My son and I are driving into town for our weekly Friday morning special time and Suzanne Vega’s song “The World Before Columbus” comes on. It’s a song she wrote for her daughter that I used to sing to Everest when he was a baby, and these lyrics made me cry every time:
Those men who lust for land
And for riches strange and new
Who love those trinkets of desire
Oh they never will have you.
And they’ll never know the gold
Or the copper in your hair
How could they weigh the worth
Of you so rare.
They still make me cry. As we’re driving, I look over at him, so tall, fourteen, a pilot, an adventurer, a light of a human being, and I see the gold and copper that still shine in his hair. I sing along, tears forming as they always do. He looks at me and smiles. I say, “You know how much I love you, don’t you, Everest?” He says yes. I cried then and now from the depth of my love for him, but now I cry because of the time that has passed, because of the memories of baby Everest that rise up to meet this fourteen-year old young man sitting next to me. The love and loss are curled up together in a pocket of my heart.
I’m walking on an early November afternoon. The trees have lost their leaves. The light is more muted than it was two weeks ago at the peak of Autumn when the world was dressed in robes of gold. November, especially in Colorado, is a sober, liminal month between October’s vibrancy and December’s shimmering snow. It’s also my birthday month, and as I observe the bare limbs and gray light I think how fitting it is that I was born in this month. As much as I love the brilliance of October and the angelic beauty of December, there is also pain in such beauty: pain in knowing that it cannot last, the pain that comes with the awareness of impermanence, the longing to fuse with the beauty in rapture but the ache in knowing that I can never get quite close enough. November won’t last, either, but it’s easier to release attachment to the muted months than it is to the months of splendor.
When I was a kid, I remember being disappointed by the photo chosen for November in the yearly wall calendars. It seemed to me that almost every other month received a glorious nature photo or an adorable animal photo, but that November always received the boring photo. I smile when I think of this now, for with the maturity and wisdom that come with the passage of time I appreciate these so-called boring photos that reflect the essence of November in a whole new way. Now, November brings exhale: a month to simply be. There’s a different kind of rapture that occurs when we surrender to the middle path, to the sweetness of oatmeal love. It’s the secret joy inside what the culture calls “settling,” and we cannot arrive there without walking through a season of loss. Nothing dramatic. Nothing sensational. Just quiet, bare-limbed, silver-light November. Just like real love.
It’s not easy to articulate, and I know it’s not an experience that everyone has, but from listening to my clients talk about their transitions over the past twenty years, it’s evident that there’s a sector of our population for whom life and loss are entwined, two strands in a single piece of yarn. Parenthood brings this awareness particularly close to consciousness, for the moment the umbilical cord is cut we are asked to let go of the person we love most in the world. It’s why we try to immortalize our babies through photographing and scrapbooking. But it doesn’t work. No matter how much we record our memories there are still thousands that will slip through our fingers. And it’s not the memories that we long to hold onto; it’s the children. Time passes and they slip further away as they appropriately grow up and move into the world.
Intimate love also brings this duality to the forefront of awareness. When we love with our whole hearts and when we are loved for who are are, the risk of loving can feel unbearable. For those prone to anxiety, this risk is often transposed into a projection that seeks to push a loving partner away with the conviction that “something is wrong”. The protection sweeps in quickly, sometimes within nano-seconds after the slightest prick of the fear of loss enters consciousness; sometimes even before that. The heart that has been hurt by life and it believes it cannot bear one more loss, so it erects the fortress of projection as protection.
The way through is to name these experiences, to know that for the sensitive heart there is no differentiating between love and loss. The more we can name loss as it appears in daily life, the more intimate we become with its ways. And the more we know it, the less we fear it, for it is easier to fear an unnamed enemy than the one who sits before you, looking you in the eyes. Sit before your loss. Get to know it. Notice the ways it shows up in a moment, in a day, in a week. Pause when it lands in your heart, place your hand there, and breathe into it. Perhaps write a poem. Draw a picture. Sing out the song of your loss. When we name and express loss, we let love in. Loss lives in a layer of our skin, like a permeable soap bubble. When we merge with the skin of this bubble instead of resist it, love grows. The fear of loss is the wall that keeps love out, but coming into direct contact with the loss lets it in.
In the bathhouse of grief, tears are everywhere, waiting for us to catch them in our cupped hands. They don’t always show up as tears; something it’s a micro-moment of sadness that only asks one thing: to see her, to know her, to love her. It’s all we ever need.
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