The Red Thread of Loss and The Weaving of Something Worthy
Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.
When we lose something important or when someone we love dies, the urge of this culture is to fix it and to get us back to 'normal' as soon as possible, to help us get 'over' the pain, or muscle 'through' it. Every manner of preposition is employed in relationship to our pain. But what's clear is that the pain doesn't belong. The pain is placated with New Age aphorisms and axioms. And sometimes this is worse because the message can be that there is no pain to even feel since 'everything is energy and they're in a better place now.' The core message?
The pain shouldn't be there.
Either, it was a mistake (the random cruelty of an uncaring universe, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune) requiring an orientation towards loss of gritting our teeth and enduring it.
Or it was divine perfection. It was a part of some perfect plan we agreed to before being born and so there's really nothing to even be sad about.
In either case, the end result is the same, when life comes along and remorselessly tears apart the blanket we've spent our whole life weaving, we are supposed to reweave it just as it was. But, what many of us discover is that, we can't. We can never seem to get it quite back to where it was. And we lack the motivation to do so.
I remember once, in university, typing up an essay that I was so proud of and then, somehow, it vanished. Some capricious punishment meted out by the computer gods. I had loved writing the essay. I hated rewriting it.
And we seem to hate trying to reweave the blanket of our life. I think we hate it because we think we should love it. But I think that our disdain for redoing something comes from a real and worthy realization that, with any loss of significance, even if we knuckle down to it and manage to get even close to some approximation of the old patterns they just don't seem to fit anymore. They're not satisfying. They no longer fit the times we're in.
This is just as true of the large scale losses we face in the world of climate destabilization, massive extinction of languages, creatures, plants and cultures, the acidification of the oceans and the widening chasm between the rich and the poor. Our corporate business suits are becoming unraveled and it's becoming increasingly clear that trying to reweave them as they were finds us deeply out of fashion with the times in which we find ourselves.
And, were we to succeed, no one would know by looking at it that it had ever unraveled at all.
This is seen as a high accomplishment by many in our society.
No one would see our loss. Our newly woven shawl would cover our broken heart so well. And there is no lonelier feeling. And perhaps no sadder feeling to have to suffer our losses alone. To remember the one who died and know that everyone else is doing their best to forget them (as we know that even those closest to us will do to us when we die).
It's little wonder that we are scared to die. How quickly the shawl of life will be rewoven without us - as if we had never even been there.
And this, I suppose, is the highest praise or measure of accomplishment to which our culture knows to aspire, "I would never have known you'd gone through that!" Why? Because we hid it so well and never let it show. We made it back to 'normal'. We made it through life 'intact' (a word that means 'untouched').
And it's that story that I want to mercilessly unravel here.
As Martha Nussbaum put it so beautifully, "To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.
In a recent conversation my friend Mary Ellen Oxby reflected that, before the loss, it was as if you'd only had yellow and blue thread for your weaving, and so, all of your weavings were some shade of yellow, blue or green but that the losses and traumas of life gives you a new thread. A red thread. If the loss is small, perhaps it is a short piece of faint red thread. If the loss is deep, then a longer, thicker, deep blood red thread.
In the old story of loss and death, we do our best to bury this thread - how could it be a gift from life?
It doesn't fit in the colour scheme of any of our previous weavings (or anyone else we know). It doesn't fit in our ideas of how the future was supposed to be. And we did not ask for that thread.
It can feel like a very satisfying 'fuck you' to life to take that red thread, dig a whole in the ground and bury it deep where we will never need to see it again. But we will always know it's there. And we will continue with our life, or try to, a little more empty, having lost some of the other threads in the reweaving. The attempt to reweave the normal in the face of catastrophe (a word whose roots speak to a downwards and inwards motion) is to end up a little more threadbare and cold that we were. Life is a little less beautiful.
Conversations about whether or not our losses and pains should or should not change us miss the reality that they do. That our opinion about it is fruitless. A big loss, deeply felt, changes you forever. You will never, ever be the same. And we're not supposed to be.
"I believe pain breeds wolves
and joys give rise to moons.
We grow forests in our bones
so our memories can’t find us.
I believe we hide and haunt ourselves."
There is an old story about an old woman who lives in a cave in a mountain. She knows all the secrets of the world. But no one can find her, search as they might. She sits there all day weaving together the fabric of life in the most incredible designs. You've never seen anything so beautiful. In the corner, over a fire (and this fire is the oldest thing this old woman knows of) is sitting a pot with every seed, root and plant in the world. Occasionally, she needs to get up and go over to it to stir it so that it doesn't burn, because who knows what might happen then to the world. But, when she gets up to stir it for a bit, her back is to the weavings she's left on the floor and she doesn't see the black dog get up from the shadows, go up to the weavings and undo them all with his mouth. The dog was there the whole time. By the time she turns around, she sees all of her work utterly undone. She walks back over and stares at them for a long time. She doesn't panic. She just looks at it intently until visions for a new, even more beautiful design come into her mind. And then she picks it up and begins again in weaving something new.
