When recent storms on the coast caused waves of 25 to 50 feet, I drove north to Maverick’s to see them. The size of small mountains, water rose from the shoreline waving its wild, terrifying and gloriously beautiful arms into the sky. A few people sat on surfboards waiting for a wave with good form they could ride. The majority of us, though, were spectators who walked the cliffs above the shore or who traversed the shoreline, gazing in awe at nature’s wonder. The world’s wild beauty is a can fills us with awe, though sometimes it also carries us to the edge of danger and the possibility of loss.
When looking carefully, you can notice loss lives beside us just beneath the surface of experience. Sometimes its absence is a mountainous weight hovering nearby like a cresting wave, waiting to tumble down at the sound of wind, a child’s cry, or the distressed look from a stranger on the street. So many seemingly insignificant things could serve as the trumpet’s blow resounding from walls that previously keep a person feeling safe. The loss of family members or someone we love, loss of work we used to do, people we used to know, a change in health—these can become waves of enormous change in our lives, and the way the world once worked, along with the things that held it together can come tumbling down. This is hard ground to walk on, difficult territory to reside in. How do we keep going? How do we begin again?
The experience of loss has been with us since the beginning of the human story as we fled the safety of the Garden of innocence and inexperience, with the awareness that we needed to begin the difficult journey toward understanding who we are and how to restore our relationships. This is a difficult task as our understanding is always incomplete. When things fall apart or we experience significant change, we like to know how we’re going to get to new ground and when we will arrive at a new place in our lives. But the timing of how this will all come about usually isn’t readily apparent. The process is less like a line and more like a spiral, and the pilgrimage to that desired place of being extends over varied and challenging terrain.
A couple of months back, I read Mari Mazziotti Gillan’s book, The Silence in an Empty House, a beautiful book of poems describing experiences in her relationship with her life partner who had a terminal illness. While experiencing the territory of loss, the writing takes the reader into the heart of relationship and the many small moments and memories that build and connect one life to another in intricate interweaving. In her poem, “Watching the Bridge Collapse,” Gillan describes how life can change in ways never expected.
We loved each other. Our children were
smart and healthy and beautiful. How could we lose?
then one day you, who could swim a hundred laps
in the town pool, who ran even in a mid-winter
snowstorm, began to move slower and slower,
your hands no longer functioning the way
they always had, your legs unwilling to obey
your brain’s command. And now, your head bent
sideways, so it nearly touches your shoulder,
your legs so weak they cannot hold you up,
your voice thin as a thread.
The situation Gillan describes is excruciatingly difficult. We acknowledge age brings diminishment, but to witness the vitality of one you love slowly decline in so painful a manner is a loss no one hopes for. Nevertheless, the poems show Gillan confronting the loss and suffering day after day although there is no possibility for expectation that her husband’s condition will improve. This is a struggle any of us could find ourselves in. As Gillan later points out in her poem, “What is Lost,” we do not know what our future will hold. “We all believe that if we just do what we’re supposed to/ the world will remain firm beneath our feet,” she writes. But this isn’t how it is for many people, and one of the things I especially appreciate about Gillan’s poems in this volume is how she describes her losses so directly. In the poem, “My Daughter Comes Home to Take Care of Her Sick Father,” Gillan’s speaks openly about the difficulty of her situation. “I do not understand,” she writes, “how love could become so complicated./ I am ashamed that some part of me wants this to end, to just/ stop.” Her honesty about her struggle in coming to terms with what she has been given is powerful and moving because the story she tells is bigger than simply her own personal story. It’s the story of all who struggle against things that seem unbearable. She speaks the words that are nearly impossible to find when the burden of loss is so enormous it lies beyond the ability to name.
When someone we love difficult finds themselves struggling under difficult circumstances, it’s natural to want to offer help and solutions. Yet sometimes there are no solutions. When her husband tells her of his fear of being blind in the poem, “Because You Keep Turning to Me,” Gillan writes, “I offer what comfort I can, and when I hang up, I cry/in my hotel bed because you keep turning to me/ and all I have to offer is my hands, useless and empty, and too far away to even stroke your head.” I read her words, and recognize my own emptiness in trying to meet the loss I sense in others around me who are suffering. Gillan extends her expression of the depth of our incompleteness in such circumstances in her poem, “There is No Way To Begin.”
“There is no way to begin this poem, to say how I who have
always believed that whatever happens, things always
work out for the best, have finally been brought
to my knees, not to pray as I did in Blessed Sacrament
Church on Sixth Avenue when I was a girl, but in defeat,
unable to find the thread of joy that has always
waited for me just beyond tears.”
