Finding the Words

I have just negotiated the date of my recital in 2015 for Saturday afternoon, May 30! As always, it seems quite far away—over eight months—but I know from experience that I will need every one of those days to prepare the five works I hope to play. My plan now is to start with the Beata Golec’s Toccata followed by Bach’s Toccata in E minor and Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens. Then, after intermission, the variations: Beethoven’s in op. 109 and Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli.

I am itching to get back to the piano. I have been out of town for five days in the past week—first at American Players Theater for a couple of days where we saw Chekov’s The Seagull and Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma with family and friends—and now at Clarke University in Dubuque where Steve is finishing up some work.

I love being on a small college campus in the fall. It brings back such wonderful memories of my college years at Ohio Wesleyan University: the fresh start, the new friendships, and the amazing professors who first introduced me to Whitman, Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke, and the great Russian writers. I did not take many piano lessons in college because my English classes drew me so forcefully. But staying in a dorm again even for a few days, and reading/writing in the college library bring back so many great pleasures.

Yesterday in the Clarke library, I sat down and read straight through Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel. Wow.

I urge you to buy the book and read it—even if you have never lost a child. If you are a parent, read it. And if not, at least read Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker Aug. 4 review of Gabriel, excellent discussion of elegies, and interview with Hirsch called “Finding the Words: A Masterpiece of Sorrow.”

In it, Hirsch says,

I used to believe in poetry in a way that I don’t now. I used to feel that poetry would save us. When I was writing ‘Gabriel,’ even the painful things were consoling, but I’m aware when I’m outside the poem that the poem doesn’t give me my son back. Art can’t give him back to me. It comforts you some, better than almost anything else can, but you’re still left with your losses.

Yes. That’s true. What the Hirsch’s poem does do, however, is to link his loss with the many other similar losses by other poets throughout the ages: poets who have lost children to scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, smallpox.

He writes of Yamanoue no Okura, Japanese poet of the seventh century:


Yamanoue worried that his son’s soul

Would not know the right road

To take in the underworld


And so he offered to pay the fee

Of the courier from the realms below

to carry Furuhi on his back


A father broods that his son

Is wandering on the wrong road

Lost in the otherworld without a coat


In this last stanza, Hirsch makes the connection between Yamanoue’s son and his own.

According to Pema Chödrön and Alice Walker’s conversation, “Good Medicine for This World,” from the January, 1999, issue of Shambala Sun, connection is the way out of suffering. Chödrön says, “I have found that it’s less overwhelming if you start with your own experience of suffering and then generalize to all the other people who are feeling what you do. That gives you a way to work with your pain: instead of feeling like you’re increasing your suffering, you’re making it meaningful.”

Maybe. I have always admired and tried to emulate that aspect of Buddhism. But in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is much “easier” just to blame God, even if you do not believe in him. Hirsch writes, in Gabriel:



You’ve already broken my heart


I will not forgive you

Sun of emptiness

Sky of blank clouds


I will not forgive you

Indifferent God

Until you give me back my son

My mother was a very devout Christian.  The night after my sister died of polio, my mother was wild with fear that my sister would “wake up” on the “other side,” alone, calling for her, not knowing where she was. The thought tortured her until, she said, she heard “a voice” saying simply, “Marilyn is all right.” From that point on, my mother was calmed.  Sad to say, my father never validated her experience, and even I, in my determined atheistic twenties, scoffed.  My father told me never to speak of my sister because it “hurt” my mother. Because I obeyed him out of my own fear of my mother’s overwhelming sorrow, I have paid the price of forgetting much about my sister. As Hirsch writes,


I’m scared of rounding him up

And turning him into a story


God of Scribbles and Erasures

I hope he shines through

Like a Giacometti portrait


I keep scraping the canvas

And painting him over again

But he keeps slipping away


But though he also writes–


Poet who labored so hard at your craft

On a scarred wooden desk

It is late now


It is time

To turn off the lamp

And come down from your study–


he keeps on writing an unpunctuated  narrative (as if to keep it from ending) about his difficult but beloved son. As long as his grief survives, so does his son.

I, too, keep “scraping the canvas” of my many poems about my sister in order to paint her over and over again. 

Chödrön says, in a different Shambala Sun article, September 1998,  

There is nothing wrong with negativity per se; the problem is that we never see it, we never honor it, we never look into its heart. We don’t taste our negativity, smell it, get to know it. Instead, we are always trying to get rid of it by punching someone in the face, by slandering someone, by punishing ourselves, or by repressing our feelings. In between repression and acting out, however, there is something wise and profound and timeless.

If we just try to get rid of negative feelings, we don’t realize that those feelings are our wisdom. The transmutation comes from the willingness to hold our seat with the feeling, to let the words go, to let the justification go. We don’t have to have resolution. We can live with a dissonant note; we don’t have to play the next key to end the tune.

I love Chödrön’s musical image about living with dissonant notes and not needing resolution. I’m not so sure about letting the words go.





2 thoughts on “Finding the Words

  1. Sept 19, 2014Kathleen How I look forward to your blog. It resonates like a conversation in the sun over a strong cup of coffee. So many of your themes are those that I share a need to explore; music, writing, loss among them. I write in response every day though most reactions are unshared.This week has been a week of funerals attended and pending. One a young neighbor of 43 who leaves a wife and two young children; another an elderly parent of a brother-in-law. No sooner were we home again from attending and we were notified of two more; mother of our son’s schoolmate, and another neighbor who succumbed to cancer. How differently we react to death. My former mother-in-law easily took the fear and choice out of attending a wake; It is just what you do, for them.” Her words are such an opening door to experiencing death. So I do attend wakes for others. Suddenly one is in it’s midst rather than cowering in fear and conjuring lame excuses to avoid sharing grief, the imagined threats recede. Still the experience is taxing, more so if frequent. It seems to require recovery for everyone. Perhaps that is why there is laughter as stories are share after.The neighbors son & daughter, five and six, take me back to my father who’s life ended when I was eight. I long to tell them of my experience, to ease theirs and wonder if an opportunity will present itself and realize that writing is a solution. Chodron’s words ring out. So this is where you took meths morning!Two sisters and a Mothergone in 2004, 2007, 2008Andrew says inhale for 4hold for seven exhale for eightThe act of breathingeases the lossmuch like itaids the actof exercisingSo I think of Kay as I inhaleClarice as I hold and my Mother when I release the breaththeir presence surrounds me for these momentsKay was the introspective oneyou could see her thinkinglong beforeshe spoke wise wordsClarice the soulmateyoungest of the older fourand dearest to me (don’t tell)Time froze when togetherbut ceased too soon Mother grievedthe loss of my Dadwhen he leftshe could risk no morelong lost before she diedBreathing curtails the wince of lossInhale to bring them nearPause to hear themExhale and let them goGrief is permanentthe hole remains!


  2. Looking forward to your recital — what a wonderful program!Your post and Larry's comment remind me of how normal suffering is. How ordinary. Whenever I've experienced pain, fear, etc. and I talk about it I'm astronished how many people have experienced something similar. I shouldn't be surprised but we seem to be pushed in our culture to think of anything other than being at least on the road to happiness as a problem to be fixed. Of course we sometimes feel grief, sadness… Why wouldn't we? These entries are a great reminder of human community and the possibilities of beauty in experience. Open sharing like this seem to offer release into a bigger picture, easing the way to letting go. Thank you, Kathleen and Larry for your wondrous courage and generosity in opening and expressing your hearts in the midst of all the motley experiences.


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