Friday, March 21, 2014

Grief and Art


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.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Not Pregnant, Just Fat


From the very beginning, our bodies are a statement of who we are to the world. Our size, our length, our hair and where we have it, our wardrobes, our smiles and lack thereof. We are pinched, prodded, chided, lectured, groomed, teased, assessed,whistled at, slapped, stroked, demeaned and occasionally filmed with our heads conveniently cropped out of the shot as news anchors click their tongues at our flab. It's not easy being a human with a vehicle of flesh, bone and muscle to pilot. It's not easy being a woman in a world where you're constantly told, explicitly or implicitly, that you have a duty to be an aesthetic object. Six months after quitting smoking (hooray!) and fifteen pounds later, I occasionally feel like I'm putting on a drag show just to get dressed to be out in the world. All of the flattering folds and drapey shirts and elastic waist skirts and carefully applied makeup to recreate the confidence that came so easily when I could fit into my favorite pair of jeans. Yeah, I know, confidence can come at any size and it comes from within and blah blah blah, but, BUT--that's not the point of this post. My point is I have nothing to complain about--NOTHING--compared to my pregnant friends.

I felt the first stirrings of sympathy a while back when I was wearing an empire waisted dress and an older woman put her hand on my stomach and said, "Oooooh, baby!"

To which I replied, "Nope, just fat."

She was embarrassed. I was annoyed. The dress is gathering cobwebs in the back of my closet.

But goddamn are we nosy and rude to pregnant people! It's not acceptable to put your hands on a stranger's stomach without asking them! Pregnancy hormones are scary--you could lose a finger! Boundaries!

Why is it that when we find out someone is pregnant it's suddenly acceptable to ask them all kinds of personal and intrusive questions, like whether or not they're having a home birth or going to breast
 feed or etcetera or etcetera? I know that we want to be helpful, but most women have access to fellow mothers and the internet. Can't you just say "Congratulations!" and leave it at that?

As someone who has had multiple pregnant friends, I am totally guilty of the following faux pas:

"How are you feeling?" (Earnest tone.)

Totally fine once or twice, but not every freaking time you see your pregnant friend! Don't you think they might be tired of being asked whether they're exhausted and overwrought by everyone all of the time? Don't you think they might appreciate the opportunity to be more than their pregnancy for a few minutes, to be treated the same way you treated them before they got knocked up? (Minus the tequila shots.)

And from what I understand, scrutiny only intensifies once you actually have your kid. Are you breastfeeding? If not, why not? Did I see you take a sip of wine/eat some spicy food/drink some coffee? Isn't that bad for the breastmilk? Have you gone back to work yet? Surely, you should be spending all the time you can with him. How are you feeling? Oooh, let me squeeze his little toes! (Strangers: keep your grimy hands off my friends' babies! Germs!)

I'm not even going to go into the volume of unsolicited, uneducated parenting advice that's out there, advice that I, the non-parent, have been guilty of giving myself.

Sigh. I know we just want to be helpful, and a lot of this is human nature. If we all lived in a happy little village or tribe maybe it would be acceptable. But we don't. Once upon a time women were sequestered for the length of their pregnancy, their appearance on the street or a mention of their condition unseemly. I'm glad that's not the case anymore. Today, when gossip magazines predict endlessly on apparent celebrity "baby bumps" and parenting has become a competitive sport, pregnancy has followed roughly the trajectory of the bare midriff. Once hidden, now fetishized, never truly our own. As long as women's bodies are subject to this sort of public chaperoning, we will be tied to the era of literal slavery where being born female meant having your life arranged for you by men.

There's no need to give up all of your concern or good intentions for your pregnant friend. Just consider that whatever you're about to say, they've probably heard it a dozen times already today. They're people, not baby-carrying devices.

Now, I'm not pregnant, just fat, so how about some oyster shooters and black coffee?

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Small Town Shuffle

It's awkward. You see them at Wildberries, smile, say hello, hug, catch up briefly. Maybe they're with their new love, and there are some awkward introductions, a sizing up, a mental dressing down. You walk away wondering if the new person knows your significance, if your ex has spoken of you. You run into them again in a different aisle and chuckle and say some awkward hokey words then skitter away leaving half your shopping list unfulfilled.

Or you go over to his house for a mundane reason. He still has a book you need or is selling a table or you just want to see his kids. And the band you bonded over is playing and the smells of his kitchen and the sudden flash of his smile take you back to that first week when a song could make you grin and you found excuses to say his name. And you think maybe, maybe, maybe there's something I overlooked or didn't try hard enough to overlook and it could really, actually, all work out.

So sit still. Don't get up and fold into his arms. Wait a little while. Watch for when his face turns dark and he pauses for minutes before answering a question and remember how it inspired all of your insecurities. Let yourself remember the sense of humor you never shared, how it was never really easy, how for all of the effort you both put in for the most part it didn't seem like he was ever really there, really present.

And when you walk out of the grocery store with half the items on your list to a house that's fully yours, waiting for you to fill it with the scent of a food that you don't have to make more or less spicy for someone else, say a little prayer or gratitude for the new person and hope that they're making your once upon a time almost the real thing old lover happy, even if the prayer seems insincere. Say it anyway.

We shouldn't bemoan the fact that in this small town we see our lost loves over and over. When we see them over and over we get to remember why we're not with them anymore. They're not fictionalized into something that might have worked out. Humboldt is full of the loves that almost made it. Humboldt is full of love.