A Praise Chorus
What if grief is an offering?
I’ve been (re) reading a lot of Simone Weil recently [unmixed attention is prayer], and about ten minutes after I took this photo, I had to ask myself: “is it loneliness if I want to be witnessed in the midst of it?” There is freedom and wonder in recognition - but there is also a terribleness to it. We get used to holding things that would be painful for anyone else to touch. But protecting our private despair doesn’t heal it - we just lug it. Anyone who’s carried unmetabolized grief for years knows that isn’t sustainable. The psychiatrist R.D. Laing proposed that we arrive here as Stone Age children. He believed we inherited the entire lineage of our species. So we’re carrying all of this generational [and for some - systematic] grief in addition to our own. And yet, it’s “normal” to cry alone after seeking out an abandoned parking lot or quiet room —or not to cry at all. I’m fascinated by this concept of ritual grief, where you go off by yourself to weep, and when you return, the group welcomes you back (wtf) and thanks you for helping to empty the communal cup of sorrow. How many of us have ever been thanked for our grief before? We think of grief as a burden we lay on someone else. But what if, as Mary Oliver said about that box of darkness, it’s a gift?
I’m trying to learn how to take in a landscape without trying to change it. I want to touch your sorrow without trying to solve it. I want to hold the feathers stuck between your shoulder blades and return them to you tarless. Like my therapist told me: “it’s not a (binary) question of whether we believe we’re worthy of love, desire, intimacy, and belonging - it’s a question of how much” We are all coming to realize [like Weil] that: “[...] the soul knows for certain only that it is hungry….The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.” We are aching to break that spell of denied hunger, desperate to go into these hidden places, and sometimes someone’s cup is so full, they’re going to spill it before they get there. So I’m trying to facilitate the moment when everyone in my life has permission to say, “This is who I am. This is what I carry”. Because I know that’s a life-changing, life-saving event. At some point in our lives, we each have been painfully exiled through prejudice, contempt, or our own (or others') failings, but sometimes, we are ostracized by a transformation that doesn’t include us. Each of these is uniquely painful and heartbreaking - but I am learning to find the offering in “Your past is not a threat. It’s what brought you to me.”
I think that miracle of sitting here with you can be enough. It’s all in what we often fail to notice. After reading Ross Gay’s “Book of Delights,” I also developed a personal delight radar in [what I used to think were] simple and mundane things - because I was too distracted to pay attention to a sunset or a poem that could break my heart. Rilke was convinced that “[…]the Spring-times needed you deeply. Many a star / must have been there for you so you might feel it. A wave / lifted towards you out of the past, or, as you walked /past an open window, a violin / gave of itself. All this was their mission. / But could you handle it? Were you not always. Still, distracted? [...]” - You know? The moon needs you to breathe it into your lungs. Your friend needs you to leave them a messy voicemail about how much you love them. Everyone who treasures you wants something from you that will last, that they can hold and carry in their heart. We’re blocked from seeing and engaging with what’s around us because we’re always looking for something else. That’s our plight as humans; it seems, doesn’t it? Looking for what isn’t there instead of what is - hellbent on getting back what we’ve lost. Immense loss and sorrow came around, and they threw us to the ground into the depths of confusion and bewilderment, maybe into extreme isolation, depression, addiction, and shame. But I don’t think it was out of some sadistic cosmic horror but out of a necessity to weave the dark parts into our being. He [Rilke] also said God is ripening even when we don’t desire it. I want to believe there’s another phase after that - when and if we’re willing, everything can change beyond recognition.
Perhaps, this is [Ada] Limón's driving conviction in her latest collection [The Hurting Kind] — that to be "eyed" by someone is to be an "I."
To be made whole
by being not a witness,
Of course, the tears [and reprieve] might not come at that moment. It’s impossible to [authentically] cry on demand. Even in a small circle of trusted friends, perhaps only a few of us might grieve. But the others can support those individuals and thank them heartily—because they helped everyone. And the next time, it might be you or me. I am trying to learn how to think like a village. The ritual isn’t just about me doing my work; it’s about making it possible for others to do theirs. We all need attention from the group; there’s nothing wrong with that [as much as my inner critic/perfectionist tries to negate it]. We also need to grant attention, to bear witness. Nearly every interior experience is informed or was started by [an] exterior experience. So it feels like it’s constantly swirling around, but I don’t have a measured, thematic way of understanding [the inexplicable] other than framing it as a conviction. We’re all in a perpetual struggle between the selves we must put out in the world and the ones who want to cultivate our inner silence. It’s a challenging balance, living in this world with all its distractions, animosity, and traumas while nurturing the creative self from which the heart speaks. I’m not sure it’s possible to find a permanent balance, but it’s impossible to continue making art without that ebb and flow. I’m great, perhaps too good, at taking care of that part of myself that is essential only to me. The world doesn’t care! And I don’t care because I don’t want to connect with everyone, which can make it harder to insist upon a calling (especially any form of healing) if the demand only seems to come from within, which my therapist would say is a cognitive distortion [because the world does need it!]. Our task is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. These emotions are infinite and incomplete, and very few things can hold that kind of dialectic energy - willingness is the only thing I can think of outside a prayer or poem.
Keats and Blake described the soul as the physical medium from which we can speak the truth about our lives. That version of the soul invites the marginal, excluded, and unwelcome pieces of ourselves into attention. It’s found at the edges, in culture, and in our lives. It takes us down into the places of our shared humanity: sorrow and longing, suffering and death. The language of the heart requires us to be authentic, revealing what lies behind the image we try to show the world, including our flaws and peculiarities. This manifestation doesn’t care at all about perfection or getting it right. It cares about participation. Our soul is revealed in dreams, reflections, and images, our most intimate conversations, and our desire to live a life of meaning and purpose.
I want to defend the future possibility of some words appearing on the page that will be equal to these times and to what I feel and what you feel - that is, we all are wrestling an angel who’s got us by the throat. My lit professors argue against silence and intellectual obfuscation. They say: tell us how it feels. Well, we are trying. I am trying. But as DeLillo dramatized [in White Noise], it is nearly impossible to discuss feelings with video reels [I never asked to see] playing loudly, crying so operatically - that you cannot hear the quiet breaking of someone else’s heart. Yet, every poet I love continues to manage this nifty trick of reclaiming sentiment from TV’s and TikTok’s blight against all things soulful and human. I would applaud for their [supposedly] small yet significant triumphs. They work to keep both sides of the equation - brain and heart - present on the page and in my life. It forces me to lie down where Yeats said all the ladders start - in that foul rag and bone shop of the heart. It’s our moral obligation to be revolutionaries, to engage, grieve, be enraged and saddened - while offering praise, practicing delight, and tending compassion and joy. It’s exhausting work, but a heart that does not deal with its sorrow will harden to the world's wonders and evils, and I don’t want to miss out on the wonder. If there’s a better road out there, I want us to build it. If there’s a light at the end of the [last] tunnel, I want to swallow it. Whatever mystery lies ahead - I want to echo Ada’s praise chorus [even] into the inevitable darkness - “Fine then, I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf - unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.”
author’s note: this essay is a semi-continuation of