Barbara Kingsolver has been one of my favorite authors for many years now. I first read her work in high school, Animal Dreams and The Poisonwood Bible shaping my sense of her as an author. Then there was a recent summer where I read three of her books in a row. She comes from the state I was raised in. She reminds me of my mom, both scientists and gardeners to different degrees and probably equally wise mothers.
Lately, Kingsolver has been less a favorite author and more my go-to shrink, soothsayer, reassure-er. Her 2002 collection of essays, Small Wonder, contains so much wisdom. Some of it is personal (especially her letters to her daughters and mother), some of it is funny (her kid raising laying hens provides ample amusement), some of it really spoke to me.
Because you see, it has been a sad year in some ways.
This post started as a draft back in January with just a list and a title: Grief. Instead of writing prose I’ve just been adding to the list, growing it from three items to five to nine. And then I started reading Small Wonder and realized that Kingsolver was (and probably is) sad about many things, too. But not just sad, eloquently, gracefully, achingly sad about things deserving of sadness.
Many of the essays in her collection were written after and in response to September 11. In “Flight,” she discusses memorials. “In the coming spring I will plant a long raft of Legion of Honor poppies…across the bottom of our hay field. I decided to do this early on, as my own cenotaph. Every summer when the poppies’ scarlet heads rise up from the earth, I’ll remember that grief is eternal and so is life.”
I was not raised with clearly defined traditions surrounding grief and death. But here is one small effort at, if not a cenotaph or even a eulogy, a small marker of my grief.
- While waiting at the bus stop with my students last fall we stood and watched as a man was arrested. Two days later, walking by a bus that was pulling up I found myself next to two boys, no more than 16, rushing off a bus enraged. My colleague and I yelled at them to knock it off and to calm down but the fists were clenched, the arms spinning. The fight didn’t last long; several officers tackled both boys who were quickly handcuffed. Watching young men be arrested right in front of my own eyes, feeling their anger at each other, feeling my heart pound as I realized how easily things could have ended in gunfire, worrying over what the 12 year olds saw this week at the bus stop, I feel grief in all of this, this loss of innocence and safety.
- My house was broken into. My computer and two I was borrowing were stolen along with jewelry, a back pack, a shoe, and our sense of safety at home. That night I did not sleep at home. The next night I slept with the light on. I feel grief over the loss of safety, the sense that, with no broken windows or damaged locks, there was at least an element of an inside job.
- A child who attended my school before my time, a junior at a high school here in Boston, was shot and killed while on his bicycle. D’andre. When students who knew him wanted a memorial service at the middle school they all shared, the district refused, citing concerns over retaliatory killings. I feel grief for a boy whose future was stolen by guns and gangs and centuries of abuse and neglect.
- The little girl who is afraid of boats came to school with marks on her arms, little red spots. I was asked to take her to the nurse who promptly stated, “Bedbugs.” Later in the year she was about to move and I asked her teacher who stated, “Domestic abuse.” Welcome to America where your skin and heart and life are still not safe. I feel grief because of what she has endured and will continue to and because I could do so little.
- A boy I taught last year who lives in the neighborhood was jumped on his way home, in back of our school. Men, from his five-foot perspective, sat drinking during the day, waiting for a young boy on his way home from school. They threatened him, asked which gang he repped and when the answer came back, “none,” they beat him up and took his stuff. Again, safety and innocence stolen, from him, from other students, from our school. I grieve this loss.
- I taught a boy last year who was very sick. The specifics of his illness were never clear to me but he was tiny, often jaundiced, had a pump, took the elevator. He hated reading and writing but seemed amused by the other students and my attempts to cajole him into doing work. “You need to go to a good high school,” I had said. “You need to improve your writing and your English for your future!” I had insisted. What I hadn’t known was how precarious the whole thing was. The spring of 8th grade included a Make a Wish trip to Disneyworld. The summer after 8th grade included a bone marrow transplant. We heard nothing until one Sunday evening I picked up the phone and it was his dad, letting me know that he had died. I went to school Monday morning hoping that others had also been informed only to find out that I alone had been called because his dad doesn’t speak English. The counselor and school nurse and I went to the wake but it didn’t seem real. The grief was more acute when I learned that a simple eye infection had killed him because of a weakened immune system.
- As Kingsolver writes in “God’s Wife’s Measuring Spoons,” “We can’t beat cancer by killing every cell in the body — or we could, presumably, but the point would be lost.” She writes this as a metaphor for the fallacy of war but when I read it the literal meaning felt most strong. Jon Fisher, my friend for more than eight years, was diagnosed with colon cancer this time last year. At the end of April this year he unknowingly heeded Kingsolver’s wisdom and decided to forgo further treatment and enter hospice. He died on May 23rd just a few days before his 29th birthday. I keep thinking that I’ve cried and processed and then something jumps out and slaps me across the face and I start crying again. Dancing, a carpentry textbook, my mother’s colonoscopy. With cancer, or at least for me with Jon’s cancer, grief is obvious and protracted. The grief has lasted a year and continues. I never imagined that when we knew we’d be friends for life it would be until the end of his life and that his life would be unfairly short.
- In one weekend, 64 people were shot in Chicago. Not long after, a boy in high school here in Boston was shot and killed. A woman was raped by a man and neither the man nor his father nor the judge seem to understand the gravitas of the situation. Prison solves none of this. I grieve for the lack of safety, not new, for people of color and women.
- Yesterday, a gunman opened fire on a LGBTQ club in Orlando during Latinx night. Again, I am left with grief.
Kingsolver presciently writes, “So many people were taken from us all at once this year, such courage and grief and fury cry out silently through our still-beating hearts…” Or maybe it isn’t prescient at all, just the way that the world works. “You bear this world,” she writes in the same essay, “and everything that’s wrong with it by holding life still precious, every time, and starting over.”
Sometimes I feel guilty for feeling grief in all of these situations, clearly unequal. But again Kingsolver’s writing is a salve: “every life that ends is utterly its own event — even as in some way every life is the same as all others, a light going out that ached to burn longer.”
I worry over my lack of empathy for the countless lives lost in the same span of time all over the world. She responds, “I believe that those [deaths] in my own neighborhood are the ones I need to attend to first, by means of casseroles and whatever else I can offer,” she writes. “I also believe it’s possible to be so overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world that we don’t have any time or energy left for those closer to home, the hurts we should take as our own.”
Her wisdom continues, “I find I sometimes need time off from the world of things I can’t do anything about so I may be granted (as the famous prayer says) the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Do I have such wisdom? I do not have a comparable list of things that have made me happy this year; it would be much longer but perhaps less deeply felt. But when I look out my window right now it is sunny, there are people getting married in the church near my house, and there are plants growing, like Kingsolver’s poppies, a quiet memorial to death and life.