three years later: musings on grief and literature
It’s funny how things change. When you’re waiting for it, it doesn’t seem like it’ll ever come. But it does come, always, so slowly you don’t notice it creeping up on you. Then all of a sudden, you do notice. You stare it straight in the face, and it knocks the wind out of you.
Can I be any more vague?
Tomorrow, it’ll have been three years since my mother died. It’s strange to see just how much (and in some cases how little) things have changed.
I recently received a couple copies of the anthology that came out of the writing conference I attended in 2012. A year after my mother died, I was finally ready to deal with my grief and to write about her. And to start moving on, if you want to call it that. Now I look back at that time, those first agonizing years, marked by the occasional tear-stained journal entry or pained poem, and I am grateful to have finally moved past them. If you had asked me a year ago, I never would have thought it possible.
Those years, in my efforts to feel less alone, I have read about so many tragedies.
A few weeks ago, I finished reading The Goldfinch, and what I found most striking was how much Theo’s life hinged on the loss of his beloved mother during adolescence. The way he approached his life afterwards seemed so unbelievable at times—the copious drug use and irrational guilt and obsessive attachment to Pippa, etc. And yet I believed it all because I could identify so well with him.
Similarly, in The Painted Drum, Faye never moved past a family tragedy that occurred in childhood. Now a middle-aged woman, she lives with her elderly mother, has commitment/control issues with her lover, and expresses a childish wish to never have to live without her mother. That, too, is a sentiment I once identified with.
I am so grateful for the sense of solidarity provided by these stories. And at the same time, I am so sad that there exists such a deep well of grief from which stories like these are constantly drawn.
I know someone else whose mother died when he was in college, and he once said that he didn’t want to be defined by his mother’s death. He meant (I think) that he didn’t want people to feel sorry for him and think of him as That Tragic Kid. When he said that, I felt ashamed, because I felt that I have been too much defined by my own mother’s death. I felt that I wasn’t trying hard enough to press forward or hide my sorrows.
But as these books remind me, there is no way you can not be defined by something that affects you so much. It’s just a matter of how you let it define you. And of course, it affects some people more and/or differently than others, depending on the quality of the relationship to the lost loved one, the support networks of the survivors, the life stage of the survivors at the time of loss, etc. There is nothing wrong with grieving at a different pace.
For various reasons, I suspect it took me a little longer than normal to get to a point of normalcy. Even now, there are still times when I’ll wake up from a dream to a damp pillow beneath my cheeks. There are still times when I wish I could share some aspect of my life with her—a new dish I’ve learned how to make, a quirky little shop on the corner, a photo or publication or some other accomplishment I am proud of. There are times when I see something she would have liked, and I am filled with such a bottomless black grief at the thought that I never gave it to her and now will never have another opportunity.
But more and more often now, I can think of the happier moments without feeling unbearably sad that they’re over. I no longer feel the urgent need to tell people that I’ve lost her, in hopes that someone will tell me they understand. I don’t have to tell my sad sob story to connect with people. My mother is no longer at the center of every relationship I have, and I don’t feel guilty about it anymore.
I wish she could be here to see how much I’ve grown. But I will always remember one of the last things she said to me—she said that she didn’t know how I’d gotten so cynical, and she just wanted me to be happy. And it was a revelation, because I always thought as a kid that being cynical meant I was being smart about the world. I was tragic for the sake of being tragic, even before I had any reason for it. Now, finally, I’m not afraid to admit that I want to be happy too, and for the most part, I am.
New Year’s Resolutions
(Photo: leaving Red Rock at sunset 12/28/13)
I have an unabashed love of resolution lists. New Year’s resolutions, birthday resolutions, random motivated week resolutions, you name it. (Also, see sidebar with a bazillion such lists.)
So here’s the list for 2014.
1. Don’t obsess so much about being healthy. I know, I know, this seems like the exact opposite of what we should resolve to do. But obsessing actually isn’t healthy. Instead of losing sleep to go to the gym or counting calories and ounces on the scale or feeling guilty about tiny “slip-ups” or otherwise pushing yourself beyond your body’s limits, buy more fresh produce, cook your own meals, and work out when you want to (unless it’s never, in which case, you should push yourself a little). Healthy habits should make you feel good.
The actionable items that come out of this:
a. Go grocery shopping and cook at least once a week.
b. Eat out (aka go to the cafeteria) less than 5 times per month.
c. Sleep at least 7 hours a night, even if that means a shorter workout or going to lab a little late
d. Go to sleep by midnight.
e. Drink less.
2. Stop feeling guilty about me-time. I get cranky and irritable and socially burnt out if I don’t spend enough time by myself, and nobody needs to see that. There’s no need to be productive and sociable at all times. Alone time is just as productive.
3. Be more fearless(ly vulnerable). In spite of all my aspirational preaching about being kind and all that, I’m prickly. Like a hedgehog. And in retrospect, I have been such an asshole sometimes because it’s terrifying and risky to be sincere in an insincere world. What if people think you’re actually (gasp) a nice person?! Most people won’t use it against you, and you won’t feel stupid about it forever. It’s that whole “treat people the way you want to be treated” thing. And I want strangers to tell me they like my shoes, and I want people to reach out. I want to trust people to be real with me.
3. Make fewer resolutions. Live spontaneously. You know, within reason.
Anyway, here’s to a happier 2014.
if you read nothing else from this blog, read this
After spending the better half of the past couple of days sending out my Christmas greetings/annual update/warm and fuzzies, I’m still not done. Realistically, I’m not going to be able to send a personalized, heartfelt page-long message to every person who has ever made an impact on me, though I’ve certainly been trying. And now, I’m so overwhelmed with gratitude that I am physically tired. (Okay…that could also be from the traveling. Shush, logic.)
