There’s Always a Solution

“There’s always a solution,” he texted me when I was having another bout of anxiety because something else had broken around the house and needed fixing or attention or whatever. Those four simple, wise words had an instant calming affect on me.

Two months ago I had fallen into such a deep depression after the death of my husband that I was afraid I would never pull myself out of it. And I knew I had to pull myself out, that no one could do it for me. I kept thinking about the post-partum depression I suffered after my daughter was born because the symptoms I was experiencing were nearly identical—days of feeling like I was in a fog, no desire or drive to do anything that I enjoyed, a never ending sense of utter sadness that I could never imagine going away. During my experience with the post-partum depression I keep saying that I didn’t feel like myself and I so wanted to fight my way through this fog. Little by little I tried everything I could to break myself out of it. And so I did.

My instinct to fight took over during this most recent episode of anxiety and depression as well. There are a couple of people who have come into my life since this personal tragedy—the person who sent me that text above— and some relationships that have grown stronger because of it as well. At first I thought that fate has a strange way of giving us people we need just at the right time. But then again I am responsible for the deliberate choice of surrounding myself with loving, kind, generous, positive people.

When an unexpected tragedy happens—especially the one that happened to my family—the natural instinct is to feel completely helpless. But in retrospect I see that I did have choices. And I made some crucial ones even in the midst of an ugly, all-consuming depression. I invited my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews to come visit almost every weekend. I asked my parents to go with me to pick up the new puppy I adopted. I accepted a former colleague’s—now a good friend’s—invitation to walk and talk and mourn. And I made a phone call to a contractor to rebuild the massive deck in my backyard.

It’s interesting to discover what different things for each of us become a symbol or an image of hope. A photograph, a painting, a special place, any number of trinkets or objects.

I know this might sound very strange to some, but my new deck has become that symbol of hope for me. Especially in the summer I will spend hours sitting on it, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin, reading, feeding the birds, thinking. In recent years this happy place of mine has become worn to the point of being a mess and even unsafe. Within two weeks of Alan being killed I made that phone call to the contractor I mentioned above. At the time it felt impulsive, but in retrospect it was the beginning of creating a space that feels like my own, that I have control over, and that I’ve made a deliberate decision to change and improve. I keep joking that the puppy and the new deck are the two best decisions I’ve made this year, but I do think that this is actually true. A friend on Twitter commented that I’ve created a healing space with the new deck and some other areas of the house I’ve redecorated and rearranged. She couldn’t be more right.

There are still days when I think of how my husband was killed and our shattered family and the effect on our daughter and it feels like I’ve been punched in the chest all over again.

But this morning I was standing in the kitchen baking muffins, with our new puppy sitting at my feet, while my daughter was taking her morning class online, and a friend stopped by for coffee and to pick up some tools. I had a sense of happiness, and contentment, and even joy.

I have pangs of guilt—-which everyone tells me is natural—when I feel happy. Is it wrong for me to carry on with my own life? Is it fair that I get to carry on? But what is the alternative? Should I not do things that make me laugh or smile? Should I stop finding joy and pleasure in the company of the people with whom I’ve surrounded myself? Should I stop finding things, small things, to be grateful for every day?

But if I stopped, then I would give up that fight. And I don’t think that’s even a possibility for me.

As the season changes to autumn and the air is cooler I finally feel like I can breath a bit easier. The fog and sweltering oppression—literally and figuratively—of this summer is lifting. And the colors on the pond in my yard are starting to turn into lovely shades of red and gold. John Clare’s poem “Autumn” that I happened to read this morning captures my feelings very well:

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun, And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run; Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air; Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.…

When I look out over my yard I see my new deck in progress, I see the talented person crafting this beautiful space for me, I see the colors on the pond, I think about John Clare’s poem. I smile. I feel hope.

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It Is Unnatural For Us To Be Apart

I was chatting on Twitter with a friend who lost his mother this year after she fought a long, difficult battle with cancer. When I mentioned the overwhelming amount of paperwork I feel buried in after my husband’s death he remarked that when a loved one dies it’s very difficult because we must expend all this energy to erase the life of the one whom we are grieving. It seems so cruel.

And in some cases in order to cancel Alan’s existence it wasn’t enough to produce a death certificate but his birth certificate and our marriage license were also required which I found equally depressing and funny. Alan was a packrat who kept everything, so I waded through his drawers of papers to find this proof of his life with which I was going to erase that very life. As I was searching I found a box filled with every handwritten letter I had given or sent him.

