“‘Somehow’ is a weasel word; it means the author didn’t want to bother thinking out the story… When I teach science fiction and fantasy writing I ban the word. Nothing can happen ‘somehow,’” Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft
“Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then we’ll have tomorrows through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas, now”
Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
Ever since I first read what Ursula K. Le Guin said about the word “somehow” I’ve treasured it. When I saw the word in my work or in the work of others, I bristled and sought to rip it out of the sentence. Do better! Write better!
Now I’m not so sure. It’s impossible to effectively plot the outcome of a global pandemic. I mean, the scientists were able to give us some ideas of what might happen if we did or didn’t do x or y. But instead many of us were victims of magical thinking. Regardless of leadership, a global pandemic doesn’t leave a person with a great sense of what’s to come.
Given this level of uncertainty, maybe we need somehow more than ever?
The first time I heard “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” this year, I cried (and every time since, frankly). It spoke so well to this year of pandemic loss we are all muddling through somehow. Somehow seemed appropriate in this case because we don’t actually know how we’re going to make it through or if we will.
Then I let go a bit more of my hypervigilance and embraced the rest of the song about how next year maybe all of our troubles will be out of sight. We’ll be vaccinated and hugging and kissing and sitting with our loved ones. Our children will be in school. We’ll be traveling and going out to eat and having parties. It will all be great.
It will all be normal.
Will it though? Will there ever be normal again? We’ve all changed. Even those living in denial have changed (though they would deny it). To pretend that this mass collective trauma is not occurring doesn’t make it not occur and it doesn’t change the outcome.
I’ve found that what helps me is to embrace that things are different now. That we now know that wearing a mask helps protect everyone around us from whatever germs we carry. Maybe this will mean that our flu seasons in the future will be less devastating as people will be more likely to wear masks during flu season and to be more thoughtful about washing their hands. Maybe that young woman in my office building will now wash her hands after she goes to the bathroom. Maybe we’ll be more careful about touching door knobs and then touching our faces. Or about covering our mouth when we cough. We’ll know more about how we can work remotely and communicate effectively if need be. Our children will carry forward all that they have learned and be more appreciative of their time with friends.
Of course, we would all probably rather have not learned these lessons and wish more than anything that the lives and educations of our children had not been disrupted, but they have been. And so we grow.
There is no normal. There actually never has been. I know that’s scary to contemplate but repetition does not mean normal. And normal is a subjective word anyway. This is an opportunity to embrace change. Failing that, we can all just keep muddling through somehow and that’s okay too.
Here’s what I can say for certain: I’ll not take hugs from friends for granted and the touch of a human hand will mean so much more than it ever has before.
I’m holding out my hand to you. Let’s both be lights in this dark world.
When I was small, my mother taught me how to put a puzzle together. How you separate out the edge pieces and put them together first. Then you examine the image on the box and look for pieces that correspond. Slowly, you fill in the center, bring structure to chaos. Once you’ve put all of the pieces back together you’re done. But while the image is a replica of that on the box, it is not exact. Instead there are tiny fissures in between the pieces showing where they were broken apart. Where the cut was. Where the damage was done.
I read that jigsaw puzzles were enormously popular in the Great Depression. They were cheap and you could do them over and over again. My family and I had puzzles we would do over and over until the pieces were floppy and pliant or, worse, until pieces were missing.
The puzzle I worked on this week is a Christmas scene. A collage of old timey cards and posters and whatnot. Of course, it’s also Christmastime and I listened to music as I worked on the puzzle.
So much of the crooner Christmas music comes from WWII and the post-war era–the alleged golden age of the United States. But those people were completely fucking traumatized. They’d borne witness to horror and want and death and maiming and loneliness and grief. Many of them had lived through two horrific wars and a vast economic depression. And it had shaped them. I know this from my own parents. How the Depression and the World War II made them who they were, which was on the surface this gorgeous couple with their daughters and their suburban home and their vacations but beneath that everything was a soft piece of wood, sodden and collapsing from within.
But then my father died. Suddenly. One day he was alive and the next day he was dead. Alone. In his sleep. I was a child but I kept thinking of the calendar he had on his wall in his studio apartment where he was living away from us, my parents having separated. It was a calendar of nature scenes. The last one I had seen was a red barn in a green field with trees and mountains. An image of perfection. It reminded me of a jigsaw puzzle and my father was dead.