When we realize things aren’t going to get better for others or for ourselves where do we go? Thich Nhat Hahn in the 14 precepts of engaged Buddhism, recommends that we “Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images, and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.” Suffering being with those who suffer is necessary to the growth of our capacity for compassion and for understanding of how our lives are connected to those around us, as Maria’s poem so effectively gives voice to. What we come to realize when in the presence of suffering, is that solutions for how to cope with suffering aren’t going to be external. Like a tree that grows around a fence pole standing in its way of growth, we somehow must enlarge ourselves to be able to include or surround the loss.
When we look at others’ suffering we suffer too. The brain’s mirror neurons tell us this. One of Gillan’s poems, “Watching the Pelicans Die,” speaks directly to our interconnectedness, demonstrating so effectively how human suffering is reflected in the natural world as well. The drowning pelicans’ bodies caught in the BP oil spill are a echo of her husband’s painful effort to rise above the weight of the disease that wants to drown him. Oil covering its body, the bird in Gillan’s poem screams without sound, “a picture of torment and despair,” the silent despair Gillan recognizes her husband and family daily bear as they try to survive the calamity the disease has created–the suffering from which there seems no end.
…On the Gulf, the earth and sea
are being destroyed, just as you were by the disease that finally
defeated you after you struggled against it for all those years.
Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat
them. If there is enough carelessness and greed in the world
even the ocean can be destroyed…
Our life is intertwined with the life and suffering of the planet. Suffering continues, and so does the brave effort to meet it. “You never gave up;” Gillan writes in her poem of the same title, “you kept doing whatever you could do,/ fell each day because you’d try to walk even though/ you no longer could.” Spelling out an alphabet of loss as time passes, moments of sudden memories of beauty, but also the months and years of loneliness and long process of letting go, letting things be what they are. “The world is too full of grief,” she writes in her poem “Planting Flowers in Iraq,” a poem about a groundskeeper planting flowers when the very same week two hundred people were killed by car bombs, and Gillan recalls a mother’s face overcome with grief as she lifted her dead child in her arms. “The world is too full of grief,” Gillan writes.
It’s true. The pulse of loss throbs inside the silence. Everywhere one looks, tears and sorrow wait beneath the surface of things. I think of the 9/11 memorial designed by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker where once the Twin Towers stood in New York City. An immense sense of loss envelops you as you approach the memorial, then stand to look as water pours its delicate and silvery life over the square’s edges into the firm earth, then falls again endlessly and forever into a bottomless space that cannot be fathomed, seen or known. The grief feels utterly palpable and weighted with presence, moving beyond words into a space where grief lives and doesn’t end. This is grief embodied.
How do we get to the other side of grief? How do we live beyond, into or with loss that feels too immense to bear? How do we find a way to name the grief, to hold it and still keep living? In her poem, “What if?” Gillan writes,
And what if, this moment, wrapped in the gauze shawl
of stillness, is the secret after all, to learn to look
more closely at the varied world, the veins of a leaf,
a stone, the stippled pattern of bark, and to find,
even in the shape of our hands, the curve of our nails
the ability to lift a cup and drink, the secret of loving
the transfigured world?
An answer is to learn to look, and where Gillan turns her gaze is to nature. Nature, too, has experienced enormous and unspeakable losses, especially in the past few centuries, but life is still present, available to us as a renewing source when we look deeply. Tree and stone, our own hands lifting a cup to drink. From the transfigured world we can drink and draw new life. As Gillan points out, it is when we allow ourselves to be wrapped in the “gauze shawl of stillness” that we enable ourselves to connect to the commonplace of the world in its transfigured form. This in turn allows us to see our experience as part of a greater whole.
We heal from the inside out. Physical wounds begin healing from the inside. It could be the same with wounds of spirit and losses of the heart. We let ourselves be present with the wounds and losses, holding them in the arms of our thoughts, speaking to them tenderly, dearly, gently. More than our direct pursuit to find an external solution for what will meet our deep need, perhaps what we seek finds us as we allow ourselves to be available to what is working within us. Or perhaps it is a bit of both.
During these winter months we inhabit the season Christian tradition names as Advent: light’s entry into the dark—into the places of our lives where we cannot see. It is a metaphor reminding us that there are times in life when we don’t know where the next step leads. Things move in complex worlds beneath the surface of what we can see or comprehend. All people experience this state of being. We don’t know when the light we feel we need will appear or how we are going to find it. It’s not a direct path. As this song written by Stephen Foster describes, our souls long for “Hard Times to Come Again No More.” Notice how in this version by Tommy Fleming, the entire audience knows the words and sings together with him. We are not alone. The whole world knows struggle. We walk together. Our inner work is to keep mind and heart open, to walk as we can, trusting that as we move, we journey toward wholeness.
Like blossoms, we wait in our own time for light to open us.