So much happens in a week
What is lost when we lose someone. What is gained when we let the soul speak.
And what if I just throw the pile away? And what if I trust that I will remember what needs to be remembered? Lately, I have been worrying about cognitive decline - worrying that perhaps, I may be showing early signs of … slipping. It’s made me panic a little bit (but in a quiet way that no one around me would notice unless they were looking at my bookshelf, which is where I seem to stash my anxiety, in titles like: The End of Alzheimer’s and The Wahl’s Protocol.
Last night I dreamed several times of mapping - of perceiving the coordinates of time and space and getting them down on paper. In one dream, we were mapping out a neighborhood. In another, I was urgently supervising a team of assistants - we HAD TO get it done and fast!. The team included a young man, with whom I was supposed to merge consciousness. There was a magnetism between us. This was important.
I woke up full of urgency and also, a sigh. Oh, yeah, right, I realized. Quarantine.
Almost a year in and I am still having to remind myself that the only urgency I will be able to actualize is on the interior.
This is not a bad thing. Actually, quarantine has granted me the wide, wild time that the urgency I’d put off for so long needed to expand, to open, to do what it had to do so that I could complete something about myself.
I’m not yet sure what that something is.
And so, I seem to be mapping.
In the meantime, outside the window, life keeps moving forward.
It’s snowing again. Big heavy flakes sifting over the incompletely shoveled drifts already on the ground.
So much has happened in one short week. Almost three feet of snow. All kinds of dreams. I switched from NOOM to KETO again, and filled the refrigerator with groceries. Also, two days before that, there was a funeral.
Three days ago, I sat with Suzi on Zoom and I wrote about my quarantine eating project. I wrote about losing 21 pounds before my son’s wedding and then, during the wedding, gaining back six. I wrote about eating whatever the hell I wanted. But then, while I was writing, I realized: Oh, I am writing about food because I don’t want to write - or even think - about Sam.
He was buried on the coldest day of the year - last Friday. It was the cold that made me cry. Thinking of him lying there, without a blanket, without the warmth of his heart pumping blood through his body.
I didn’t want to write about that. Or about how, after the prayers were spoken and the tributes said, his mother stepped forward and started shoveling and shoveling and shoveling dirt into the hole.
In Jewish tradition, the rabbi had explained, we turn the shovel upside down. We do this to demonstrate how difficult it is to bury someone we love. We do one shovelful like that - upside down. The soil falls off. We are unable to make much progress. Then, we turn the shovel over, add two full scoops to the grave and hand the shovel to the next person in line. The whole thing is symbolic - and literal. We stand alone and turn the shovel upside down. We struggle a little. We turn the shovel over. A community working together to fill a hole, to comfort one another as we say goodbye.
When Sam’s mother started shoveling, everyone stopped moving. The rabbi stopped speaking. Everyone waited.
The day before, when my son called from California to tell me that his friend had died - and how it had happened. Opioid overdose. Oh my god, I gasped.
He asked me to find a photo of Sam. He remembered one of the two of them in their baseball jerseys. I pulled out the photo boxes I purchased years ago when the children were small and the photos were starting to pile up. As it turned out, I never filled them until, a few months back when, at the beginning of quarantine, I emptied our worn out photo albums into these boxes, imagining a quiet project: sorting them into order in brand new books.
Two of the boxes were cherry red - my favorite color - so they match my decor. One, patterned with purple, white and rose colored owls with big eyes, matches, in some deep and resonant way, me.
This week, looking for Sam, I opened the lids onto a disordered chaos of my own family’s history. Snowdrifts of photographs, completely out of order. Here’s Katie at 13, a radiant bat mitzvah girl, in silver-grey silk. Here’s her older brother’s birth, fifteen years earlier: me, fat and loopy with pain meds, in a hospital bed. Turn to the next image and I’m serving birthday cake, surrounded by ten year old girls.
Flip. Katie’s graduating high school. Flip again and she’s three. Flip. A campfire. Flip flip. Max is a doctor. Flip flip. We’re in Puerto Rico, middle-schoolers in scuba masks, with braces on their teeth, diving into and out of green waves.
In this weird, out of sync pile, this tossed salad of memory…. in this everywhen and everywhere all at once— I found three photos of Sam. In the first one, he and Max are seven. They lean into one other with goofy grins, toasting the camera with plastic cups of apple juice. Sam’s chin is smeared with pizza sauce. He’s winking. Max, sitting with his friend, is overjoyed.
In the second shot, they’re ten. Sitting at a dining table with Jason. There is bread and maybe lasagne. In the third photo, they’re older. Sam, who’s had more sun, is browner. He’s bigger, too, more muscular than Max, who hasn’t yet filled out. They sit at a picnic table piled with plastic boxes which probably contain food. There was always food. Mostly pizza.
The photo Max asked for is missing. And there’s one more which I remember but could not find. The one at the swimming pond when the camera caught them from behind. Barefoot, towels slung around their necks, boy torsos bare, they walk toward the exit, two boys on their way somewhere. Probably involving food.
The day after, over breakfast, my husband and I reviewed Sam’s funeral. The bitter cold at the grave site. My husband attended in person. The way it looked on Zoom, where I attended: 59 little boxes stacked together - two screenloads - each box containing a household, and a person or two who’d loved Sam, who’d worked or played with Sam. I saw familiar names. Family names. Lissa and Merrill, Derrick’s parents. Suzi and Corey. There were so many people - cousins and uncles and grandparents. “I can’t even imagine…. “ I said to Matthew. “Can you imagine a world without.. “ and I could not finish the sentence. I could not add our children’s names to that question.
