One Day I’ll Write When I’m Through

A couple of months ago I sent out an essay titled “The Grave Garden” and a couple of weeks ago the essay was rejected for publication. I started writing the essay three years ago and tacked on the latest expansion earlier this year. The piece wanders. As it is, the essay is what I first supposed it might be, written only for me. I started writing about the death of infant Kaiden, my friends’ firstborn, and the years after when I was surprised by how sad and angry I remained. I remember writing the first draft. Parts were jagged, like you might snag on an inappropriate observation or emotion.

Right now I’m not certain why I committed that first draft to a file. I was already writing about the Senger family, their loss and second son, the community that walked alongside. Their grief would surface in me throughout that first year after Kaiden died, but what also came was the anger I wanted better to understand. What I’ve noticed about my more personal essays is that anything I finally type is something I’ve written by hand before, more than once. I love Natalie Goldberg’s idea that writers compost their ideas, turning over the soil until it’s rich enough to grow the right words. “The Grave Garden” essay as it is, even called finished, is likely one more part of the compost, one more turn of the soil until I know just how to talk about

what I really want to say, which is:

(I just spent ten minutes rewording a few sentences to whittle the years of this lesson to something that makes me seem more wise than ugly). Let’s try this again:

I didn’t want to be a mom more than anything in the world. And when I watched Christie, a woman who wanted to be a mom more than anything in the world, grieve the death of her son, her loss underscored the gain I held. I condemned myself for not wanting motherhood, for having to work so hard at enjoying the role, for the effort of love.

Before Kaiden died I wrote a couple of essays about contentment. Envy, comparison and finding contentment. I like to believe I really was on the way to figuring out how to enjoy motherhood, all by myself. I ran, journaled, listened to podcast sermons, laid on the floor to pray, confessed, begged for joy. I was too good at recognizing my lack. If I’d been a little dumber or kinder to myself, I probably wouldn’t have worried my initial fear or ambivalence about parenting meant always and forever selfishness. Also before Kaiden died, my parents’ neighbor Rose died weeks after a cancer diagnosis, leaving her husband and eight year old son. Rose’s death shocked my apathy toward marriage and parenting. I was writing a lot about how much a fight it is to just be where you are, to yield to the difficult and boring work of loving a husband and small children, when Rose was diagnosed. Without knowing it, she celebrated her last Christmas. Without knowing it, she welcomed her last new year. And she would not see spring. The morning I learned Rose died, I stood in the shower crying for her son, but also crying for her because no matter the frame of faith and a better place, she was missing out on what I once wished away.

So “The Grave Garden” contains different sorrows. The loss suffered by Kaiden’s parents. My tangential grief for a different kind of loss, suffering what I’d missed having: a first full love of motherhood. “The Grave Garden” tries to make sense of my interaction with the Senger family’s loss and my parallel sorrow. While all the threads belong together, the essay shows me deciphering my emotions and responses in way that feels a little too raw. There is not a tidy way to write any of what I am writing in that piece, but I respect the story enough to find a way to tell it well.

I just finished Educated by Tara Westover. She journaled all the way through her wild growing up years in rural Idaho, all the way through her sense of inadequacy. She learned how to say the truth plainly in the pages of a notebook. And then, much later, she put her experiences together in a memoir that talks intimately about tragic and difficult moments. At no point in the narrative does the reader wonder if Westover is just figuring out what she needs to survive her family, to thrive away from Idaho, to pursue meaningful work she couldn’t have imagined a decade before. While she walks us through her realizations, while we watch her grow, we trust she tells us her story from a place that is through – maybe still in the middle on some days, but mostly secure in her present place.

Perhaps drafting and revising “The Grave Garden” stood in for what I should have done, which is go to therapy. It’s upsetting to write hard words in my own hand. To say to myself what hurts. Really, I think I could have done a few sessions, whacked my way through a couple of big issues, been lifted more quickly than three years of writing about my grief for the Sengers, my grief for myself, the anger. I wrote from the middle. I wasn’t through much of anything when I started drafting the essay. I wanted to be through, I wanted to understand what we learn from such tragedy, what forgiveness I might extend myself, I wanted to know I could be a good mom even if I hadn’t wanted motherhood more than anything in the world. I very much started “The Grave Garden” in the middle and its revision is ungainly but I don’t negate the need for the work. How else might I learn to write about difficult things except to write about difficult things?

(994 words)

Ordinary Suffering/ Suffering Is Ordinary

Last week I was writing about suffering. I have been writing about suffering for years (because that’s a fun way to fill a notebook, right?) but this year I churn when I sit to write about suffering, with impatience to reach conclusion about what I see in the world, what I see in dear friends’ lives, what I feel in my body and mind. When considering others’ losses, I wonder if my own suffering is selfish. Does God care to comfort me when I am sad for nothing much, compared?

A few weeks ago, after a family suffered the death of their baby girl, my friend Sabrina listened to my very wandering thoughts about everything and said to think about what I am learning from the people in my life who suffer much. This circle of suffering friends includes Sabrina, in her first year of widowhood, her first year of single parenting. So last week when I was writing about suffering and a colleague asked what I was working on, I told him and he quoted an Auden poem – “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The old Masters: how well they understood” – which I looked up. Which sent me to Pieter Brueghel’s painting “Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus.” I read the poem, looked at the painting and found a way in.

The Fall Of Icarus

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


Ordinary Suffering/
A Response To “Musee des Beaux Arts”
Sarah Marslender

I was on the way to the airport to fly to Australia
when my grandfather died in Wisconsin,
but I read the news at the gate, leaned against
my husband. I thought, Grandpa knows everything/
I was at my work study when a plane flew into
the World Trade Center – we turned the radio on,
we thought it was impossible but true, returned
to our work/ Two weeks ago, I was walking down
a school hall when I checked my messages to
learn a friend’s baby died. With the time
difference between here and there, I couldn’t
remember what I was doing when this baby girl
left all of this world

I think about that – what I am doing when a
plane explodes in the air, or barrel bombs rain,
or the earth shakes foundations, slips mud, eats
half a mountainside town. I think about where I
am when, as if it matters at all

to join the suffering. We do not all turn away
from the boy who falls from sky. The fisherman
with his slender rod, the hawk on its slender branch,
the shepherd staring at sky – we do not all turn
away from ordinary suffering but you cannot
see our heads turn, our feet move before we
think, or how we lay that night seeing it again,
you cannot see what paint dried

Ordinary suffering/ suffering is ordinary, not
less than/ greater than, only part of being here
where people may fall from sky, or wake with a
mouthful of mud, or witness the brightest/ most
excruciating light before dark, or walk the next
day with empty hands