape, but I know it will only bring enormous pain to those I leave behind.
(To be perfectly frank, I’m also a chickenshit. I’m afraid I’d mess it up and have to live with pain, and shame, and disability the rest of my life. So no, I’m not gonna do it.)
But most people will “hear” a plea for help. They will respond with a “solution”, a “fix”.
There isn’t one. Or at least, it’s never the right one.
My truth: I’m kinda hard-wired to be in mild despair. I always expect the worst.
But I choose to look for the light instead. I chooselook for the life lesson that will help me move forward. I choose to seek out the folks I know I can trust, who know who I am, and who I want to be, to help me find my way back.
I also want to respect my partner’s privacy. We’ve been together 40 years. That wouldn’t be true if he weren’t a good human being, worthy of love, who is simply trying to do the best he can. He has saved my sanity a jillion times. At his best, he meets me where I am, and helps me take a step forward. At his worst, he is bad about cleaning up after himself. Not too shabby, in my book.
I even want to protect the privacy of those who have hurt me. It’s on me to work my way back to the light. They have their own story, and it may involve things I know nothing about, no matter how much pain they’ve created for me.
That’s my choice. It doesn’t make me “less than”. (Yes, I am a proud member of the “#metoo” moment, but it’s just not for public consumption. For now.)
I’m not going to hold it against Mary Oliver, either.
Thank heaven for the last part of that “critic review” section by Sue Russell:
“…but the fact that she chooses not to write from a similar political or narrative stance makes her all the more valuable to our collective culture.”
So go forward today, with the joy you find in the small things. For me today, it’s Noddy wanting a drink from the kitchen faucet. Chai trying to sneak a lap of milk from my cereal bowl. Tuck wanting a butt-scritch. Jon reassuring me that academic critics live in a world of their own making, and not to worry about it.
For the last few years, I’ve been teaching writings workshop for people who are grieving the death of someone close, at a non-profit hospice agency here in Keene. Using journaling, simple poetry writing exercises and sharing our scribblings, we gently help each other move forward in our grieving process.
These classes are always powerful, small miracles made visible in the world. They’ve been so successful, I’m developing an art collage workshop, too. We had our second class last night, and I’m amazed how quickly the group has come together already.
In all these sessions, I’m always anxious when I walk into the room. I remember calling my supervisor, the wise woman known as Lorraine, my first week in. “These people are in such pain!” I exclaimed. “I’m so afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, or be too flippant, and hurt them more.”
“People are pretty tough,” Lorraine said frankly. “Trust me, you’re not going to break them!”
She was right, of course. I am constantly amazed at how courageous and strong these people are, shattered as they are by grief. They shine brightly. I learn so much from them, much much more than I teach them.
But I still worry at the start of every session, and I’m anxious at every meeting. When we write, first thing, the three words that describe how we’re feeling, mine are almost always, “Anxious, Unprepared, Clumsy.”
Until the miracle happens. The power of writing what is in our hearts, and sharing our pain, is a balm. The magic of hearing the voices throughout the ages who have suffered the same pain, the same unbearable sense of loss, echoing in our modern day hearts, somehow helps the healing process.
And by the end of class, we’ve wept, we’ve hugged, we’ve shared, we’ve remembered, and we’ve laughed. All in one brief hour.
The last few days, I’ve been pulling together more poetry to bring to these sessions. Here’s one I found last week:
FOR THOSE WHO HAVE DIED
ELEH EZKERAH – These We Remember
‘Tis a fearful thing
What death can touch.
To love, to hope, to dream,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
But a holy thing,
To love what death can touch.
For your life has lived in me;
Your laugh once lifted me;
Your word was a gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
A holy thing,
What death can touch.
Judah Halevi or
Emanuel of Rome – 12th Century
I read this to the group. “This was written over a thousand years ago,” I said. “Someone felt this way, and wrote these words to you, people he knew he would never know nor meet. He wrote these words because he knew you would be here, today, and he knew you would need to hear them.”
I also love that people now share their favorite poetry with me. I mentioned that I needed more poems on loss and grieving to some friends. One said, “Oh, you have to read Rilke! He’s good for grieving!” An odd phrase, but I found it to be so true. I found this today:
“Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower”
by Rainer Maria Rilke translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29
And as I wrap up my preparations for the last class in this session, I find this one grabbing at my heart:
I live my life in big circles
that surround all things,
that circle around all that is.
Maybe i will not complete the last circle,
But i will attempt it.
I circle around God
that ancient tower,
and I have been circling
for centuries and millennia,
And i do still not know: am i a falcon,
a storm, or the Great Song.
– Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Br. David Steindl-Rast