So this is for everyone I’ve ever called a friend or colleague or with whom I’ve shared some small moment of kindness:
I have been blessed with really wonderful friends and mentors who have supported me through painfully dark times, and I don’t always take the time to appreciate that.
Beyond that, I’ve had the great fortune to know a lot of kind, genuine people in passing, to share beautiful tender moments that I never properly acknowledged.
We might not talk much now. We might have never exchanged much more than a few words here and there. I might not be able to tell you this personally because I’m too socially awkward and/or it would be too awkward to do so for some reason or other.
But at some point, you probably listened to me venting about something stupid or gave me a heartfelt note or smiled at me when I was feeling lonely or showed me the right poem at the right time or simply asked me how I was doing and meant it. Maybe you came over to talk to me at a party where I didn’t know anyone or messaged me on the anniversary of a loss.
Maybe I simply saw you being nice to someone else when I was feeling particularly cynical, like the other day when a Muni driver cheerfully pulled up closer to the curb when he saw that a man with a cane was going to have difficulty getting on the bus. Maybe you just give lab mice extra treats, and I find it sweet. (I know, I know. I’m a crazy person and remember weird things and am too easily touched.)
You might have waltzed through my life briefly and carelessly, neither of us realizing that I needed you at that exact moment to remind me how beautiful the world can be.
If you’re reading this, if any of this sounds remotely familiar, you probably did some little surprising thing that touched me, and it mattered more than you know.
o captain, my captain
It doesn’t make any sense, but this has always been the line that comes to mind when I think of my grandfather. My grandfather, the Qing scholar, the lifelong academic, my mother’s favorite. And this is the only thing I can think of now that he’s gone. That, and how strange it is that the 23rd is such a popular death day for people I like.
I hope, against all odds, that there is an afterlife, and it looks like a library with soft lighting and dark wooden window seats and a gigantic collection of leather-bound books that automatically change when you’ve read them, and he and my mother can now geek out together about Chinese history and literary heroes.
letter to future me
Dear Future Me,
I keep trying to reach you, and I think I’ve gotten a little lost. (I never did have a very good sense of direction.) I wish I could just not mind being lost, but I strongly suspect that I have control issues.
The other day, someone was telling me about how he’s trying to be more present instead of constantly striving to become his ideal future self. Clearly, I fail at that. This entire letter is proof.
I told my friend and her boyfriend recently that I thought they were freakishly mature and misrepresent what people around our age should be like. By which I mean they are in their early to mid 20s and have their shit together, and most people I know—myself included—definitely do not. And I talk to them and think maybe we should, and I get scared that I’m taking too long or maybe won’t ever find my way, and no one else in my life will either.
I keep thinking of this line from The Perks of Being a Wallflower: "We accept the love we think we deserve." And I think of most people I know, and I suspect we don’t think very highly of ourselves. This is a natural part of the coming-of-age story, and it’s totally fine for people to be a little lost in adolescence and young adulthood, but I feel like that story should have ended by now for most of us. Shouldn’t it?
When I was young, I thought that I’d reach 18, and everything would magically be perfect. I would be intelligent and charming and beautiful and wildly successful, but in the meantime I could be totally immature and lost and stupid, and it was all okay. And then I reached 18 and extended my deadline to 20, then 21, then…the indefinite future.
Future Me, I know you’re not going to be perfect. I know you are going to be the product of current me and whatever experiences I accumulate in the meantime, so maybe I should try to gear those experiences more towards reaching the “you” I want to be. But I’m not. And even though it doesn’t feel like it, I want to say that’s okay. Because maybe the “you” I want to be isn’t the “you” I’m meant to be.
being sick makes me thoughtful and weird
After managing to escape illness for a record-breaking 16 weeks, my body finally crapped out again.
And I know exactly where I went wrong, but it’s hard to stop yourself sometimes, you know? I’m getting totally restless and crazy, because I don’t do well with inactivity, but I’m also really grateful because it could be so much worse.
1. I am not in the hospital with a near-fatal case of pneumonia, and I can breathe without an oxygen tube.
2. Last week, I was walking to school, and I stepped two inches away from where a bird was about to shit. It felt like the universe was saying, “Hey girl, I know you’re feeling kind of crappy right now, so I’m making up for that and for all the other crappy things that have happened by not having this bird shit on your head. You’re welcome.” Thanks, Universe.
3. When unfortunate things happen now, I have faith that I’ll always be okay, even if I am a total crazy sadcase at the time. I will still be a total crazy sadcase sometimes, and I will overreact and have existential moments, especially (exclusively?) when I’m PMSing. (That totally happens. Deal with it.) But you know what? My worst nightmare came true a few years ago, and I’m okay. And my worst nightmare doesn’t even begin to compare to a lot of people’s reality. So…everything else is just peanuts.
I got to thinking the other day about something a friend said. It wasn’t fair, she cried, that such terrible things can happen to such good people. Like actual fatal things and traumatic abuse and people dying all the time terrible.
And I thought about The Kite Runner, which I’ve just re-read. And I thought of those trite, condescending things people like to say: “Life isn’t fair.” and “Sometimes, bad things happen to good people.” They’re such stupid cop-out responses. But…they’re nevertheless true.
Honestly, most of the time, bad things happen to good people, because most people are mostly good. And it doesn’t make any sense why these things should be allowed.
I wish I could promise you that it’s all for a reason or that everything always works out in the end, but I can’t. I can only say that some days, your foot lands two blessed inches away from where a bird is about to shit. Some days, you walk out of work towards the sunset, and you get a few precious moments of fire that are worth everything.