I was, by far, the hopeless romantic between the two of us, oftentimes leaving him little notes—I actually packed his and our daughter’s lunch every day and would still leave both of them notes—from the very beginning of our relationship. I have always loved handwritten, personal letters; they are so much more tangible, intimate and sensual than the digital correspondence to which we have become accustomed in the 21st century.  There is a certain anticipation and excitement when one sends a letter and eagerly waits for a response; to see the other person’s handwriting, to touch the object they once touched, to tuck it away in a special place are all of the things we lose with electronic communication.

I don’t have many notes or letters from Alan, but apparently he kept every single one I wrote to him. It was too painful and too soon for me to read all of the letters and notes now. So I picked two of them to look at—the first one a birthday card in the shape of a motorcycle (I don’t remember how I managed to find that!) and the second a letter I sent during a year in which we were dating long distance. When I got my first teaching job in New England I moved here while Alan finished up graduate school in New York and we wrote letters, called and saw each other whenever we could. In a letter during this time apart, words that so haunt me now, I said to him: “In case you haven’t already guessed, I really miss you. I can’t wait until we can be together again…I thought what you said on the phone tonight was so touching—that it is unnatural for us to be apart.”

Yes, unnatural for us to be apart. Someday I will show these letters to our daughter so she will remember how much love we shared. But I also feel like I need to show her that the best way to honor that love is for us to move on and find happiness in other ways.

One of the later letters that author Paul Celan wrote to his lover Ingeborg Bachmann, when it was obvious that their love affair would never work out and they were doomed to be apart, keeps occurring to me. Celan writes to her, “Life is not going to accommodate us, Ingeborg; waiting for that would surely be the most unfitting way for us to be. Be—yes, we can and are allowed to do so.  To be—be there for another. Even if it is only a few words, alla breve, one letter once a month: the heart will know how to live.”

A daily and delicate balance of grieving and yet moving forward. A life lived to the fullest but now erased. The heart will know how to live…

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Hope Is A Thing With Feathers…

Before my husband was killed in a motorcycle crash the three most important things in my life were my family, my career/students, and my books/blog/literary Twitter community. But the life I once knew has been shattered. Not just me and my daughter, but my beloved sister, brother-in-law, and twin nephews and my parents are all grieving. And the close friends whom we consider family share our sorrow.

I’ve been trying to do what feels like regaining my balance—figuring out what fits into this new and very different life I have now as I move forward.

And so I keep thinking, “Well now what?”

The introduction I wrote for a review on J.L. Carr’s book A Month in the Country also keeps running through my mind:

Hope is a thing with feathers, according to Emily Dickinson.

And Max Porter.

Hope floats, according to the film title.

Pope writes in his “An Essay on Man” that “Hope springs eternal.”

Pink, in her collaboration with Khalid “Hurts 2B Human,” sings that “hope flows away.”

In Aeschylus’s play, Prometheus says he gave to humans the gift of blind hope.

J.L. Carr’s character in his novella, a victim of shell shock and abandoned by his wife, muses:

“This is what I need, I thought—a new start and, afterwards, maybe I won’t be a casualty anymore. Well, we live by hope.”

And hope is the one thing, quite ambiguously, left in Pandora’s box of evils. Is hope also considered an evil? And, if so, should we be glad that it was held in the box? Or is hope a good thing, left behind in the box and now separated from evil?

Alan and I spoke about the myth of Pandora’s Box usually about once a year, in the autumn, when we would give an adapted version of it to our respective first year Latin students.

I wonder what he would say to me about it now.

I identify most with Aeschylus’s offering of blind hope.

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Some Words are Worth a Thousand Pictures

*A bit of a warning that this is not my usual post about books. It is deeply personal and sad.

What a difference a day makes. Isn’t that how the song goes?

On July 1st I was in the garden reading poetry, lots and lots of poetry and Esther Kinsky’s book Grove which is newly translated into English by Caroline Schmidt and thinking about a review of it for Music & Literature; I had finally just gotten my hair done since the moratorium on such things because of Covid had lifted. And I stopped at the pet food store to buy more (a lot more) food for the birds and chipmunks I’ve been feeding on our deck.

