Matt Rasmussen - A Horse Grazes in My Shadow

after James Wright

Startled by my breath it bolts
to the other end of the field.

The horizon's brow rasps
against a green cloud

which seems both
desperate and sincere.

Into a dead tree
a flame of bird

drives its burning beak.
And somewhere out here

I have come to terms
with my brother's suicide.

I wish the god of this place
would put me in its mouth

until I dissolve, until
the field doesn't end

and I am broken open
like a shotgun,

swabbed clean.


with thanks to Poets.org

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Depression and Despair

No one can write depression. Not really. It's too banal. It's the pile of clothes on your floor that you don't have the energy to pick up and put in the washer. It's the dirty dishes in the sink that you can't clean. It's the thousand minute thoughts firing in your mind that convince you that you are worthless, useless, and a complete failure. It's crying in the dark, using your hand to muffle your wailing. It's a vicious bitterness that makes you isolate yourself because you can't stand to see other people who are living a life without depression, who have good things happen to them while you relentlessly struggle under the burden of hardship and poverty.

I know there was a time when I was happy. I must have been carefree for a time. I just can't remember. I don't want to remember. Memory is no solace.

It all goes back to my father, dead now for nine years. I sometimes question why I've kept going when his death destroyed everything. There is nothing left. The world can never be what it was. It can never be beautiful or good or safe again. I am this absent thing. I am haunted. I am furious. I am unraveling. I am insane with grief. I am dying a slow death, year after year after year.

I think my sadness has turned to despair. The sadness was bearable because it was tinged with a hope that maybe life would get better. As the years have passed, I've seen that loss piles onto loss, the hole of grief deepens. Once the hope dissolves, then despair sets in. I am so exhausted with pretending that I'm okay or that I'm going to be okay. I am tired of this narrative of strength and resilience. God, I am so done with it. The heartache is just too intense. Some of us do not recover. Some of us grieve forever. Some of us are destroyed and there's nothing left. We have no more to give.

I have no more to give except, perhaps, these words that only make me cry and that so few people will ever read or understand.

Joe Biden Talks to Stephen Colbert About the Death of His Son

This Thursday, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Joe Biden opened up about the devastating loss of his son, Beau. He spoke of Beau's compassionate and resilient spirit. He spoke as a father grieving his son and trying to go on living because that's what Beau wanted most for his father--for him to be okay. Colbert was gentle in his questioning and willing to talk about his own loss. When Colbert was ten, his father and two brothers died in a plane crash. Colbert said that, in many ways, after the tragedy, he raised his mother, that they were able to go on living for one another and that's how they survived.

Expectations were high when The Late Show with Stephen Colbert debuted this past Tuesday. Television critics and audiences alike wondered what kind of Colbert we would see. His first show featured George Clooney and Jeb Bush and seemed to show that this new iteration of The Late Show would be a compelling mix of celebrity interview and political insight. It was a strong first show, full of Colbert's infectious spirit and quirky comedy, but I think his interview with Joe Biden signals that we finally have a late-night show that's not just about laughs. Colbert is willing to be vulnerable, to talk about pain, and to give his guests a level of comfort that leads to emotionally revealing moments.

In an all-too-artificial television world, Colbert facilitated an unforgettable moment of authentic connection. For a few minutes, we didn't see Stephen Colbert the tv host and Joe Biden the politician going through the motions of an interview. Instead, we witnessed two men engaging in a difficult but important conversation about loss, grief, and faith.

In Anton Chekhov's short story "Misery," a father desperately searches for someone he can talk to about the recent death of his son. The story speaks to a very human need to share our grief with other people, to talk about the dead, and to have another person truly listen to us and express sympathy for what we are going through. Joe Biden's interview with Colbert serves a similar function: to publicly express one's grief and to let others know they are not alone in their bereavement. We need more conversations about loss and a greater willingness to allow people to openly express grief and sorrow. Instead of shying away from emotion, Stephen Colbert delved into it, even welcomed it and, in the process, he set himself apart as a comedian who possesses profound depth and compassion, who can make us laugh but can also make us feel.

You can watch the interview below:


Anton Chekhov - "Misery"

"To whom shall I tell my grief?"

The twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses' backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to shake it off.... His little mare is white and motionless too. Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like straightness of her legs make her look like a halfpenny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.

It is a long time since Iona and his nag have budged. They came out of the yard before dinnertime and not a single fare yet. But now the shades of evening are falling on the town. The pale light of the street lamps changes to a vivid color, and the bustle of the street grows noisier.

"Sledge to Vyborgskaya!" Iona hears. "Sledge!"

Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.

