Poet Brian Bowers on grief and goodbyes, and the way love is woven through them both.
I still remember when I read Kahlil Gibran for the first time. “You’ve got to read this, it is amazing. The way he speaks is unbelievable,” I yelled into the phone, tears clouding my vision. The phone was silent for a bit, before I heard “I did read it and it is beautiful, but I don’t experience it in the same way you do.”
My close friend taught me a lesson that time about the “who, what, when, and where” of sharing personal experiences. I didn’t think the how was that important, but maybe it is too. A few years later, I was a bit more discreet when I read Rumi—as he was a suggested read. Over AIM, I quickly typed to a newfound friend 100s of miles away, “I just read some of Rumi’s work, and it is awesome.” By awesome I meant I had fallen asleep with tears gluing my face to each page, drunk off of whatever wine he’d found. In those two writers, I’d found a sense of longing and understanding I hoped to unearth within myself.
I felt the same while reading Rilke, and so many others I call my “Council of Others.” The misfits, the awkward, the mystics, the other and the heretics who blazed through the world and left a path for all of us that would follow. Some of them found fame in their obscurity while others found infamy. Each of them echoing a similar message of higher learning within this life. Rumi said something along the lines of “my soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there” and during moments of profound grief and loss, the sentiment of that statement beams back loudly.
I don’t believe as I once did, when I was younger. I don’t think the cavernous depth of a great grief much less a series of them can be measured by the first tremors. The dial tone at the end of the phone call. The final phrases of a text message, or email. While transcendental, those initial moments where the earth beneath you buckles as you stumble to plant yourself are not the full measure of grief. It is the damage sustained thereafter. Grief unfurls itself and the extent of its impact can sometimes be measured in the shockwaves that follow. Those moments when you greet absence for the first time, forced opened arms. Or those long nights when the full weight of existential loneliness plops itself alongside you when you turn off the lights. You have new companions now, and strangely enough, they don’t come to harm you. Grief is a great teacher and it allows us to reflect on how we’ve managed our coexistence with others. We should be grateful, but we aren’t.
The other night, I danced myself into a frenzy. Ecstasy or madness I can’t be sure, but I danced until the world felt different. I danced until I felt electrified. Under the dimly lit lights and nearly bare-bodied, I found myself determined to shake what had come over me these past few weeks. Buena Vista Social Club blared to the top of the ceiling as Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal gave a master class in elevated sound. The room was an aural landscape of soulful syncopations, and I was a mad, dancing wanderer in a strange land. I was a rhythmic wanderer.
Sometimes spinning, other times with my arms stretched like angel wings, my eyes closed as the music held me hostage. I’d found my catharsis for the moment. Nothing is quite like a piece of music that completely arrests you in that way. Something about embodied self expression. Listening intently to each word and phrase, the singer spilled “que separar tu vida y la mia” and it brought my dancing to a slow halt. I made my way to the mirror, running my fingers through the dense hair standing in every direction on top of my head. The hot beads of sweat chilled themselves as I swayed beneath the air vent that seemed to empty on top of me. As the cooling calm stole the heat I worked so hard to earn, a tear fell.
My sense of otherness is always highlighted in periods of grief. I’ve a collection of memories I store sometimes to remind me of those moments and the value they bring. We are so fortunate when someone beautiful enters in our lives and equally as fortunate when they leave. Someone who will love us and gives us the courage to love them back.
While loving and being loved in return are both great, we really hit the jackpot if that person helps us manage the difficult task of loving ourselves. We are all so loveable and worthy of love, but it’s often far easier to dwell in a world that only shows us our brokenness and everything that is in need of repair.
Indeed, we are truly blessed if we find someone who will hold us with meaning. And [hopefully] if we are given the chance hold them in return, their very existence teaches us to hold ever so gently because life is incredibly fragile. No one here really belongs to us. We certainly don’t belong to each other as crazy as it sounds. But for a few moments, a few months, years, or a few decades, we can be allowed to experience and cherish something beautiful that gives us the sweetness of this life.
“I wait for You, again,
Amongst the heckling of naysayers, I wait
Bathing in the rays of light—
An endless spill of golden tears
That splash like rainfall,
Filling this fountain that seems
Made for overflowing,
My heart and soul wait for You
At the door of eternity, simply waiting,
Like a lonely child ponders
Trapped in his own angst.”
—One Day, You Will Come Again, Shadows Chasing Light.
How blessed I have been to meet such beauty in my life. Such soulful acquaintances I don’t know that I deserve. I didn’t go looking for them. As I seek to explore the depths of myself, they find me and to them I am forever indebted. A simple plane ride, an ashram in India, putrid tombs in Egypt—there they are. Whenever and wherever I find myself crawling and digging through the sludge of my own existence, these beautiful spirits and courageous minds show up, shovels in hand. Each delivering the same message “keep going, this way.”
These people come and scrape away the scar tissue that weakens our flexibility in this life. They come and take out the trash when I am too lazy or stubborn to clean up my life…or when I don’t know how. And whenever you start to feeling a little stiff, they come running. The lessons they teach are not the easiest to learn, but boy are they worth the learning. Perhaps the hardest lesson comes when their work is done…
…and it is with love, I urge you to hold these dearest loved ones thoughtfully and gently because when their work is done, they must leave—and they will. At the highest level, we all will. I can’t tell you not to cry, because sometimes tears are all heavy laden eyes and sinking hearts have to give. Sometimes they leave without a trace. Sometimes, they leave with a whisper if you listen closely. For me, those impressions are indelible, and almost beyond words. Each person who crosses my path, I try to listen closely to the message they bring. And in the aftermath of their departure, it is not the first tears that I watch the closest. It’s the downpour that comes after that first tear. Within that flood is the pain of separation that is cultivated throughout time.
Life seems to work antagonistically these days. For all that I lose, I gain more than I could ever possibly pay for, causing me to give thanks in a million ways. Helping me find a million more ways to humbly bow in complete thankfulness and surrender to life. To trust this living. These past few months, it seems as though life is coming through with one big rake to claim all it is owed. But what is death but a dissipation of life? I’ve never looked at either as independent happenings, but all a part of this great big spectrum—a duality. Relationally defined, they both need each other for survival. Goodbye is just a future hello waiting to happen at some other time and in some other place.
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Photo: seyed mostafa zamani/Flickr