Rattle & Pen: Writing Into the Wind

Rattle & Pen is a biweekly column exploring the liminal space between raising children and creating art.

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“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

I’ve been struggling with what to say here.

No, that’s not entirely true. I had something to say here. Two weeks ago, in an effort to plan ahead and use my time efficiently, I wrote what I thought was an honest but inspiring little essay about losing my focus as a writer to the demands of my life as a mother. I sent it off to the editors. Done, I thought to myself. And then the election happened, and the world slid away from beneath my feet, and nothing I’d said in that earlier essay felt real enough, necessary enough, big enough to warrant your time, reader.

And so here I am, re-writing, trying to get my footing again. But I still don’t quite have words for this world we’ve built.

Tuesday night, like half the country, I lay awake in the darkness of my bedroom, nauseous and reeling. What had we done through our actions and inactions? What could we possibly do now to fix it? Again and again I wished like a child might do—a clear plea from my heart to my head: Can’t we just go back in time and start over? Isn’t there any way we could unravel the fabric of the last several hours (day, months, years, centuries) and re-knit those skeins into something better, stronger, more beautiful than this? My grief was deep and gaping.

Wednesday morning, I dragged myself from bed to tell my children the news, to make them a breakfast I still couldn’t eat, and to prepare to teach the teenagers who would be waiting for me—anxious and despairing—in my classroom in a couple of hours; but it was hard not to give in to the pull of my sorrow. My grief had taken shape overnight, and now it shadowed me as I moved through my house. It ached in the hollow of my stomach. It tugged at the edges of my voice when I spoke to my kids. When we arrived at school, I let my son and daughter run ahead of me into the building, and I sat alone for a few moments in the car crying, trying to gather myself for the dark day ahead, trying to gather my grief.

I have felt grief like this a handful of times before, always following a keen and close loss—when my grandfather died, for instance; and again when I lost a very wanted pregnancy. I felt it as a teenager—this same constant shadow-self trailing me, whispering darkness into my ear—the year I nearly starved myself to death. I felt it the year I was thirty-four and knew I needed to leave my professorship—my career in academia—and not look back. I felt it during an intense and difficult period of familial uncertainty. These other times were entirely personal, though—the losses mine alone; and while my grief on Wednesday morning felt so familiar that I recognized it at once for what it was, I also understood that this time was different because this time the grief was ours—all of ours.

This grief we’re all in—this collective sorrow and loss and uncertainty and shame (yes, I said it—shame—because I believe we have to own this too, or at least those of us who sit mostly in the privilege of safety do)—this grief feels enormous, and the more I process it, and the clearer I get about how I’m going to combat it with my politics and purse, the less I know how to respond to it as a writer. Right now, for me, there just aren’t words.

What I do know is this:

  1. I have to write again, and soon. We who make art must keep making art. (What did Chekhov say? “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”) Art reflects, perceives, restores. Art is necessary in times of peace, but more necessary in times of revolution. I know that. (You, reader—you know that.) We must keep writing.

  2. I have to be a better writer than I was before. Nothing I have ever written has been big enough to hold this. This is a hard admission. I knew it Wednesday morning as I drove to school, though—the thought presenting itself like a blade through my brain, sudden and painful. And then I felt the truth of it sinking all the way through me: I have never written anything big enough to sit with this more-than-personal grief, to get this collective wrong-doing right. And if I am to keep writing, I must figure out how to write this.

I am still wrestling with these conflicting certainties. I wish I could say here that I woke Thursday to the rising sun and leapt to my desk, pen swinging, but I didn’t. I haven’t. In fact, I’ve filed away the handful of half-written stories I was working on just before the election. I may never finish them. None of them are good enough now. I have to start over, be better, write less blindly and with much more courage.

And so, reader, do you.

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