On Making Memoir

Memoir is getting naked in front of a room full of strangers and saying, “Here are my stretch marks, here are my fat rolls, here is my cellulite, and here is the irritating boil on my ass and my reoccurring chin hair.”

One is not allowed to wear Spanx, utilize Instagram filters or self-tanner in memoir. To be authentic, the author has to expose it all — the lovely, the ugly, the funny, and the humiliating. That transparency is what makes memoir relatable, powerful, memorable, and interesting. It is also what makes memoir a difficult genre to write.

In revealing one’s experiences – joys, accomplishments, trials, and traumas – the writer is exposed not only to strangers, but to loved ones and friends. It is one thing to stand in front of strangers – unapologetic in one’s nakedness. It is a whole other thing to say, “Hey, Dad! Hey, Mom! Check out this foot-long stretch mark. No, it’s cool. It’s out there. Anyone can just Google my name and see it. Aren’t you proud?”

That transparency is what makes memoir relatable, powerful, memorable, and interesting. It is also what makes memoir a difficult genre to write.

This exposure to my loved ones sometimes renders me creatively impotent in the midst of writing a piece. It gives me fear-induced stomach cramps when submitting. It makes my voice shake when I’m reading in public. It makes my thumb freeze up over the “Share” button on Facebook when a piece I am proud of is accepted for publication — fearing not only criticism and judgement, but also praise and that confusing-without-the-benefit-of-tone-or-facial-expression response of “Wow!”

However, it is not just my exposure that I need to be concerned with. As a memoirist, I have a moral responsibility to the other people I write about. I can justify showing the world my naked ass without the benefit of Spanx, but I cannot justify lifting my aunt’s skirt over her head, regardless of how important her exposure is to telling my own story authentically.

My life (and as a result, my memoir) revolves around my desperate lifelong search for love as a sort of adhesive to fill in and hold together parts of myself that were long ago shattered, broken, or left incomplete. That love has taken on many forms over the years — puppy love, obsession and control, unrequited love, abuse, lost love, and motherly love — but the love I always found most easy to access was baited with sex. The psychological, biological, and even astrological reasons for this are some of the subjects I explore in my writing. To write memoir well (to counter that impression of navel-gazing confession by expertly swinging between various theories and confession, so as not to bore the reader), one must ground one’s personal experience with something more solid and research-based.

Unfortunately, this psychologically driven exploration of my life and behaviors leads to the inevitable exposure of others. My father, my step-father, my mother, my friends, my children, my grandfather, my grandmother, my siblings, and my lovers are all placed under a flaw-revealing blacklight. I may be holding that blacklight over my own head (giving myself the most exposure), but they are revealed in the ambient light. They are also reduced to their relationship to me. Their memories and experiences are not fully explored and explained. They are incomplete.

This exposure to my loved ones sometimes renders me creatively impotent in the midst of writing a piece. It gives me fear-induced stomach cramps when submitting. It makes my voice shake when I’m reading in public.

This moral responsibility I feel for my characters can be debilitating. I am not afraid to expose my rapists, my abusers, my bullies. As Anne Lamott so wisely stated in her book Bird by Bird, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But it is a different matter to expose the sins of my family, their dark secrets, and the roles they may or may not have played in my psychological deformities.

Teachers of memoir writing offer some common techniques to counter this particular struggle. One is to change the names of the characters, and the other is to create a composite character (a character made up of traits from multiple people). These techniques are useful when one is writing about one’s high school bully, best friend, or even a lover (sometimes), but one cannot often disguise one’s parents, family members, or children this way. They will recognize their own cellulite or odd moles, regardless of the fake mustache applied to the lip of their character.

I have been sitting on a piece of memoir about my promiscuous youth for almost five years. It is, in my humble and usually self-deprecating opinion, the best thing I’ve ever written. I am proud of it. However, at the heart of this story lies a family secret — a secret that is not mine to share, despite how it affects me, my life, and my relationships. I have changed the names of the characters. I have chopped and edited important scenes. I have attempted to convince myself to submit it as fiction, but I can’t.

My life (and as a result, my memoir) revolves around my desperate lifelong search for love as a sort of adhesive to fill in and hold together parts of myself that were long ago shattered, broken, or left incomplete.