My own mother believed she would not die right up to the moment of her death. She believed she had gotten away from death. Escaped it. She was free. She was free. Then there was the fear in her eyes that morning as she was dying and I held her cold hand. In that moment I felt like I had failed her, failed to bring her peace, and so before she could die in front of me, I fled. Her death had been the thing I had feared my entire life and now it was there. Happening. The fear that had glued me in place released and I got into my rental car and drove to the airport but she was dead before I even reached the highway.
On Monday, my beloved friend died as I worked on this jigsaw puzzle. She died unexpectedly and I kept waiting for someone to tell me that it’s not true, as she was too young and vibrant. She was alive. I think of the time I was sick and she brought me chicken soup and stupid magazines. I think of her joy and hope and wonder at finding the house her parents had last lived in on the market and how she and her family took a leap of faith and bought the house and moved across the country.
At one point in the day, I am overcome with sadness and kneel down on the floor. My dog comes to me and I pet him. I put my hand where his heart is and lean my forehead against this back. He takes all of my emotion in and stands still beside me. The breath from his nose hot on my cheek. We stay on the floor together in the quiet as my friend had died and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to keep reaching out to see how she was feeling or to talk about beauty products or to get her sage advice on my personal heartbreak. I write her a message and hit send, “I love you. I can’t believe you’re gone.”
When a person dies suddenly the inability to say goodbye or make amends or whatever it is that is needed creates a sense of unreality about the loss. Weren’t you just here posting memes? Didn’t you just mow the lawn? I remember reading how Elizabeth Edwards kept looking for her son Wade after he died suddenly in a car crash. She said she opened drawers looking for him. Searched for him under beds. She, of course, also died suddenly the day after announcing that her cancer was untreatable.
So I kept working on the puzzle. Filling in the edges. Separating the pieces by similarity. Examining the image of what once was and creating this new image stitched together. I felt almost panicked as I fitted in the final pieces of this puzzle, unsure of what would happen when I was done. It felt like then I would have to say goodbye to her for good, to let go and feel her fade away.
Instead, I kept feeling. I told myself, Do not ignore your grief. Let it exist beside you, the ghost twin.
Examine the image that is your life more closely. Those cuts between the pieces represent the trauma. My trauma. Yours. Our collective trauma. A year of trauma capped off with more. Trauma isn’t easily integrated. It takes work to get past it otherwise you keep reliving it to try to get a different outcome. Without integrating the trauma, you keep trying to put the puzzle back together but you never quite get the pieces right and so you keep doing it over and over again, a pattern of loss and shame.
Grief is a process that requires expansiveness and curiosity. I will wander through my grief, a maze where sometimes I will be lost, or in despair, and often surprised by moments of joy and exquisite pain. I will wander through my grief. Fixing the edges. Creating order out of the chaos until I finally fill the image back and I see that acknowledging the cuts between the puzzle pieces was the most important part all along.
My beloved friend Nadine Darling died this week. A devoted mother of many children, a beloved wife, and a fiercely loyal friend, she will be dearly missed. If you have anything extra to give, please donate to this fund for her grieving family: https://paypal.me/pools/c/8vcoDCbG5O
December 2016 was the last time I did a year in preview. I was in a pretty dark place. What I didn’t know was how right I was about 2017 (except for the colonoscopy part. I didn’t have that until 2018).
The one huge thing I didn’t know was how fully and deeply I would fall in love in 2017. How I would find this miraculous partner in life. How at this time in my life when most people are winding down, I would continue to build up and reach for the future with a man I love by my side. We took 2018 by storm, buying a house and moving our family. Giving ourselves the space to stretch out with a lawn and a creek and a beaver dam (with an actual beaver in it). It’s been quite a year, as was 2017 before it.
Let this be a reminder to you, out of your darkness there is always the opportunity for light.
Now it’s time to keep moving.
I will witness my beloved child as he graduates from elementary school.
I will write again.
I will continue to teach my workshop students and expand the circle outward to bring in more students.
I will continue therapy.
I will fully and completely love my ever-expanding family.
Wishing you all peace and light.
I hold anxiety in my breath like a flameless candle, burning and unburnt. The bones of my hips hold memories, chipped, melting into my womb. My fingers hold malice and death, grasping at cruelty with tips made rough by want. The long bones of my thighs hold the night we found each other. Open, unafraid. Your love exists in the skin pushed taut across my breastbone, scarred and freckled. Fresh paper for your words. Smooth winter. Crystalline and velvet. Never entered. Never turned away. Planed by trauma, by grief. Risen by your breath.
