To celebrate the autumnal equinox yesterday, I attended Letters to the Earth: Songs and Poems of Conservation at Ijams Nature Center. The sky was a dreamy blue, so I rode my bike there. Jewel-toned hummingbirds flitted in and out of trees and cicadas sang their afternoon song while we lounged on the patio listening to a handful of Knoxville’s great poets: Marilyn Kallet, Arthur Smith, Jesse Graves, R.B. Morris, Jeff Daniel Marion, and Linda Parsons Marion.
They spoke of blackberries and tomatoes and mockingbirds, tigers and rhinos and rural landscapes. I was stuffed with empanadas, grilled corn, dulce de leche, and fresh coconut from the HoLa Hispanic Heritage Festival earlier in the afternoon, and I reveled in a day outside with so much for the senses after being stuck inside with a congested head for far too long.
Fall is my favorite season. It’s a time to reflect on the past, feel that familiar ache over things we’ve lost, and then let it all fall away like water. It’s a time to find beauty in change.
It was renewing for me to spend the first day of fall at a poetry reading. I’d been away from the literary scene for quite some time. I’d gotten busy with the nonprofit work I was doing, and I’d come home tired and in need of escape. I didn’t do much writing, I didn’t pay much attention to new writers and literary news, and I certainly didn’t attend events. I’d spend the day dealing with funding cuts and federal deadlines and the saddest client stories of abuse and poverty, and then I’d come home and watch 30 Rock or Curb Your Enthusiasm or Revenge and try to get some sleep before I had to get up and do it all over again.
And then came the period where I didn’t write at all. I thought I wasn’t a poet or fiction writer or storyteller after all. I thought I’d been wrong about who I was, that writing had just been a phase, though a long one.
It started three years ago. That fall marked the beginning of a series of struggles, from the September death of my husband’s brother–which was both unexpected and expected, wholly preventable and sadly inevitable–to my emergency surgery for a ruptured ectopic pregnancy the following July.
After that, I didn’t write creatively for more than a year. I just couldn’t. I would try–I’d feel like I should or even feel the urge, but when I sat before my computer or grabbed a notebook, nothing happened. Do you ever have that dream where you try to scream and nothing comes out? That what it was like.
I’d never had writer’s block; I’d written my way out of every dark hole. So I thought that was the end. I thought the writer in me was gone.
I had spent several years working for an agency that served victims of gender-based violence, so I knew a lot about healing. I had written support group curricula, researched resilience, and designed programs that helped people overcome trauma and tragedy. And then I found myself covering one layer of sorrow with another, facing my own mortality for the first time, grieving over the loss of something I never knew, losing a body part that was culturally tied to womanhood, realizing brutally just how much women risk their lives to bring new life, and tumbling down into a spiral of confusion over whether or not I even wanted to be a mother in the first place or ever.
I felt lucky to be alive. Had I lived in a country with less access to the right medical care or with a total abortion ban, I’d be dead. Had I not given into the pain and into my nurse mother’s insistence that I go to the hospital even though I didn’t think I needed to, I’d be dead. So I really focused on my relief at being alive, but eventually everything else bubbled up.
What I discovered is that healing is really tough. Healing is elusive, and you have to fight for it. You have to decide that you are going to go on, that you’re going to find a way to get through it, and that you’ll do whatever it takes. And you have to be willing to wait through every excruciating moment because it takes a long damn time. What I discovered was that in my time of need all the ways I knew to heal had abandoned me.
I couldn’t write a word. I did other things: I talked, cried, thought, ran, walked, talked, and cried some more. But I couldn’t put it on paper, and I didn’t feel like the pain would ever really go away. Maybe I couldn’t handle making it art. I was furious and disappointed and utterly sad, and maybe it didn’t feel much like art. Perhaps turning it into a poem felt too much like finding beauty in something that had no beauty or purpose or value. I hated what I’d been through. I said it wasn’t worth it. I said it was the biggest waste of everything. So how could I write about it?
I grew up a lot during that period. I crossed a bridge I never knew existed. Here’s what I learned: that’s life. Things happen, and that’s life. You take the good and the bad; you can’t have it any other way. Sometimes a bunch of bad shit comes at once, and you feel like you’ll never find your way out of it. Other times, it’s a gorgeous fall day, and you eat salty tostones and ride your bike and listen to poetry while hummingbirds mate.
Yes, if you wait it out long enough and work hard enough, Persephone comes back from Hades feeling like a bomb-ass queen. That’s life. Sometimes I sing it (that’s liiiiiiife) with jazz hands.
Deep into last fall, in the middle of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I fell in love with literature all over again. I’d forgotten the pull of words, the richness of life when words are joined in a way that makes you feel like singing. But there it was before me, and I felt it so hard that it welled up in my throat.
I started thinking about writing again. For a few weeks, I just thought about it. Then I sat down and words came, and I felt my new self settle back into my old self and we all felt good and ready.