I wanted to come to the page today in a more cheerful frame of mind, to close these waning days of 2012 with a little levity. But with Sandy Hook still unbearably in mind and a number of losses closer to home in the past months, I am having difficulty getting there. I have this tendency to want to fix things, both in my life and in my writing. I want happy endings, for my loved ones and for my characters. But I cannot always make that happen, not if I’m being truthful. The truth is that sometimes we have to stay in the dark awhile.
How hard it is to write about grieving. The poets have figured it out: the elegy. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to write an elegy, only that the form has a rich tradition. I admire the elegy’s singularity, its clear directness of purpose: Reader, I come in sorrow.
I recently started a poem, in which I wrote these lines: “Out the car window I see the dizzying reel of the world unspool/while I sit in freeze frame/arrested in the grainy light of grief.” I am trying to capture a moment after my father’s death, on the ride back to my hometown. My world had stopped while the rest of the world kept on in great, defiant motion. What a wonderfully hopeful idea in other contexts — life persists, damn it — but of course I couldn’t see that then. Clarity is not grief’s strong suit. It prefers fog and numbness, perhaps to protect the self from what we are unable to look at directly.
I think of that freeze-frame moment now because so often I think I recognize it in the faces of mourners close to home and around the globe, in the heavy lines, the unfocused stares. That gaping, unshakeable loneliness. How do you shake it? How do you “get over it”?
What I have come to understand is that I am not sure that you do. No, it’s not paralyzing as in those early days, blessedly. For many, in time their worlds start moving again, in fits and starts, sometimes at a tortoise crawl, sometimes at glorious rushing speed. But that grief is still there, transformed but indelible, persistent in the shadows and in the sun.
For a better answer, I turn to poetry again, this time Jack Gilbert’s well-known “Michiko Dead”:
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm which is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
The optimist, happy-ending fixer part of me wants the speaker of that poem to come to a time where he can set down the box, to find a safe place to store it, to realize that it’s okay to let it go. But the more likely possibility is that it will become such a part of him that he’ll forget he’s carrying it. On a lovely spring day, he’ll walk down the street and catch sight of himself in a store window, and he’ll be surprised that it’s still in his arms after all of these years.
I leave 2012 with a line from Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering/there is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.”
My wish for 2013: Peace and love.