My baby came into the world through an incision. Cesarean. They wanted to try the suction. The forceps. I refused. He wasn’t moving. My baby.
Later, the doctor told me it wouldn’t have worked. We made the right choice. His birth. His birthday.
Soon it is my own birth day. I don’t know much about the story of my birth. My parents are long dead. Like most things about my infancy, there is no one to ask.
I remember the day my own mother turned 50. Our father was dead. Our stepfather was dying. My sisters and I took her to Pizza Hut. We laughed. We ate. We all drank the cheap wine even though most of us were not old enough.
On her final birthday, my mother wanted to go to the beach. She wanted ham sandwiches. We brought her there. One of those drive on beaches in Florida where she lived. She was dizzy and fell over on the sand. It was less than a month before she would die.
She was 19 years older than I am at my birthday. I was six years older than my son would be if I died at 69. I am a year and a half older than my father was when he died. My son is now five months younger than I was when my father died.
I make these calculations constantly. Buying time. Figuring out what is enough.
But there is never and will never be enough time. Other than love, it’s all that matters. Here begins my next fifty years. I am counting each hour, minute, second. The sand. The stars.
There was only the shimmer of life. A hologram of what was not. There is the part that is not the hologram. The part that is breath. And scent. The part that is hair and skin and blood.
I bump into a friend and we talk about therapists. He tells me a funny/sad story about his old one and I tell him about how I have decided to dump mine because the last time I saw her she tried to make me feel bad because she forgot it was our appointment time and left me waiting.
Our appointment was at 12. “It’s only 12:07,” she said. I was the one who emailed her to remind her after waiting outside. She has no waiting room. One must wait on the stoop until the last patient changes the sign over to open. No one changed the sign because there was no last patient. She had left it occupied herself.
She makes $200 an hour and I make considerably less than that an hour and all of my time is money ticking away.
I am irked by her but I stay in the appointment anyway because she tells me she will charge me for it regardless.
I sit down and cross my arms across my chest like a teenager. I do not want to give her a free hour that she gets paid for.
I immediately weep.
A few hours earlier I had left my child at school after having him for five days and I am an open wound. I have thrown myself onto the land mine.
We talk. I allow myself to open up because fuck it. She will hear me. She is being paid. She is taking this time from my paycheck.
My child is away from me.
Her cat begins to scratch frantically at the door. Are you allergic? Can I let her in? she asks.
She is home alone. Her partner or husband or whatever is not there and the cat is needy.
I say, of course.
The glass door handle breaks off in her hand. The door cannot be opened. She has a Victorian house. It’s for sale.
The cat mews and she frets over her cat during our session. She is worried. I can tell. This cat needs her.
I think of my son. I think of how she left me waiting on her stoop.
I think about how we talked about me feeling inconsequential last session.
I praise the broken door handle. I praise it. I know that all she can focus on is her cat. I talk on and on.
Last week, I felt like you didn’t even really need to see me again, she said. You’re so together.
You talk to me like you know me better than I know myself but no one knows anyone as well as I know you, I want to say to her.
She tells me I courageous. She tells me how many women sit on the other side of where I sit and just keep sitting there because they are scared.
You are courageous, she says.
But I don’t need her to tell me that. I leave without making another appointment.
There is the part that is not the hologram and that part is love. It is love. The love of my child, which is as rich and miraculous as dark soil in spring. Then there is the love of myself which is a cat behind an unopened door with a broken handle.
My final communications with her will about her payment. This is, after all, a business and she is nothing if not mercenary.
It must be expensive to live in that state of constant upkeep. The large Victorian house. The cat on the other side of the door. The quiet rooms. The time ticking away behind the occupied sign.
It must feel like something heavy and smothering. A pillow over the face. A moon clouded over. It must feel.
Now it is spring and snow continues to fall, splashing wetly against windowpanes. We know it will not last on the ground forever but it can make you feel like winter has not and will not ever end.
If you let it, that is.
There have been times in the past year or so when my periods of transition have threatened to crush me with feelings of fear and hopelessness. Times when I let myself believe that the crusty snow, covered in filth from all that winter has brought, will never melt away and reveal the tender ground beneath.
