Grief seems to be at every corner this year. Many of us have shared occasions for grief, such as illness and death, the loss of normalcy, shuttered shops and closed schools, dwindling dollars in our bank accounts, isolation and loneliness. Most of us also have personal reasons for grief. For two weeks I haven’t left my phone out of sight as I wait for the call that my mom has gone to glory.
So when I saw an article titled, “How to deal with grief,” of course I clicked. While grief has taught me lived-and-learned lessons, I’m still up for additional advice within easy reach. For the same reason, I am a sucker for happiness research. Recently I clicked on an article with a title along the lines of, “This one trick will make you as happy as eating 20 chocolate bars.” Twenty chocolate bars would make me sick, not happy, but I appreciate the effort. The answer was: Smile. Smile more, even when you don’t feel it, and you’ll be happier. Apparently, people rate their smiling-more happiness as high as having received a gift of $25,000. Now I simply must disagree: a no-obligation gift of $25,000 would definitely make me happier than insincere smiling. Also, I’d be happy to have you try to prove me wrong.
I clicked on the grief article and found an interview with poet Maggie Smith. Smith published a volume of poetry in 2016 (Keep Moving) which included a poem called “Good Bones” that seems to go viral when the world teeters dangerously on the edge of a deep well – for example, immediately after the 2016 election. Also, 2020. Smith calls “Good Bones” a disaster barometer.
Smith offered two pieces of advice that have affected how I’m moving through these hard days. The first is to find “snow globe moments,” something you do every day that stills the world and allows you to feel like your genuine self. For her, that’s writing. I share writing as a core activity and I’ll add walking our dogs, preferably with my husband so we can spend that time connecting. He’s my best sounding board and also an encourager who gets me out of my own head. I believe author Cheryl Strayed referred to her Wild adventure as “walking back to her best self” which makes sense to me. Writing and walking have been life-giving and sanity saving this year.
Smith also discussed “beauty emergencies.” We tend to think of the word “emergency” negatively, as a problem, but it comes from the root “emergent” which means “happening now.” So a beauty emergency occurs when you pay attention and notice that something beautiful is happening this instant and you’ll miss it if you don’t drop everything and watch. Like a hummingbird flitting at the feeder or a sunset that shifts colors every second and will be over within minutes.
Poets necessarily cultivate the ability to witness to the present. To focus their micro-lens on this moment. I am not a poet, and my monkey brain leaps from past to future, future to past, bounding over this uncomfortable time. One more reason I am going to add books of poetry to my reading queue in this upcoming year, because I need the benefit of their wise and often witty reflections.
Meanwhile, I mentioned beauty emergencies to my sixteen-year-old son and, though I didn’t know it as the words spilled from my mouth, that may have been one of the best things I’ve said to him this whole year. Several times over the last two weeks, as my attention has been absorbed in writing or reading, he has yanked me outside to witness a sunset. I have done the same for him, pulling him from his bedroom desk where he counter-attacks against the never-ending onslaught of distance learning assignments.
We both carry our own foggy griefs which we have soothed side-by-side with regular applications of beauty, watching as the sky indiscernibly shifts from orangey-yellows to red-purples to dusky twilight. We’ve both tried – unsuccessfully – to capture the splendor in photos. And that, it seems, is also poetic: the call is to witness, not capture, rather to be captivated ourselves. To stay present and open to this stunning moment before our eyes. To become newly aware of life’s magnificence and brevity.
by Maggie Smith
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.