Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On Grief and Loss

There's a reason why so much poetry is written about death and love. Death and love: they bewilder and stop us in our tracks.

Love pours into a life like an elixir. It assumes the shape of our days, and fills in all the empty spaces.

Death, on the other hand, stops the clock, cancels all plans, and plucks us out of routines that we had thought to be our lives.

At first, we are not alone in this new place and time; but soon we must be left behind.

I can only speak for myself.

I count myself fortunate for this: The loved one lingers with me for a while. For a week or a year, they stay close.  We go for long walks. We talk, and reminisce.  I can hear their voice clearly in my head, and I can feel their presence filling up my heart.

I take that time to be with them. I am grateful that the clock stops, and for the days on the calendar that have been crossed out. They belong to us, those days.

One close friend stayed with me for a week, after he died, summoned by my surprisingly loud grief. He may have been elsewhere at the same time, but he was with me, too, that week.

We used to smoke, so I bought a pack of cigarettes, and we walked together. He made wise-cracks, and commented on my wardrobe, which was no longer interesting. He was full of comments--it had been some time since we last talked.  Eventually, we both knew, he would have to go; neither of us could go on excluding everyone and everything else--death and life--indefinitely.

He left me with a gift. It was very apt, and very personal. It came as a big surprise, and I won't tell you what it was.

My father's death was beyond my comprehension. Only after I saw his dead body could I begin understand, in some visceral, physical sense, that he was no longer alive.

But even then, I heard him tell me, "That's enough [wailing and crying]. You're going to have a stroke."

Those were the first words he said to me, after he died.

In the year that followed, I saw him in dreams in which it had all been an incredible mistake, and there would so much logistical sorting out to do to reinstate my father in his place in the world. (How quickly everything converges on the space we've occupied.) I have to collect and return his things to him. Accounts must be put back into his name. The Death Certificate has to be nullified. (It had all done in good faith, but in those dreams, I was ashamed and embarrassed, as if I had meant to steal from him.)

My father moved into my head. He was a man of opinions. He got comfortable in my head...too comfortable. My personality changed. I was channeling him.

As an only child, I was never completely comfortable with the degree of overlap between our personalities. Becoming my own person, I had taken pains to draw lines in the sand: This is where I begin and you leave off. After he died, those lines became blurred.

One day, I was writing something (I don't remember what it was), and I typed this:

"I hope that my father can find a place for himself where he is at peace."

I believed that he could read it, just as if he were standing over my shoulder, preparing to give me  advice about how to invest my 401k.

I felt his heart sink, and the beginning of him letting go.

He left soon after that. At first, he didn't go far. He seemed to want to stick around in case I needed him--that white-out snow when I was driving west from Milwaukee, for example. He got the GPS working again. It hadn't been working for ages.

They say that the dead become natural electricians. The lights in the house had flickered on and off after the memorial service, precipitating a toast in his honor.

He might have stayed longer, if he could have. I don't think he had much of a choice. Eventually, time, in the form of all natural processes, resumes, for the living and the dead.

My father is gone, but when I look in the mirror, I see his deep-set eyes. I see my mother's jaw line. I see my own face.

It used to bother me, how much we looked alike. He was a handsome man, but I am a woman. But now, I like our eyes--the deep, scrutinizing set of them; the hard intensity and the soft warmth of them. They are what we are, a flickering light.

Someone told me once that our loved ones leave us gifts when they die, things you can't buy online.

My father gave me many things. Much of it is still in boxes in the basement. But clearly, the greatest gift he gave me was my horse. I bought her because he had loved boats all his life the way I had loved horses as a girl. His passion for sailing became my renewed passion for horses and riding. That's what he gave me after he died.

And the love.  It stays.  Somehow (I don't know how), it crosses the threshold between life and death, and blesses the rest of our days.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ew! The Too-Sweet Smell of Success

I don't mind telling you, I am a member of a secret cabal of feminist and transgender writers, (not all of us are transgender). Some of us--not me (not yet)--have actually had books published.

Yes, we have a secret Facebook page, where I can read their success stories.

And it has occurred to me that I had better write one more blog post complaining about writing my book, before I have any success, because I can tell you from personal experience, nobody is interested in reading about success.

Struggle, and preferably failure, are much more interesting.

In some respects, success is where the story ends.

A few kind souls have asked me about my own work-in-progress. This is my answer.

Yes, it will be three years in January since I started writing it.

I'm not one of those Iowa-Workshop people who actually know how to write a book. I'm figuring it out as I go.

And anyway, who has the patience to read about writing a book? Not me.

I'm an English major. I've read books. I'm an editor; I've edited books. I should be able to this. Right?

A horrible thing happened yesterday. I was working on my fifteenth or sixteenth draft, and I was finding the writing perfectly terrible. So, I looked back to an earlier draft, and what did I find?

I found the writing in last year's draft of that chapter was better than the slip-shod revision work I had done more recently.

So there you have it: It is taking me three years to write this book because I am insane. I am writing the same thing over and over again, with worse and worse results.

I can't tell you how troubled I was by this discovery. Words fail.

We've talked about menopause. The question of my sanity comes up over and over again. This feedback strikes me as definitive. The only question is, what to do about it?

I'm certainly not going to stop editing, if that's what you're thinking. It's not ready. Believe me, it's not!

Here's my process: There's the current draft and the old draft. There's the electronic page, and the printed page. My job is to excise the best of all iterations: cut and paste, review and revise, slash and burn. Print it out. Read it again. Edit. Repeat.

Had I not recently edited two unbelievably difficult projects, I would never have the patience to finish my own. For those earlier projects, I am eternally grateful. It was a fitting purgatory to edit other people's books while at the same time neglecting my own.

Let's admit it, once and for all: Editors hate writers. Don't we? Of course we do. We pretend to love authors, but our job is to find fault with them, and to clean up after their prose. We have to keep the authors on schedule. We have to say everything nicely, we can't hurt their feelings, their delicate egos.

How is that supposed to elicit tender feelings?

I am editing myself, and believe me, if I hadn't just crawled through the proverbial jungle on my belly for other people, editing myself would fill me with such profound self-loathing that I would never finish this project and would want to indulge in self-destructive behavior.

Total editing time for this recent draft: 11,877 minutes. What is that? A million hours? That's not counting the first and second drafts.

Total number of words in the document: 69,389. They have to be the right words and they have to be in the right place.

People write books. I know it's true. It's amazing, isn't it?

I was about to conclude that the secret to getting a book written was simply to keep coming back to it, over and over, consistently and doggedly, until it's finished.

Now, I think it is possible to spend six or eight hours a day writing and editing, writing and editing, writing and editing, and never get the manuscript finished or better or longer....

Isn't that a horrifying thought. What kind of personal hell is that?  What kind of life is that to lead?

I hope I'm not doing that. To be honest, IF this manuscript is not finished to my satisfaction by the end of 2016, then yes, I am locked into a literary hamster wheel, and I do require rescue. I just want to put that out there.

The next post about this book will be either, "Yay! I can't believe the day has finally come that my book is being published, and I'm being interviewed by Trevor Noah on The Daily Show!"

Or, it will be much more interesting.