One might wonder why I bother to write memoir at all. The struggles seem to outweigh the benefits. Why do I put myself or those I love through all of this? Why not just write my story and submit it as fiction? I guess the simple answer is because I truly believe in the power of memoir — specifically, its ability to give others the courage to speak the unspeakable and to allow them to be vulnerable in the face of my vulnerability. Memoir validates my memories and experiences while also validating the memories and experiences of others. All of the anxiety I experience while writing, submitting, reading, and publishing my memoir is temporarily relieved when I receive confirmation of this validation from someone who has read and strongly related to my work. There is an instant intimacy created through our related experiences. And is it not intimacy that I ultimately crave?

I have been sitting on a piece of memoir about my promiscuous youth for almost five years. It is, in my humble and usually self-deprecating opinion, the best thing I’ve ever written. I am proud of it. However, at the heart of this story lies a family secret — a secret that is not mine to share.

My first public reading of memoir was in a packed coffee shop filled with my graduate school professors, my fellow students, a few of my friends, and my oldest son. My voice shook through the entire first page; I couldn’t look up from the overly-familiar-from-revision words on the page. The audience laughed, gasped, and “awwww-ed” in all of the right places. And despite my certainty that I would have a heart attack in the middle of this written reenactment of my rape and suicide attempt, I didn’t. After stepping down from the stage to the supportive applause of the familiar crowd, a handsome middle-aged woman in a broom skirt and an oversized knit sweater approached me. She had tears in her kind eyes. “You are incredibly brave,” she said as she embraced me in a surprisingly strong, sandalwood-scented hug. “I experienced something very similar in my teens and I found your story inspiring. Thank you for sharing it with me.” She said all of this as if we were the only two people in the room, and for a moment, it felt like we were.

I have had other moments like this after I have publically read or posted my work. Some express their shared experiences to me in a private message on Facebook, some approach me personally (shy and refreshingly sincere), some confess to me in drunken interactions at the bar. But regardless of how they do it, I feel a powerful sense of validation from this solidarity and shared vulnerability. They see me and I see them, fully and completely — my flawed fellow humans, naked and unapologetic.

top photo by Mohammad Gh on Unsplash

Maybe Love Is a Many-Legged Thing

We have a variety of many-legged bug, some variety of arthropod. They like our brick house, our cement-floor basement, the clay soil, our proximity to the lake shore.

No matter how many times I hear the entomologist on public radio assure me these particular bugs are harmless, only unsightly, I want to kill them all. I put out glue traps, chase and flatten their long bodies, their multijointed legs. They skitter across me as I sleep. Even on the hottest nights, I must have a sheet fully covering me—just in case. There has been midnight panic: thrashing limbs, a tangle of sheets, cursing of the centipedes to wake an entire block. A few weeks ago I woke to the flurry of feet on my cheek; slapped and threw the thing against the wall. In the morning, I found its carcass: poor Gregor, the curled husk was at least an inch long.

The world is full of signs and wonders, portents. Tara Betts’s poem “A Season of No” has a spider wake her. The speaker is asleep on the floor, and the arthropod flutters her forearm, waking her. But this visitor is welcome. It calls her back to herself, breaks a spell. It is maybe a descendent of Anansi, an answer to the femme fatale spider woman, rebuke to a Dwight Yoakam lyric. The spider helps the speaker Break the Habit.

In “Ink on the Sheets,” the speaker worries about forgetting to cap a pen, explains, “after the divorce you get rid of all the bedding / you shared.”

Folklore, more specifically fairy tale, has girls and women sacrificing much for love—their legs, their voices. They show devotion by cutting off their hands and wandering the world. As Betts chronicles the story of love, she touches on these themes. In “Ink on the Sheets,” the speaker worries about forgetting to cap a pen, explains, “after the divorce you get rid of all the bedding / you shared.” After the divorce—or maybe even before—“they felt like trying to sleep / on a hardened pea.” In stories about the creative woman, the intellectual woman, the investigative woman, a common theme emerges: at some point, to keep him, the girl/woman is offered a choice. She must sacrifice some integral part of herself. When the spider jolts you awake, you were on the floor, cast out of the marital bed, a pen loose in your hand, blank pages in front of you.