So much has happened in one short week.
Just two days ago, Ruth, my friend and more recently, volunteer editor, asked me to send ‘anything at all’ that I’d written. She was desperate, she said, to lose herself in someone else’s writing - and in their world.
Me too. Just two days ago, I’d finished a marvelous book, This Must Be The Place by Maggie OFarrell. Oh, how I’d savored that story. Oh how I’d needed it. Like Ruth, quarantine leaves me starving for good writing. When it ended, I was thrown back into my own life and so out of whack that I was unable to sit and press pen to paper.
Two years ago, for our book club (which Ruth and I and another friend, Madalasa, started after we met at the yoga teacher training in 2015), we read The Yellow House, which I did not love. I mention this here, not to dis another writer’s good work. And it was good work. It’s just that I had a problem with how it felt.
I experinced the story much the way I’d experienced other best-selling chaos memoirs: The Glass Castle, The Liars Club, Educated, and Running with Scissors. Each time, I found myself, about half way into the story, feeling like I wanted to throw the book against the wall.
Go deeper, I found myself urging the author, Go wider. Let me in. I loved the writing. Loved the pictures they’d painted of the wacky household, the world upside-down when things went wrong but what did it feel like to live in this madhouse, to live through this insanity? What was it like inside your heart, your mind, your child body when this delusional father, this depressed mother, this out-of-sync psychotherapist walked into a room? What did it feel like to lose your house, to have to switch schools, to watch as a flood swept your neighborhood away?
Trauma memoir, chaos memoir is so often written in a ‘show don’t tell’ style, which, for me, feels as if the author is reporting on her childhood like a war correspondent, or taking it apart like a forensic scientist. Reading these books feels, to me, like I am watching someone standing in the doorway of her own childhood offering the who, what, where, and when but when I turn toward the narrator, there’s a hole blown through their chest. The voice feels blanked out, anonymous, another kid going through another bad thing. As if someone has been through a crime scene and stripped it of meaning, of grief, of feeling.
Look, I know how painful it is to write memoir - and I know who it is that’s cleaning up that crime scene - our terrified and abandoned inner children, who still remember the pain.The very same aspects of self that are responsible for our telling the story at all. Yet, for me, the telling isn’t done until the whole story is told.
‘Here’s what I feared and here’s how it reverberates in me still.’
The soul journey. That’s the story I want to read and it’s the story I want to write. Which is why I am sitting by the window today and wondering (again) whether I should just throw out my notes and let my hurt little girl take over the keyboard.
It’s a question of trust. Can I trust her? Can she trust me? It’s a matter of willingness. Will she let me tell the truth? Will I let her?
We can’t detach cause from effect, can’t separate the heart from the mind. Can’t remove traumatic event from symptom, from suffering. Continued ignorance of the depth of our own soul journey leaves our stories incomplete.
Reading these beautiful memoirs, so carefully crafted, so full of story and spunk, I fall in love with the little people who lived through them. I kneel beside them as I read, coaxing their terrified, lonely inner children from the closet. I’m so proud of you. I’m so sorry this happened to you. You are so brave to tell it. Tell me the rest. Tel me all of it. I’m willing to listen - and to walk with you, back into the light.
This is what Ruth is for me. This is what I am becoming for myself as I work on my own memoir. I write and I write and then, when I start to feel, I give my own abandoned inner child a chance to speak. I listen.
This takes time, and it may mean that my story never gets published, or even told. That matters less and less to me now.
What does matter to me is that I turn when I am called to turn, when I feel that tug at my awareness that tells me that a younger part of my own psyche, my own heart, is ready to tell the truth. What matters is that this younger me knows I will not abandon her again. That she trusts me.
My husband is also writing a memoir. Though for a long time he has called it a “Sci-fi Fiction Novel.” It’s a rollicking adventure about a boy who grows up on a spaceship and who finds himself lifted out of his life into an alternate reality where beings of light explain things to him. As he bounces in and out of his daily life, he grows more experienced, the shock wears off. He begins to look around and learn to negotiate the sudden changes of reality. With his eyes open, life hurts for awhile but then, it starts to make sense.
As he has shared his novel with me over time, he has also begun to be able to share his real life childhood story. This is what happens. We process the fiction (or paint the painting or perform the song, the dance, the play) and the non-fiction (the real life we lived through) moves with it.
The wild narrative makes sense of the wild trauma. When we realize it’s being written from the POV of a four year old child who was overwhelmed by the reality of a raging father, we see. We realize that these inner children are trying to speak forbidden words through walls of fear. Our stories - even our fictions - make a new kind of sense. There is an ordering principle at work in the world, and in the human psyche. In this way, as story changes, it changes and even saves our lives.
The children that we were are not left behind.
They come with us into every room we enter. Calling for recognition, for caring, for attention. When we give them voice, we heal.
This morning, I am sitting by the window, watching the snow. In the next room, my husband speaks into the phone. On the other side of the country, my son honors and releases a friend.
This morning, I am thinking about story and about a little boy named Sam who loved pizza, who smiled with a glimmer of mischief in his eye. I am thinking about my own children and my little sisters (now 50 and 46.) I am thinking about the beautiful man I married.
He interrupts this writing to tell me he is driving to Brooklyn this afternoon to dig our daughter’s car out of the snow. I was just thinking about his gentle and generous heart.
I was thinking about devotion. Between fathers and daughters, sisters and brothers, devotion of one friend to another. I stare a pile of Kodacolor memories scattered across the carpet. I turn toward a pile of papers, which I am probably going to discard today.
I am wondering if I can trust myself to remember. I am sitting by a window. Snow is falling. I am remembering.