Was I supposed to get Jesus a gift for Christmas? Because it’s his birthday?
As I pulled up to our mail box last night, returning home from family holiday celebrations in Massachusetts, the headlights caught something with the ubiquitous late December red and green wrapped around the base of the pole. Positioning the car so I could snag whatever was coloring the ground underneath the mailbox, I pulled up a bright piece of cloth, printed with a birthday salutation to Jesus and a fancy gift box.
Where did this small flag come from? My house is in a very windy place, sitting on the eastern edge of acres of open pasture and hay fields, so it’s not unusual to find something in my yard that started out west of here. But this was a find of a whole different kind.
Looks like Jesus had a good year this holiday season based on the gift depicted on the flag, though I have no idea what’s in the box. But it’s nicely wrapped and ribboned and could pass for either a holiday or birthday gift. It guess it needs to be both.
I don’t think it’s just that I’m Jewish that made me miss getting Jesus a gift. Did you get him one?
In this season of advertised merriment with its vision of happy times supported by a hefty bout of shopping, posting the last of the four poems in my list of universal experiences that hold too much silence — sex, death, drugs, money — seems very appropriate.
Here I’m recounting the responses to what counts as wealth in the larger world and my own reckoning of true wealth, having experienced a deep and encompassing love.
On this gray morning polished by slow snow, as we travel towards the turn of the sun, the winter solstice only hours away, may you find your own sources of wealth to celebrate.
I sit on the window ledge of the restaurant
and talk to the woman beside me, her head
wrapped in a bandana, she lives on the streets,
she had a brain aneurysm, her family is lost
along the west coast, no chemicals,
it keeps her safe, she didn’t repeat herself
for a long time. Two men in a row tell me
it’s not my luck but my heart that makes me
put large bills in their cups, the blessing
I carry with me. You ate pears whole,
ignoring the core, to you all fruit.
I take drugs. The fact that I have an anxiety disorder that is greatly helped by the right doses of medication is a cause for celebration for me, not shame. Celebration that there are drugs that help, not that I have an anxiety disorder. That’s been a hard thing to live with, going back to when I was a very young child.
The first episode of intense anxiety that I remember happened when I was five and a kindergarten classmate died of a heart condition. His obvious frailty and my robust health meant nothing to my five year old brain that was busy imagining all the ways I might die, especially while I was asleep, making sleep terrifying rather than a refuge. In third grade a class mate died of leukemia. In high school a student in the next town died of spinal meningitis. Life was dangerous — it ended in death.
But I didn’t need a death close by to feed by anxiety. I made up many of my fears by myself. When I was a pre-teen it was brain tumor that was going to kill me. One day an aunt asked me why I was always feeling my scalp and I told her I was checking to see if the lumps on my head were getting any bigger because I was afraid they were tumors. She laughed, kindly, and told me I wouldn’t be able to feel tumors from the outside and I just had a lumpy head. For some reason, that didn’t translate into a fear that tumors I couldn’t feel were growing in my brain, probably because that particular bout of anxiety was waning.
My acute phases of anxiety weren’t constant and usually lasted several months and then got better. When I went through a particularly bad bout at 30, I thought back to other bad patches and realized the anxiety had peaked in six to seven year cycles since that first episode at five. It was also when I was 30 that a doctor finally named for me what was going on and suggested medication. I tried medication eagerly and have never regretted it.
I know there is still stigma about taking medication for mental health problems and I’m a bit of a zealot about trying to convince people to get over it. In my professional life I watched many colleagues suffer through depressions and anxiety issues, refusing to try medication because they thought they should be able to take care of their moods and distress themselves. Yes, I would tell them, you can take care of it, by seeing if you might be helped by medication.
It’s not always easy to find the right medication, and you have to find the right medical practitioner to work with you until you find the one or the combinations that work for you. I feel lucky that my route to effective medication has been fairly straightforward. I used to only need the medications periodically, when a flare up of anxiety would manifest. But since Eric’s death I’ve only been off my anti-depressant for less than a year and needed to get back on it, and I’ve never even tried to stop taking my anti-anxiety medication. I live with such a weight of knowledge of the pain in the world, I need the floor that the medications provide. It gives me something to rest that weight on.