On the afternoon of July 2nd my daughter and I were just about to go swimming when we noticed a car in our driveway which startled both of us. We live in the country, out in the woods, and have a quarter mile long driveway so random, unannounced visitors are a rare occurrence. It was my daughter who first said, “That’s a state police car” and my heart started beating even faster. Different things began to go through my mind as to what the police could possibly want with us. Was I speeding somewhere? But I hadn’t driven on the highway, or much at all really, because of Covid. Did I go into a business without wearing a mask? But, once again, I had barely left the house since the pandemic. When I think back on all of the petty and ridiculous scenarios going through my head I feel silly and naive. When the officer asked me to identify myself and to speak to me alone without my daughter I was still clueless.

“Your husband was riding his motorcycle on US-24 east in Indiana ma’am and there was an accident.”

And desperately, “Well where is he now?

“At the coroner’s in Wabash County, ma’am. You’ll have to contact the Indiana state police.”

Alan had left on June 20th for what would be his third cross country trip from our home in New England to Montana. On that horrible day, July 2nd, a Thursday, he was on his way back home to us and was expected to arrive on Friday. He was a serious and avid motorcyclist and camper and enjoyed every minute of planning his trips and taking them. Locally he would meet with his friends from the Connecticut Rockers to ride and talk bikes but he also had a wonderful network of friends he met through Adventure Rider that were scattered across the US and Canada. A tough, stoic, yet gentle and kind group of men, their meet up in Montana had become a yearly tradition that they enthusiastically looked forward to. Alan considered them brothers—as an only child he always said that friendships were particularly important to him.

I met Alan in 1997 when we were both graduate students in the PhD program for Classics at the University at Buffalo. We liked each other instantly and like quickly grew into love. He had a bike, a Honda CX 500, when I met him so his passion for this hobby is something he had for more than 20 years. He learned everything he could about motorcycles and was meticulous about maintenance and repairs. He was also obsessed with safety, researching and discussing with his friends the most up-to-date safety gear. On the day he was killed it was 90 degrees f. and he had on a brand new, full-face helmet, a custom made Aerostich riding suit, and the highest quality gloves and boots he could find. He had certain rules about riding as well: he never went over the speed limit, he didn’t ride with other groups of bikes, and he didn’t ride at night. To say that he was careful would be a gross understatement.

But he was killed anyway. Yes, killed. He didn’t just die. He didn’t have bad luck, it was not an “accident”—I hate that word. The driver of the truck that killed him went through a yield sign and pulled across the highway–yes, the highway since such things are allowed in Indiana—directly into Alan’s path. A “failure to yield the right of way.” Negligence, stupidity, carelessness.

Two broken legs, two broken arms, a fractured pelvis, a fractured skull, broken ribs, fractured vertebrae, internal bleeding, lacerated organs and a complete atlanto occipital dislocation. A destroyed Triumph Tiger and all of his carefully packed belongings broken and strewn across the highway. And in that moment my life—our life together—was shattered as well.

November 18th of this year would have been our 20th wedding anniversary. We were happy, very happy. Our relationship wasn’t perfect. No relationship is, especially if it lasts 20 years. We both made mistakes. But there was a lot of kindness, and patience and forgiveness and love. A lot of love. We both taught Latin in secondary schools in New England which is where we decided to move after our days in Buffalo. I always thought it was hilarious that we did well for ourselves as teachers of what people call a “dead language.” But Latin, and sometimes Ancient Greek, sustained our household quite adequately and, more importantly, we both loved what we did. In 2006, after suffering an initial miscarriage, we had a daughter who is the best of both of us. She is kind and funny and smart and adorable.

And now my 14 year-old daughter asks me questions like, “Is daddy in heaven?” “Are we going to be poor?” “Will we ever be happy again?” “Are kids going to treat me differently at school because I don’t have a dad anymore?”

A failure to yield the right of way….

I keep having these conversations with him in my head about what happened to his precious bike and his camping things and what paperwork I have to file and who I have to call and how his students and colleagues and motorcycle friends have all been stricken with such grief by his sudden death and how to carry on now. But there is no “we” anymore. Just a mountain of paperwork and chores and decisions that need to be made on my own. The little routines we had are what I miss most—going to bed together, him making me coffee in the morning, watching silly TV, sharing bad jokes, debating over who Henry our tuxedo cat liked better. The loneliness and the emptiness without him is the worst pain I’ve ever suffered. Truly unbearable.