Betts’s poetry urges the reader to be awake to the world, to break the habit of inattention. In her poem “Acupuncture,” she writes, “after the last needle was drawn, I knew / people could be footnotes, or pain,” juxtaposing the body’s resilience with its permeability. By the end of the collection, she returns to spider stories: the Greek weaving goddesses, the Druids who believe a spider portends a creative project calling to be finished.

“Another Clearing of the Land: Epitaph for Hadiyah Pendleton” contains the story of Hadiyah, a fifteen-year-old girl shot in Chicago in 2013; it also contains the story of the two young men charged with her death: “One in school, & two not, & all / Black South Side teens / with nothing in common but a pained echo / for a future.” As I’ve been rereading this poem against the backdrop of fluctuating numbers of “victims,” of “deaths,” I’ve recalled how in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, some counts of victims/deaths would be smaller, two smaller—both the twenty-year-old shooter disappearing, but also his mother. Betts’s poem addresses the world that goes on:

What I hate, what I

will forever hate, is how she fades with every

day from numbness, from

an empathy undone, not bound to anyone,

the swift, ruthless slap casual

as someone swiping a bus pass,

for this is what

Death wanted:

The poem imagines Hadiyah an “unopened bulb / that insisted on being much bigger,” but also those who shot her, mistaking her and the group she stood with for a rival gang, as “boys behind guns tamped / their lives heavily to prune // the years cut down.”

Betts’s poetry urges the reader to be awake to the world, to break the habit of inattention.

If the beloved asks the poet to give up her voice, he also asks her not to chronicle the world as it is, the world as it must be known, the world inhabited and filtered through the poet’s permeable skin. Break the habit of disconnecting context—the story of fast-fading names—from the world that moves too quickly to the next news, the new breaking report, the report of the too-soon-forgotten particulars that make the skin of the world we inhabit.

This previous fall semester, we had the distinct pleasure of Tara Betts visiting to read, meeting with students, and breaking bread. After the reading, driving back to the hotel, she told me how she crafts her collections—how she crafts her readings. She thinks about how each poem can reach someone differently; the poet uses her spinnerets, sending out a dragline, beginning to build. She read her poem “A Lesson from the Terrordome,” and I knew a friend who would love the idea of Chuck D introducing Huey Newton, uncovered through a library’s microfiche, that archaic magic. After the reading, another friend flipped through the book, stumbling upon “The Futility of Bras,” her face breaking into a wide smile. From the lectern, Betts explained the story of one of her spiders, the front-porch sitter she named “Craig,” lofting her eyebrow at the audience, waiting to see who would get the allusion.

Break the habit of disconnecting context—the story of fast-fading names—from the world that moves too quickly to the next news, the new breaking report, the report of the too-soon-forgotten particulars that make the skin of the world we inhabit.

And I am drawn back to the spider poems, their myth-making, their insistence on claiming the end of the book that is both end and beginning of a story. And I think I should be less brutal to my own house centipedes that call me to attention when I enter a darkened room.

To love, Betts’s poetry suggests, means to embrace the change and difficulty after the blared radio parking lot dance has ended. It means to welcome the portent of the spider, to watch the many-legged things in their short lifespans of weaving and egg sack and disappearance and desiccation. It means to offer a friend in pain a couch, your cat. It means to inhabit the pain of the body and make a textual music of it, the words lifting off the page. The spider wakes us, greets us, frightens and intrigues us, calls us to myth and history, “an inevitable / signature that flesh forces / us to write.”

Read Break the Habit
Read Break the Habit

top photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Archive as much as you like [something will always be left out].

Certain kinds of difficult-to-quantify experiences are either discounted, disbelieved, or shrunken down to a ridiculous and facile system of measurement.

Those who suffer from chronic pain are asked to rate their pain on a scale from one to ten – as if sense and feeling aren’t the height of subjectivity, as if the body isn’t our own individual organ of touch, non-transferable. When trauma (especially medical) is layered with the experiences of women, traditional methods of knowing, understanding, and naming become even more complex. So Jane Lewty invokes Dora early in her prize-winning collection from the Cleveland State Poetry Center In One Form To Find Another: “The damage and fatigue left by Freud. // How it hits, the depth, the effect of it.”

