Tuesday, January 3, 2017

When Grief Strikes

I recently stumbled across this exquisite poem by Ruth Stone. It's called "The Wound."

The shock comes slowly
as an afterthought.

First you hear the words
and they are like all other words,

ordinary, breathing out of lips,
moving toward you in a straight line.

Later they shatter
and rearrange themselves. They spell

something else hidden in the muscles
of the face, something the throat wanted to say.

Decoded, the message etches itself in acid
so every syllable becomes a sore.

The shock blooms into a carbuncle.
The body bends to accommodate it.

A special scarf has to be worn to conceal it.
It is now the size of a head.

The next time you look,
it has grown two eyes and a mouth.

It is difficult to know which to use.
Now you are seeing everything twice.

After a while it becomes an old friend.
It reminds you every day of how it came to be. 


This little poem is a masterpiece. It's so unforgettable because it expresses something so true, something we have all experienced in different ways and degrees, but in utterly arresting language.

"Later they shatter / and rearrange themselves." Words are something that appear inert at first, but then become somehow weaponized in mid-air before homing in on their target. And isn't it true that at first, the painful words seem "like all other words" -- until they deliver their cargo of pain?

I was also struck by the line "Decoded, the message etches itself in acid/ so every syllable becomes a sore." There are indelible words on each person's soul, words that you can never forget because they caused such searing anguish, or because they marked a watershed moment in which all of your future hopes died.

But the part that also strikes me is the idea that the words come to take on a life of their own, with you as the host. At first, the intrusion fills the host with shame and confusion ("a special scarf has to be worn to conceal it") but eventually the pain becomes a familiar companion ("after a while it becomes an old friend") whose presence is a continual reminder of that first cataclysmic message.

What a mystery is grief. People who have survived a great loss say that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no linear progress toward healing, but only a constant aching sorrow, a constantly present loss that you somehow learn to bear. It never leaves you, and you never get away from it. But you learn to carry it. The grief becomes part of you, as one of the rooms in your own "mansion with many rooms." And you encase it with memory and tears, like the oyster's slow labor on a grain of sand.

And this must be part of being human as well. It cannot be otherwise.

Perhaps the Zen way would be to find a place where the pain is no longer so personal, where the agonies of the darkened heart are just a shadow play on the walls of some unenlightened cave, à la Socrates. Perfect meditation seems almost like an escape hatch from being human, a way to cheat grief of its sting, to slip through the grasp of sorrow and glide above it all in superior quietude. But I don't think that's the way I want to go.

When and if grief strikes, I will take the bitter burden. I'll let myself be brought low, watch in disbelief as my green forests are burnt down to smoking stubs. And while everything seems bleak and I feel most alone, I think I will find myself in a new kind of solidarity with all the others who have walked the same path before me. And maybe that's one of the secrets that this poem does not mention: we don't have to be alone in our griefs, as isolating as they may feel.

Everyone is carrying something. Most people keep it buried down deep. But I think we are all hungry for fellow travelers who can share that solitude for a while, who understand a bit of our experience based on their own. And why shouldn't grief, that sword that exposes our inmost heart in all its brokenness, also become a gift that helps us to see and touch each other in a new way? What is there to be afraid of? What is there to be ashamed of? Others understand. This path has been walked many times before, even though it is unique each time.

We are only human. And that humanity, in all its fragile vulnerability, in all its realness, is a gift that reveals itself most when it is shared. I hope I won't be afraid to share it when and if that time comes.



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