Putting My Shaken House in its New Order: What 2020 Has Taught Me

I normally compose a year-end post discussing the books I’ve read and how my reading, writing and thinking about literature progresses and shifts over the course of time. I contemplate my ever- evolving literary choices in light of what George Steiner writes in his essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order.”

But this year I’ve read fewer books then ever and a personal tragedy has overshadowed every aspect of my life. It seems much more fitting to write a post about what I’ve learned about myself—how my perceptions and views of the life, love, happiness and the people around me, have shifted over the course of the past 6 months. Every day I feel like I struggle to do what Steiner describes in that last sentence: put my shaken house in its new order.

I was riding home with a good friend today and we were having a discussion that comes up often between us—attempting to look for the positive that comes out of a tragedy. But there is no silver lining, so to speak, to my story or my daughter’s—at least not yet anyway. A husband, a father, a teacher being tragically killed while doing what he loves most. Where is the sense, the positive spin to that? It’s nearly impossible to find something, anything. But this struggle and this pain have taught me many valuable lessons most of which are admittedly cliche or mundane. But I share them nevertheless for those who look at me with sympathy, pity, and yes, even horror, because life is so damn unfair and this could happen to any one of us.

In the days and weeks immediately after my husband’s death I learned practical things which I believe helped me to keep moving forward and keep my mind from sinking into an abyss of despair. How to plan a funeral, how to get a body home across state lines, how to deal with coroners and autopsies and police reports, how to hire a lawyer, are just a few of these tasks that carried me on day after day after day. And then began the numerous household tasks that occupied me—and still do—how to run the generator, how to deal with the tank for the well, how to figure out what’s wrong with my leaky sink, etc. I have had help and lots of offers of help, but in the end all of these things are my responsibility and their success or failure comes down to how I handle them. Every time something else breaks or stops working I keep reminding myself that it’s another learning experience and that the number of things to quit on me around the house are finite—eventually everything will be replaced at this rate!

I’ve also learned that having even just a little bit of a sense of humor every day is a lifeline.

I’ve learned, and thought a lot about, what kind of a single parent I want to be. Raising our teenage daughter by myself is the scariest part of life nowadays. I want her to see me as an example of strength and perseverance despite suffering; I want her to think that I have been a good provider for her and given her a warm, nurturing and comfortable home. And, most importantly, I want her to know she is cared for and safe and loved. I constantly think about what she will remember from this period of time and I plan my actions sensitively and carefully with this in mind.

I’ve learned that, quite surprisingly, I am a dog person after all. We adopted a golden retriever puppy and I love that big, goofy dog—and her best dog friend Quantum—with all my heart.

Phoebe and Quantum.

I’ve learned that letting go, and even forgetting, is okay. Some days the pain of what I’ve lost is still unbearable, but new memories, new connections, new surroundings are not bad things. At first I felt guilty about connecting with an old friend and making a new one—two people, in particular, that happened to enter my life as a result of specific choices I made after this tragedy. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think that in life we are either moving forward or backward and we have a choice about which direction we are going in every day. Letting go of a life that no longer exists is both sad and hopeful. As a friend wrote to me recently, “…You have suffered greatly and yet are transcending suffering. That is the greatest and most terrible lesson of life—that we suffer and yet also can, must, and do transcend suffering.”

I’ve learned that the book community and literary Twitter are some of the best and kindest people I know from around the world. Even though I haven’t met many of them in person they have sent me, and continue to send me, gifts, notes, well-wishes and love. I’ve realized there are a few, in particular, that I’d like to meet in person as soon as it is possible.

I’ve learned that everyone handles grief and suffering in such different ways. At first I was surprised at some of the friends, colleagues and former acquaintances that didn’t reach out or say anything to me. But those looks of sympathy and horror that I do get have taught me that sometimes there just are no words.

I’ve learned that I am as strong as, or stronger than, I thought. In the beginning it was a struggle just to get out of bed, sit on the deck and stare at the sky. I still catch myself staring at the sky, but my days have slowly filled with new, wonderful people and activities and ideas and endless possibilities. I was having a conversation with my daughter the other day about what we’ve both learned through this experience. She mentioned that she was afraid she would become a different person—dark, depressed, angry, bitter. But she learned that she is much stronger than she thought as well. We both agree that anger is a wasted emotion and that we are determined to get through this together and are, at heart and soul, strong people, committed to finding gratitude and happiness despite a horrible situation.

I’ve learned that, regardless of a lack of concentration for my usual, epic reading projects, poetry continues to be soothing and thought-provoking and mind-bending in brilliant ways.

