January came with the beginning of classes and then February came with the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and reading Storyknife submissions. And then February closed out with the congested rattle of the cold to end all colds, and then March came with the scrambling and the catch up.
Then one day, the day Spring Break starts for your students, you find you have time to contemplate your own writing. It is sunny but cold, and you realize that you have forgotten everything that you espoused about approaching your own life as if it is a poem. You feel like a hypocrite, and a failure, and you slink off to do laundry, because sorting the clothes is easier than sorting your own time, and how much did you want to be a poet anyway?
You think. No, I think. I think that I must start back at the very beginning and where was that?
For now I take out my notebook and copy the following excerpt from “Staying Alive” in Blue Pastures by Mary Oliver:
And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.
I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet. But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating. And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within the work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe — that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.
It is creaturely to want to connect. My dog wants to sit on my lap in the evenings. Even the steller jay in our neighborhood tries to make meaningful eye-contact with me so that I will be motivated to put out seed for him. I remember the black and white photographs in my Psych 101 book of tiny pitiful monkeys hanging onto tin-cage surrogate mothers.
One of the horrors of depression is the wall it builds between a person and those they would connect with. It’s not that the depressed person no longer wants to connect, but it’s like shaking hands with oven mitts on – the world seems far away and the human interactions that used to be intuitive are now confusing. You get to your car after a trip into the store and try to figure out why you were avoiding everyone’s eyes, especially in light of how sad you feel. But the effort to figure out how to connect feels so insurmountable.
If your childhood was directed by a volatile parent, you learned to put up a good front. Fly low under the radar. Smile when you didn’t feel like smiling. Speak sanely and even sometimes humorously when your heart felt like pumice in your chest. A child like that grows up to be a perfect depressed person, continually wearing a mask of “it’s fine” in public, helping their friends, doing their job.
But let me tell you folks, their mouths are full of bitterness. Or worse, they feel nothing alternating with shattering sadness and knife-edged rage. Depression is a tricky one. Who are you to be depressed? You live in a beautiful place, you know lovely people, you don’t work on the factory floor, you don’t face all of the privations that millions of others face… Depression doesn’t care.
Depression plays a thousand games of solitaire.
Depression does not write blog posts. Depression doesn’t write much at all. Because depression isn’t interested in anything. And to write, you need to be interested in what you’re writing about.
But you still want to write. You want to connect, even if you don’t know how anymore. Then one day, for a thousand reasons, for no reason, the fog is a little thinner. You can see your hands. You read the lines, “It’s only in darkness you can see the light, only/ From emptiness that things start to fill,” and you think yes.
Poetry is the map around the wall.
It’s only in darkness you can see the light, only
From emptiness that things start to fill,
I read once in a dream, I read in a book
under the pink
Redundancies of the spring peach trees.
Old fires, old geographies.
In that case, make it old, I say, make it singular
In its next resurrection,
White violets like photographs on the tombstone of the yard.
Each year it happens this way, each year
Something dead comes back and lifts up its arms,
puts down its luggage
And says – in the same costume, down-at-heels, badly sewn –
In 2014, my mother died on the day before Mother’s Day which is enough to put a damper on the holiday for a long while afterward. I pretty much already dreaded Mother’s Day even before 2014; my relationship with my mother often complicated and volatile and my own childlessness combined to create a morass of difficult emotions.
This morning on Facebook, dozens of photos of smiling mothers cradling beloved children scroll by, testimonies of motherhood’s transformative qualities, an unwavering stream of fabulous moms. So many complicated feelings followed me out to the garden where I prepared beds and planted early radish, carrot, and spinach seeds. In a light drizzle, I steeped in the scent of soil, the tangy snap of cut grass, the sound of the local birds declaiming the virtues of the day. Or the rain. Or the sudden unscrolling of all things green.
My grandmother died when my mother was three years old. My mother was raised by her father in a household of boys. It must have been a lonely and painful backwoods childhood. She never talked about it until late in life; when dementia claimed her near-term memory, her childhood became more of a topic of conversation. My mother was profoundly unmothered, and yet she believed very very strongly that her mother had loved her.
Several years ago, my father gave me a box of his World War II love-letters to my mother. The main thread in them is his assurance that he will provide her with a safe home and a place to have children. It seems that at 17, my mother’s ambition to become a mother was rock-solid. When I was a kid I asked her, “What did you want to be when you grew up?” She assured me that she had never wanted to be anything else but a mother. That’s what she was.
One time, within the last decade, my mother accused me of not having children to spite her. She might have been joking, but it didn’t feel like a joke. It was before I knew for certain that I couldn’t have children. But even after I found out that medically it would be very difficult for me to have children, my mother still asked about them — when were we planning on having them. It was painful that she kept asking, but understandable; she believed that being a mother was the highest calling. She never understood me wanting to be anything other than a mother. How could I let that calling go?
Not being a mother on Mother’s Day can feel like a 24-hour period of the culture telling you that you are not filling your role, that you are not reaching your highest potential, that you are not a giving/wonderful/useful person. Not having a mother on Mother’s Day, or having a mother who does not fit that “gosh, look how fabulous my mother is, I’ve always wanted to be like her, she’s the reason I am who I am” mold can feel like a gaping wound.
Loosening the soil in the garden bed so that carrots could grow unobstructed, I thought about Mother’s Day, about my own choices and about things beyond my choosing. I thought of all that I am grateful for, gratitude as high as the mountains that stretch across the bay and deep as that water. I thought that even if I was not a mother, would never be a mother, I could at least be of use. That rather than stewing in sadness or anger or a thousand “what would my life have been ifs,” I can instead look to the ways that I can add to the world, a world that is filled with profound need.
May we all find our real work, whatever that might look like.
To be of use
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.