From Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander


Joanne is right: you can’t stop your birthday from coming, so you might as well celebrate being alive. P 115

This morning I woke early to make sure I had time for the ironing. Prom is tonight and pants must have their creases and shirts must be smartly pressed. I love ironing and vacuuming (as much as anyone can profess adoration for a household task.) Something about the back and forth rhythm of my hand and the way that what is underneath becomes tidier or less wrinkled makes me happy. My brain opens a bit in response to that repetitive motion and all sorts of thoughts fly in, like pigeons coming home to roost in a cobwebbed church tower.

This week:

The community said goodbye to two members, one sick and one elderly.

Several friends had to say goodbye to dear sweet animals. Two older dogs and one cat whose time had come.

A husband said goodbye to his family, telling them it was best for all if he left.

Another husband felt that the weight of the world had become and took his own life, leaving behind a son who graduates from college tomorrow.

Tragedies all. Some big and some small. Each life-altering in their own way.

I think about these sorrowful happenings. I think about the people left behind and how they still get up each morning, get dressed and go on. Alexander’s book is all about the loss of her husband at the age of 50 and how she and her boys were able to keep living in spite of their sadness. She is eloquent in her desperation and her grief as she illuminates for us the ways in which she kept moving on. Her words were honest, heartfelt and stripped of sentimentality. She didn’t set out to write a how-to guide book for survival, rather it is an outpouring of feeling and emotions expressed in the way of a poet. Reading her prose was unlike anything I had experienced before, as if there was an undercurrent of music between the lines. Only musical terms like crescendo, adagio and allegra would do a description justice. Requiem never entered my mind. As she relates these events to us, we see first hand the meaning of bittersweet.

That is the eternal conundrum. Each of these losses sets us back and yet in the face of it we continue on. It’s like twenty steps backward one step forward. Somehow in that equation we never come out ahead, still we manage. Life may be a series of hellos and goodbyes but there is the middle—the elbow-to-elbow, toes deep in dirty mud middle. That’s were we live and laugh and make our way side by side with those who mean so much to us. Those who show up day after day even though they’d rather stay in their pajamas. Each day brings the beauty and the grit, some days the scale tips more in one direction than the other.

This May feels especially harsh. Each bit of devastating news makes me wonder if this highly anticipated month has truly arrived. I look outside and I see blossoms and green grass and I am somewhat reassured. May is my happy month, I wait all year for it. It’s my birthday month and one I share with A’s boys. We have our own special bond and secret May birthday handshake. I have seen them grow from the beginning and this month has always been a yearly marker. We gather and celebrate and remember years past. A time to reminisce and gaze into the face of the unknowable future.

The desire to celebrate does not seem to come as easy this time round. Perhaps tomorrow will be a low key day. In fact, I rather hope it is. Perhaps I will keep my pajamas on for its entirety.* That thought cheers me. It’s been a busy week: meetings and book discussions and time spent watching an amazing production of Edwin Drood with one of our own putting her unique, insouciant spin on a leading role. But tonight is prom; time to put on the finery, pull out the camera and sink deep into my role as milestone marker. I want to capture those little moments: those smiles, that dress, the look on their faces as they head off for a night of good food and dancing. This once in a lifetime evening will be a shared remembrance for all of these kids, it’s one of the last times they will be together as a class. I think again of the words in Cider House Rules that often come unbidden at the end of the day: ‘Let us be happy for this.’

*If you happen to drive by and see me planting pansies in my nightshirt, please just smile and wave. Just act as if it’s perfectly normal.

3 thoughts on “From Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

  1. Another lovely post Beth. Your writing gets better and better as well as
    more insightful. I for one, love insightful writing.

  2. What a month… this is a beautiful post (as always). I hope your day yesterday was good and that you found many ways to celebrate. So good to see you on Friday!

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