The effect is chaotic: “word-strings that occlude meaning.” Except they don’t, quite. Lines and images swim up, unrelenting in their clarity.

What follows in the collection’s five sections (no table of contents) is a cacophony of prose-poems, experimental forms, interruptions, fragmentary narratives, excerpts, and lyrics, most loosely grouped under titles that identify them as Case Studies, with the name of a symptom, syndrome, disease, phobia, or diagnosis. The effect is chaotic: “word-strings that occlude meaning.” Except they don’t, quite. Lines and images swim up, unrelenting in their clarity. In “Case Study #4: Heart Arrythmia” the speaker asks the reader to consider “a future device for individual use. A sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name. ‘Memex’ will do.” Lewty’s book is this Memex – a compilation of quotations (from other authors, theorists, historians), medical terms and definitions, snapshots and memories of the self, willful mis-rememberings of the self. It’s a catalog of a speaker – a woman in a certain place and time.

If you eavesdrop on poets often enough, you’ll hear talk about two distinct kinds of poetry: poetry that is accessible and personal, or poetry that is experimental and cerebral. I don’t understand this dichotomy. It speaks more to our desires than our reality – and what a strange desire, really.

If you eavesdrop on poets often enough, you’ll hear talk about two distinct kinds of poetry: poetry that is accessible and personal, or poetry that is experimental and cerebral. I don’t understand this dichotomy. It speaks more to our desires than our reality – and what a strange desire, really. As if our lived reality is linear, easy to follow; as if our lives don’t diverge or skip ragged from one idea to another. Yes, a casual reader of poetry may open Lewty’s book and find it a bit intimidating; the titles and epigraphs take pleasure in their disjointedness. Some of the poems revel in the jarring lines, the abruptness from one stanza to another, the disappearance of situation, speaker, stanza altogether. But for readers who wish a little more coherence, there are poems here too. Turn to “Case Study #19: Disequilibrium”: it could be an essay. The speaker talks about her wrestling with memory, her memories, what she “cannot bear to assemble again.” She writes, “Over time there’ll be a different me, a different other.” Turn to “Case Study #34: Sepsis.” Maybe the speaker is writing a letter to herself. Maybe she is writing a letter to that other self – that beloved, best friend, sister, other half who knows her best. Maybe she is writing a letter to herself who she wishes existed somewhere as her beloved, best friend, sister, other half. (How many of us have wished someone like that existed?). The poem is unbearably dear, unbearably personal. She tells her intimate-other, “You’re a weakened slight return, a worn want.” Even as she writes, she recounts “The then-King of Egypt said no not letters, they’ll create forgetfulness. / . . . The recorded sensual is dead, a construct.” That these poems both quantify and resist that construct is their charm.

The book explores different aspects of the body, of memory, of suffering, and sexuality. It is as if the speaker is looking for herself through a series of mediations: googling symptoms, reverse-searching images. Section Four confounds me; there, the images may be lifted from porn sites, re-cast and re-narrated. Some images may be projected from the speaker’s mind (actual memory, not found) onto a screen, re-edited, but in darker corners of the Internet – not consensual, not about pleasure at all. So many lines caught me up and stopped me short – many that referenced the speaker, a constructed self, and the work of writing that self:

“A lucid sentence is a demonstrable fact / but it’s so long ago.”

“The poem didn’t sound the way I wanted it to. It was a residue of an experience, not the essence.”

“I felt myself erode, like stucco. I couldn’t find a language to name what took place. What took its place.”

“We’re backstage of something normal, this page of everyone else”

(Forgive me for giving you fragments, but they’re beautiful – they don’t need structures for their beauty to be evident. At the top of one poem, I wrote “Jesus – brutal.”)

Rather than doctors asking patients to rate their pain on a scale of one to ten, maybe they should ask for a poem. Pain is bodily, personal and sensual – it lives in the matter of our skin. Maybe we could follow Lewty’s lead and quote from her poem “Case Study #17: Fibromyalgia”:

In what you have sentenced, the hand has an eluded edge. It locks but you can’t see how.

In what you have sentenced, the jaw has a new basis. It can’t say I.

The voice a shy bolt, though incomplete. Senseless wordsindream.

Lips of shoulder. Fleeting, malleable, the lower body organs are hung all adrift.

