It strikes me lately that there might be a fine line where grief and longing move from an accurate representation of loss to a habituated thousand-yard stare.
As much as I think I’ve been defined by some loss, I have to also recognize that a sentimentality for the past has long been hardwired in. I have always been wistful for anyone’s past. (I desperately wanted to be Mennonite for an entire confusing year in suburban Wichita, Kansas during the mid-80’s, eclipsing in its intensity my 3-year run as a Old West cowgirl.)
Longing for something, especially while you are still in the thick of it, has got to be one of those human emotions so far above the top rung of Maslow’s ladder of needs as to seem willfully tedious and precious to many people. And yet, longing and sentimentality can also be so incredibly universal and normal, even where the most basic needs are missing. We no more base our needs on a clear, ascendant ladder of parallel rungs than we make rational, non-emotional buying decisions (sorry, economic theory 101).
Because people are complicated. A friend who is a refugee trauma psychologist once told me, at a barbeque in my backyard just after she was back from Pakistan, that she had waited for the Iraqi refugees to cross the border into the UN safe camp in 2009, preparing to help them hold and process stories of unspeakable horror and trauma. And she did. “But the funny thing was,” she said, “so often the first thing that people wanted to talk about was how they wanted to get back together with an ex-, but now the ex- was with someone else; or that their new brother-in-law had really changed family dynamics they resented their sister for it.” Alongside the tragedy, life is also teeming with all the normal hair-splitting stuff, longing high among them.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large. I contain multitudes.)” – Walt Whitman.
Charlotte, my 8.9999-year-old daughter, has fallen off the top rung of Maslow’s ladder recently by pining that her childhood is speeding by. She usually tells me this with toothpaste smeared across her cheek and missing an essential article of clothing, which makes her existential anxiety all the more poignant. “There’s all this change and expectations and hardly any recess anymore and I’m growing up too fast and just want to be a kindergartener again,” she wailed breathlessly the other night, trying to get her pointy elbows and knees to tuck into my lap. I get it. Having similar antennae to the world, I remember missing my childhood while it was still happening. Nowadays, I rush to my laptop to work with great gratitude and in the very next breath immediately imagine myself when the kids are gone missing this part of mothering … missing what I am experiencing in real time. Oy. Longing for something, especially something or someone not yet gone, can heighten our sensitivity and gratitude, can attune us to greater beauty in that eye-brimming way, can fuel our sense of pathos – it’s a painful sort of visceral poetry. But maybe it can also be addictive.
My longing for my mother, gone 26 years now, has become such a present and familiar emotion for me, like a sweater never taken off, that I think it is projected through an unease and a wanting in many other forms. Like needing to emotionally pat down friends and beloveds after seeing them for reassurance. Like wanting more of other people, too much of other people, when really I want more of her. When really I need more of me. It’s like writer Cheryl Strayed said on the absence of her own mother, “it’s a constantly empty bowl, that I must repeatedly refill and refill.” To me, it feels a bit like an amputation, physically altering and life changing, no moment that I am not aware of it, frequently with those little stabbing phantom reminders. But Cheryl and I (she lets me call her Cheryl) have the same idea – it’s omnipresent and seems to always be sending up a signal.
So, I am trying to sort out where grief and sadness bleed into longing and pining. And the task I’ve been mulling on recently is how to give kindness and validation to the grief, but examine (and hopefully quit) where I stoke the longing.
The grief is valid and real. I once told a friend that I felt so guilty for lugging around this sack of sadness with my children. I’ll never forget the relief when she said, “Maybe they will love your sorrow as a part of you. To them it will be another beloved trait of yours: blue eyes, furrowed brow, disproportional dislike of pretzels, humor, sorrow.” She gave me room to accept – and go ahead and feel – this part of me.
But the longing is a hungry wolverine, with dirt under its long sharp fingernails, irritated and peeved as it noses around insatiably. Longing does not have the depth and stillness of sorrow – in some ways, it is a diversion to not feel the sorrow. It is restless and wanting. It’s a bowl that can’t be filled.
Kurt Vonnegut, God bless and rest that dear man, reminds us how normal this is, this longing for more, and also how insidious. “When a couple has an argument nowadays they may think it’s about money or power or sex or how to raise the kids or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though without realizing it, is this: ‘You are not enough people!'”
This is funny and true and confusing and uncomfortable, all at once. I know that what drives me to reach out and connect is healthy and useful, not just for me but for other people too. We lean forward to connect with other people, who are then emboldened by love to reach out to more people. Our insistence and persistence with each other and our connections helps hold up the whole leaky, rag-tag, beautiful raft of humanity. I believe in love by doing, in checking in, in being active in each other’s worlds. We need each other and fulfill each other. But we cannot fulfill ourselves solely in this way. So the anecdote is to fill up oneself – but not to back away from needing and being needed by others, not to lose connection.
I remember an encounter at the Wag-a-Bag™ in Texarkana, Texas, coming back from a couples’ weekend away in the mountains of north Arkansas with Steven circa 2010. While he breezed in and out of the men’s room, I slowly aged in the long women’s line behind a woman determined to engage me in conversation. Finally, I gave in and asked her where she was going. A family reunion, she replied, but it was going to be a surprise to see her 85-year-old dad and stepmother, who she hadn’t spoken to in 11 years. “Wow,” I offered – and meant it.
“Yeah, you know, I tried calling several times but never could get them and they didn’t call so we just didn’t speak. WELL –” She paused dramatically. “Come to find out the area code had changed and I had the wrong number. So, we just hopped in the car and came on!”
There are so SO many things that I don’t want to “come to find out”, but for sure one is that I don’t ever want to come to find out an 11-year gap occurred because an area code changed. I am glad for the part of me that is hungry and seeking, curious and excited to connect. I am working to accept the part of myself who misses my mother on a level that’s almost too much to bear. And I am also increasingly aware of the fact that there are some times when the hunger becomes insatiable, when my longing has me wanting everyone to be “more people,” instead of quietly heading home to do the lonely and difficult – but more sustainably satisfying – work of refilling that constantly empty bowl myself. Then refilling again. And again.
Earlier today I asked Steven to read a draft of this and he said – “it’s like you are saying grief and longing are separate and it’s the longing that must be released, but you yourself don’t quite believe it.” At first I felt so dejected in that way you do when someone calls you out on a truth you yourself hadn’t quite illuminated. He’s right. I’m not buying this quite yet because it’s hard, because there is a lot of tangled gray here, and because I still sorta love my addiction. But there is something here – a trail of breadcrumbs I am following, and I know it’s going somewhere I need to go. And I am also aware I don’t have to have it all sorted out on this blog.
And maybe all the better if I don’t.