And, in this story, we are offered a possibility, and it is a terrible one, to begin again in our weavings and to weave something new - weaving in this new red thread of loss. And to weave it in extravagantly so that no one can miss it. To weave something new that fits with and gives voice to the times we find ourselves in now.
"When the end seems near, ancient and lasting things are also close and waiting to be discovered… What we find at the end are both last things and things that last. The meaning of the word “end” might seem obvious and conclusive; yet root meanings reveal “tailings” and “remnants” and “that which is left over”… [it] carries the sense that the current state cannot continue and that it is too late for things to simply be repaired. As archetype of radical change, [it] presents a pattern in which a shattering of forms occurs before the world as we know it can be reconstituted. When the end seems near, ancient and lasting things are also close and waiting to be discovered… What we find at the end are both last things and things that last…” - Michael Meade, Why The World Doesn’t End
When the black dog of life comes to visit and tears apart all of our best laid plans, as we tended to what mattered in life, we are invited to see that our losses aren't to be buried but to be fashioned into things of lavish beauty as our gift to the community. Our offering to the altar of daily community life. Imagine that, your heartbreak has a place on the altar of life. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, "The deeper that sorrow carves out the well of your soul, the more joy you can contain."
In our expression of grieving what we have lost and those who have died, we are actually praising it. We are affirming that it mattered. And we are affirming to everyone else who sees it that their losses matter too. When we experience a deep loss, I don't think we're supposed to find beauty in life. When the hardness of loss enters our days, something is being asked of us - to create something beautiful (even if we feel we will never know beauty again). Perhaps, our grief can be the fuel to create beauty that will not only heal us, but inspire others. We're not supposed to get back to feeling normal, we're supposed to feel more. We're not supposed to get over our broken heart, we're supposed to get better at being broken hearted. Grief is a skill. It's something we do. And, as Martin Prechtel puts it, 'for the lack of grief, we go to war.'
“Praise the world with you. Curse the world without you.”
It's not only okay to be sad, it's important. As Stephen Jenkinson puts it,
"Forget the 'okay' part. Better to say it's mandatory to be sad. It's expected of you. It's required of you that you be sad. We ask this of you. We demand this of you. Our sanity depends on your ability to be sad in a sad time... What I'm trying to say is that grief is supposed to mess with your life. So that your opportunity to learn about life is not fugitive. But as soon as you get over grief to use the magic phrase 'to get on with your life' when someone has died, the question I always ask is 'what life?'. To get back to what? Haven't you realized yet that that life you're trying to get back to... it doesn't exist. It's not waiting for you somewhere. Grief is not a passport to your normal existence. It doesn't reconstitute the deal minus the hangnail problem of missing somebody, you see? That's what grief allows you to know. That your life as you knew it went in the ground with that person. It doesn't mean you have no life. It means you have no idea what is yet.'
And as my friend Elin Agla puts it, “Praise the world with you. Curse the world without you.”
“Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, that we are not so much diminished as enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish—to let others vanish—without leaving a verbal record. Poetry is a stubborn art.” - Edward Hirsch
We're supposed to not let our heartbreak take our voice away forever (though it may be fugitive for a time) but to find a way to give eloquence to it that can feed this spiritually starved culture. I think of the keening women in Ireland and other cultures who, when someone died would give voice to a sound worthy of the loss. I think we're supposed to become magnificent at being broken hearted to let ourselves feel and express the depth of the grief and to make something worthy of it to remind the world how beautiful it is to still be alive and have what we have.
We're supposed to dive down and in and come back out with something beautiful for the community that affirms and celebrates the depth of the loss we experienced. Something that tells the one who died, 'you are still right here' and celebrates their life, keeping them woven in the fabric of the village so that they are never lost. What an incredible gift to the one who died to sit and look at the utterly tattered and unraveled threads of our life and take the time needed to wait for some new design to come to us that might give proof to what their life meant to us. Perhaps it is why sometimes the most beautiful gift we can give to others is to write a song or poem in memory of someone they have lost, to paint something or write a story. To make something that says, "I remember them. They matter."
As Winnie The Pooh put it, "How lucky I am to having something that makes saying goodbye so hard."
We don't do this for ourselves alone but for the community. We do it as a reminder to all those who will one day die as a reminder that we will never lose them but weave even their dying into the community in a way that makes the community even more beautiful than it ever was. That is the job of those left behind - to do this for those who have died.
Have you lost something? Build something beautiful to honour it.
Did someone die? Don't ever let someone convince you to let them go.
All of the beauty that we create with our hands and words is food for our memory and the Holy. Every time we feed it, it's like putting a stick in the central hearth fire of our community which keeps everyone warm and out of the cold of loneliness.
And, every once in a whole, you'll see someone walking around in the most beautiful, wild, meticulously woven, weathered and well storied cloak soaked in reddish hues. And their face will be beaming. And you'll know that this person knows - that their well worn, royal cloak isn't there to cover up their broken heart. It's there to express it.
May we all one day become such a beautiful person.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” ― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross