As Frankenstorm rides up the coast towards New England, I’m back in form, doing the Hospital Hang. My life has included mostly unexpected and sometimes extended hospital stays of people I love, and I developed my skills many years ago. They come in handy.
How to do the hospital hang? Pack up food, reading, a computer (hospitals generally have strong and reliable wifi), work files and knitting. You may not use all the things you bring, but it makes me feel more settled to know I have plenty to do, in case I want to do something besides just be with the person I love who’s in the hospital.
Once you arrive at the room of the person you’re hanging with, drag chairs from wherever you can find them so all the visitors can sit comfortably. Locate the mini-kitchen and get yourself some water. Find the closest restrooms. Chat with all the nurses and aides and be super-friendly. Marry a doctor and bring him along and smile while he lets the hospital staff know he’s a doctor and proceeds to ask knowledgable and important questions.
It was David’s suggestion to test for Lyme disease, and my sister’s follow-up insistence on the test, that’s resulted in a diagnosis of my mother’s confusing symptoms — acute and chronic Lyme. Hopefully the IV antibiotics will start to turn around this multi-week roller coaster of pain and nausea, dehydration and confusion, appetite and energy loss. I’m hoping this hospital hang resolves quickly, for everyone’s sake. I don’t need any more practice.
Okay, the “marry a doctor” part might not be that easy, but that’s a skill I picked up for other reasons, and it comes in really handy.
Last Sunday evening Adrienne, Matt, Melia, Emilio and I went to the Rise of the Jack O’ Lanterns at Old Westbury Gardens, near where Adrienne and Matt live. The advertised 5,000 or more hand carved Jack O’Lanterns were not disappointing. Rather, they were a visual delight, glowing in long rows along the dark path, many with intricate paintings and carvings of flowers, trees, butterflies and celebrities. Emilio was very excited to see Kermit and Frankenstein. “Kermit, again?”
But the best part of the evening was when we were leaving. As we walked to the car we passed a large pedestal with an eagle sculpture on top and pointed it out to Emilio. Looking back at it Emilio said, “Bye-bye, Eagle.” Then as we drove out of the Gardens, settled back in his car seat, Emilio said, “Bye-bye, Jack O’ Lanterns. Bye-bye, Pumpkins.” No tantrum about leaving, no fussing and whining. Just a sweet moment of Emilio letting life pass along on its swift track, ready for whatever was next.
Navigating the unexpected left turns in life is no easy thing. Taking a left turn is always tricky — assessing the oncoming traffic, making sure there’s space for you to cross lanes, moving swiftly but confidently in the face of not being quite sure what might pop up in front of you.
After Eric died, I read a good bit of Pema Chodron, and was very attracted to her messages about embracing groundlessness — letting go of our expectation that life always has to be happy and perfect and planned, and realizing that life is a process unfolding in unpredictable ways that bring both joy and pain, loss and gain, grief and acceptance. Being truly present in each moment of my life, and understanding that that’s really all there is, was a lesson I learned through my grief process, and one I have to keep relearning. Remembering that my attachment to the idea that I know exactly where I am and where I’m going is an illusion, and that the groundlessness of life is going to catch up with me over and over again is helpful. Get back into this moment, because really, that’s all there is.
It’s warm enough to be on the porch writing this afternoon, and I’m grateful for the soft air and the shelter that lets me be outside as intermittent showers veil the fields surrounding me. The maples that still have leaves are yellow, and the oaks are amber behind the gray rain. This is a moment to savor as I spin the wheel to the left.
Two months ago I recognized how much my consulting jobs have cut into my time and whatever space I was finding in my mind for writing and creative concentration. I remembered that while I was still working at the Coalition I started the practice of writing a haiku everyday as a way to stay in touch, however briefly, with daily creativity. Not that my work in the movement to end violence against women hasn’t always had a strong element of creativity, but it’s not the same as writing down the constant scroll of language translating experience in my mind.
Two months later I’m admitting to myself that the gravitational pull of work has landed me back in a place where much of my mental energy is expended helping organizations and projects further their work to address domestic and sexual violence. It’s not a surprise. No one is emailing me and calling me asking for the next poem or essay or book. People are emailing and calling and asking me to do consulting work. I get paid, I get praised, I get absorbed.
So back to that Haiku Habit idea from two months ago. I’ve hardly written a haiku since, but today as I got ready to be away traveling for a job, knowing that the first real frost may finally arrive while I’m gone, I decided to let the turn of the season turn me back to at least a small space for poetry in my head every day. I hope it lasts.
Haiku Habit II
Late garden basket
Last cascade of summer porch
Frost’s chapter opens.
Walking In The Woods
We have been walking in the woods since we were children,
we never stopped, we can see the forest, now our son
tells me to slow down, there’s no hurry anymore,
you are already dead, he runs. Water drops downhill,
a stone bridge at the top of the gorge, ice and snow still,
goblets of ice hanging from branches that cross a small fall,
sharp angles of rocks, going to the river. I find dry leaves
in a sunny spot above the water, a cloud shadow and the brook
is black and white, gold glint gone, then gold again, the cloud
is in everything, at the river, a rock bench by a pool under cliffs,
snow shards, a flurry in a squall, a bank of river stones.
From The Truth About Death
Having The Truth About Death published was an accomplishment that meant a lot to me, not just because it felt great to have my first full length book of poetry published, but also because I believe in the story it tells, the chronicle of grief it provides, and its truth about death. Or the truth as I experienced it. Still, this summer I purposely let myself focus on other things — travel, family, gardening, ramping up on a couple of consulting jobs — rather than feel like I had to maintain a constant focus on promoting my book.
So I’ve been delighted twice recently when, without any prompting or focus on my part, good things have come back to me about the book. I brought copies with me to the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writers’ Conference this summer, figuring I’d sell a few copies there, which I did. And a week after the conference I got this wonderful email from a participant who’d bought a copy: “I have just finished reading your book, The Truth About Death. I simply could not put it down; I read it in one day. It is so beautiful and moving and agonizing that I hardly know what to say, except that it has changed me: I feel ripped open and sewn back together. This is what I hope to find in writing, in any genre; I ask to be fundamentally altered in ways I can’t adequately describe. I am afraid to explore the topic of losing a partner. Your poems made me look at the visceral truths of such a loss, and I am grateful for that. I know this is a book I’ll read many times, finding something new in each reading. Thank you.”
“Wow!” I thought. So it’s working. People are experiencing the book in the way I’d hoped. Then a couple of weeks later I got this email from a good friend: “I thought you might like to know how your work moves around. I gave a copy of your book to my friend Jim who is now teaching for NYU in Abu Dhabi. One of his courses is called Ghastly Beauty, and deals with art as ‘a repository and record of human emotion’. He is using some of your poems in the class. Since the students come from all over the world, they will take some of your work with them when they go.”
And tomorrow night I’ll be reading once again from The Truth About Death. David and I are the featured readers at tomorrow night’s Portsmouth Poetry Hoot. So, the book keeps going out into the world and coming back to me in unexpected ways. May the magic of that continue.