My damned stubborn blind, crippled 33-year old Appaloosa horse is dead. We had to shoot him and bury him yesterday. I'm grieving and being stoic and grieving again. I loved that horse. I feel like my childhood has finally died. Well, I'm 31. I guess it had to happen sometime.
My 94-year old elderly aunt is entering hospice care. It won't be long now before we're celebrating her life. A World War II WAC and widow of three husbands, she's forgotten more about life than I'll ever learn. Her wish was for my father to build her casket. He started today. It's going to be a hard week.
It feels perverse to be given all of these reasons to celebrate the life I have and want to do nothing but steep in self-pity. I've grieved more than my three decades should have allowed, but that's the price of a life loving addicts, daredevils and depressives.
After a while you get really good at grief. You let it roll through you and shake you like an early fall storm: sobs, tears and sorrow. A respite, blue skies. Another flurry.
You hear stories of midlife crises, of slowing metabolisms, child-raising, mortgage rates and other third-decade problems, but few people prepare you for the beginning of the dying years. It starts with your childhood pets and progresses onto your grandparents. Your parents begin to lose their faculties. Your wilder friends overdose or careen off bridges or get snatched away by a simple twist of fate or some squamous cells that won't behave. It slows for a while, an Indian summer, then begins again, and before you can appreciate the respite you realize that winter has begun in earnest. When middle age becomes old age and everyone you shared a life with begins to leave before you, that's when you realize that the storm is here to stay.
Grief isolates me and strips my life to its bones. I have no children, no home, no spouse, no permanency. The life of a lone person is a life with only grief to anticipate. In the shower, washing the salt from my face, I feel death standing behind me like an omnipresent lover.
Ah but, this is the morbidity of self-pity. You're allowed at least one dark night of the soul in grief, before you shuck it off and get on with the business of living. I would be lying if I didn't admit that I appreciate the opportunity grief allows me to wallow in stagnation, to tune out and do nothing and allow no one in. But pouting gets boring after a while. And self-pity is the enemy of usefulness.
Neil Gaiman delivered a now-famous commencement speech in which he advised us, in the face of adversity, to "make good art." Husband ran off with a politician? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Above all, make good art.
It's good advice, because an artist's duty above all is to create something of use to their audience. Even the single, the childless, the impermanent drifters like me can build a foothold in life through good work. This is what I realized yesterday, that the best argument for doing your best work at all times is its sustaining power when grief runs over you. Your work will build a foundation that can stand any squall. Your work can build a hearth that will warm you in the winter of your years. If that work is poetry, counseling, farming or motherhood, to do something of use to the world is to practice gratitude. And what is gratitude but the opposite of self pity? Self-pity turns us inward, focuses our eyes on the grayscale of our limited ego. Gratitude turns us outward, brings the colors of the world into sharp relief, reveals the grand glittering mosaic of a world that does not revolve around the limits of self-absorption.
Last night, in the shower, washing the salt from my face, I felt a presence behind me. It wasn't death. Death was sitting at someone else's bedside, easing them into sweet release from suffering. Death is not interested in the living, and is annoyed at our sophomoric absorption with its presence. Death's metaphor is not that of a lover, because a lover is not defined just through constancy, but love and reciprocity. A lover is made through giving and receiving love. I turned and found my work waiting to fold me into its arms.