Nothing needs to be this gorgeous, I wrote the other day in a poem. And nothing needs to be this bad either. Right after I wrote the poem, I knew that it had a corollary. Here on earth, there’s a Book of Job to any praise song. On my shelf is a poetry book by Deena Metzger called Ruin and Beauty. Another by Barbara Ras called Bite Every Sorrow. Halfway through Mark Doty’s beautiful, heart-breaking memoir about his lover’s death from AIDs he shifts out of the mode he’s been writing in, meditative, reflective, a man walking the shore and swamps and woods with his dogs slowly healing from years of sorrow. Halfway through the book, a friend dies in a car wreck and Doty’s back gives out. He gets a massage, realizes his body is holding measureless pain, bitterness, rage, self-pity, locked in the muscles and joints. As part one of the memoir ends and part two begins, he’s decided he must re-enter the pain, write out the years of his lover’s illness and death. All of his effort at care-taking locked his own suffering into his body. The only way to unlock that hold of pain is to walk toward it. That part of the book is called “Through.”
There’s no antidote to grief but grief, someone said. There’s no way around, only through.
I’ve been blessedly free of fear and grief and self-pity this last month, since leaving Alaska. But I know it’s a hiatus, and each morning, I write out my gratitudes as part of the ritual that begins my day, to remind myself that the gifts of equilibrium aren’t given endlessly to us, the way waves are, the way wind is. They are given the way a sighting of four magnificent frigate birds spiraling low over the our land is, and we just happen to drive up during the five minutes they are right there. The word “beatitude” comes into my mind, a relict of my Catholic upbringing. Gratitude, beatitude, sounds good, but what does the word mean? I look it up, find that the adjective beatus means “happy, fortunate, or blissful” and of course it’s the root of beauty. They are blessings, beautiful ones, and sometimes they are followed by mirroring woes. The beatitudes represent ideas of love, humility, mercy, compassion. It’s the old “blessed are the poor in spirit” and “blessed are the meek” along with those who weep, who hunger, who mourn and are persecuted or deprived. The beatitudes were meant as comfort. Those who mourn will be comforted, they say; that is the blessing of suffering. Some say the beatitudes have been used to subjugate people’s spirits. If we believe earth is just a way-station of suffering on our path to heavenly realms, we can tolerate any injustice. But for those of us who believe otherwise, perhaps a beatitude is simply a way of acknowledging the back and forth nature of beauty and terror, the mirror side of joy and suffering.
I’m experiencing a microscopic version of that duality. Mine today is this: family/solitude. This morning I stepped into the writing room alone, in a quiet house. Stepped back into my own writing life, a solitary place. We dropped Elli and Peter off at the airport yesterday, Eve and Eivin the day before that. When people fly away from an island, the sense of departure is magnified. They’ve left this chunk of earth behind. It’s been a month of family time, connecting with these grown-ups we raised, co-habiting, working together, gardening, planting, cooking, creating, adventuring, cleaning, even building sand castles. These three kids of Craig’s, when I first met them, gave me another stab at childhood. I loved so much to play with them, to invent magical realms in the woods with the girls, leading them once on a quest, in a cove in Aialik Bay to find Aphrodite’s garden. It was a ploy, honestly, to get them off the boat, to get them hiking in the rain. But we did find the garden, a forest carpeted in knee-deep moss, branches draped in witch’s beard. I can see twelve year-old Eve right now in my memory, lying in a cupping of moss under a huge hemlock, Aphrodite’s bed perfectly holding her body's shape like a palm. She’s in bright yellow raingear. I can hear Elli’s shrieks as she slides down a mossy slope on her rain pants, picking up speed, airborne after hitting a rock. I loved to fly kites with Lars. I knew deep down that even at eight he loved kite-flying less than I did. But perhaps got a kick out of my ridiculous joy in it. Last year, they found me returned from cancer treatment in a more somber state, less child-like, in the grip of fears I’d never faced before. This last month all the messages in cards I received reminded me to come home to that old joy. Craig’s card says, on the cover, “A day without laughter is a wasted day.” A quote by Charlie Chaplin. Elli gave me a pair of silver earrings called “Buckets of Joy.” (After swimming I have to overturn them; they fill with seawater). When I arrived in Hawaii, the first night, after I set up my little altar and meditated, I drew an Osho Zen card called “Celebration,” depicting three women dancing in the wind and rain. And it rained and blew a lot those first couple weeks here, and we celebrated. So now …
It’s a day of transition, finding my way back into myself, and asking, can I discover the ability to fly a kite or wander in the woods looking for – what? Some sort of magic, on my own, or with Craig? Can I be twenty-something-like sometimes all on my own? And it's back into myself again, from my identity as part of a family to my solitary identity, to the sense of being enough that writing brings, that it brought to me all last fall, the hours and hours alone at the kitchen table, writing the first draft of my book.
But first, a huge gape of loneliness greets the day, a pressure on my solar plexus, this miniature version of loss, of letting go, of goodbye, of time moving and constant change. I walked around the land last night with the dog, the dewy grass lit by the moon, startling sleeping birds from their roosts in the milo trees. The ocean washing into cove at the outflow of the gulch was a churned up platinum, light made liquid. When I paused there to watch the water, the dog paused too, sat on his haunches and looked in the direction I was looking. The lighthouse cast a brighter flare across the water over our faces. Perhaps the dog is a kind of mirror, too.
Now, at sunrise, Craig runs barefoot through the grass with the dog toward the tool shed, and I lose sight of him as he enters the orchard.
It s not anything like what Mark Doty went through, writing about Wally’s death. This is another, lesser event to travel through, letting the beings we raised go into their own lives, reclaiming ours. I watch Craig now walking back through the orchard, what, looking for mangoes? The dog standing there, watching him, watching to see what he’ll do next. Now they are trotting to the other side of the orchard.
I’m here in a place where dew is thick on the grass this morning, and silvery and I use words like “orchard” in January. And my lover walks barefoot. I’m alive here in this place, where I lower shades against the mid-day sun to cool my writing room. Now Craig walks back toward the house, calling to the dog, his arms laden with fruit and something he’s retrieved from the shed. Today I am knocking at the door to myself, asking to be let back in, after having walked along the edge of the cliffs under the moonlight, the cuffs of my pants wet from the dew, looking for something, perhaps finding it, perhaps carrying it in my arms, refusing to put it down, some magic, some light. And I’m looking out the window. I’m sad and happy now watching Craig place mangoes in a basket on the counter and boil water for our morning tea.