Four

this is the poem
about 4 months
of silence

you think that is a
long time but
the poem reminds you
it is only the beginning

in it, you can hear
clocks tick
wind
an almond leaf scuttles
through the yard

it is a short poem
but the 4 months
are long

moonlight
drums on the roof
like rain

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The Good Book That is “Too Quiet”

I thought you might be ready for a change in subject matter. And I have been talking to myself about something new lately, so I’m not forcing a different conversation. I need your input. I want your opinion, maybe your permission, perhaps your forgiveness. This conversation that I’ve been having with myself is not unrelated to the events in the last year of my life, which I think will be obvious. But it is also not about sickness or death.

Whew.

I have a book. It’s not a new book; it’s one I’ve been working on (off and on) for 20 years. I’ve mentioned it before, although not recently. It’s the memoir, with some fiction stirred in, of a certain summer in the middle of college.  It’s a damn good book. I mean, really. There is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind. And it’s as finished as it’s going to get. Not perfect, but good enough, and done.

After “When the Roll Is Called a Pyonder” was published in 2014, I pulled this one out of the vault, and worked on it as hard as I could for …about 2 years. I poured my heart and soul into it. I paid real money for a writing to coach to help me. And then I started sending it to publishers.

Through 2015 and 2016, I sent this book to every small publisher that (a) publishes either fiction or memoir and (b) doesn’t charge a reading fee of more than 20$. I even pitched it to a bunch of literary agents. I have the loveliest collection of complimentary rejection letters you ever saw. Like I said, it’s a good book. But nobody wants to publish it. Nobody is convinced it will make them boatloads of money, which is what “the business” is about. What can I say? These people know their business. They’re probably right.

Then in January 2017, something amazing happened. A real literary agent in New York City wrote me back and said he loves my book, he thinks he can sell it to a big NYC publisher, and would I sign a contract? I was so happy I practically cried, and Pio was so proud of me. I almost splattered the great news all over Facebook, but then I didn’t. Because a contract with an agent does not equal a book deal. And how embarrassed would I be if he couldn’t sell it either?

Which is exactly what happened.

The feedback from The Big Boys is that I don’t have a big enough “platform”—meaning followers on my blog and on social media. In other words, it’s a good book, but I’m Nobody. And that my book is “too quiet.” I interpret that to mean there’s not enough, sex, drugs and violence. Well.  Guilty as charged. First, I don’t really write about sex, drugs and violence. Why would I? After “Pulp Fiction,” what could I possibly add?  Second, it’s a book about Mennonite kids, for the love of God! A little imagination? Anyone?

So, I can think of 3 possibilities for this book:
1. Give up.
2. Spend more years of my life sending this book to publishers and agents.
3. Self-publish.

The problem with #1 is that I can’t do it. I’ve even tried, but I can’t.

The problem with #2 is that I have a limited number of free hours to spend on surfing/reading/writing/lying in my hammock looking at the stars/pestering the cats/drinking wine… doing anything that isn’t sleeping or working. And honestly? I have other things to write. I can either spend my free time on cover letters (like I did for 2 of the last 3 years) or I can get on with life and write something else. I would love that.

The problem with #3? It has 2 problems. On one hand, even though this may be bogus, self-publishing a really good book feels like a cop-out, like giving up. And maybe there are ways in which I am ready to do that. What the hell? Who am I kidding?  What am I doing?  Hold out for an imaginary audience of people I don’t know, when I have you and me to write for?  Why?  Are they better people or more worthy?  I think not.

The other problem with self-publishing is a very deep very personal can of worms that I would rather not open. But if I self-publish this book, the worms are going to be all over the place, let me tell you. All over. And I might need a whole lot of moral support.

I would rather have introduced this book to the world with the support of a traditional publisher (no matter how small) behind me because this “too quiet” book is going to deeply upset/offend/dismay every single person in the state of Pennsylvania (and a few in upstate New York) who is a blood relative of mine. Each and every single one. I am choosing my words carefully as I write this. If you don’t get what I am saying, go back and read that again. Unless I somehow publish this book “in secret” (oxymoron?!), there are going to be painful personal conversations as a result. That I am not looking forward to. And I would just rather have had a publisher who thinks I’m awesome holding my hand, instead of having to stand here spitting into the wind all by myself. But I’m not sure I’m going to get my way this time. Sometimes, being a big girl sucks.

I’m 47 years old. It shouldn’t matter. I didn’t think it would at this point in my life. If I had known, at 17 and 27 and 37, that it would still matter this much, I would have been devastated. So now I know: it’s never going to go away. Never. Which ties directly, for me, to the reason you have to read this book—the reason it must get out of my computer. Because if I have a heart attack in my bed tonight and this book NEVER gets read by anyone, THAT will be the real and true failure. I will have failed to face something that has been waiting for me my whole life.