The same poem contains the image of “the throat a hollow-out space where a faucet should be.” These poems speak like a faucet, a throat, a hollow-out space. As poems should.

Read In One Form To Find Another
Read In One Form To Find Another

top photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

The Pleasures of Disrupted Reading

Summer-wise, most of my reading is done in a hammock, slung under the grapevine, where the shade deepens from June to August.

This summer I set myself a few tasks: reread some favorites (the novels of Siri Hustvedt), find some shorter books (poetry, mixed genre, novellas) for an upcoming class to encourage students to be ambitious, and read interesting fiction to learn how to write interesting fiction. I wasn’t looking for “beach reads.” These were hammock reads.

Hammock reads disrupt my expectations, leaving me hanging, but not in any sort of plot-dependent, whodunnit sort of way. I wanted books that demanded my attention, my re-reading, my deepening investment not in individual characters or poems, but in the entire enterprise of the book. Hammock reads require dissection, sifting, and leave me wanting to create my own map—like those books that include maps as their end papers, all unknown place names and craggy landmass, with accompanying genealogies. I wanted to chart the geographies and topographies of these books to diagram how their parts work together, speaking between and across the pages, verso and recto, text to text. Both The Sorrow Proper, by Lindsey Drager (Dzanc Books) and Sarah Sadie’s We are traveling through dark at tremendous speeds. (Lit Fest Press) celebrate the pleasures of disrupture, delaying and toying with the reader’s desires.

Hammock reads disrupt my expectations, leaving me hanging, but not in any sort of plot-dependent, whodunnit sort of way.

Drager’s slim novel The Sorrow Proper is about love. It is also entirely about loss. These two things cannot be disentangled. Through the twinned story of a library’s eventual closure and a romantic relationship between a photographer and a mathematician, the book meditates on whether endings (which are always present) are endings. The library dies—sort of. The thing called the library, and known as the library, dies. Someone, either the photographer or the mathematician, dies. (Don’t worry, reader—this isn’t a spoiler; it’s revealed on page 10.) A young girl has also died in front of the library, and her death haunts the librarians, while her parents continue to observe the library’s present.

Because the book reveals that one of the lovers will die, and so early, our basic understanding of how narrative functions is disrupted. There is no suspense, not really. We are told, “things either intersect, refract, or pass untouched.” What we do not know, or what quickly becomes confused, is who has died. The photographer is an amateur, who only exhibits in the free space of the library—he only photographs objects, insists that to photograph people would be unethical. At one point, he tells his lover that “a subject is ‘captured.’ Photography is violent and cruel.” The mathematician is deaf; she communicates through notes and signs, teaches the photographer about proofs, how her experience of the world differs from his. (At one point he asks her what silence sounds like, but she tells him she doesn’t know what that is . . .) They connect through various signs—most poignantly letters inscribed on her body, as he writes on her flesh. After she, or he, dies, the book alternates between their grieving. Fragmentary chapters describe the photographer unable to throw away the marker he used to write on her skin. Another describes her wrapping and re-wrapping the writing in bandages to preserve it from the elements, the ordinary friction of the everyday, hoping to save for a little longer this memory of him and their time together. They both continue to exist, alone, yet together.

Drager’s slim novel The Sorrow Proper is about love. It is also entirely about loss. These two things cannot be disentangled.

Alone, yet together, is the prevailing feeling of even the chapters where the mathematician and the photographer are both firmly alive and falling in love. Loss is present here too—traced throughout all their interactions. Both the structure and the prose (nearly prose poetry) insists it must be: early on, the mathematician writes to the photographer, “I will need you exactly always” and he thinks “in no world is always ever exact.” When the librarians gather to mourn the ending of their library, they write an epitaph for their building, their livelihood, their lives. They write: “I WANT TO EXPRESS THE DEGREE OF MY AFFECTION, BUT THE BORDERS OF THIS PAGE ARE TOO LIMINAL TO HOLD THE PROOF.” They write that the library has no floors, “MEANING NOT THAT IT LACKS A FOUNDATION, BUT RATHER, THAT IT IS A STRUCTURE THAT POSSESSES ONLY A SINGLE STORY.”