"To Vyborgskaya," repeats the officer. "Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!"

In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse's back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets of....

"Where are you shoving, you devil?" Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. "Where the devil are you going? Keep to the r-right!"

"You don't know how to drive! Keep to the right," says the officer angrily.

A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse's nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.

"What rascals they all are!" says the officer jocosely. "They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse's feet. They must be doing it on purpose."

Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips.... Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.

"What?" inquires the officer.

Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: "My son... er... my son died this week, sir."

"H'm! What did he die of?"

Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:

"Who can tell! It must have been from fever.... He lay three days in the hospital and then he died.... God's will."

"Turn round, you devil!" comes out of the darkness. "Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!"

"Drive on! drive on!..." says the officer. "We shan't get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!"

The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box.... Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white. One hour passes, and then another....

Three young men, two tall and thin, one short and hunchbacked, come up, railing at each other and loudly stamping on the pavement with their goloshes.

"Cabby, to the Police Bridge!" the hunchback cries in a cracked voice. "The three of us,... twenty kopecks!"

Iona tugs at the reins and clicks to his horse. Twenty kopecks is not a fair price, but he has no thoughts for that. Whether it is a rouble or whether it is five kopecks does not matter to him now so long as he has a fare.... The three young men, shoving each other and using bad language, go up to the sledge, and all three try to sit down at once. The question remains to be settled: Which are to sit down and which one is to stand? After a long altercation, ill-temper, and abuse, they come to the conclusion that the hunchback must stand because he is the shortest.

"Well, drive on," says the hunchback in his cracked voice, settling himself and breathing down Iona's neck. "Cut along! What a cap you've got, my friend! You wouldn't find a worse one in all Petersburg...."

"He-he!... he-he!..." laughs Iona. "It's nothing to boast of!"

"Well, then, nothing to boast of, drive on! Are you going to drive like this all the way? Eh? Shall I give you one in the neck?"

"My head aches," says one of the tall ones. "At the Dukmasovs' yesterday Vaska and I drank four bottles of brandy between us."

"I can't make out why you talk such stuff," says the other tall one angrily. "You lie like a brute."

"Strike me dead, it's the truth!..."

"It's about as true as that a louse coughs."

"He-he!" grins Iona. "Me-er-ry gentlemen!"

"Tfoo! the devil take you!" cries the hunchback indignantly. "Will you get on, you old plague, or won't you? Is that the way to drive? Give her one with the whip. Hang it all, give it her well."

Iona feels behind his back the jolting person and quivering voice of the hunchback. He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him, till he chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets and is overpowered by his cough. His tall companions begin talking of a certain Nadyezhda Petrovna. Iona looks round at them. Waiting till there is a brief pause, he looks round once more and says:

"This week... er... my... er... son died!"

"We shall all die,..." says the hunchback with a sigh, wiping his lips after coughing. "Come, drive on! drive on! My friends, I simply cannot stand crawling like this! When will he get us there?"

"Well, you give him a little encouragement... one in the neck!"

"Do you hear, you old plague? I'll make you smart. If one stands on ceremony with fellows like you one may as well walk. Do you hear, you old dragon? Or don't you care a hang what we say?"

And Iona hears rather than feels a slap on the back of his neck.

"He-he!..." he laughs. "Merry gentlemen.... God give you health!"

"Cabman, are you married?" asks one of the tall ones.

"I? He he! Me-er-ry gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the damp earth.... He-ho-ho!.... The grave that is!... Here my son's dead and I am alive.... It's a strange thing, death has come in at the wrong door.... Instead of coming for me it went for my son...."

And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that point the hunchback gives a faint sigh and announces that, thank God! they have arrived at last. After taking his twenty kopecks, Iona gazes for a long while after the revelers, who disappear into a dark entry. Again he is alone and again there is silence for him.... The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona's eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery.... His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona's heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one would not have found it with a candle by daylight....

Iona sees a house-porter with a parcel and makes up his mind to address him.

"What time will it be, friend?" he asks.

"Going on for ten.... Why have you stopped here? Drive on!"

Iona drives a few paces away, bends himself double, and gives himself up to his misery. He feels it is no good to appeal to people. But before five minutes have passed he draws himself up, shakes his head as though he feels a sharp pain, and tugs at the reins.... He can bear it no longer.

"Back to the yard!" he thinks. "To the yard!"

And his little mare, as though she knew his thoughts, falls to trotting. An hour and a half later Iona is sitting by a big dirty stove. On the stove, on the floor, and on the benches are people snoring. The air is full of smells and stuffiness. Iona looks at the sleeping figures, scratches himself, and regrets that he has come home so early....

