When grief ages

July 29th, 2010

I have been writing this post for days; I have been writing this post all month; I have been writing this post for twenty years. My father died twenty years ago today of lung cancer. He didn’t even live a year past his diagnosis, the diagnosis he received while I was in my junior year of college. The diagnosis he and my mother weren’t going to tell me about until my brother threatened to tell me himself if they didn’t. They told me when I came home over the long Thanksgiving weekend, and he was dead the following July. Eight months. Eight months, more half of which I missed finishing out my junior year. My father wouldn’t hear of me taking time off and coming back home. He wanted no part of me putting college on hold. (I can’t recall if I actually suggested doing that. If I did, I can well imagine I said it knowing he would refuse.) It was the pride of his life that he, a high school drop-out, put both his kids through college debt free. He didn’t live to see my senior year, but by the time he died he knew the tuition had been covered; he knew I’d be able to finish without having to work. He was quietly but implacably opposed to me holding a part time job during the academic year. “No, you won’t get a job,” he told me when I said I could work part time to help make up the difference between in-state tuition at the University of Illinois, where my brother went and where I could not, would not follow, and the out-of-state tuition at Indiana University where I wanted to go. “Your job is to be a student. My job is to pay for it.” He wanted me to be a student. He wanted me to take classes and study and make friends and play sports and have the time to do whatever it was that kids did in college. (Things he didn’t get to do; I’m well aware that he needed me to have the full co-ed experience because he never had it. There are worse dreams to pin on your children and god knows I don’t hold it against him. I found my best self in those four years, and I owe that to him.)  

So I went to Indiana, with its collegiate cycling tradition, and I had the time to be a cyclist in college because my father was an old-fashioned mid-Western man who believed that putting his kids through college was a man’s job; and being a cyclist in college was the best thing I did in those four years. It was where I found my best self. It was also the thing that carried me after he died. The spring of my junior year, when he was dying, and my whole senior year, when his death was raw and unbelievable, cycling saved me. Racing saved me. I rode my bike hard that year and a half, grinding out time trials on Flat Bottom Road, climbing Firehouse Hill then coasting back to the base to climb it again. Riding full of sorrow and anger and self-pity, riding as if I could leave first his cancer and later his death behind me. Riding with my team, who were the only ones who knew what was going on with me. Who were the ones who knew that I wanted it to hurt, I needed it to hurt, I wanted to finish those workouts, those sprinting drills, those team time trails, those spinning drills, and fall over on the side of the road and throw up from the effort. Because if it hurt, if I was gasping for breath, I was still alive.

Now, unbelievably, it’s been twenty years – twenty years! I have been fatherless almost half my life – and the sharp and jagged edges of grief have been worn away; I don’t have loose pieces of glass rattling around inside of me anymore, cutting me anytime I make a sudden move. I don’t wake up from dreams of my father believing for that first confused second that he’s still alive. I don’t miss him every day. I probably do miss him every day but it’s not all-consuming; it’s background music. A kind of emotional white noise. What I miss now are the things I miss on my father’s behalf. The things he missed. He never met my brother’s wife, or my husband, or any of his grandchildren. My father coached hockey, and of his four grandchildren my Small Boy is the only one who plays. My father missed that, his grandson learning to skate. He would have liked my father-in-law. Sharing no common language, they wouldn’t have understood a word the other had to say, but my father-in-law would have taken my dad to an SCB hockey game and they would have been great friends. He would have thought R was a fine man and he would have enjoyed teaching him to fly-fish. He would have laughed when I moved to the farm last year, the laugh of a father sharing with his daughter a private thirty year old joke about living on a farm. I miss these things on his behalf, I mourn for everything he missed and not, I think, for myself anymore. I have had, after all, twenty years to get used to his absence. Grief and I have come to terms.

It still sneaks up on me though. I expect it on days like today, on my father’s birthday or on Thanksgiving, but grief sneaks up on me sometimes, too, at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected places. In the locker room lacing up the Small Boy’s skates. Racing popsicle stick boats in the creek with the boys. Catching a whiff of coffee beans grinding at the grocery store. It’s there, suddenly, over my shoulder, like a cyclist I can’t drop. It’s not fierce and urgent anymore, though; it’s not racing me to the mountain top. We don’t grind it out, grief and I. It doesn’t taunt me, and I don’t need to beat it. I don’t need to push, and push, and push. I no longer need to be the fastest girl on the track, racing away from my loss.