I actually believe this. It makes me shake in my shoes in the way that happens when you know a thing is true. …And it’s kind of also what the book is about.

So.  What do you think?  I’m asking.

 

P.S.

Please know: There is nothing even remotely scandalous in this book for anyone who was born anywhere other than where/when I was.

(O, the ironies of knowing your “too quiet” book will shock the covering pins out of some people’s hair…)

My Window

You all so kindly and generously held onto me through the last unbelievable months.  It seems right to me that I should tell you what comes next, what comes now.   I don’t have a lot of eloquent words, but I can pull back the curtain and let you look out my window.

You wonder how I am.

What can I say? Alright, I think, all things considered. Glad to be back in Costa Rica. Glad to be “home.” I put the quotation marks around the word, because nowhere without Pio feels like home. But Costa Rica is my home and I am glad I am here. I’m better, here, than anywhere else.

I got of the plane from Italy about 2 ½ weeks ago. I moved into a lovely house with lots of pretty wood, an extra bedroom, a huge porch, and my cats. Those things are all good. I got my washer hooked up yesterday, so that took things up a notch. I have a hammock on my porch. My bike works and my legs are catching up to the job of pedaling.

This is the beginning of my second week of work. Work is good. It’s weird, because I hear the truck Pio drove pull up to the office 100 times a day, and it’s never him. Maybe, eventually, I’ll get used to it and stop looking up every time I hear it. His workshop is dark and quiet. Exactly what he feared most. He was so proud of that workshop. I’m doing some accounting clean-up right now, not trying to run the maintenance department anymore. I didn’t love being in charge of maintenance before, and I have no interest at all in doing it without Pio. I’d rather play matching games with numbers. I’d rather sell coconuts on the beach.

You wonder what you should say if you see me.

Don’t worry about it. “Hi, how are you?” works. What are you supposed to say? Unless you say something like “Good riddance,” or “You were never a very good wife anyway,” you are not going to say the wrong thing. And no, I am probably not going to come unglued and bawl all over you if you hug me and tell me how sorry you are. I’ve only done that twice: once with my parents, and once with the closest thing I will ever have to children. So if you’re not my mom and you’ve never called me “mom,” you’re fine.

No, I don’t dread running into you or anyone else. If I didn’t want to see people I know, I wouldn’t have come back to Tamarindo. I would have gone to another province or another country. The only people I actually don’t want to see are the ones that didn’t like Pio–and as you can imagine, it’s slim company.  So, again—you’re fine.

Talking about Pio and receiving the pictures you have of him does not upset me. They make me smile and laugh. They’re like little visits.

But don’t

Don’t talk about “starting over” or “getting on” with life.” Ok? Those are the wrong words. I realize they are the ONLY words our language has for this, but they are the WRONG ones. Don’t say them. I know what my job is now even if I don’t have the right way to say it. I won’t be mad at you if it pops out, I’ll just feel a little sadder and a little more lost.

And don’t say “Everything happens for a reason.” It sounds mean. I’m not telling you what to believe, I’m telling you what not to say. I am at peace with as much of that concept as humanly possible, but I was never a fan of that snooty saying before, and I’m sure not about to convert now. I’m good with, “Everything happens.” Put the period right there. Less is more.

Ashes

Yes, I have them in the house with me.
No, that is not weird.
Yes, I intend to put them in the ocean as Pio always asked me to, but not yet.
No, I don’t know when.
Yes, I tried to open the box.
No, I couldn’t.
Yes, it is sealed.
No, I am probably not going to hold some kind of event where I invite other people when I take his ashes to the ocean.
No, not even you.
Oh, that’s selfish? Ok.
Yes, I will tell you about it afterward.

 

I sleep really well. I’m tired. Everything takes twice the effort. I don’t mean to complain—I’m trying to explain why I sleep like a log when you’d think I should be tossing and turning. Also, it’s warm, and I sleep much better when I’m warm than when I’m cold. I sleep better when I can hear what time it is by listening through my window.  If you live in Guanacaste, you know what I mean: tree frogs and crickets, owls, roosters, monkeys, dawn.

Tamarindo Bay is like a lake right now, but when we get some waves, I’m ready to go surfing.  And then I will be better than I am.  The ocean is big enough for everything.