Indeed, I have allowed a massive wall of hardened snow to grow around me in that I no longer feel like a writer. Despite my saying to myself constantly and consistently, “You should write today,” I find many reasons and excuses not to. The truth is that there is no one and nothing to blame but myself. Indeed, I’m responsible for my own abduction. I’m the one who brought me underground and would not let me rise. I’m the one who has kept myself in this perpetual winter.
Now, it’s time for me to push up and out. To rise.
I will and return to this mother who is always there for me. The one who comforts me when I’m lost and reminds me what it is I have come here to do and that is to make sense of this world through my words and to seek out my vulnerability and reveal it to the light.
You, rise with me. Your heart is strong and your voice true. Sing out and welcome the spring of your words. Do not be afraid.
It is the coldest day of winter so far. Well below zero. We are up before sunrise and loading the baby in the car because today is the day I become an American citizen. I have lived in this country since I was 11 but as I was brought here and did not come by choice, my decision was a long time in coming. My wish was to become an American before the vote in November so that I could vote for Barack Obama. I missed out by several months but for his inauguration, I will be one of you.
I am sitting with my fellow immigrants. I have a mixture of emotions. Fear, a slight tinge of sadness, but mostly I feel joy. The wait in the courtroom is long but we don’t mind. We have all been waiting a long time for this day and we approach it with determination.
Soon the judge is before us and we pledge ourselves to this country, the United States of America. We were not born here but we choose to remain here among you, as one of you.
Today, I pledge myself to you again, my fellow Americans. I pledge myself to you citizens, and immigrants, and I especially pledge myself to those of you who are the most vulnerable, including the undocumented, who are still protected under our laws.
I face these dark days with my heart full of love for this country and her people and though I resist the terrifying change before us, I am still one of you and will be forevermore.
This could pass over or through but your eyes are not clouded. The leafless branches of the tree hold up the nest just like your empty heart will expand, refill.
Let go of that dark time before. Let it seep away. It was never anything more than a halo around your brightness. Nothing more than a trick of the eye and the heart.
All you have to do is open your hand and take it. Take it all. Now.
Be brave, soul. Recognize that moment when everything is full.
Last year when I wrote my preview post, I was in a much different place in my life than I am now. I was in the thick of breaking myself down to the core. Now, that core has been reinforced and all that I am radiates from it and becomes again. This new me.
2016 was the year of me understanding my capabilities. It was the year of me bleeding all of my blood onto the ground and letting it soak in and feed these new roots.
From these roots came me, my child, our new life.
This year I stood before a judge and said, yes, we are breaking apart what no man can put asunder. We are humans and we are doing what only God can do.
There is a great deal of pain in admitting your failure.
What a lifetime of writing has taught me is that failure means learning and I am determined to learn from this one. As I have.
I will continue to raise my child up in every way–physically, emotionally, spiritually.
I will turn 50 and have a colonoscopy.
I will trust my intuition (that voice inside you speaks to you for a reason. Never stuff it down. Peril awaits you if you do).
I will turn my face to this broken self and take her in my arms. She needs me and so I will learn to love her in a way that no one else can. I will raise myself up in every way.
You. You raise yourself up. Bring your new self forth into the light of this day and gaze upon her. She is bruised but not completely broken. I see her magnificence.
I see you.
I bought some of those LED candles for our windows for the holidays. So easy. No wires. But I accidentally broke the glass flame of the one in my room (I had a spare). Such a small, fragile bulb, but the glass went everywhere. It took me a long time to clean it and I still stepped on pieces along the way.
Tonight a piece fell onto the floor from seemingly nowhere as I was getting into my pajamas. I thought of the heart. How your heart can be fractured into millions of tiny fragments and you try to clean them all up and you think you’re doing a pretty good job of it. At least superficially no one can tell that anything is broken. But every once in a while you find a piece and quickly scoop it up and throw it in the trash. Oh and then you step on something and it’s another damn piece and it wedges in your toe and hurts you for a while but then that pain goes away too.
And then you forget about the pain. You move on. You start to feel okay again. And then good. And then great. But then a piece of glass tumbles onto the ground in front of you and as you pick it up you cut yourself and you remember again.
But the supply of glass needn’t be endless. Eventually you will run out of glass if you let yourself.
It was the smallest light bulb after all, even though it did burn so brightly when it was lit, letting passersby know that you were there, inside, alive.
Go. Find your own bulb to replace it with. A bulb that, while just as fragile as the last, will burn brightly still. A beacon. Hope shining out in the darkness.
Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, ple…