I took an extended leave of absence from the page. Life distracts us with an assortment of joys and empty entertainments, but then there’s sorrow. The end of May (my last post was the 18th of May), was the former, but the beginning of June was the latter. Suddenly, I was surrounded by death. Maya Angelou died, a heartbreak to everyone in the country (mine, the United States) and to me personally as she was an incredible source of inspiration, a voice for the voiceless and joy for those who needed it. And then there was the death of others, people who were known nationally and people who I knew personally. I needed to take a break from Life and from its various duties (at least the ones that I could take a break from).
A church down the street from me put some of her quotes on its reader board out front. “Life loves the liver of it.” (I found it inspirational, though I will admit that, at first, I laughed and wondered why Life likes my liver so much more than any of my other organs.) I do believe that this is true, even if you believe in reincarnation, this one moment is still unique and precious, don’t waste opportunities, don’t sit on your deathbed and look back and say, “I wish I could have…” And what if the Universe never gives another chance to learn, to be illuminated by, this particular lesson ever again.
Some lessons are harder though. My mom, an avid fan of the New Age religion (though I always counted myself as a Catholic), kept telling me throughout my life that, for some lessons, if you don’t learn them the first time, they’ll just keep coming back until you do – even in the next life. I had decided that this is why those that believe in reincarnation should believe that murder is wrong, because you’re robbing some poor soul of the ability to learn these really difficult, really awful and painful lessons and of the joy of having gotten past that hurdle; she has to start all over again with that same hell. The hard lessons are Hell. If suffering is holding on to desire, holding onto pain, holding on to hope when hope is gone, then a soul ought to be around long enough to learn how to let go. The hardest lesson of all.
The pain of grief is exacerbated by the holding onto hope. It’s that disbelief that all of the joy that once was is now gone forever, that that one person who made you so happy, feel so much joy and inspiration will never come back. You hold onto the ghost of him or her as the pain seeps in and permeates every cell like a disease.
I picked this poem, because even though it’s a poem about visiting another country about catching a painful illness, it perfectly captured the feeling I had of visiting the Land of Grief and being taken hold of by Pain. It did feel like light had been blotted out. The image of the light passing through the dark prison door, passing me by as I watched other bright spirit dance past, untouched by the darkness, spoke more clearly to me of my pain than any set of condolences or words of advice could have done. That is the power of the image in poetry or any other type of literature. It hooks into that primal part of the subconscious the one that does not know words or mathematics, only feelings and smells and tastes and delight and pain. It enjoys the perfect symmetry and sympathy that an image and only an image can capture – you are like me, you understand; my burden is less now that I know that I am not alone; you feel the way I do.
Illness brings with it a set of betrayals; how could my body, my safest, most confined, most secret and sacred spot, allow this to happen? How could it fail me? Grief is also a betrayal, how could my thoughts turn dark at such a time as this? This time when I need so badly to see the light! When will end? I wanted to avoid it, but there was no escape, like the microbes in the poem it seeped through the keyhole and the walls, even tumbled down from the cracks in the ceiling. It was everywhere. I was surrounded by darkness and there was nothing for it except to suffer.
A Plagued Journey
by Maya Angelou
There is no warning rattle at the door
nor heavy feet to stomp the foyer boards.
Safe in the dark prison, I know that
light slides over
the fingered work of a toothless
woman in Pakistan.
Happy prints of
an invisible time are illumined.
My mouth agape
rejects the solid air and
lungs hold. The invader takes
seeps through the plaster walls.
It is at my chamber, entering
the keyhole, pushing
through the padding of the door.
I cannot scream. A bone
of fear clogs my throat.
It is upon me. It is
sunrise, with Hope
its arrogant rider.
My mind, formerly quiescent
in its snug encasement, is strained
to look upon their rapturous visages,
to let them enter even into me.
I am forced
outside myself to
mount the light and ride joined with Hope.
Through all the bright hours
I cling to expectation, until
darkness comes to reclaim me
as its own. Hope fades, day is gone
into its irredeemable place
and I am thrown back into the familiar
bonds of disconsolation.
Gloom crawls around
between my toes, at my ankles,
and it sucks strands of my
hair. It forgives my heady
fling with Hope. I am
joined again into its