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The Soul on Mothers Day


A Strange Reflection on Mother’s Day

Rachel and I on her second birthday

Jr and I on her second birthday. We had just started living life on our own.

Poet Wislawa Szymborska writes “A Few Words on the Soul” as a reflection of our richest moments, when the soul visits us in pure feeling. She comments too, our soul is not always with us, though we need it and it needs us too. Life distracts us from our full connection, then comes rushing back in with force. In one line that carries strong resonance for me she remarks on the interconnection of joy and sorrow:

Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

Greeting cards often treat joy and sorrow as separate events, striking us at different times defined only by one or the other. Szymborska reminds us the richest moments, the fullest times of heart are when the two are necessary to each other.

In 2005 my dear friend Gita died jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. The grief it caused in me was unbearable for over a year, and then merely painful for long after. A year and a half later I still struggled to feel “up” emotions. Knowing she’d suffered to the point of complete sacrifice, and that I had lost with her over a decade of sharing could not be reconciled for me. It still lives unreconciled. Suicide finds no home in the heart.

In summer 2007 I lived in Toronto for 6-weeks sweating through the heat wave with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I was at the end of my second year of a PhD program. At night after hours on end reading, transcribing, and annotating a paragraph at a time from the text, I would stumble across the street for street meat. I joked recovery from Hegel was like a hang over. You needed salt, water, and a long walk. At night I would visit the annual Jazz festival’s small venues dotted around town.

One Monday about half way through July a pack of us descended on a beer spilled pub that housed a weekly Jazz Standards band. The repetition of songs week after week had become comforting. That night, pitchers of beer in, my friends erupted suddenly into dance. I don’t know what triggered it since the song played was the same they’d heard weekly all summer. But that night I watched through the dark bar as my friends smiled bigger than their faces, and shook their limbs about. The song was fast and they went with it.

The moment was so beautiful, everyone ecstatic in jazz, and in the midst of my grief I almost couldn’t bear the happiness. This was an experience Gita had given up. She had left our world because the weight of it was too great, and she’d sacrificed joy along with her. With my friends all dancing, I found myself weeping with laughter. The two feelings coming simultaneously. I couldn’t bear that we can suffer such pain, and yet couldn’t sacrifice that we can revel in so much joy. The two inform each other, and make the other both more bitter and more sweet. Both too are feelings bigger than any one of us alone. We can only live them by letting them wash through as they will.

On Mother’s Day, I write this to say two things.

Raising a daughter on my own all these years has brought me the heart that can almost bear its soul. To be her mother makes my life both more bitter and more sweet. I cannot explain how to persist in the challenge of being an only parent. Many times the struggle has been unbearable–facing fears with her, or making ends meet. I can only answer it to say, I love her, and that makes me more able to love me too.

But, more than this, I thank my mom. Being a mother myself has given me the gift of loving my mom more clearly. It is thanks to her I have this heart at all. Her love, and my father’s, was given to me first.

Blessings to every mother on Mother’s Day. May you have a day that brings you tender joy. Amen.

To read Symborska’s poem: http://www.bu.edu/agni/poetry/print/2002/56-szymborska.html

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  1. Thank you for these beatiful thoughts. To be a single parent, something I have only glimpsed fleetingly on a few occasions, takes a will of iron and the heart of ten lions. Those things that keep you going are daily gifts to your lucky daughter. Very sorry to hear of your haunting loss. May time chip away at that darkness.

    Happy Mothers’ Day!

    • Thank you, Tom. It’s a strange reflection to share on such a holiday, I know. Somehow holidays give me license, as if since we’re not at work I can write what is my own. Gita’s loss, as with others, will always be part of who I am. It no longer haunts me per se but even so, suicide, and grief really in general, finds no home in the heart. It will always be an irrecoverable loss, even as her friendship made me better.

      Much love to you and your family today, Tom, as with all days! Blessings to your wife!

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