CAOL ÁIT (Thin Places)

Grief doesn’t need to be solved; it needs to be tended.

When I first walked into therapy a decade ago, I had significant parts that I wanted to get rid of. I was confident that if I could cleave the weak, needy, shameful, dirty, inadequate parts of myself, I would be worthy. My therapist just looked at me, smirked, shook her head to suppress her internal laughter at that ridiculous notion, jotted down “another perfectionist,” and said, “Uh-huh.” We laugh about that together now, because thankfully, I failed miserably at that objective. 

In some ways, through therapy, I had to return to that proverbial wasteland of the past and find the discarded pieces of myself that were never really broken, just under-developed, or incorrectly utilized. And those outcast parts of me eventually became instrumental in connecting with others. To mirror Rilke: “The emptiness inside you allows you to vibrate in full resonance with your world. Use it for once." 

No-one can sidestep the losses, wounds, and failures that come with living; they are non-negotiable. But what we can do is bring curiosity to what arrives at our door and meet it with willingness. That’s how it is sometimes — an archangel shows up at your window, all bright light, and black wings, and you have to fight paralyzing arthritis to open the latch. As Leslie Jamison said to Jordan Kisner on Thresholds:"I don’t know that every pain can be redeemed by what’s on the other side of it - sometimes it’s just that [pain]”; but she and I still both believe in getting to the other side. That might seem pointless to some, but far I’m more interested in unknown and untold possibilities than reinforcing what I've already realized. One of the most significant spiritual awakenings, for me at least, was realizing how limiting my imagination can be. Awakenings aren’t always some mountaintop experience. In AA, they’re graciously referred to as “an awakening of the educational variety.” To quote Leslie again: "meaning that you’re not fucked if you didn’t hear it from God themself. "

The wonder of working with grief is that you quickly realize it is not solely your grief. I have personal stories of immense sorrow — we all do — but I am also weeping for the forests, disenfranchised communities, Breonna Taylor, and for those that have lost loved ones [tragically] this year. I cry for those I cannot comfort the most. But, if I’m willing to register and pay real attention to the losses of the world around me, I can be an advocate for justice, recovery, compassion, and even revolution. Michael Sendivogius [the fifteenth-century alchemist] said, “The greater part of the soul lies outside the body.” So much of my being lives in the hearts of my beloveds, and in turn, theirs in mine. 

I’ve been thinking about the concept of sacrament lately and what I hold sacred. I feel like poetry, for me, is in service to something greater than myself. Everything is more significant than me! And I’m perfectly fine with that because it’s [in favor] to the beautiful mystery of being alive. Two intimate partners I have loved are dead now, but their memories live on in me. I will be dead one day, and hopefully, my memory will live in others. How strange and extraordinary is that - to know that we’re alive and that we’re absolutely going to die, but not just once? Poetry is one of the few things that is capable of holding that. It has that knowledge, and it retains that dialectical energy. We’re alive, we’re going to die, this is now, and in a blink, everything will be lost. All of that occurs when we read or write a poem.

If you know me at all, you know my role in the world is the detective. But what I’m learning, and what poetry has taught me - is that I’m not going to figure it all out. Grief isn't something that needs to be solved; it needs to be tended. We cannot figure out grief. Knowledge cannot help us metabolize or master it. It’s like trying to eat a car. Even if you ground the parts to steel dust - you’re not going to be able to keep it down. 

I want to be sensitive to both the losses and joys around me. Dropping out of the conversation would mean isolating myself completely, and I’m not willing to do that anymore. Our whole experience of talking to one another right now is significantly distanced. I can’t hold your hand, and we can’t feel each other’s warmth when you read this. So when you sit down to approach your own grief, your default setting might be literal, where you want to “get it.” And I would encourage you not to worry about understanding every piece of it, but to feel it and draw near to it. Then to lug it and trust it. We can’t be transformed by important things from a distance, we have to get close - but not so close that the gravity of our grief rips us apart. 

I’m looking forward to the day that we join each other. It’ll be easier - when we’re not alone. And I feel like that’s the only answer. Otherwise, we’ll default to believing this is only happening to us. And that’s a terrible and untrue way to live our lives. And I think art frequently mirrors that to us, holding stories up, so we don’t feel alone. It’s so miraculous. I’m grateful for it. But even more, I’m clinging to it.