And finally, I’ve learned that when all is said and done, nothing else matters in this life but love. Neither possessions nor careers nor broken appliances nor money nor anything else matters. For a while I was haunted by all the questions I would really like to ask Alan: Why do you have so many tarps/tents/knives? What did you think was wrong with the furnace and why did you keep working on it? How did you keep track of so many notebooks? But then I realized that the love expressed between us in our last text messages to each other were simple, and said it all—that was everything we needed.

If anyone learns anything from me it should be this: don’t be afraid to express love or find love or show love or seek out love. Even if it’s not returned. Trust me, love is always a good thing. Don’t let anger or bitterness or any number of other obstacles close your heart off to love. Edward Hirsch’s thoughts on this in his poem “Heinrich Heine” are perfect:

For man and woman the days pass into years

and the body is a grave filled with time.

We are drowning. All that rescues us is love.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

44 Comments

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44 responses to “Putting My Shaken House in its New Order: What 2020 Has Taught Me

  1. Such a beautiful post Melissa. Thank you for writing it.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. As always, so beautiful! Thank you ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Beautiful heartfelt words, and a joyful addition to the family, who encapsulates the message of love, unconditionally. 🐾 Wishing you all the best.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Such a lovely post, Melissa. Your pain has been massive, your grace and intelligent rebuilding of your life and purpose so inspiring. This year has upended so many of us in so many ways but if we can draw from one another’s strength, no matter how near or far, we may emerge better people in the end.
    Season’s blessings.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you for your post Melissa. I only know you thorough BookishTwitter but I feel like I’ve been with you through this all. I’m so proud of you! From handling Alan’s death to battling the generator and the pump to fixing up your house, you’ve just gone from strength to strength. I’m so glad Phoebe has been there to share her joy and optimism with you. In coming years you’ll experience the companionship and loyalty unique to Golden Retrievers and no one could deserve it more. All the best to your family.
    Dimevets

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Best of best wishes, Melissa, to you and your daughter. Thank you for sharing your reflections, and your conclusion is beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A beautiful, thought-provoking read. Although this Christmas will be a first, I do hope it is filled with love for you and Claire.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Our thoughts will be with you, Melissa. xo, Lisa

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh, Melissa… all my love to you and Claire – it sounds like you’ve raised a very wise young lady there.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Such wisdom and courage. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Beautiful thoughts and thank you for sharing them Melissa. You have had such a year, but you are brave and you have Claire and all your friends and family. You are surrounded by love here, too and you’re doing the right thing to keep moving forward. x

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Yes, indeed, to that last thought, and to so many you’ve expressed beautifully in this post, Melissa xx

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Dear Melissa,
    thank you for sharing your experience, lookback, presence and lookout.
    Long ago, I listened to a lecture of George Steiner and read his book on “Real Presence”.
    Your thoughts allong tragedy and grief meet the theological and philosophical question of “theodicy”.
    The answer you found yourself in the poem sounds convincing to me and looking forward.
    All best wishes with
    seasonal greetings
    Bernd

    Liked by 1 person

  14. A beautiful reflection on loss and moving forward surrounded by the love that you received and have given in turn. My thoughts continue to be with you.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. You are so generous, as is your way: I continue to learn a lot from you. ~With love to you and Claire

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and for this conclusion. What a year.
    I’m happy Phoebe is bringing joy to you and your daughter, she seems to be a great addition to the family.
    I wish you and Claire the best for Christmas.
    Take care.
    Amitiés
    Emma
    PS : Here, we wait for the new year to start to send wishes, so see you in January for that. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Thanks for sharing this, Melissa. It’s so beautiful and inspiring. xo

    Like

  18. This is the most beautiful post Melissa. Much love to you and to Clare at this time of year x

    Like

  19. Vishy

    Beautiful, moving post, Melissa. Thanks so much for sharing. You are so brave and strong and inspiring. The infinite things in our house which can break down anytime – I went through that once too. It is amazing how many small and big things hang by the thread in our homes everyday. I used to be a person who never worried. Now I worry about these things everyday. Your post made me remember that. Sending you and Claire lots of love and hugs. Take care.

    Like

  20. I’ve thought of you quite often over the past few months, after reading how your life has been turned upside-down by tragedy. Thank you for the brief piece of poetry at the end of this post, which speaks deeply to me as we grow older. I’ll share an old Arab proverb with you, that I came across years ago: ‘One day, you will only be a story. Make sure yours is a good one.’ I have the impression your late partner has left a good story for you. Best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Slain, beauty transcendent, your word.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Di (Yee)

    Good post.
    Wish you & Claire & your cats & dog all the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Pingback: The time I didn’t read Faust – Active Thought

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