Now that our daughter is about to begin high school we had had many discussions about what we wanted to do when we retired. Various ideas about moving farther north in New England or closer to where our daughter might attend college were always tossed around. But no matter what we decided to do, it would be together—just the two of us, empty-nesters.

But these plans, too, were shattered on that highway in Indiana.

Alan and our daughter.

Alan really had a dislike for social media—the only place he really engaged with people in a meaningful way was on his Adventurer Rider motorcycle forum. So out of respect I never posted about him or shared photos. But since he was killed it has felt cathartic and therapeutic for me to post photos and memories and anecdotes—a small glimpse into the man he was and our happy life together. His quick and sardonic wit were unmatched—one of the qualities that attracted me to him the most. He wore bow ties to work (when we were at work) nearly every day; he was a gifted teacher who connected with students and prided himself on his ability to lecture and engage kids at every level (he was voted faculty member who is most quotable three years in a row); he loved notebooks and fountain pens; even in winter he would work on, improve, and maintain his two motorcycles and camp in the woods on our property. And more recently he took up blacksmithing and set up a makeshift forge in the yard. I’m still not sure what to do with the anvil and giant bag of coal I have sitting in his workshop.

Alan and Henry.

Alan’s belongings, scattered across that highway, have been respectfully and lovingly packed and returned to me by one of his motorcycle friends—the last person to see him alive—who happens to live in Indiana. Today his travel journal arrived and I began reading it and looking through his various notebooks. He had an obsession with notebooks and today, alone, I found a dozen of them around the house and in his workshop. They are mostly filled with to-do lists, travel plans, travel descriptions, packing lists and notes for teaching. His wit, his talent as a teacher, and our everyday life together–those little routines I mentioned—are all present in these notebooks. I felt closer to him reading these than I have since he was killed—as he wrote in one of them, “Some words are worth a thousand pictures.” And a passage he composed for a lecture to first year Latin students felt like he was speaking to me now:

The Greeks and Romans thought of the universe by picturing it as a tapestry—one that was constantly being woven, but never to be completed. Three divine weavers called the Fates created the tapestry of the universe—Lachesis, Clotho, & Atropos—who spin the wool, measure the thread, and cut it. Each thread is a human life. And all of these threads interconnect. You cannot tamper with one without unraveling the others. Although individual life-threads come to an end, they still have their place and interact with others.

That thread, Alan’s thread, cut too soon on that highway in Indiana. And my thread and my daughter’s so interconnected with his own. And all of the wonderful people interconnected with me—friends, and colleagues and Twitter people and readers of this blog who have reached out with love and support. Proof that his theory of those interconnected life threads is so true.

Teacher, friend, colleague, husband, father.

July 2nd.

A failure to yield the right of way.

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This Rock is Trash!: Feed by Tommy Pico

Timmy Pico is a queer, native American poet, living in New York City, trying to navigate the dating scene while constantly being on the road for his profession. His long poem, Feed, reads just like that—a feed of his character’s mind which he calls “Teebs” and all of the personal thoughts that occupy it: “I am 34/ I live in the busiest city in America./ I am about to eat an orange./ Every feed owes itself to death. Poetry is feed/ to the horses within me.”

Pieces of short verse are alternated with prose, dialogue, letters, short recipes, news headlines and lists, all of which showcase Pico’s clever, astute, surprising and hilarious writing. He brings up many melancholy topics–lost love, his heritage, the American president, climate change and his loneliness–but he manages to take each of these things in stride and press forward with his uncanny ability to find humor in nearly every situation.

As a sort of loose organization of the poem, Pico provides a soundtrack to his thoughts; Track 1 is a the song”XO” by Beyonce and Track 19 is “Up the Ladder to the Roof” by the Supremes. He reflects briefly on the lyrics from each track and his subsequent thoughts are launched from there until he “starts” the next track. A clever and subtle way to keep some semblance of form to his meandering thought-feed. Track 12 is my favorite in the playlist:

Track 12: “Shout” by Tears for Fears. First of all, best band name in
America. Second, how cathartic am I right? Really, just let it all out.
What else can ou do in an intractable situation but to shout? Focus
on that full throaty wail where Roland Orzabal reveals the he’s just
waiting for the lover to open up for the destruction his love will no
doubt wreak.

