A "fresh," reheated brownie enjoyed at an airport Starbucks
In his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Francis Weller writes,
[W]e will find ourselves, from time to time, alone and separated from all that is familiar. How we use these times will affect the richness of our return. We can come back to the world thickened, deepened, and opened by our time in silence and solitude. Those who undertake the full journey into their grief come back carrying medicine for the world.
What Weller describes here reminds me a bit of what I first wanted to do when I began the Dumpster Diaries. While I never thought of these letters as offering anything as profound as medicine, I thought at the very least someone would come away from reading my letters feeling a little bit better about themselves, even when they fell short of their own hopes and expectations. If not medicine, perhaps these diaries could forge something vaguely good out of something at least mildly unpleasant, like finding a good brownie at the airport when your flight’s been delayed another two hours.
But Weller’s idea of medicine requires time. The same has been true of these letters. Generally, the events of my life are spaced out so that the three months between each letter gives me enough time to reflect and craft something that feels shareable with other people. But this winter has knocked me on my ass, and I can’t seem to find any airport brownies.
On October 7 of 2021, I found out I was pregnant. On November 18, I saw her heart beat and tiny limbs wriggle. On December 9, I learned she had died.
Over the past four weeks I’ve penned multiple drafts of this newsletter, only to discard them. I thought writing would help me get through the grief, but it actually kept getting in my way, In hindsight, I think knowing this newsletter was coming up–and unconsciously wanting to scramble out of the discomfort, uncertainty, and deep well of depression I’d fallen into–I scrambled to convert sensations, emotions, and impressions about what I was going through into ideas as quickly as possible. Sending a good Dumpster Diary would mean I was getting better. Sending a good Dumpster Diary would mean I had wrested something worth keeping out of this totally random, meaningless blow. In the face of something that overwhelmed my body and my heart, I retreated into my head.
But soon I realized that there was no meaning to be found, at least not yet. None of my drafts were honest. One was too tidy, one was pretentious, another cavalier. But I couldn’t feel farther from tidy, pretentious, or cavalier. Truthfully, I just feel really, really sad.
Another thing that made me discard those newsletters was connecting with other people in my life who are struggling with loss and grief, friends going through break-ups or nursing loved ones through terminal illnesses. Listening to them, I’ve been humbled by their courage and awed by the infinite variations of grief, each wild and weird in its own way. Honestly, it’s all a big mystery to me at this point. So rather than try to analyze it or ruminate in my usual way, I’m simply sitting in the thick of it, dumbstruck.
Well, not totally dumbstruck. You did end up getting a newsletter after all. When I asked myself if I’ve learned anything over this past winter, I realized that while I hadn’t found anything that made me feel better, I did find things that made the pain feel bearable. They might feel rather obvious to to you, but on the small chance they’re not, or that they might help someone else when the ground’s been stolen from under them, or just when they’re having a bad day, I’ve listed them out here:
Heating pad: My heating pad and I have been inseparable for weeks. As it turns out, warmth is a very cheap and very effective palliative medicine. Plus in the winter it’s just soothing to feel warm. Hot water bottles work great too.
Baths: When life is pressing you down to the earth, add water! As I’ve learned, baths buoy you physically and emotionally. As it happens, they’re also great for uterine pain. Add soothing salts for an extra buoyant experience.
Showers: Sometimes, you just gotta let yourself be stinky. But it’s also good to remember that renewal is possible. Showers are a great reminder that life is a circle, and what can feel stale or mucky can in fact be scrubbed, rinsed, and patted dry once again.
Neighbors: I am lucky to have friends and family across the globe, but it’s amazing how people who don’t know you very well can come through for you just because you share a wall or a fence line.
Chocolate: I’d say take in moderation but you don’t really have to. Liquid, frozen, baked…it’s all good.
Dinner with friends: It’s easy to overdo this one if you’re feeling awful emotionally (and you shouldn’t do it at all if you’re feeling awful physically), but when I kept it to < 6 people, and < twice a week, I felt as close to myself as I’ve felt in months.
Moving outside: Even in the damp, dark Northwest, the rest of the day is easier if you go outside for at least 15 minutes. Bonus if you see a bird or tree.
TV: Some may disagree with this, but television these days has actually gotten, well, good. In my case, The Good Place, Foundation, Shetland, and Back to Life were my binges, but you do you. Movies count too, they just don’t last as long.
Music: Who knows what music helps you, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Ukrainian polyphony, Weyes Blood, and this song my friend Trevor wrote eight years ago. But again listen to what you want, this isn’t a cool contest (and if it was I would lose).
Books: This one isn’t super prescriptive either, but I have found some books are better than others at helping with a flood of feelings: Welcoming the Unwelcome by Pema Chodron, The Art of Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, The Carrying by Ada Limon, The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller, and Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer have been the books I worked through over four weeks.
Sleep: Before October I slept maybe seven hours a night. But lately I’ve been getting eight or nine, plus midday naps. Plus when you sleep you dream—icing on the cake!
This list is not exhaustive, but I tried to choose things everyone would likely be able to access. I have leaned intently on my partner over the past month, not even for talking but just for comforting touch and a literal shoulder to cry on. I also recently discovered the power of support groups, and the wisdom of turning your attention to the needs of others.
I still don’t feel great about this particular Dumpster Diary (books? That’s my big takeaway?) but maybe these don’t all have to be terribly insightful. Some days I feel very much connected to what Pema Chodron calls “the raw, bloody meat of our vulnerability,” like this grief is really guiding me towards a deeper sense of Self. Other days I get angry at traffic and indulge in petty gossip and feel as out of touch with my emotions as I’ve ever felt. But I’m trying in this letter and in the next few months to move to a place of greater acceptance of myself, and kindness towards myself, even when I can’t turn my life into a stunning little essay.
I really hope that whether your life right now is marked by tiny trials or more catastrophic challenges, you’re at least able to try to give yourself the same: accept yourself as human, beautifully fallible, malleable and mortal.
Till next time,