"I have not earned enough to pay for the oats, even," he thinks. "That's why I am so miserable. A man who knows how to do his work,... who has had enough to eat, and whose horse has had enough to eat, is always at ease...."

In one of the corners a young cabman gets up, clears his throat sleepily, and makes for the water-bucket.

"Want a drink?" Iona asks him.

"Seems so."

"May it do you good.... But my son is dead, mate.... Do you hear? This week in the hospital.... It's a queer business...."

Iona looks to see the effect produced by his words, but he sees nothing. The young man has covered his head over and is already asleep. The old man sighs and scratches himself.... Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet.... He wants to talk of it properly, with deliberation.... He wants to tell how his son was taken ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died.... He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the hospital to get his son's clothes. He still has his daughter Anisya in the country.... And he wants to talk about her too.... Yes, he has plenty to talk about now. His listener ought to sigh and exclaim and lament.... It would be even better to talk to women. Though they are silly creatures, they blubber at the first word.

"Let's go out and have a look at the mare," Iona thinks. "There is always time for sleep.... You'll have sleep enough, no fear...."

He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his mare is standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather.... He cannot think about his son when he is alone.... To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish....

"Are you munching?" Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. "There, munch away, munch away.... Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay.... Yes,... I have grown too old to drive.... My son ought to be driving, not I.... He was a real cabman.... He ought to have lived...."

Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on:

"That's how it is, old girl.... Kuzma Ionitch is gone.... He said good-by to me.... He went and died for no reason.... Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt. ... And all at once that same little colt went and died.... You'd be sorry, wouldn't you?..."

The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master's hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.


Note: This story's title has also been translated as "Grief." I've chosen to use "Misery" because that is the title in the text I've taken the story from: The Schoolmistress and Other Stories, which can be found at Project Gutenberg. The Gutenberg text does not cite a translator but it's most likely Constance Garnett because the stories are from "The Tales of Anton Chekhov," a box set of Chekhov's work translated by Garnett.

"The yellow inside you that makes you want to live:" On Karen Russell's Swamplandia!

Warning: This review contains spoilers

It's been said that we create stories in order to live but it may be just as true that we create stories to cope with death. In Ancient Greece, Orpheus descended to the Underworld to save his wife Eurydice who was killed by a snake bite. He was granted the ability to take her away from the Underworld but on one condition: He could not look back at her as they were leaving. Orpheus could not abide by this rule. He looked back and instantly Eurydice was reclaimed by the Underworld. The message seems clear: The dead cannot be resurrected, no matter how much we may long for it.

I was reminded of the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice as I read Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, a magical realist novel about a family fractured by grief. Swamplandia! is an alligator park on an island off the coast of Florida run by the Bigtree Family. There's the alligator-wrestling matriarch, Hilola, the father, Chief, and three children, Kiwi, Osceola, and the youngest, 13-year-old Ava who narrates the story. When Hilola Bigtree dies, the family scatters in wildly different directions. Chief leaves mysteriously for a supposed business trip; Kiwi heads to the mainland for a job to help save their alligator park that is under threat of shutting down now that its main attraction has passed way; Osceola (Ossie) delves into the spirit world of the occult, falling in love with ghosts; and Ava is left on her own, forced to navigate the uncharted waters of heartbreaking grief:
But in fact I was like Ossie, in this one regard: I was consumed by a helpless, often furious love for a ghost. Every rock on the island, every swaying tree branch or dirty dish in our house was like a word in a sentence that I could read about my mother. All objects and events on our island, every single thing that you could see with your eyes, were like clues that I could use to reinvent her: would our mom love this thing, would she hate it.
When Ossie abandons Ava in order to marry one of the ghosts she's met, Ava sets out to find her big sister and to venture to the Underworld in the swamps where she thinks Ossie has gone and where she thinks she might find her mother.

Ava's trip to the Underworld is facilitated by a Hades-like figure: The Bird Man. He kills buzzards on the island and Ava believes that he can guide her to the realm of the dead. They set out on the swamp in search of Ossie and Hilola's ghost. Once isolated, The Bird Man rapes Ava. She manages to escape and is forced to navigate the swamps alone. This is perhaps the most powerful part of the novel because Ava finally sheds her child-like illusions about death. She realizes that the Underworld is not real, that her mother is truly gone and cannot be found in the vast swamp, but Ava learns something more. In the course of an alligator attack, she feels imbued with her mother's spirit and is able to fend off the animal and save herself. Ava describes it this way:
I believe I met my mother there, in the final instant. Not her ghost but some vaster portion of her, her self boundlessly recharged beneath the water. Her courage. In the cave I think she must have lent me some of it, because the strength I felt then was as huge as the sun. The yellow inside you that makes you want to live. I believe that she was the pulse and bloom that forced me toward the surface. She was the water that eased the clothes from my fingers. She was the muscular current that rode me through the water away from the den, and she was the victory howl that at last opened my mouth and filled my lungs.
In the water, wrestling the alligator as her mother once did, and as her mother taught her to do, Ava makes a connection to Hilola Bigtree. She touches the electric wire that runs between the living and the dead and that cannot be severed. Ava starts out searching for her mother's ghost and finds that no ghost exists. There are only the memories that pound in our bodies, circulate through our veins, and must sustain us for the rest of our lives.