Perhaps the mathematician and the photographer are simply a possible story, a series of possible stories, in the library, as long as the library continues to exist. The reader reads the possible stories of them, as long as the book, the library, the culture of the book and the library continues to exist. Perhaps if and when the library and the book ceases to exist, so will the possible stories of the mathematician and the photographer, as well as any possible permutation of love stories, which are also every possible permutation of loss stories, and this is what concerns the librarians as they gather to bemoan the library’s fate, over beers and shots at the local dive bar. Perhaps what the book suggests through its exploration of the language of photography, mathematics, and the Many Worlds theory, is that we are all just “managing the dark.”

When the librarians gather to mourn the ending of their library, they write an epitaph for their building, their livelihood, their lives. They write: “I WANT TO EXPRESS THE DEGREE OF MY AFFECTION, BUT THE BORDERS OF THIS PAGE ARE TOO LIMINAL TO HOLD THE PROOF.”

The dark is what greets the reader first in the tangible form of Sarah Sadie’s poetry book We are traveling through dark at tremendous speeds. A slim volume, black front and back cover, simple white text, reversed on the back, as if one is looking through the book. One also has to read through the book—the normal way of reading, turning the pages in sequence, simply won’t work. I tried. There is a long poem that runs the length of the book at the bottom of all the pages that (not so) subtly tugs one’s attention downward. In the end, I had to read this long poem first, then go back to the individual poems, then read a third time, finding the connections, the hinges, between the self-contained poems on the pages and where they intersected with the long running text, like a news channel’s banner, constantly updating. Given the topics and recurring metaphors sprinkled throughout the book, I came to think of this running poem on the bottom of the pages as breadcrumbs (as the banner itself says on one of its numberless pages), like those in the story of Hansel and Gretel, those little morsels left as trail, as markers, for the reader to find her way back home.

One also has to read through the book—the normal way of reading, turning the pages in sequence, simply won’t work. I tried.

Throughout the poems, things are left for the reader to find. Most notably, the “princess water toys” the speaker leaves in the bathtub, in the “small, one-bedroom apartment” they rent in another town, “in another part of the state” where her husband works “half of each week.” The running text poems continues: “I leave them there anyway, emissaries. // Belle sighing, Girls grow up. / Cinderella nods, tired. Even a queen grows restless. // [. . .] And Ariel, facedown, repeats We were here. We were here.” Perhaps these quick mentions of everyday things would go unnoticed, if it were not for the book’s dedication: “For Reed, who knew to leave the princess water toys right where they were.” The poems are full of the everyday: laundry, strawberries, “bad cold wine,” acorns, and Great Horned Owls that nest in the backyard (more on that in a moment). But all of these everyday things, these quotidian moments, are complicated—fraught—with a simmering unease, a dissatisfaction that erupts from the running text poem and disrupts each page, challenging. The poem, “Riff on the Definition of a Poem” is interrupted by the voice that says, “I’m changing my name, she tells her husband. What’s changed? he asks.” Or the poem “The Girl the Gods Let Go” that speaks of not being chosen, of being left behind, so continuing on with “minivans / and pool parties [ . . .] Four kids and a successful spouse, a dog, / and all was well, more or less” is complicated by the running text that reads “Already she questions and crosses out her first sentences.” Here, the “she” seems to reference the earlier daughter, perhaps the Ariel princess left behind, but no longer face down, and no longer voiceless.

There are three poems called “Love in the Season of Great Horned Owls.” The first describes the discovery of the owls, and seems to only include the speaker and the children. The poem expresses a wish: “to translate / the wild of owls into English.” From the bottom of the page, the running text warns, “In order for there to be a story, a man has to pass by.”

There are three poems called “Love in the Season of Great Horned Owls.” The first describes the discovery of the owls, and seems to only include the speaker and the children. The poem expresses a wish: “to translate / the wild of owls into English.” From the bottom of the page, the running text warns, “In order for there to be a story, a man has to pass by.” The second and third owl poems are nearer the end of the book and in both, spouse and children are fully present, the furniture of human relationships, reflected in the watching of the birds. In one, the speaker proclaims, “Married // love is muscled and damn big, but hard / to spot, even with binoculars.” The final owl poem shows the family engaged in a project together, creating a garden, with a walkway and bench, for the neighbors who come to view the owls. The speaker refers to them all as “human constellations.” They “visit together, having been visited.” And near this poem, the interrupting text has become quieter, less voluble. Fist in its mouth.

