Death is one word that comes up. Loss. An ending. Pupa.
These are the words that come to mind when I attempt to characterize the last twelve months.
This time last Christmas, I bought myself a necklace. A tiny butterfly pendant, that symbolized a metaphorical representation of my favorite creature, life and death, metamorphosis and transformation, and the completion of my manuscript titled A Kaleidoscope of Butterflies, a novel that I had been writing for three years. Whatever the cost, I remember telling myself I deserved a fine piece of jewelry, and reckoning the money spent would find it’s way back to me in the way of a book deal, a monetary inheritance from a dead family member, or another one of life’s surprises. I wore the necklace religiously well into June. Then I lost it. I don’t know what happened to it. When I went to feel for it, it simply wasn’t around my neck anymore. Those things happen sometimes.
I lost an earring on a night out a few weeks ago.
I lost a pair of $300 sandals and later found them clenched between my dog’s teeth, the leather straps shredded like a tattered rag.
I lost my children this year. Because I lose things.
Loss denotes pain that can sometimes be debilitating. But I am learning that pain is just pain. Not good. Not bad. Just part of being a human being. I’ve always been incredibly fascinated with the art of being human. It’s a creative process, no? I liken living to writing a story, or painting a picture, or posing for a series of photographs. The way we wear a life is a fashion statement, pairing garments we find in our closets together ever so boldly, or eccentrically; the makeup of our years is the fabric of our inner and outer lives.
My interests have always been twofold. I studied psychology in undergrad because we become what we think, how we think. We become the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. But, I studied creative writing in grad school, because at the end of the day, aren’t we novels… sagas spanning decades and generations of curses and blessings, blood and tears, foolish decisions and lessons learned? Science is the study of what we are. But literature is the study of who we are. We’re layered, nuanced, a complicated equation of will, power, grace, and limitations. Can anyone ever know us? I’m afraid, more often than not, we’re all largely misunderstood.
I met a man last month on a cruise ship to the Bahamas. We struck up a conversation over lunch that lasted well into dinner. I love those kind of chance meetings, when you happen to sit down next to someone who tells you a thing or two about yourself. It was an easy conversation, intimate but lighthearted. Sincere, with sprinkles of humor. It started because he asked me what I was reading. It was a book by Viktor Frankl on the meaning of life and how the writer was able to survive the horrors of Auschwitz’s with his mind in tact. Then I told him my own story, the fires I’ve survived, the places in my own life where I’ve stopped breathing, but determined to walk even breathless through a wilderness dense with trees. I told him the things that I’ve lost. He listened intently and then told me I wasn’t special.
His words were a knife wrapped in gentleness that sliced through my abdomen and chest cavity, splaying me open like a gutted fish. I felt seen, and in a way found out, the story I had been telling myself and the world for years ripped apart and examined for what it really was, a flimsy mask at best that characterized me as a victim in a heartless world, and a blatant lie at worst because none of what I said actually meant anything. Nothing means anything, except the meaning you assign it. Of course life happens. Things happen. People die. We lose things. But to characterize the loss as something to be endured, a fire to survive, well that is simply the way one is choosing to describe it, bad writing in a novel where the scribe tells the reader what to think and how to feel as opposed to laying out the facts and allowing them to have their own way of sorting through it.
So I’m not special. Because aren’t all of our lives a concoction of joy and pain. I write about mine, not as a gritty tell-all seeking a spotlight, but rather as a way to help others feel less alone in the world.
tWitch, a dancer I had become familiar with over a decade ago when I used to watch So You Think You Can Dance with my then, five year old twins in the evenings on the couch shoveling lo mein into our mouths, completed suicide last week. I was shocked, not as if I knew him personally, but because I felt like I did. On screen he was always full of light and positivity, a smile always plastered across his face. He had a wife and three children and I let that fact sit because I’ve known intimately the desperation of wanting to end an agonizing suffering. It is a physical pain of which anyone who has never experienced will never quite understand. But for me, in my most difficult moments, my saving grace was remembering I had growing children who yet needed me. At this thought, I imagined tWitch, and the immense pain he must have been sitting in rendering his own children not enough to keep him here.
Writing for me has been a tool I’ve used time and again. It is a rope to which I’ve fastened myself to climb out of the dark well that circumstances in life threw me into. It is a therapy that has worked wonders in my life, and one I hope to gift others in offering them a way out of their own prisons of grief, shame, or despair. It is a way to make peace with the lost things. The act of creative writing and other art therapies can mimic the effects of experiencing literature, and “traveling” outside of one’s immediate surroundings to explore the elastic capabilities of the mind.
In psychotherapy, the common understanding in creative writing is to separate the client’s story from their deeper associations, and this separation allows them to put some distance between their identity and what happened to them. It changes their relationship with the events of their life and their thoughts and feelings connected to it. It is a method of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy helping clients move from the stories about their lives to the stories in their lives, that is, to move them from a narrative that skims the top of their experience to one that unearths it. Frankl says, in Man’s Search for Meaning,”…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Science tells us what we are. Trauma produces something called an iconic image, that is, a mental picture that is stored deep within the brain in the limbic system and is not easily available to the cerebral cortex. But narrative tells us who we are. It is these iconic images that must be accessed if a story about the trauma is to be told. Narrative is the chain that links moments together. It finds closure with the things we’ve lost. Image is what is seen in dreams, what is remembered when recalling loved ones. It is image that burns itself into the mind, and it is image which can free us from a past that will always have a hold on us until we look straight at it. Image is the lifeblood of the personal essay.
