Friday, May 01, 2009

Our Endless Numbered Days

(Album and song title by Iron and Wine, one of my favorite albums "about impermanence")

Yesterday wound up being quite the whammy.

I went to my parents' grave just outside of Lake Geneva, WI. Back a couple of months ago, when WCATY offered a second gig for teaching creative writing online back-to-back with my Jan/Feb gig, I decided I would take it. Needed the cash, and I've got the class down pretty well by now. They offered me two spots - a small town near Milwaukee, or Elkhorn WI. Both had their benefits, both had their detriments. Milwaukee is somewhere I drive to already every week in the fall, so I both love and hate that drive. Plus my brother and a best friend live there. Elkhorn is 10 miles from where my parents are buried, at the cabin they owned when we were growing up - now owned by my eldest brother. Not a place I go often. So I put it out to the fates: you choose. The fates, through the guise of my manager at WCATY, chose Elkhorn.

The first time I went my book wasn't out yet, and it was before my mom's birthday, April 10th. The deal I had made with myself (I say deal because I had thought it was a promise, but I soon realized this week it was a noose) was that as soon as I had a copy I would dedicate it to her and take it to her grave, since it was published on her birthday, on the way back from teaching. That day was yesterday. I didn't think about it consciously until Tuesday, when my "need for space" "overwhelm with the world and others' pain" and "sudden sadness" hit a peak. Oh, I thought, maybe there is Something Else Going On Here.

Indeed there was. My good intentions were wrapped around my neck, and suddenly I felt I HAD to go, as if she would KNOW if I didn't and would be DISAPPOINTED or I would be DISAPPOINTED. It took awhile to untangle that voice, but as soon as I did, I re-promised that I could do only what I felt up to, and immediately (big surprise) felt better.

I taught the morning class as rain poured down past the library windows, giving me a misty view of HWY 12, right next to the exit to our cabin. Very spacious. Very open. The kids were, for the most part, calm and happy to write and share. I was the same. A couple of times I teared up, but I knew as soon as class ended that I wanted to go to her grave. The book had already started to run since rain had gotten on it earlier (I wanted it to disintegrate in the outdoors, that was the plan), and it seemed a sign. A gentle sign. A sign matching my sentiment. I tooled my way over, knowing the backroads, going past childhood friends' houses, and landed outside the driveway at around 1:30. Pouring rain.

The last time I went there was in November of 2006, after Thanksgiving in Zion with Erika's family, and I had brought Dylan over to "meet my parents." I believe it was raining then, too, for what I could see beyond my bawling.

I started to cry instantly, as soon as the ignition went off. I wrote a haiku above the title, then dedicated it to her. I slowly walked down the path, noticed a huge chunk of the weeping willow fallen, the daffodils still blooming, undergrowth near the oaks. The graves, and there are a lot of them: both my great aunts, my great uncle, my paternal grandmother and maternal grandmother and father, my parents; were all covered in dead leaves. A while ago my sister in law had put stones with words like "peace" on them on each headstone - I was grateful for them now, as I could find where to clean.

Bawling in the pouring rain, I noticed a car slowing down and tracing back along the property. I knew instantly they were scoping me, not thieves themselves, but watching out for our family. I called out first - "I'm just here to visit my mom's grave" and over the wind I heard an older woman's voice "...Trish?" (that was my mom's name. Did she think I *was* Trish? Oh boy. Or that I am visiting her?) "What?" "...Trish?" "I'm Miriam, Tricia and Michael's daughter."
"Oh! Wow. How you've grown!" This said through the leaves of a fallen willow and ten feet of oaks already budding and thick, needing thinning. "Where are you living now?" "Madison." "Ah. D'ya live on the lake?" "Nope. Not yet!" (Choking back tears, relief at some kind of human living connection mixed with anger at being interrupted) "Well, if you get a spot on the lake, call me, ok? So I can come up dere and fish with ya!" "Ok! Will do!" and we all laughed as they pulled away into town.

Now what? I circled and cleared off all the graves, struggling to find Aunt Eleanor. Wandered around the yard, glancing at grasses overgrown and the cabin locked up tight for the winter, down the embankment toward the end of the property, into the forest my parents planted the year my father attempted to complete his PhD up there, in the woods, in the silence, in their early marriage. I felt a sudden twinge of betrayal - here I had gone on to love other lands - fallen in love with SouthWestern WI, told my teacher a couple of weeks ago that it wasn't until I found the driftless area that I finally liked the countryside in WI. Had I forgotten/forsaken my childhood of summers in SouthEastern WI? I still feel oddly connected, oddly repelled to that place, that cabin, all the memories, my family in general.