Finally, this may be the project of the book. The bottom text, its breadcrumbs, a path for the reader to interrupt the closed forms of the poems, to meander in and out of the book, interrupting and challenging what seems quotidian, a depiction of the trials and difficulties of marriage and children, the navigating of relationships that are somehow—strangely—unlike where you thought you’d end up. But they are, also strangely, where you’re glad to have ended up. Because the poems must address both these states, the poet writes them both, and allows them to comingle on the page.

Read The Sorrow Proper
Read The Sorrow Proper
Read We are traveling through the dark at tremendous speeds
Read We are traveling through the dark at tremendous speeds

top photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

The Weight of Love

Love is strong as death,

Passion fierce as the grave.

(Song of Solomon 8:6)

We gathered at the park on a warm, sunny day—a day that would have been lovely if not for the urn that contained the ashes of my neighbors’ baby.

We gathered at the park on a warm, sunny day—a day that would have been lovely if not for the urn that contained the ashes of my neighbors’ baby. I stood by the urn and looked out at the people seated in folding chairs: the baby’s three agnostic/pagan parents, her staunch Baptist grandparents, friends and family of assorted religious and political leanings. All of them heartbroken.

The pagan priestess who had planned the service with me and agreed to give the sermon had canceled just a couple days before. There I stood, a baby’s ashes beside me, aching eyes staring up at me. There I stood, looking out at all of those people who were waiting for me, the pastor, to say SOMETHING—something that would make the unbearable lightness of those ashes at least a little bit bearable.

That was the first funeral I officiated. The first time I felt that funeral weight of love for heartbroken strangers who were looking to me for comfort. The first time I felt the heaviness of the funeral words crawling out of my mouth. The first time I dealt with the weighty anger because my words were not enough, because death was not fair, and this God I was supposed to serve had a lot of explaining to do.

This heavy love-in-grief has revisited me through the years: when I had to move our Easter sunrise service to the hospital bedside of a beloved church member; when I sat with a young man devastated by his porn addiction; when I talked with parents struggling with a child’s mental illness; when I heard that the diagnosis was ALS and, when the time comes, he doesn’t want a feeding tube.

It’s a pastor’s job to bear the weight. A friend’s job too, I suppose. And a parent’s, and a sibling’s, and a lover’s. I used to think my words should lighten the burden. It’s an easy mistake to make for a girl who fell in love with Emily Dickinson in elementary school and went on to major in creative writing. I believe in the power of language almost as much as I believe in the power of God. And if I could just find the right words, I thought, I could pry the weight off of the crushed hearts around me.

I think of Job’s friends who sat with that destitute man for seven days and seven nights before they opened their mouths. Most of us can’t handle that much weight.

Turns out, though, that the words don’t work. More often than I would like, the words turn to dust in the ears of the grieving. My dusty words may or may not be beautiful—it doesn’t matter much. What matters is that the words born in love bear witness that I have been there, with someone, under the weight of their grief. What matters is that, with or without words, love calls me to be present in the pain with my whole self. Which is hard. And heavy.

I think of Job’s friends who sat with that destitute man for seven days and seven nights before they opened their mouths. Most of us can’t handle that much weight.

It’s a pastor’s job to bear the weight. A friend’s job too, I suppose. And a parent’s, and a sibling’s, and a lover’s. I used to think my words should lighten the burden.

Love in grief, funeral love, is heavy. But wedding love . . . I know that marriage is an imperfect institution—that many marriages involve dissatisfaction and heartbreak and grief if not outright abuse and trauma—that the history and much of the present reality of marriage is patriarchal and heterosexist. I know. But still, wedding love, for me, is light. It is joyful and sacred and full of promise.

I have been privileged to officiate weddings for many people I love: my gorgeous graduate school officemate who escaped a nightmare marriage and found Mr. Dreamy Triathlete; young men and women from my church, who I baptized and preached to and prayed for; two women who contacted me to see if I would be willing to do their wedding because they wanted to be married by a Christian pastor and they were having a hard time finding one to officiate; two men who had been married already for years, but wanted to finally make it legal and wanted to do it in my town where one of their fathers, who had refused to come to the first wedding, was eager to be part of this one.

