Since you asked...
It shouldn't surprise me but it does—this kind of grief is of the living sort. I feel it. Corporeal, heavy, breathing inside my chest with me, pushing against my ribs and threatening to crack my sternum. I see the bone splitting in half as if struck by a bolt of white-hot lightening.
I joke about being really "extra" lately. I am a lot. I am, apparently, the type of person who wanders through TJ Maxx looking at frying pans and imaging her bones shattering, fragments scattered like constellations against the dark insides of her body.
So that's fun.
I'm learning. (I'm so tired of learning. I'd like to stay stupid forever, next time, please.) I'm learning to recognize this tiny infant monster living inside me. He isn't regret, and sometimes he wears doubt, but really, his skin is just scales of sadness and loss that scratch beneath the surface of my skin.
Another surprising thing: the blinding brightness of this thing. He glows in the dark, luminescent. He reminds me of those horrifying sea creatures that live in the midnight zone of the ocean—all tiny eyes and sharp teeth— neon green, bright blue, sharp white, florescent yellow, a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors moving and pulsating along the ocean floor. My breathing rocks him to sleep before he can open his jaws and devour me.
But also, sometimes, there is joy. Overpowering joy. I look around me and survey the kingdom I've made. Every object, from the bowl in the sink to rug on the floor exists as part of my self-made Eden. A home from which I'll never be expelled. My time in the wilderness— eating the dust of the cursed ground, hands bloodied by thorns and thistles—all over. Joy.
Warm, red, the color of my closed eyelids before I open them to the sun, it wraps around me in an embrace so strong I can feel the broken pieces of bone inside me find their matches, puzzle pieces that interlock and make me whole again. A benevolent boa-constrictor that slowly crushes grief while filling my lungs. Almost magic.
This is how I'm doing. There's a sea creature and a boa-constrictor curled between my ribs. I'm still breathing.
Today I'm sitting in my office, which is open and sunny, trying to work through a pain that threatens to level me to the ground.
I'm trying to be mindful, everyone tells me to "sit with it." Let the pain exist inside you without trying to push it away.
So I sit with it. I realize it isn't just pain, it's fear. I feel adrenaline course through my veins and pool in my hands. It is hard to type.
My marriage ended.
I joke about it. I tell people about the strangers I meet online and shrug, "I'm dying alone."
One time, my phone auto-corrected "alone" to "alive."
I'm dying alive.
Bad news: I'm dying. Good news: Not like that—feeling vital organs slowly fail one by one, feeling pieces of me grow weak from disuse, a body unrecognizable but lauded for it's ability to endure. Not like that.
Not today, not in my office.
Someone once told me to memorize poetry during difficult life transitions. It's sound advice—give your mind something good to process as your heart slowly puts itself back together.
My heart is pretty busy right now.
I've loved WWI poetry since college, where a BYU professor introduced me to the genre and showed me the inherent beauty that comes with pain and despair. They go together so often, tragedy and joy, art and pain. It's a cliche when done badly and absolutely exquisite when done well.
After college I learned that two of my favorite war poets fell in love while being treated for "shell shock" (PTSD) at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Siegfried Sassoon was the angry, sarcastic, anti-war poet known as "Mad Jack." (He had a habit of running into enemy trenches armed only with grenades and sheer force of will.) Wilfred Owen was younger, still very earnest, and hopelessly idealistic warrior. (He returned to battle voluntarily because he could not stand the idea of abandoning his friends to die without him.) Owen admired Sassoon to the point of hero worship and couldn't stop stuttering when they first met. (#meetcute)
Eventually though, Owen became Sassoon's confidant, friend, and equal. Sassoon teased him for his love of Romantic poets, and Owen gently mocked Sassoon's use of humor to mask deeper emotions. They wrote poetry together, and if you are ever in London, The Imperial War Museum has a draft of Owen's most famous poem, "Anthem for Doomed Youth," with Sassoon's edits scribbled between the stanzas. It's perfect and sad and looks so fragile for something so important.
The extent of their romantic relationship is contested, but their letters to each other and subsequent and poetry reveal a devotion that reaches far beyond the typical parameters of love and friendship. I've memorized poems by both of them—"Anthem" by Owen and "Memory" by Sassoon, but really, it's the phrases from their letters to and about each other that stay with me.
A year before he was killed in battle, Owen wrote this to Sassoon:
"I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can't hurt me in the least.
You have fixed my Life – however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze."
