Friday, March 24, 2017

Ode to Suffering

This past year I have navigated a completely foreign land—caring for my dying father in his home, then for his widow with dementia. It has been a year of sacrifice without a thought, or emotional bandwidth to consider a thought, of what I wanted or needed. But that was fine. I knew I had a rare opportunity to usher a dear woman down a difficult path to her final days, and she was all that mattered. I'll write about Jamie's last two months soon, but I'm not quite ready. Instead, I write this ode to sacrifice, to suffering, because I've learned to appreciate it profoundly.

Suffering is a perfect foundation for happiness. That doesn’t matter in the throes of it, but in retrospect I believe that the pure joy I feel just looking up at the sky might have something to do with the deprivation of simple pleasures which lasted most of my life.

My longsuffering childhood included sexual abuse at the age of five and desperately trying to thrive under the care of a neurotic mother who preferred communing with the voices in her head over interacting with her children.

I turned to art and poetry at a very young age to fulfill myself where positive reinforcement was lacking. It ended up being quite the fix – and I’ve enjoyed the catharsis and healing power of art and writing throughout my long-suffering life. Many have said, and I agree, that I ought to share all of those adventures in hardship in a memoir. Soon I hope.

A teacher told me all good poetry is born of loss or longing, I have a collection of more than a hundred poems on the theme of romantic love – wanting it, celebrating it, losing it – and I think it’s all quite good so I agree with her. I can categorize poems about motherhood the same way – longing for an unborn child to leap into my life, longing for the toddler to grow up and share adventures with me, a sick child, a house in chaos – could be poems of loss in a sense. Anything you feel strongly can generate a good poem, she once said. What a life of strong experiences and strong feelings I’ve had – and what poems I’ve written!

Now in my fifties I am, at this moment, not really suffering. I certainly don’t count routine aches and pains. The novelties of making myself a delicious cup of coffee, walking my dog under a big bright sky, and spontaneously creating some art on a day other than Mother’s Day or a vacation day… these bring rapture against a backdrop of years during which getting through any day took monumental effort.

I imagine that millions of people live similarly – intensely straining to feed their family while fighting to remain positive; lying in a post-surgery, pain-addled bed without the mental bandwidth to conceive of the future; holding another human together—husband, child, boyfriend—as if their every breath was your responsibility. And time. Who doesn’t suffer at the hands of the clock? When work and kids and housework and tending to appliances, cars, buttons or toys in disrepair seem altogether like a magic trick that can’t be teased out by you, while friends and neighbors seem effortless at it.

Sensing that all of this suffering is ubiquitous, if not universal, I can celebrate it with you to the extent that some aspect of it must resonate. So I’m not at all trying to sound like the queen of it or a rarity, but a poet who’s got hold of a theme, enjoying the revelation that in this season without suffering I can look back and eulogize it, inspect it, write an ode to it, and possibly give someone an empathetic response to theirs.

In my 40s, after all the sex for having kids was over, I finally found the joy of sex. And in my 50s, after all the sweat of building a career from scratch had been wrung out, and kids face their own struggles to support themselves, I finally don’t have to fear the grocery store, and I finally have time to write a word or two instead of freelancing evenings and weekends.

But before I write fictional adventures about a Westie or finish my sci-fi trilogy, I want to write an ode to suffering, the foundation of solid rock that I build every day on. Not because I suffered, but because I embraced it and rode it like a wave – a force of nature that could not be tamed but could be harnessed and ridden, rough as you like, the way millions of my fellow humans do every day.


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Now I’m going to walk down the hall and make a cup of coffee and really, really enjoy it. I’m going to walk my dog under the highest sky and breathe free air with pure delight, and I’m going to relish working my ass off for a boss I love doing work I enjoy. All of this is bliss because of years and years of every manner of suffering, sacrifice, pain, struggle and hardship. How grateful I am for every day of it.