A visual expression of the mixed emotions of the holiday season.

mixed emotions at year’s end

December is a month of layers. Not just the warm shirts and sweaters of my Northern Hemisphere locale, but layers of feelings and memories, love and loneliness. In 2019 it brought resurrection, when I smiled my first genuine, spontaneous smile after nine months of wearing a public face and privately drowning in a black lake of tears and despair. The feeling of that smile, the difference of that smile, broke over me in gentlest waves of astonished pleasure and hope for the future.

While my brain was recovering from its neurological crisis—medically described with the worrying language of lesions and the –oma suffix that sounds as though it should be as warm as a childhood friend’s grandmother, but instead bodes ill—a neighbor’s actual brain cancer was worsening, her confusion and dependence advancing. She was only about twelve years older than me. The last time I saw her, her face seemed transformed, broad and blank where she was once focused and lively with extroversion and kind wit, as her husband slowly walked her up the sidewalk near their house. His right arm around her shoulder, his left hand clasping her left arm. That was before the darkest dark, balsam fir and wood smoke suspended in cold air, the extra cars parked up and down the street and the telltale lit windows of that same quiet house, seeming kindled as if all the light of their lives together were gathered there, where friends and family gathered after her memorial service.

I’ve been wanting to write about that smile, that neighbor. I was going to try today. Then I learned that a beloved mentor who has been battling cancer is now preparing for hospice and death. Someone who, after that resurrection, helped me find the ground under my feet and a path forward, in the space of one long beautiful conversation in February 2020. I met him in person for the first time late this summer, among people who’d known him much longer, at a party whose theme was “Why the Fuck Not?” I’m an introvert and had to compel myself to stay three hours until his speech, then left when the dancing began, music and voices rising above the grass to the roof-line and beyond. My windshield needed replacing, so it was better to drive the hour north before dusk and the refractions of oncoming traffic. That was my official logic. —And here I feel I should have more to say, but I see no way, I really see no way, to uncouple the joy and the pain, the love and the hurt of this life, and no way to capture it whole. Layer upon layer, wave after wave.


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Because here’s the thing–after 2019, I hated any gift I’d ever shown for eloquence. For a time, I consciously tried to strip my speech of grace and flourishes, saying as little as possible in conversation and using the plainest words I could find. The fall prior, 2018, I had counted the poems I’d written, a solid decade of effort, and realized I had enough for a slim book. I was thrilled. The act of writing had long given me a natural high, a kind of spiritual orgasmic state of energy and bliss that, to paraphrase Bjork, almost never let me down. When writing went well, words seemed to solve the very mysteries of life. Then, my brain went haywire and life fell apart. In the midst of agonies I don’t know how to describe, I wrote a hallucinatory email message that–because of the power of my words, still available to me as other faculties foundered–sounded purposeful and intended. The months that followed were months of shame and grief. My parents, recipients of said message, perceived immediately that something was wrong and never once reproached me, though from March to September, I had no explanation. I don’t know how I could have survived it if I’d hurt them. It took me a while to feel deserving of such unconditional love, and it’s taken me even longer to dare to care about my writing again. I feel similar transport doing therapy, and that’s such a steady supply of joy, I’ve barely missed the other source. But I took my manuscript out today, because a friend expressed interest, and remembered a comment once made to me: “Your poems make me want to kiss someone.” I can’t think of a better, more sustaining compliment.


Text and image copyrights held by me. My posts have gotten shorter as I deal with other things. As ever, I’m grateful for your reading. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too.