A few weeks ago at SXSW in Austin, Texas, the lovely Karen Walrond sat me down and asked me a few questions about heartbreak. Not about the sad and the terrible and the woe-is-me of heartbreak, but about the beauty of heartbreak. And it was a wonderful and, I think, important conversation, because there is beauty in heartbreak, such that it’s actually misleading to call that exercising of the heart a break. The heart never really breaks. It pulls and stretches and moves and expands, and that movement can hurt terribly, but it’s not a movement toward breaking. The heart is not bone or ceramic or glass, Debbie Harry’s assertions notwithstanding. The heart, as I’ve said before, is a muscle. Its movements are extraordinary, even when they hurt. I needed to remind myself of that.
There are things that one knows about one’s self, and things that one doesn’t. I know, for example, that words make me happy and that I love my children and that I can, when I try, be very funny, and that I am introverted (yes, really) and that I am good at philosophy and at making soup and that I love the smell of lilacs. I know, too, that I am prone to anxiety and depression, but that I am able to cope with these with the help of the love and support of my family and by writing and with a certain quantity of pharmaceuticals. What I don’t know is how big a role my proneness to anxiety and depression plays on the stage of my psyche – whether it is a starring role or a bit part, whether its strutting and fretting defines the production in some critical way or is just a nuance, just theatrical flair – and whether, or the extent to which, it shapes who I am. What I also don’t know: how much it effects how my children regard me, and how they will remember me.
Today is All Soul’s Day, or the Feast Of All Souls, which is a name that terrified me as a child, because I imagined that it referred to a sort of buffet of ghosts, which, really, is a discomfiting idea at any age. But it’s not a ghost buffet, thankfully (or regrettably, depending on how dark your interests skew): for Catholics, it’s the rite of The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, which means, basically, it’s the rite of remembering and praying for those we love who have passed and who have not yet – yet – reached what Catholics call the Church Triumphant (Heaven) and the ‘beatific vision’ of God. It follows All Saint’s Day, which celebrates the souls of the just who have reached the Church Triumphant and are, presumably, getting down with some celestial karaoke and partying with the Lord.
This is one of the teachings of the Church that caused me to wander away, confused and frustrated.
My dad wore Brut aftershave, the kind that comes in that opaque green bottle with the fake gold medallion. He didn’t wear it a lot, but it was the only aftershave that he used when he did use aftershave, and so it burned into my psyche – along with cigarette smoke (Players) and aged leather – as the smell of my dad. After he died, and I went to work cleaning out his home, I spotted a bottle of it in his bathroom, tucked at the back of a medicine cabinet, coated with dust. I thought, that bottle is probably fifteen years old, and then I shut the cabinet and went back to sorting through his things.
He had, as I’ve mentioned before, a lot of things. I hired a dumpster that remained parked in his driveway, and the process of cleaning out his home was one long cycle of sorting and deliberating and carting and tossing. Some things were easy to sort and toss – the ancient tins of soup and boxes of spice and broken furniture and old bedding that was too worn for Goodwill – but other things were more difficult, like the little plastic baggies filled with clover leaves – he was determined to find his four-leaf token of good fortune, it seemed – and I found myself, too many times, hanging over the edge of the dumpster, second-guessing something that had been thrown away. I didn’t get in, though. Not until I remembered the Brut.
I labored over a post about this, about this dark anniversary, about how this year has changed me, about how I still cry. But the words were confused, the sentences messy, the paragraphs long, the ideas incoherent, and it occurred to me that I do not need to struggle to put everything into words. That not everything can be captured in words.
It took me a while to figure why I was crying, why I kept bursting into tears at silly, random things, like an excess of dryer lint, or a dearth of toilet paper. I had just figured it to be hormones, or a passing mood, you know, the kind that you fall into when you’ve gone too many nights with too little sleep and then you open the cupboard and there’s not enough coffee for a full pot and you slump against the counter and you cry.
It wasn’t that. I wasn’t crying about coffee.