Teebs is not afraid to be brutally honest about his sexual desires, his sometimes awkward dates, and the reasons why he moves on from a relationship (In one instance he finds out that his lover’s favorite book is Atlas Shrugged) But the love interest that is brought up most is a man named Leo, whom we meet in the opening verses of the poem. Leo and Teebs share some nice memories together, but Teebs doesn’t wallow in or become awash with sorrow when they mutually decide to go their separate ways. His relationship with Leo forms a part of the larger patterns in his life—his loneliness, his struggles with dating, and his itinerant lifestyle as a traveling poet. He deftly moves from the very personal—the story of his first meeting with Leo—to more universal, even philosophical, thoughts on love and loneliness:

Ok so in Plato’s Symposium
the philosopher Aristophanes makes
this speech at some white
robe
sweaty ball
table line dinner
about the origin of love.

That at one point
there were three sexes:
the children of the sun (two men)
the children of the earth (two women)
and the children of the moon (man and woman)
attached at the back

Now before you get all
sapiosexual
on me, I don’t know this from Plato

I know this from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

N E WAYS, so yeah at one point
the three sexes were whole
round balls
adherent to each
other attached at the back and spinning

in their own orbit.

The problem
was people

GUNMAN FIRST INTO OKLAHOMA CITY RESTAURANT

were too content in self-possession

there was no ambition no thrill of the chase
no colonalism. So the gods split
the people down the back
and ever since we’ve been looking
for our other
half

Lonely as a kind of math.

Notice the news headline in bold which Pico slips into key parts of the poem. Even though Feed was written and published in 2019, the topics he chooses are still highly sensitive and relevant in the age of Covid, corrupt government and Black Lives Matter.

The poet’s loneliness stems not only from his never ending quest for a fulfilling relationship but also from his heritage as a Native American. He oftentimes talks about the sad and tragic abuse of his tribe, the Kumeyaay Indians, throughout American history. Not surprisingly, cooking and eating with his friends and boyfriends is a common occurrence in Feed, and his lack of a culinary archive in his heritage is a sad and poignant commentary on the history of his tribe. Oftentimes he speaks directly to his readers in missives:

Dear reader,

A roux, I’ve learned tonight in this mid city dinner party apartment
tucked somewhat safely away from asthmatic LA freeways, is the
mixture of butter and flour used to swell sauces and soups and Paul’s
baked sage mac n cheese that I’m whisking alive like an al dente
Evanescence cheese-rock bop. Whistle while you whisk away the rage
scrunched in yr boulders. I says to them around the table I says—

I don’t have a food history.

If the dish is, “subjugate an indigenous population,” here’s an
ingredient of the roux: alienate us from our traditional ways of
gathering and cooking food.

Kumeyaays moved around what ed be called San Diego County with
the seasons. The mountains, the valleys, the coast. Not much arable
land or big game so we followed the food wherever it would go.

Then the missions. Then isolated reservations on stone mountains
where not even a goat could live. Then the starvation. Then the
Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. Whatever the
military would throw away came canned in the backs of trucks. The
commodities. The powered mil, worms in the oatmeal, corn syrupy
canned peaches. Food stripped of its nutrients. Then came the sugar
blood. the sickness. The glucose meter goes up and up and up.

I says to them around the table I says, I don’t have food stories. With
you, I say, I’m cooking new ones.

This passage is an excellent example of how Pico mixes the melancholy with the hopeful. And he throws in one of his signature witty phrases “I says to them” for just the slightest touch of humor. A constant friends that appears several times throughout the poem is a woman he calls Wilkes with whom he has an ongoing series of conversations about the galaxies:

Me: It’s like, against the infinity of space and all those stars and all
those worlds out there, the probability of extraterrestrial civilizations
other than us is extremely high. But where are they? Even if
interstellar travel is really slow, our sun is relatively young compared to
the age of the universe as a whole. They’d have had millions of years
to get here.
Wilkes: I think it’s paternalistic to assume we’d be demonstrably visited
in our lifetimes. History basicall just started recording itself. They
could have come a million years ago and been like, this rock is trash!

I stayed up yesterday past 2 a.m. reading Feed because I just could not put it down. His topics are timely but, despite the many hardships and obstacles in his life, Pico also has a sense of humor and an optimism that I found I really needed right now.

Feed is one book in a tetralogy of poems that Pico has written and published with Tin House Books and I am eagerly looking forward to reading all four titles.

Finally as an added bonus I made a playlist on Spotify with all of the songs on Teebs’s soundtrack from Feed.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1v75Eq6lFcrPWGRnQOdNQd?si=2G0FRLj5RPeefja7mCxcVA

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