As I went to leave, looking back over everything, I began to cry again. The pain felt pure, not ongoing, a passing cloud I could actually feel on my face. Out of me suddenly came a cry, a child's cry, but contemporary for me: "Why can't you just come back?" to which I cried harder.

But it's true. It's true that grief is a major mindfuck. And at that moment I realized that impermanence, the truth behind the feeling of grief, is also a real heartbreak. This is where the joyful heart of sadness comes from. Small consolation when you are feeling it, but somehow to me it helped to see that mind and heart are both stopped at the paradox of death and loss. There is actually no way to "get it" in any traditional sense. The ultimate paradox. The ultimate Koan. The voice of the teacher who gave me my Bodhisattva vow popped back into my head: "Go toward paradox and you will go toward truth." Oh boy. How can I not with a death roster this long?

I stopped by a quirky antique shop in a tiny town called Emerald Green, got a sundae at Culver's, worked my way along the long quiet highways to home. Took it easy all afternoon: napped, watched Buffy, got pizza with Dylan for dinner, watched more Buffy.

By the time Dylan got home at 8pm from a meeting, I was raw again, quietly raw, not raging like earlier in the day. He had had a rough day, needed help sorting emotions and logic out, and I helped, tears at the edge of my eyes the whole time, often not able to speak for keeping my own stuff not mixed into his. Once we were "done" with his "stuff," had reached a workable point for his own feelings and plans, I began to bawl all over again. The pain flooded out, held in place for most of the day, like a dam breaking. A phone message came back to me to a friend earlier who's going through a breakup about how painful grief is, how she can know it will take awhile. A phone message back from her with two huge points: that I have been shaped so much by grief it's almost incomprehensible and just now she is starting, after knowing me for 7 years, to really get how hard that has been for me. And the second, the second: her realization that logic, that acknowledging an emotion even, may feel like a calm spot in the flood for a moment, maybe even a day or week or month, but loss is a permanent truth, as permanent as it gets, and in the end, no conclusions, no resolutions, no emotions can cover or soothe the pain.

She didn't say it exactly that way, but I heard it in what she said. And this was both a huge point of pain (you mean there is no end?) and of relief (ah, there is no real end. I can stop looking for one). Even these are just consolations, just logic. Leonard Cohen, in a recently reprinted interview in the Shambhala Sun, caught the interviewer at the game of trying to "pin down impermanence." "There's no acceptance," Cohen said (paraphrased) "for that would imply there is something there, that exists, that is finite, to accept. It just is."

Our Endless, Numbered Days. Indeed.

Today I woke at peace, or some semblance for now. I feel more realistically paced than ever. Next time I tell someone about how my parents died and they do the thing, the only socially acceptable thing you really can say to someone who tells you a story like mine "That must have been so hard," or "I can't even imagine," I think I have a new answer.
"It is hard. Harder than hell. But I am learning to live with the pain, work with it, be with it, and that has made all the difference." Because it isn't my pain, not really. This manifestation of it is, for certain. The fact is, though, so obvious it feels funny to even call it a fact, that I've just had more direct, face-blown contact with the truth that is the same truth for all of us. No one gets out alive. We all die. Everything we have we will lose. Even now I say these things and my mind says "Yup. That's the truth," while my heart says "Um, but wait, what about your cats? Your cats will live forever, right?" Even for someone who has been made out of so much grief for so long, someone who, like many of us, "knows better," the truth takes far more in order to really be seen and any semblance of accepted than we can even begin to imagine.


  1. Miriam, I feel it. All of it. Your blog entry and experience disturbs me, comforts me, upsets me, and cradles me. You and another friend, Alison Townsend, are my guides in grief, the ones I go to to understand such a thing. Thank you for writing this, for sharing this. I adore you more than ever and I wish to cradle you in my heart.

  2. I love you and the way that you grieve. You have such grace about you, even when you are least graceful and blubbering in the rain. I am grateful for you!

  3. My folks are still alive but my Dad just came down with arthritis a few months ago and he's kind of a swarthy physical guy so it's hard to see him shuffling around with his hands swollen up and barely able to dress himself. I can't barely even talk about it.

    I have no idea how I'll take it when they go. I know that there is going to be a lot of unresolved stuff no matter what I do now.

    Iron and Wine Endless Numbered Days is definitely in my top ten.

  4. LM and Erin, thank you. It makes a huge difference to know there are hearts out there like yours.

    Brad: I hear you. And you won't know until it happens, and even then, you won't know. That's all I know.
    ; )
    Thanks for sharing.