Sassoon didn't stop Owen from being exactly who he was— a mad comet with a light Sassoon eventually recognized as greater and more powerful than his own. But he "fixed"his life, gave meaning and purpose to the madness Owen felt before sending him back to the trenches, an eternal dark star killed in battle a week before armistice. Sassoon was devastated when Owen died, and he spent years honoring Owen's legacy by ensuring his poems were published. Years later, he still missed his friend:
“W’s death was an unhealed wound, and the ache of it has been with me ever since. I wanted him back—not his poems.”
There's something so deeply powerful there, and I can't do it justice. You fixed my life. I wanted him back.
Owen and Sassoon bonded over the horror of war, their love of words and expression, and a deep need to do the "right" thing by their comrades. (Both were recognized for courage and valor in battle.) Their love was the fierce byproduct of experiences most people can't comprehend. Can love like that exist in today's first-world? Somehow I think two people sharing a mutual hatred for the Kardashians isn't going to forge the same emotional connection as telling your significant other about the time you spent trapped in a foxhole with a rotting corpse, or holding your dying friend until he dies after getting his face blown off.
But I still believe there is something important about whatever they shared, the ability to love without the desire to control, a willingness to orbit around another person and a willingness to let someone swing out into space. Fixing, letting go, wanting back, loving without fear and aching with memory. Whatever it is, it's in my head all the time, and now that I know it exists, I don't think I can settle for anything else.
1. Leaving the house Friday night, sans children, eating a cupcake. I spoke to Dan just long enough to tell him that a cat had vomited on the rug, and that he should probably just throw the whole damn thing away. (I hated that rug.)
2. Spending a...embarrassingly significant amount of time reading a blog written by a cashier at Target. Reevaluating my stance on soulmates.
3. Teaching Clara the lyrics to Meghan Trainor's "Me Too."
Nope. Don't even think about shaming me. I said no regrets and I mean it. Plus, she absolutely nails this line: "What's that icy thing hanging round my neck? That's gold. Show me some respect."
Is it okay to tell you I'm having a hard time right now? Sometimes life is hard. It's okay.
Here's a story in 8 minutes.
A few months after Clara turned one, Dan and I decided to move. It was a little impetuous. We searched for months for a house we both loved, and we found one with a big back yard and room for a someday second baby and my sewing machine. Our old house sold after six hours on the market.
This was our fresh start. Nobody knew us, we made friends in the neighborhood together, Clara learned to walk. I finally got transferred out of the English Department at work and started teaching U.S. History. Everything felt fun and exciting because it was.
I spent the summer at home with Clara, the first summer she wasn't a baby anymore and could enjoy things like splash pads and swimming pools and swings.
Dan's business grew. I took on more writing work, eventually enough to start teaching part-time. We spent time with our kid, and fell head-over-heels in love with parenting together. I loved seeing him as a Dad. I loved spending hours on the back patio with Clara and a bucket of chalk.
Dan and I spent 10 days in London wandering around the city and staying up really late at night watching TV and talking.
Clara turned two. Clara turned three. We threw her a birthday party in the park. It was sunny and unusually warm for late March. Dan baked cupcakes inside ice cream cones and Clara covered them all with rainbow sprinkles. I remember that day so well, because I remember stopping in the middle of the playground, three-year-olds running around me, Dan helping Clara open her juice box, our friends sitting on the steps of the playground.
I stopped and looked around at this beautiful life we built and closed my eyes, told myself to remember this always always always. This family, this life. It felt like a miracle.
After years of traveling through hard things and grief and sadness we'd finally come home.
On hard days I wonder if I can get that back. So much has changed in the past two years. (Clara turns five in one month.) So many good changes (most notably the someday second baby sleeping in the room next to mine,) and some not very good changes. Mostly just life. Sometimes life is hard. It's okay.
I need to believe that someday I'll stop somewhere and close my eyes again because I don't want to forget. I need to believe we'll come home.
I keep writing these eight minute memoirs.
After almost a decade of terrible/decent/cute/okay short hair I stopped getting haircuts, (which was actually really hard, because haircuts are sort of my love language,) and let my hair grow long enough to tie up in a really messy knot. It was just easier, especially after Marie was born, to just keep my hair out of my eyes and off my face.
A few months ago I noticed that despite months of neglect, my hair was long. Weird how that works.
Then one day I (my friend Kate) dyed my naturally light brown (but often fake blonde) hair dark brown and cut a straight line of bangs across my forehead.
This was an unintentionally great choice, for some confusing reasons. My favorite thing?
People leave me alone.
