redeeming grief

In December of 2004, I lost a piece of myself that isn’t really retrievable. It was a week before Christmas and I found myself delivering my first child into a world he would never know. There will be no deep dive into the details of my pregnancy with Nathan and what determined our loss–if you want those, you can find them here.

This blog series is aimed at positivity so it seems odd I would bring this loss up at all, but I promise, it comes with good reason. You see, this year, Nathan, had he not been so sick, would be old enough to attend high school…and since I am a high school  principal and teacher, this weighs heavy. I walk around my school each day and I watch the antics of my freshmen–I hear the silly giggles, still tinged with junior high joy; I see the awkwardness settling as they begin to figure out high school; I reassure their parents that their kids will in fact mature and that they will find success. And I do all of this with a bit of an achey heart these days because I should be more deeply involved in this scenario than just the voice of principalian experience (and yes, I just made that word up…). I should be walking campus tickled by the laughter of my own son and his friends…I should be the parent in need of reassurance. In the midst of this realization, I felt my grief, which I have spent so long taming, rediscovering its roar.

Sadness was welling up and I was struggling to push it down.

This was so much harder than I thought it was going to be…and I spent the summer preparing for it!

But as we have wandered through these early weeks of school, I have learned to live my gratitude (which is what redeemed my grief all those years ago). These days, I walk around campus and instead of feeling betrayed by loss, I feel even closer to Nathan than usual. It is almost as if he is present with me just a little bit more each day. Instead of what ifs, I just feel grateful that I have the chance to work with, teach and help all of these kids who are as old as he should be. It is my gift back in some strange way.

I have spent the last 15 years of my life trying to figure out the purpose to my grief, and while I may spend the next 15 years trying to do the same, I have learned a few things. When I harness my grief to offer empathy to those who are suffering, the loss is less. When I view my students through the lens of “If this were Nathan, how would I want someone to treat him in this moment?”, I am a better teacher and human. When I transform grief into gratitude, my loss is vindicated. When Nathan feels alive in my heart, when I recognize that I am still his mom, his death doesn’t feel so vacant.

People question my sort of annoying optimism regularly. I feel like if they understood the loss and the illness and the sacrifices endured, those questions would dissolve. I have every reason to live angry with the world. I choose not to. That isn’t easy. It is a daily decision; it is an active lifestyle and it is imperfect. But optimism and seeking gratitude allow me to see greater purpose in the difficulty, in my life. It allows me to put myself on the side and to see beyond the periphery of the moment, of the wounds. It allows me to seek positivity each and everyday. It allows me to truly live.

And that is what Nathan would want most for his mom anyway. I can’t deny him that.

(and because I haven’t offered enough poems lately…here are a couple…“One Art” By Elizabeth Bishop“Lost” by David Waggoner (okay, for real, if you don’t click on this link you need to read this line–life changing! “…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a  powerful stranger,”)

praise

I would venture to say that I read Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “Praise Song for the Day” once a week, without fail. Of all the poems in the world, why read and reread that one in particular, you might ask? And, you know, that is a really valid question. There are so many poems that move my mind or spirit toward thinking and imagining and pushing beyond, but this one is on regular repeat. Always for different reasons, but essentially because in some way or another, it continues to instill in me a sense of hope for humanity. It portrays the strength we can muster when injustice needs to be called out and then Alexander pushes us a bit more and offers up a praise song for it: “Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day./Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,/the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.” This is our responsibility. To be grateful for this gift of being in the struggle and finding ways to speak out against it…even when it is difficult. Even when we feel threatened. Even and especially when we speak out for others, with others, who are struggling more than we are…because we can, and we should. Because that is who we are called to be in the moments when justice fails. Because we are granted the freedom to do so.

And then there is this, “We encounter each other in words, words/spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,/words to consider, reconsider.” This idea of encountering “each other in words” steals my attention with each reading and reminds me that what I say, in every situation, no matter who is around to hear the utterance, bears significance, creates impact. As a teacher, I have to remember that no matter how powerless I may feel, in a room full of kids, I have power. To wield words carelessly can alter the course of a young person’s day, can fray self esteem, but when considered cautiously can instill confidence, encourage perseverance. I can’t make decisions for my kids, but I can select language and words that allow them to feel able to do the work even when it is difficult…I can choose words that respect their humanity. And the truth of this extends beyond the classroom. When I pause to think, to take a moment to empathize even briefly, before issuing words, I can take the time to craft the statements that reflect the kind of person I really want to be. Am I perfect with this? Of course not. Hence, this poem is a regular read because, as I tell my students, I am not above reminders!

But really, it is this that keeps me coming back to this poem…

“What if the mightiest word is love?

 

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.”
Love and light and hope and gratitude swirl in these lines and fill me up with a joy in
and a vision of what can be…if we only remind ourselves to be the people we were
created to be…if we only remind ourselves of the praise song for who we are and who we
have the capacity to become, together.
(Day 29!)

escape

It’s been a Mary Oliver kind of day. Her words have nourished me as I meandered rather blindly throughout the sometimes chaotic moments of the last fourteen hours.

I was particularly struck by her poem “Messenger” today. I’ve read this poem before and thought “how lovely”, but today, well, today, it was medicinal. As I read the words and took in their meaning, my inner self paused, took a breath and relaxed. This was the poem that I needed…it was the reminder of my place and my purpose that was absolutely necessary to survival. And this is why I love poetry as I do. It meets me wherever I am and extends what I need in order to find my center.

Today, this is what I needed to read:

from “Messenger” by Mary Oliver

“My work is loving the world.

Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird–

equal seekers of sweetness.

Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.

Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

 

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?

Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me

keep my mind on what matters,

which is my work,

 

which is mostly standing still and learning to be

astonished.”

There is more to this poem, of course, but this is the part that struck me most. This idea that “My work is loving the world…my work,/which is mostly standing still and learning to be/astonished” was what I needed to sustain me today. Because when it comes down to it, no matter how much work I do at school, no matter how stressful that can be, my real work is loving the world. Period. (as an aside, I sort of really love the complete sentence in that first line–it is so delicate and simple as the deepest truths have the potential to be). And sometimes the reminder of that calling to love the world in all its complexity and effortless beauty is required. We blind ourselves in the worries and wants of the world and in our inability to ever really be enough in any given moment and we forget that without the richness of the most basic love–a love that allows us to be still and astonished, the rest is quite worthless.

So, as I proceeded through a day of days, I stopped to observe the wisps of clouds gliding across a serene blue sky, to notice the blades of grass jutting through the rocks, to feel the breeze on my face and the warm embrace of the sunlight. I got out of my own head, saw past my “stuff” and my imperfection and was in the world with eyes open to its wonder. Grateful for such a gift as those moments. Grateful for Mary Oliver for steering me there and grateful for poetry for speaking a language that my heart and mind crave in all moments of all days.

(Day 20–which feels like a landmark?)