For months, I had a sense of something disturbing. I’d be watering the tomatoes, stomping to Caspar Babypants with a hundred toddlers in West Seattle, sketching #56 of a 75-day pen and ink challenge. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’M FINE!” I heard myself chant whenever I felt the mist of dread. But that Saturday, as I watched my daughter, my son-in-law, and my little grandson sail away on the Alaskan ferry, Kennicott, whatever I’d been sensing began to flow into me like a midnight tide, or the dark water of tidal waves in dreams. It was heavy, exhausting as mourning, a blue that was almost black.
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
From “Heavy” by Mary Oliver
Don’t get me wrong; I’m normally delighted when my children take advantage of opportunities that support their vocations and passions. My daughter attended school in France and England. We lived in Mexico. My son has taught in Taiwan for many years and it’s been a joy watching his life unfold. I love to travel! We get together when we can, both here and there. We Skype. We Facebook. I assumed it would be a simple Buen viaje! when my daughter cruised to the next port on her journey. But it wasn’t; my head and heart took off in opposite directions, like two clouds rubbing together and moving on. Was it because baby R, the grandboy I adore, was also going along for the ride? I tried to parse it out, to think about all of the advantages a move to Alaska would provide, but for days tears rained down, Poeian thoughts thundered, “Nevermore! Nevermore!” I couldn’t read or write, or even watch Shemar Moore strut through Criminal Minds reruns on Channel 3. I knew I needed a plan and would have tried to come up with one, but since we were out of gluten free beer I decided to meander.
Mazing my way through the Lettered Streets, I felt like a fruit fly on one of those beautiful indigo batik tablecloths from the Jade Market in Taipei. I had no idea where I was going, but the simple act of wandering took the edge off whatever was dragging me down. Outside the post office, I ran into a writing friend, possibly an angel, who had been through a similar experience when each of her two daughters drifted out into the world. As I listened and shared, I felt like she’d been tossed out of the clouds and placed right in front of me at the exact moment I really needed her. Miraculously, her loving energy seemed to displace so much of the dark blue within me that I decided to head for the library. I’d heard that one of my poems was on display near the entrance, but I hadn’t seen it yet.
An overgrown hydrangea hid my poem from view, though I finally found it under a layer of protective plexiglas. I read it quickly to myself, and was about to walk on when I turned around and saw that a grizzled old man smoking a Camel was blocking my way.
“That one yours?”
“Yeah, it’s mine,” I told him, trying not to inhale the smoke or his strong coffee breath.
“Read it to me. I ain’t never had a poet read to me before. You could be the first.” He pinched the lit end off his cigarette, threw it on the sidewalk and put the rest into the pouch of his black sweatshirt. It had a silver fern on it and a few paint stains like the one R had donated to the Goodwill. The man pulled the hydrangea back until sun bounced down on on my poem like a spotlight.
“Okay,” I told him, “if you’re sure.”
“I’m sure,” he said nodding his head.
I read soft and flat, afraid of being heard. On the last word, which should have been “ecstasy,” I whispered, “indigo.”
“Start over,” he told me, his face on fire. “Read it like you heard it when you wrote it. Read it like it’s still in your heart and trying to get out. Go on.”
“Who are you?” I asked him, but he just glared at me like my old piano teacher Mr. Tishkov, who had rainbows of sweat under each armpit and smelled like dirty socks. I swear I saw rainbows in that old man’s eyes just then, and noticed that indigo was only one of their colors. The darkest one. Red, orange and yellow, green and blue and violet…had I forgotten about those? Maybe I didn’t have to be stuck in an indigo funk when there were rainbows and poetry and an old man who took a moment to enjoy them with me.
This time, I howled my poem like an Alaskan wolf singing to the aurora borealis. A few street people hanging out on the library steps even stopped talking, and when I was finished they gave me a round of applause before they went back to their conversations. The old man relit his cigarette butt. He told me I could call him Joe and that I was a good poet. I thanked him for the magic, and danced through the library’s glass door and straight back to a search computer where I typed in “indigo” and found an amazing book by Jenny Balfour-Paul, which I’ve just about finished, if you’re heading down to the libe.
I went closer,
And did not die.
had His hand in this.
From “Heavy” by Mary Oliver
Special thanks to Mary Gillilan and Joe for taking the time.