At the risk of sounding vain and self-absorbed, I'm going to tell you something: If you are blondish with the face of a cherubic Relief Society President, people are going to want to talk to you. Because you look trustworthy af and even though you hate 99% of humanity, your dimple and curly hair tells people HEY I CAN GIVE YOU THE DIRECTIONS YOU NEED, I CAN TUTOR YOUR CHILD FOR FREE, I CAN LISTEN TO YOUR DUMB MALE BRAIN TELL ME DUMB MAN THOUGHTS ALL DAY, I CAN DO YOU THAT FAVOR, LET'S TALK IN LINE AT THE GROCERY STORE. THANKS FOR FLIRTING WITH ME, I AM SO HONORED.
Suddenly morph into a vaguely goth looking mommy who probably steals her kid's ADHD medication*? Welcome to scrolling through your phone in peace for the rest of your life. People leave you alone.
It is amazing.
For the record, I actually like how I look with dark hair and sexy murderer bangs. Kate is a badass hair stylist and I think my hair looks great. I really, really do. But I also like the increased invisibility, and I don't know what that says about the world.
I do know that in so many ways, women's bodies are considered public property based on how we dress (asking for it) based on how, when, if we reproduce (let's defund Planned Parenthood, make abortion inaccessible, and criminalize women who chose not to become mothers!) and based on what we do with our bodies after the kids are here (Work! Don't be too successful! Bad mom! Stay Home! Lazy Welfare Queen!)
I also know that a combination of pregnancy/having a damn baby/nursing/mental illness took my body away for a really long time.
So anything that lets me pretend, even for five minutes in line at the store, that this body is actually mine and not a walking advertisement for human interaction? I'll take it.
*not that I need to, I have my own, thanks.
All the disclaimers: I wrote this months ago, when I knew things were getting better and that I was (most likely) going to be all right. I wanted to remember what happened. So if you're reading this, I made it.
This is what it's like:
It's not like I was unfamiliar with depression or anxiety or simply being aware that life is incredibly painful sometimes, before.
I was unfamiliar with this.
This feeling of sadness so deep and heavy I stopped breathing sometimes. Remember falling off the monkey bars in elementary school? Hitting the pavement so hard, so hard that for a moment your brain forgets to tell your lungs how to inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale
Sometimes you'll be holding a baby or pulling the chicken out of the oven or washing your hair, and this will make you stop in terror, because once again you've forgotten how to breathe.
This started a few weeks after she was born. A grenade went off in my head—shrapnel rattling around—taking the place of reasonable thoughts, co-opting the work of synapses, sending the kind of messages that turn into news stories. Friends and relatives whispering I had no idea conspiratorially.
And the ones that have exactly an idea stay quiet. Mostly because we're/they're afraid of what happens if we talk too much, try to explain too much, try to name the black hole that's suddenly and inexplicably devouring us from the inside out. I still see its eyes in the dark.
Everyday I went to work. Taught history. Made my students laugh. Came home. Made dinner. Nursed the baby, sang songs with the toddler, answered the phone, met deadlines, earned money, got help.
Everyone tells you to get "help." So you ask your spouse who tells you to call your midwife, who tells you to contact a therapist, who refers you to a psychiatrist, who tells you they aren't taking any openings for three more months. Get help. Start again.
The nurse on the other end of the phone tells you to try and sleep. Get some rest. Take care of yourself. Everyone is very worried about you.
Meanwhile, your body is carrying on. Making milk, keeping you alive, keeping the baby alive, completely oblivious to the fact that at any moment the marching orders might change.
Sometimes, all you can do is keep perfectly still. Focus every single atom on pushing back against this.
It feels like being on fire and bones breaking. No one tells you that this, that mental illness, that post-partum depression, anxiety, insanity, that whatever the hell is happening feels like scraped knees and drowning and fractured bones and fire.
I don't love David Foster Wallace the way his intended audience does, but yes, he is right. It does feel like the choice between staying in a burning building and jumping out the window.
Stay in the building. Don't move. Every minute you stay whole and don't shatter a fire dies down, turns into softly burning embers that you can walk on, your body carried by scarred and calloused feet— all while holding the baby, making dinner, nursing, meeting deadlines, reading stories, trying to take care of yourself, and yes, getting all the help—your medicine cabinet becomes exciting and your schedule devoted to appointments.
More than anything, you want to feel joy. You remember what it tastes like (chocolate) and what it feels like (drying off after a swim on warm cement) and what it looks like (all your friends sitting around your table or draped over your couch, laughing)
You'd also like to sleep.
I don't have an answer. I didn't drive into a lake, drown anyone in a bathtub, or run head-on into traffic. I got better until I didn't, and then got better again. New gray matter grew over the bright shards of metal lodged in my brain. It's still there. I work around it.