Making Water From Wine, No Less
the beauty in survival, navigating shame and grief
*author’s note: 05/15/21
At the beginning of the pandemic, in an interview with Jordan Kisner, Leslie Jamison remarked about writing a piece inside of one life and having it emerge in another, where the invisible is made visible. Not through abstraction but through earnestness that can stand on the shoulders of deep research, skepticism, interrogation, and [most importantly] - curiosity. Jamison believes (as do I) that the miracle of grace is finding solace in unexpected places, which comes from asking: "What were the things I was trying to teach myself when I was writing this?"
One of the hardest, bravest things to do right now, in any environment, be it a classroom or online, is to say, "I believe this is good. I have done the work and research. I have given it time to marinate. I have vetted it in my soul and in the souls of those I trust. I believe this thing so much that I can fully stand behind it." That's far more accessible than saying, "Here's everything that's wrong with that" You can duck behind anything when you're skeptical. But owning it is a form of surrender. You don't just lay down your weapons. You have to put yourself out there in front of the firing line. Sometimes I'm astonished that art ever gets made. But I'm interested in and fascinated by that kind of dynamic vulnerability.
The magic of both poetry and the essay form is that they can be so many different things, even simultaneously. We can't know them from the outset. We have to be caught off guard by them. They come at us from angles we weren't expecting. That sense of being surprised by life, amazed by solace, surprised by weird forms of connection, mysterious sources of refuge is one of the truths I believe is at the core of writing. That perpetual discovery allows life to be complicated and capacious in a way that I can fully stand behind. Rilke called it an unfolding. And, in my heart of hearts, I believe that we've just begun to.
One thing about getting older is that on the bad days, I can carry my grief into Target, the grocery store, a mountain trail, the ocean, a coffee shop, or into a meeting, and every time someone else or the sun recognizes it, touches or looks at me with kindness it gets lighter. I don’t know if I’m physically putting my grief into those spaces or if recognition makes me stronger, but what I do know is that the weight isn’t as heavy.
I know, from experience, that grief stays in my bathtub as long as I do. Sometimes it overflows with it, and I come out more stained with weight and shame than I went in with. I just needed a bigger cup to pour into.
There is so much we hold in and carry every day. I’m learning how to embrace all the aches of human existence. I’ve been going to this Sunday Morning AA meeting downtown because it’s good for me to hear experience outside of NA. Plus, it’s a commitment to wake up early so I don’t fall back into depressive weekend habits.
Bill, who’s been sober for 25 years, smiles brightly at me as I walk up the steps this morning - puts his coffee on the railing and says, “Give me a hug, you fucking junkie” with the biggest smirk on his face and embraces me as only a loving father figure would. At an earlier point in my life and recovery, I would’ve taken offense to being called that, but as I approach a decade clean, it’s pretty hilarious. Bill asks me If I want to have breakfast with him and Jerry after, and I tell him, “of course.“ They have a lot to teach me, but it’s not like attending a lecture. Now that I’ve been graced with discernment, I only need to know what’s possible. Answers come in their own time.
Afterward, I hit a yoga class, a block down the street, and the smoothie shop below. Do I let the girl behind the counter touch me when she asks about the (poetry) book I have tucked under my arm? She tells me how much she loves the "Martian Chronicles” - and I don’t care if I’m holding up the line for 45 seconds. I write down “Ada Limon - The Carrying - Poetry,” scribble a line, then “The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin” for her on my receipt - she folds in half and carefully tucks it in her pocket, and we both apologize to the two people behind me.
I meet my sponsees and those new to recovery for coffee - and explain how there is so much more than “white-knuckling it” through life that I didn’t get clean to stay miserable or in constant crisis mode. That “coming to believe” is a process, and I am still continually being restored (not from insanity these days - but grief, abuse, isolation, despair, and even loneliness).
I’m trying to acknowledge and treat the suffering of the world while still being able to make dinner and admire the wind coming up through the streets, blowing through my hair - and the rain or sea-mist on my face.
We worry ourselves into small knots and grim threads of anticipatory grief most days. Still, writing, poems, and art give us a way of noticing that there is also real and significant beauty in surviving, living, and even thriving. So in a way, art (writing, especially) both complicates and simplifies things for me. It’s complicated because life is messy, painful, hilarious, and hard and straightforward. After all, we are all going to die, and we always have this moment to make something beautiful that might last.
Grief and shame strip me of joy sometimes. It makes me feel hopeless, and it’s not a livable space. I need to point out the things that are good, holy, and divine. Things that are worth living for - that make me laugh: my dog laying on my face in the morning, my sister’s german-shepherd husky puppies falling over themselves on afternoon walks, holding my nephew in the kitchen while I cook, the smell of fresh coffee on a rainy afternoon, waking up in a national park next to friends who I hold dear, a text that makes me laugh, a warm touch on the shoulder or arm, just being in proximity to someone I care about, silly gifs online (throw it in reverse Terry!), inside jokes at work, a chipmunk poking his head into the sprinkler, helping a friend get sober, and others recover.
When I first started seeing my therapist, she told me that if I was being overwhelmed and depressed by the macrocosm’s great sadness, I could recover my well-being by focusing on and embracing the microcosm. I still do that daily, in my life, in my writing, I do it so that I can get up in the morning and breathe so that I can live purposefully and actively.
And I want to go on doing that over and over as long as I can; for as long as there’s breath in my body.