The Price of Tenderness 3
We are not finished yet
I have tried, over and over, to enter this essay the way a door opens in another room. More than anything, I want to hold your face in my hands and tell you, “The work in us is not finished yet”. I know it’s a grind bringing your everything, especially when you feel shackled to the past. Like Van Gogh’s sadness, the missing can go on forever - but perhaps an impossible longing that spreads is necessary for us to make room. Jorie Graham would remind us that our task is to handle the fire without getting obliterated and still pass on the fire, which feels like ancestral magic. A magic that I remember more than I discover as I age. I think that wisdom exists in each of us. We’ve just forgotten it. In a workshop in 2019 - I asked Ada Limón how she could dive into grief without burning up on (re)entry, and she responded: “Mostly because I’ve done it a lot […] We’ve all romanticized looking for answers at the bottom of the well […] you’ve got to protect yourself; know your strength, what you’re capable of that day - even at that moment. Some days we’re better equipped to dive in; you must care for yourself - mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Ensure you have a way out [of grief or despair]; sometimes, the poem [itself] is the way out. “
Among the ways that we're most connected to one another is that we’re all going to experience insurmountable loss. We all have to live with the deteriorating state of the world and unanswerable questions. Tony Hoagland believes “[..] that's why / we invented the complex sentence, so we could stand at a distance, // and make adjustments // in the view // while trying hard to track / the twisty, ever-turning plot”. And I believe that [true] recognition - of our feeble attempts to solve what no one else has solved facilitates a life of care. But only if we stop framing those questions so they fit the story we want to tell about our lives. Part of owning our story is letting the truth defend itself, even if it’s awful. I used to tell my story like I was describing a haunted house because I couldn’t bear the telling [eldrich horror] of what lived inside it. Our task isn’t to solve the beautiful terribles but to tend and hold them while allowing them to ripen us. Rilke told us to live the questions, but part of his insistence was for us to stop looking for answers, and that type of surrender is tricky because you have to choose it, sometimes multiple times a day. And then you gotta get up tomorrow and do it all over again. I have learned that grief is cone-shaped, and we will always orbit the gravity of immense loss and trauma - but we have to dissent on the days when we feel their gravity pulling us toward the event horizon. I believe part of our duty in recovery is refusing to fall after we’ve risen. We all stumble occasionally, but I’m talking about refusing to return to what buried you. Marie Howe assures us: “It hurts to be present [on these days], though. I ask my students every week to write ten observations of the actual world. It’s very hard for them….Just tell me what you saw this morning in two lines. I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. And resisting metaphor is very difficult because you have to endure the thing itself…”
In Paper Houses, Dominique Fortier reminds us that many masters, like Emily Dickinson, have already shown us how to endure and pay attention to the difficult and the banal: “As she writes, [ Dickinson] erases herself. She disappears behind the blade of grass that, if not for her, we would never have seen. She does not write to express herself, perish the thought. […S]he doesn’t write to be noticed. She writes to bear witness: here lived a flower, for three days in July, the year of 18**, killed by a morning shower. Each poem is a tiny tomb erected to the memory of the invisible.” This type of witnessing is a bright darkness. An earnestness that doesn’t strive to solve but to hold will give off its own light - because [holy shit] it turns out that holding and surrendering to the impossible thing is the critical alchemy to our bioluminescence.
Joy, like poetry [according to John Berger], “can repair no loss, but it defies the space which separates…by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered”. It is the evidence of our reaching across to one another in the midst of, or as a way even of caring for, one another's sorrows. And without sadness, joy would become something else entirely. Perhaps it wouldn’t exist at all. The perceived simplicity of meekness shifts in this context away from its synonymy with weakness and transmutes into an active passivity that may become an extraordinary force of symbolic resistance and, as such, fuses to both our ethics and politics. It is the ethos of [my] queerness because I reached a point where I wanted to live differently so desperately that it altered my gender identity [he/they], reverberating Bell Hook’s definition because I was at odds with everything around me and something deep down needed to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live. Queerness, for me, is the antithesis of hyper-independence and masochism. Gordon Marion wrote: “In general, tenderness involves increased sensitivity. When we say that an injury is tender, we mean that it is hyper-sensitive to the touch. And in moments of tenderness, it is as though the ego and all its machinations momentarily melt away so that our feelings are heightened and we are perhaps moved by the impulse to reach out with a comforting hand.” Gentleness was [and is] my force of secret life-giving transformation linked to what the ancients called potentiality. If we hold the virtues of tenderness at our cores, the concise list of impossible things may never leave us, but the other list - of what is still possible - becomes exponential. Our greatest challenge doesn’t lie with either list - but with the limitations of our imaginations. I still return to “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone,” where Lori Gottlieb’s therapist, Wendall, illustrates for her:
“I’m reminded,” he begins, “of a famous cartoon. It’s of a prisoner, shaking the bars, desperately trying to get out—but to his right and left, it’s open, no bars.”
He pauses, allowing the image to sink in.
“All the prisoner has to do is walk around. But still, he frantically shakes the bars. That’s most of us. We feel completely stuck, trapped in our emotional cells, but there’s a way out—as long as we’re willing to see it.”
Because it’s such an accurate visualization of entitlement [at least for me], gentleness and tenderness already made the exits out of that prison, but we refuse to use them because they require us to let go of the bars [familiar pain, grief, or shame] we’ve been clinging to. I have been wrong whenever I believed I needed something specific for healing or transmutation. Not only was I wrong, and it prevented me from healing - but holding onto that belief exacerbated that pain. It’s laughable now, but my most significant failures [and character defects] in my 20s revolved around believing life [or someone else] owed me answers. This isn’t much different than a 7-year-old throwing a temper tantrum in the cereal aisle because they tried to sneak cinnamon toast crunch into the shopping cart and got caught. We don’t get to decide what life owes us or what miracles the universe offers. Although, there have been times when I wished I could climb that stairway to heaven and smash open the spigot from which grace seems to be metered. Accepting that I’m not in control is another form of surrender, knowing I didn’t earn this grace through my suffering. But, I believe I can be worthy of it if I extend it to others and keep my palms open like windows.
I find it prudent to believe any pain that we’ve processed will also die [if we stop excavating around it], that wear and tear await every haunted house, and that some [pains] already have no more meaning for us as their ghosts fade like film left out in the July sun. I know the miracle of today, like everything else, attains its richness in what erodes and decays in time. The gift of friendship isn’t just in recognition, equipping, and believing in the other - but the nourishment that is only possible through our mingling. It is the source of our greatest sorrows and attachments and our place of luminescence. What purpose does that light serve but to illuminate the ways between you and me? I know something wonderful is happening to us - if we would allow it. I know that we have not forgotten each other. I think of you all with the utmost/excruciating warmth, and in a sense - I pray for each of you nightly. And while I wish I could take each of your hands and hold them dear in mine - want I wish for most is that you continue to be who you are and who you’ve been called to be. And if you aren’t yet, I pray that you are convicted to. I wish for nothing more than transformative experiences in your lives and awakenings in each of our hearts.
There's a dream I keep having where I'm running up the stairs of your porch to your front door. A dream where nothing separates us. Not space. Not time, borders, or language. A dream where I am with you, and the loss has finally made us both open, [and love, it bears repeating] open roads.