What matters is that, with or without words, love calls me to be present in the pain with my whole self. Which is hard. And heavy.

Yes, weddings, for me, are light love. But these last two hold the story of a heavier love. Because not everyone in my religious tradition sees the beauty of two women or men in love committing themselves to each other in holy matrimony. Some of my fellow pastors would refuse a request to officiate such a wedding. Some of them tried to get my pastoral credentials revoked because I said yes to such a request.

Still, I am called to love them: the ones who called and wrote to explain to me my faulty theology. The ones who voted for my ordination to be suspended. The ones who testified in front of an entire delegate body about why I am unfit to be a pastor.

As a Christian, I (try to) follow the teachings of Jesus who said, “Love your enemy.” (Other faiths echo this concept as well.) Even if I disagree with someone. Even if I deeply dislike someone. Even if someone is really and truly a supreme jackasses. I am called to love them.

Still, I am called to love them: the ones who called and wrote to explain to me my faulty theology. The ones who voted for my ordination to be suspended. The ones who testified in front of an entire delegate body about why I am unfit to be a pastor.

That is heavy love. Heavy and awkward.

Loving people through grief is hard and heavy, but it is, at least, recognizable as love. The weight bears down in a familiar way, and you just bear it because you have to. You let the heaviness settle all over you, press your limbs, your gut, your heart, firmly down like a lead blanket.

But loving the enemies? Loving the jackasses? What does that even look like? How does it feel? It’s uneven and distorted. For me, the weight rests less in my heart and more in my mind. I have to try to figure out what that kind of love looks like.

It doesn’t look like refusing to marry same-sex couples for the sake of “church unity” and some people’s misguided biblical scruples. It doesn’t look like smiling and nodding when an angry pastor tells me that in his entire congregation of two hundred there are no gay people. It doesn’t look like leaving the convention hall so that people will be more comfortable when they talk about why I shouldn’t be a pastor.

But it also doesn’t look like snarky name calling, or refusing to listen, or leaving the table.

Even if I disagree with someone. Even if I deeply dislike someone. Even if someone is really and truly a supreme jackasses. I am called to love them.

Like the funeral words, the words of this heavy enemy love also come slow. But not because they are painful and feel meaningless—because they are weighty with meaning. Because, when it comes to loving enemies, there is a fine line between being honest and being brutal, between being polite and being a coward. When it comes to loving enemies, the words do matter. A lot.

Like, for example, “jackass.” It is a fine word to communicate to you the struggles I feel in loving difficult people. But if I were writing or speaking to an actual jackass, I would need to find a more appropriate, more loving word.

Like the funeral words, the words of this heavy enemy love also come slow. But not because they are painful and feel meaningless—because they are weighty with meaning.

Perhaps the heaviest love of all is love of God. The centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer service is the shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” This flows into the v’havta: “Love the Lord your G-d with all of your heart, soul, and mind” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This teaching is so important to the Jewish people that when Jesus, a devout Jew, was asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” he responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:36-37).

The scriptures teach that loving God is a deep obligation for people of faith. And that is rather intimidating—to be expected to love the Creator of the universe—the Creator of love itself—in any sort of meaningful, worthwhile way.

How does one even begin, really, to love God?

So we circle back around. The weight of loving God comes from the obligations such love carries to also love other people and to love ourselves.

Maybe that’s why Jesus, after revealing the most important commandment, goes on to say, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:38). So we circle back around. The weight of loving God comes from the obligations such love carries to also love other people and to love ourselves.

The love of God is, for me, the Love that compels the other loves of my life. The Love that nudges me to continue to pray for and speak (mostly) kindly of the woman who sent a nasty email about me to everyone in the church. The Love that sets me down right in the middles of heartbreaking grief. The Love that leads me to officiate gay weddings and engage in meaningful conversation with those who claim homosexuality is a sin. The Love that demands I consider what is good rather than what is polite, what is true rather than what is easy.

The obligations of love are heavy. Still, so many times I experience this weight as a gift, a grace that keeps me grounded and strong.

top photo by Olivia Snow on Unsplash