Deep Space

I didn’t write this; I came across it this summer in an article about Lady Diana’s death, and I copied and pasted it into a Word document on my computer so that I could come back to it later:

“Grief is exhausting, as we all know. The bereaved are muddled and tense, they need allowances made. But who knows you are mourning, if there is nothing but a long face to set you apart? No one wants to go back to the elaborate conventions of the Victorians, but they had the merit of tagging the bereaved, marking them out for tenderness. And if your secret was that you felt no sorrow, your clothes did the right thing on your behalf. Now funeral notices specify “colourful clothing”. The grief-stricken are described as “depressed”, as if sorrow were a pathology. We pour every effort into cheering ourselves up and releasing balloons. When someone dies, “he wouldn’t have wanted to see long faces”, we assure ourselves – but we cross our fingers as we say it. What if he did? What if the dead person hoped for us to rend our garments and wail?”

There’s so much there, I don’t really even know where to start.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot—all of it.  I’ve been thinking about Sadness and how well/poorly-prepared we are for its arrival.  Because it comes.

I think maybe the Victorian’s were onto something.  And I think we modern folk are stupid, trying to convince ourselves that some type of forced cheerfulness in the face of loss has any spiritual merit whatsoever. It perhaps provides some relief to the audience, but it is of no help to the person performing it.  If you ask me how I am, and I tell you I’m fine, does that make you feel better?  Do you believe me?  Why would you?

And we are wise not to confuse Sadness, sorrow, even, with depression.  They are not the same.

I’m terribly sad right now.  I’m not depressed.  How do I know that?  I do, and it is your job to believe me.  No, I’m not happy.  Yes, I cry sometimes.  No, I often do not want to talk to anyone.  Yes, sometimes my favorite activity is looking out the window for a good long while.  And no, I repeat, I am not depressed.  If it disturbs you to hear about my sadness, I don’t have to tell you.  But if Sadness frightens you or makes you uncomfortable, well, what can I say?  That one’s on your plate.

If we feel fine about being happy over happy things, why should we be concerned about feeling sad over sad things?

Yes, I can laugh and enjoy things.  Yes, I have been accepting dinner invitations from Pio’s family, not crying over my pizza at them, and having a perfectly good time.  Yes, I still try to like something about every day.  Maybe walking.  Maybe shopping.  Persimmons.  (OMG, persimmons!)  Maybe looking at pictures of Pio and me.  Maybe packing my suitcases.  I love packing suitcases.  If all else fails, I can fill the bathtub up with water so hot it makes me dizzy, and just feel warm.

I never thought I would say this, but I would love it if social custom required me to wear black (or specific in some other way) clothing right now.  It would be a relief.  It would speak for me.  Then I wouldn’t sometimes think, when I find myself having a good time, that perhaps I have for one moment forgotten to feel appropriately sad.  Then, when I am crying into the telephone at the train station, no one will wonder if I need them to phone the police.  The haunted look I sometimes catch on my face in the mirror would make sense to other people who see it.  No explanation needed.

I have no intention of being sad for the rest of my life.  I know Pio would not want me to be sad for the rest of my life.  But I think he would be alright with me being sad right now.  He did not want to leave me—he told me he didn’t—and if dead people can have terrestrial emotions, I think he’s sad too.  Or he was at first.  If dead people have terrestrial emotions, for how long do they have them?  So please don’t try to cheer me up.  We can have fun together.  We can talk about something else.  You can distract me.  You can make me laugh.  But it is breaking the rules to try to make me feel any particular way.

You want to know what it feels like?  Don’t be scared.  I will tell you.  Because this could be you someday.  Death is normal.  It feels like instead of being full of blood and bone, inside my skin, I am full of deep space.  Light years.  Deep, deep, deep silence.  Complete stillness where nothing moves or makes a sound.  And it’s not frightening.  It’s just very deep, and very quiet.  Still.  And infinite.  And now you’re thinking, “Oh—dark cold nothingness!  See! She’s depressed!”  Shut up.  I didn’t say dark or cold or nothing.  All of that is beside the point.  Besides, the less you say, the closer you are to being right.

Shhhh.

Yes.

Rilke’s “Letters To A Young Poet,” the only book you ever need to read, has an entire letter devoted to Sadness.  It’s Letter #8.  You should read it.  I would paste the whole thing right here if I thought you would read it all, but I think you might not, so I will only paste  one paragraph:

“So you mustn’t be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better. In you, so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like some one who is recovering; for perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself. But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait. And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.”

So anyway.   That’s where I am.  That’s what I’m thinking about.

Four weeks and about 1 hour ago, Pio left me here with you.  Tomorrow, I will pick up his ashes.  In 10 days, I will take him home.

Deep space is where everything ends and begins.