Consider oatmeal for instance. It is simmering in a pot on the stove in my old Maryland apartment that I shared with my then partner and newborn twins. I am recovering from a grueling birth, cesarean section surgery, and in the throes of postpartum depression. I am making breakfast. I turn abruptly, my elbow knocking the pot from the stove, and sending oatmeal splatter all over the white linoleum floor. In this moment, I break. My legs can no longer hold me and I fall with the pot of oatmeal, crumbling into a ball on the floor, my knees pulled into my chest, thick tears welling in my eyes. Somehow my inability to properly make oatmeal meant I was also inadequate as a mother or a respectable member of society. I was, in essence, an overall disgrace of a human being, and maybe I didn’t deserve to live.
Months later, my then partner would share with me a time in the thick of those days when during a routine visit, my obgyn pulled him to the side, looked him in the eyes with sincere concern and said, “she needs you.” Hormones run amuck after a woman gives birth and for some women, and by some, I mean me, they were especially off kilter creating a severe chemical imbalance. That coupled with financial troubles, and the abandonment I felt from those closest to me sent me spiraling into a space and period that I simply refer to now as the time “when I was sick.”
But it got better. I got better. The days turned into months, and the months into years, and I found a rhythm with my twins, a dance that made life pleasant. I enjoyed raising them, joyriding in my drop top convertible that I nicknamed Diana Ross, their car seats perched in the back. When life evolved and the children were starting preschool, we had another car, this one without a removable roof. The older twin, in his childlike innocence implored me once to “take the top off Mommy!” He was thoroughly confused when I explained this one doesn’t come off.
We shared movie nights, huddled together on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and a blanket. And long talks in the bathroom, the twins in the tub, soap suds in their hair. Once my baby boy asked me what he was made of.
“Mommy, God made me right?”
“But what did he make me out of?”
“Hmm… blood and bones and flesh and skin,” I said playfully pinching his arm.
He wasn’t satisfied. “But where did he get the stuff to make me?”
He was inquisitive, and that was my favorite thing about him. As they grew, I remember another apartment, another conversation, when one of the twins asked me about babies. He was learning about reproduction in his fourth grade science class and had read that when sperm meets egg, a baby is conceived. “But how would it meet the egg?” he asked. “Wouldn’t it have to travel through the air?”
Oh how my heart aches with fond memories. Memories that now seem so distant, so…out of reach. Children grow up as they often do and so it is not as if I didn’t see the inevitable coming.What I didn’t expect was that the children I knew would morph into someone else entirely. They will be 17 soon and this year was riddled with adolescence, rebellion, and bitter arguments that I found no shield or comfort from. I found myself depleted and so I slept. When I awoke, I learned my children were gone. The revelation reminded me of my own adolescent years, and the trouble I had with my mother. It ignited a terrible compassion , and my heart broke for her, seeing at once her humanity and sitting with her in the loss of a child.
Being a young mother, I’ve raised my children into adulthood before I’ve reached 40, an age where friends of mine are just beginning their journey into parenthood. The caveat is that I’ve journeyed alone, feeling feelings that are hard to explain but can only be known. It is losing a person, not to death, but to life. It is coming to terms with the realization that the children I knew so deeply were gone. That is a pain that feels like death. So I mourned. I prayed. And then I let go.
Here is a list of some things I’ve lost in my journey through time and space.
- My first Jersey City apartment
- $500 to a tourist scam artist
- A ceramic bowl I made in Costa Rica
- A collectors Monopoly game at an ex’s apartment
- A pair of leather flip flop sandals in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ghana.
- Two of my teeth (I had them pulled 3 years ago as part of my orthodontic treatment. The doctor said I wasn’t allowed to keep them when I asked. I wasn’t allowed to keep my own teeth.)
- The last voicemail my dad left me
- My dad.
I would say I’ve lost several boyfriends, but in truth, they lost me. I never really wanted them anyway and I don’t say that here simply to save face. I’ve never found a person I’ve wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Notwithstanding, I love the idea of marriage. A happy marriage. Even more, I love the idea of having a life partner who lights my soul on fire. I’m not interested in mediocrity. So unless and until I find that, I’m comfortable living life on my own terms, meeting people on my journey who inspire me, and love me, and I them, even if not for forever. The time being can be magic.
I’m in awe of my mother, the way she has fashioned a life for herself, finding pure love, where the rest of the world may have thought only dead things lay. She is a spectacle. Both supernatural and human. Her and Christ have that in common. The possibilities of my own life excite me, the supposition that my best years are still in front of me, the idea that I haven’t yet met all of the people who are going to love me, the anticipation of not knowing how my story will end. Either way it’s mine. And its beautiful. And I like to write about beautiful things.
Kincaid explained it best. She said “for me, writing isn’t a way of being public or private; it’s just a way of being. The process is always full of pain, but I like that. It’s a reality, and I just accept it as something not to be avoided. This is the life I have. This is the life I write about.”
Caterpillars crawl into pupa to die. They spin themselves into their silk coverlet. They build their own grave and dangle from a twig. Here, they shrink, shed their skin and their insides turn to mush. The grave turns from its fresh green lime color to a rusted brown resembling tree bark. It hardens and dries and hangs like evil, burned at the stake. Caterpillars don’t merely sleep. They die in there, and what emerges is another beast entirely. A beautiful beast, with colorful wings that can take them anywhere. They suffer in agony first before they learn to fly. True transformation is like this. It’s not tweaking, rearranging or augmenting. It’s a complete overhaul. Deconstruction. In this, the essence of the worm knows a kind of death and yet knows a kind of life. He dies, and behold, he lives. From the violence, the casualties, the loss, something better emerges…something that would have otherwise never existed.