Hands of Water

PPP flowers“This is me trying,” I said in a post back in May. I was trying to read again, and also to write about my reading again. I have been trying even harder recently, though with mixed success: I’m still abandoning more books than I used to, and watching TV instead of reading because it’s more quickly and easily distracting, but I’ve also written up some of the books I have managed to read in something more like the old spirit of “just say what you think and don’t second guess it.” What a liberating feeling that was, back in the early days of this blog, and it really has continued to be freeing—this space, while in some senses a public one, is my space, a place where I just write what I want to.

I was surprised, after Owen’s death, by how strongly I wanted to write about it. Words and phrases came to me and would echo in my head until I found a place for them. That still happens, but as time keeps relentlessly passing the sameness of my grief feels like a reason to write less about it; I have been trying, here anyway. What else is there to say, after all? My son is still dead; I am still grieving him daily and deeply. And yet things aren’t exactly the same: how could they be, eight months later? One of the strangest things for me now—and here I think I am understanding better what Denise Riley meant when she talked about her grief in terms of dropping out of time—is that the passing time suddenly feels less linear than circular, as if instead of its carrying me further and further away from Owen (unwillingly left behind in his timelessness, as Riley puts it), it is bringing me back, impossibly, to a time when he was right here with us, because it was just (just!) last summer that, after hardly seeing each other in person for the first year of the pandemic, we had begun visiting again, and just (just!) last August that he came to share his finished Hackenbush video with us. He was also starting classes again at Dalhousie; things seemed to be looking up on all fronts. Those days are so vivid, so immediate, in my memory, that it makes me literally dizzy sometimes when I bring myself back to this moment, this August, the start of this new term.

Something else that’s different is how emotionally confusing and therefore exhausting I’m finding the present. The early days of grief are awful but absolute, almost simple, I realize now: there are no options, no expectations, for anything besides mourning. I have learned so much about grief since then, from experience but also from others, and from reading. One thing I’ve learned is that “it takes time” doesn’t mean that with time the grief lessens; it means something more like you get used to living with it, you learn to walk around with it, but it’s still there, fierce and painful and disorienting. Something else I’ve learned is that grief changes your relationship with happiness. I’ve read a lot of poetry in the last few months, taking comfort in finding words “in the shape of [my] wounds” (in Sean Thomas Dougherty’s phrase). I like this poem by W. S. Merwin, which captures both the relief of finding words for my pain and the pain of encountering “the joy of the world” when it feels impossible to share in it.

Words

When the pain of the world finds words
they sound like joy
and often we follow them
with our feet of earth
and learn them by heart
but when the joy of the world finds words
they are painful
and often we turn away
with our hands of water

I am trying—to read, to write, to be—but it’s hard and uncomfortable and often I would rather not. Turning away is easier. Still, time keeps passing, and soon I won’t be able to default to comfortless passivity: next week, I will be back in the classroom.

5 thoughts on “Hands of Water

  1. Michelle Huelle August 31, 2022 / 10:07 am

    How does one “like and comment” on something so clear, open, and honest?
    ❤ That’s all I cam say, but I felt compelled to say something other than “like.”

  2. Jeanne August 31, 2022 / 10:32 am

    It’s certainly a less profound grief and I had something like a choice about it, but all the same I’m grieving the loss of the classroom and everything associated with it this fall. I like the poem.

    • Rohan Maitzen September 1, 2022 / 7:58 am

      I hadn’t read Merwin until recently, though I had come across his name often. I find a lot of his poems too difficult to get a purchase on but others very immediate and striking.

  3. Daphna Kedmi August 31, 2022 / 2:33 pm

    Rohan, when you wrote “dropping out of time”, immediately David Grossman’s Falling Out of Time came to me. Grossman lost his son, Uri, when he was 20 years old, and this was the first book he wrote after his death. It is part novel, part play, part myth. It doesn’t fit into any genre, but it is a masterful work on the bereavement of parents. It demonstrates the thoughts you mention here: the grief that never passes or lessens, but is always painfully present, and the way in which time itself is no longer as it was before. I hope I’m not overstepping, but I thought I’d mention it to you.

    • Rohan Maitzen September 1, 2022 / 7:55 am

      Not overstepping at all, Daphna: I appreciate the suggestion. I hadn’t heard of this book before. It has been interesting and sometimes surprising finding out which books or poems about grief and loss (or songs, for that matter) help in some way and which I turn away from. Some, like Riley’s book, have grown in resonance for me over the months.

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