You can’t out-race grief anyway; it’s got a better bike.

There were also lobster rolls

July 18th, 2010

There wasn’t just poetry. There were also lobster rolls. I ate lobster rolls from the day I landed in Boston to the day I left. I also ate whole lobster, and crab cakes, and fisherman’s stew, and fabulous egg dishes and homemade scones, and pizza by the slice while watching the tide come and go at Duck Creek. I had lattes in the afternoon with individual sized cherry cheesecakes while writing my poems for the next day. I had a beer now and then and, on one occasion, margaritas. (Several.) I ate constantly, wonderfully, deliciously. I ate and ate and ate. I ate much and well. Much more and much more well than usual. I love my boys, but sweet Foxy Brown they manage to take the sheer selfish sensual pleasure of eating from the dinner-time experience and my god how I loved stuffing myself with lobster and crab cakes.

I need more of that in my life. More food, more good food, more grown up food.

What I learned in Wellfleet

July 13th, 2010

Wellfleet. I’m still trying to write about Wellfleet. About Wellfleet the town. About working with Marge Piercy. About the eleven other wonderful poets, amazing women all, who travelled the week with me. About what I learned; what I learned about poetry and what I learned about my life. 

It’s easier to write about the poetry, about the workshop experience. It was a juried workshop: we had to apply with an initial package of five poems (perhaps you remember my poem choosing angst?); the twelve of us who were ultimately selected then had to provide an additional ten poems prior to the workshop. We met for three hours each morning with each day devoted to a particular aspect of the craft: imagery, oral effects, titles, line length/line breaks, etc. In the afternoons we had assignments based on that morning’s work and we then workshopped these poems the following day. Each one of us had an individual conference with Marge, in the gazebo in her garden, during which she went over our fifteen poems in great detail and provided more general feedback. We capped off the week with a public reading in Wellfleet; Marge closed the reading with some new poems. There was a lot of work, but not too much, and Marge deliberately balanced the workload with us having an opportunity to explore and enjoy Wellfleet. (And may I say: I will be back with family in tow. Yes, you impressed me that much, Wellfleet.) It was a fantastic experience.

My instinct that I am good at this, that if I stick at this I will have some modest success, was confirmed by Marge, who gave me some very positive feedback. (She also suggested that I might want to consider abandoning altogether any further attempts at the villanelle; she’s nothing if not honest.) I have a good eye for the right detail and I’m generally good at titles but I could play with sound a lot more than I do. My use of the line break is generally on target, but when I fail, I fail spectacularly. I have a good instinct for revision. My best work speaks to my emotional truth; my weakest poems are those that I write because I think I should write about a certain thing or in a certain way. Much to my surprise, I have a pretty good reading presence. All in all, Marge’s message to me was: stick with this and you will be widely published. It was so rewarding to have my instincts confirmed. I do so much of my work and my attempts at growth and learning alone here in expat isolation; it is good to have those reminders that this is not a fool’s errand. 

Write. Just keep writing.

I’m back in business

July 7th, 2010

Of course my blog went down the whole time I was in the US. Of course I completely rely on R to provide tech support for my blog. Of course I have no idea as to what goes on behind the curtains of my blog. (Of course I need to change that.) Of course I had a lot to say: the bizarre reverse culture shock of an Overseas American coming back home (e.g: hey, US, what’s with the air conditioning set to 67 degrees? Seriously?), how it was being away from the boys for so long (surprisingly okay, and Skype video calls helped a great deal), taking the ferry from Boston to Provincetown (Switzerland, I love you, but you are a bit, um, land-locked, no?), the workshop with Marge (yes, I get to call her Marge now), and the glory that is Curious George & Friends children’s bookstore in Cambridge (the English language children’s book selection is pretty limited in a non-English speaking country). Of course what with the two of us being six time zones apart and him having his hands full solo parenting, I didn’t bother to ask R to look into it whatever was going on with the blog until I was back in Switzerland. 

Of course I wrote. I wrote in my journals and I wrote poems for the workshop. And over the next week I hope to go back in time and sort it all out here, for you and for myself. Because for me, things aren’t fully real until I capture them in words.