Ultimately, Ava is saved from the swamp and so is Ossie and they're all reunited with their father. Ava has endured a journey of pain and self-discovery that leaves her scarred, traumatized, and forever changed. Now that she knows her mother is truly dead and cannot be found in the Underworld or brought back to life, she must turn to the living, to her sister and brother and father who will now help her navigate this new motherless world. Despite the loss and the suffering, she finds home again in the people she loves:
When my father stepped forward it didn't matter that we were nowhere near our island. All of us, the four of us--the five of us if you counted mom inside us--we were home. We were a family again, a love that made the roomiest privacy that I have ever occupied.
Swamplandia! is a novel about grief but, more than that, it's about love, about a family rediscovering one another, returning to one another, in the aftermath of a shattering loss. And shouldn't loss lead us back to love? Shouldn't we come away from our confrontations with death with an even stronger belief in loving as deeply as we can and giving our love to the people who are alive with us?

Lost

"Bring 'em all back to life." -- Feist, Graveyard

It seems odd to say "I'm thinking of my dad a lot lately" or "I miss my father so much right now" because am I not always thinking of him and missing him? Is he not part of every breath I breathe, every thought I think? He suffuses me and there's not one part of me that is not bound to him. But I go through times when he is more intensely on my mind, when the grief is more overwhelming and debilitating and that's what is happening right now.

I suspect every generation says "The time in which I live is full of turmoil and fear," but it seems more than accurate to say that the United States is currently in a state of upheaval and that the world is brimming with inhumanity, whether its police brutality on our streets or refugees trying to find peace and safety in Europe as they flee war-torn countries. Global warming is very real, communities are faced with having to leave their homes because of it and we will have to live with the consequences of what climate change is doing to the earth.

I watch the news but sometimes I question why when it's a constant stream of tragedy and catastrophe, but I don't think I could live with myself if I didn't learn about what was happening outside of my own life. Maybe it's because of my love for books, in which you are forced to take on the perspective of another person, but I value learning about other people, not just their struggles but also their complicated experiences in the world.

Still, I'm a very sensitive person and it's hard for me to hear stories of human suffering and let it go. I carry those stories with me and continue to think about them. Some of these stories hit close to home. Currently, in my small Southern town, several confederate flags fly on the sides of houses, conveying a terrible message of racism and hatred. This absolutely horrifies and disgusts me. I get indignant but, more than anything, I get overwhelmed. I feel hopeless. I see the suffering, but I have no idea what to do about it, except sign a few petitions and spread the word as much as I can. No matter what, I feel shaken by the things I see and read, by the way human life has been devalued in our country and in our world and how it seems that many people do not care.

What does this have to do with my father? Everything. He was the main person in my life who really listened to me. I would share with him all my thoughts and feelings about injustice. We often watched the news together. He was an open-minded and understanding person. I know that, were he alive today, he would be able to offer comfort to me when I am so undone by the world's tragedies. I miss talking to him. I miss our connection. I miss his goodness.

When the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina came up recently, I remembered how he was alive in 2005 when the storm hit. I remembered us watching the news and being horrified by the way people in New Orleans were left on their roofs and herded into the Super Dome, so many left to suffer with no help from our government. I also remembered my dad writing a check to the Red Cross even though, at the time, we were living on disability benefits and had very little money. He wanted to do something, to help in some way, and I admired him so much for that spirit of generosity.

I'm crying as I write this. This isn't just about the inhumanity of the world, this is also about the unshakable feeling inside me that I am lost in this world without him, that I can't really live and function without him. His loss magnifies all my emotions, it's the lens through which I see and feel everything. His death is what sensitized me to the suffering of other people.  But, at the same time, ever since his death, life no longer makes sense. Everything is harder, scarier, darker without him.  I can't find meaning or purpose. I can't find an anchor. He is gone. His soothing presence is gone and his words of comfort and his acts of love. I have the memories, yes, but they're not enough. I'm still alone. I'm still lost. I'm still hurting and grieving.