When Eric died, I admit (which is clear from reading The Truth About Death) that I turned at times to pretty hearty self-medication on top of prescribed ones. And thus the third of the four truth-telling poems — death, drugs, sex, money. I talk.
I wake up drunk, I wake up hung over
on klonopin, I go for a run and hear
and then see a cardinal at the top of a spruce,
down by the lake still frozen but softening.
By now you were walking more than running
and I walked with you. I explode
inside my own brain, I want other brains
to explode, fragments hit me, I cherish
the bits, the glint of metallic memory,
the shine of light off your glasses.
It’s been over a week since I posted “Sex,” a poem from The Truth About Death which was one of the four that addressed “the more universal, the more silence.” I said I’d post the other three by the end of the week, but instead I was awakened early Thursday morning by a call from Adrienne, letting me know her labor had started.
At 9:30 that night, Ava was born, a pink package of baby life finally slipping free of the birth canal (lots of heroic pushing on Adrienne’s part) and seeming to fly up to Adrienne’s chest. I know it was the midwife who caught Ava and guided her up to Adrienne, but from my vantage, looking over Adrienne’s shoulder as I helped her hold up her head and shoulders to curl around her womb and push, it looked like a magic dance, a bright red face then chest then wormy body suddenly in the world and then snuggled against Adrienne as the cord pulsed between them.
So what does a birth and a new baby mean in the context of a poem about death, a poem written when I was entirely absorbed in the exit from life rather than the entrance? It means it takes me over a week to write a new post, because my days have been full with being an extra set of hands for Adrienne and Matt and Emilio — shopping, cooking, cleaning up, washing and folding laundry, holding Ava, walking and rocking Ava, driving Adrienne and Ava to appointments, sleeping with Ava sleeping on my chest. Right now she’s cuddled up against me in a fabric sling, squeaking and squealing, those tiny baby noises that come back in a flood of memory once I hear them again. Her breath is so quick and shallow it feels like there’s a bird at my breast.
But it’s a person. A birth. So far from what was happening in my life when I wrote the poem “Death.”
You took the crash course, and me along with you
because where else would I be except beside
you? Now I study death with the deliberate
focus you loved. People are afraid of me,
especially couples. I smoke on the porch
in your jacket, making the brown moleskin smell,
watching planes cross the dark sky as they fly
in and out of the airport to the south. I think
about quitting. What do we each know now
that the other doesn’t? And our children,
think of all they know that we didn’t.
No, this isn’t a post about sex, or not exactly. “Sex” is the title of a poem in The Truth About Death, which I thought about today because I walked out to the rock featured in the poem, the rock where I’ve built cairns since Eric died, and it was another icy day, like the day almost eight years ago when I first wrote it.
There’s a poem called “Talk” in the book with the lines:
The more universal, the more silence –
death, drugs, sex, money. I talk.
So there is a poem for each of those topics — Death, Drugs, Sex, Money. I don’t know that anyone has ever noticed that, but it was very intentional on my part. Truth telling was my mission in writing the book and if a topic was difficult for people to talk about, I wanted to open a door to the possibility of talk that could lead to truth.
The truth about today is that the poem came to mind not because of sex, or how Eric’s absence continues to inhabit the world, especially on a day when the fog coming across the pastures like an enormous animal grazing on sleet is so thick it makes the nightlight in the hallway outside my study flicker on and off, as if it can’t decide whether it’s night time after all, but because of the ice lace on everything as I walked to the rock. Every twig, bud, bush, branch, berry, weed stalk and blade of glass sticking through the crusty snow like the white whiskers on an old man.
So, the poem. Probably the other three by the end of the week.
I walk to the rock we used in the years the house
had packs of children coming and going
in unpredictable waves and the two mile walk
across the open meadows of the ridge
and into the woods along an old road overhung
by hemlocks, rising into oaks and maples,
was just far enough, to the rock with a ledge
just the right height, a condom and tissue
in your back pocket. Today I start a second cairn,
an ice storm makes lace of the blueberry stems.