Memory, the Internet, Hyperlinks, and Data Loss

Found Words on a Jump Drive by Elliot Wright[1]

Why am I writing this here? Because suddenly I am terrified of data loss.

This is likely from a combination of factors. The roots of this must be my trip to Japan; that was the place where it all came from. I went to Japan and fretted continually over the fact that I may one day forget the bulk of what I experienced there.

Eventually, these feelings evaporated, but at a steep price: because they had disappeared, I was no longer inclined to record in my diary, thus making my worry a reality. The result was a thin, tattered notebook with a Magritte[2] on the cover, which contained perhaps ten pages of handwritten material for a 5-week trip. And yet, in spite of this, when I went back to read those pages, even in such a small body of text there were morsels lodged there that I never would have remembered on my own.

I’d already read my Benjamin[3] on Proust[4], though, and so the fact that a sizeable chunk of my experience would be burned up in the act of consciousness was not news to me. Though of course, even if I had not known this, Japan would have taught me that on its own.

Though the idea is represented in Benjamin[5] and Proust, the idea of consciousness-as-incineration comes from Freud[6]. He was speaking of WWI soldiers burning away the intolerable horrors and boredom they had known in the trenches.[7] I certainly don’t know anything about the horrors of trench warfare, but I do know about feelings so acute that the conscious mind burns them upon entry. This numbing usually feels like an emergency break, a kind of last-resort red button encased in glass with a little hammer next to it. But the operation can be applied to less acute or concrete situations, as well.

One such instance was Japan. The feeling being burned away: alienation.

In America, the sense of alienation is real and acute, but it never reaches that critical mass, that critical density that enables it to act as fuel. Instead, it is like moisture from rain on the logs. The logs will still burn, but dampened.

In Japan, however, the logs are damp with kerosene, not water. The sense of alienation is so hulking that it fails to fit through the door of your sensorium. It is too big. You cannot process it, so you don’t even bother. And so you stop processing. Your self disappears. Where you fit into the big picture does not matter because you don’t fit in anywhere, and there’s no illusion like there is here.

 I got into a relationship. I started waking up earlier. I thought, maybe a real job wouldn’t be so bad. And suddenly it seemed like I was merging with the salmon stream of American society. Nonsense, of course — it was a honeymoon. I am still at my core (despite a long diversion where I believed I had no core) a lone data scrounger. Maybe I am a multicore data scrounger. That’s who I am.

In Japan, this Fata Morgana[8] never appears. You know there’s no chance, so you can embrace your outsider-dom. But I’ve gotten wildly distracted. Another thing that fuels my fear of data loss — my disorganized-ness. Files, thoughts, texts spread across Google Docs, home directories, virtual machines, shell accounts and scraps of paper. Well, not too distracted, I guess.

The point is, we lose life in its happening, and we are often left holding its threads like unearthed artifacts from a long-lost Chinese dynasty.

The other point is, the mind prunes experiences for all sorts of reasons, and as a result, the ones that make it across the experience-memory barrier are special by default, even if their selection was fairly arbitrary. In this way, the experiences that do make it through to become memories are elevated above experience itself. I know this well, and often I look forward to the memory of the experience even before the experience in question has ceased impressing itself upon my sensorium. How many times have I written these same paragraphs in different ways? Is this my version of Joe Gould’s family history? Endlessly rewritten and revised, the one hazarded component of a vaporware masterpiece?

The point actually is, LIFE IS DATA LOSS. There, there’s your mantra. (A tautology, but what other formula is so certain?)

In Japan, I learned to deal with data loss by letting it happen, realizing that it’s happening would serve the greater good of furnishing memories greater than the sum of their parts. Borges[9] and Brooker[10] dealt with it by showing how disastrous perfect memory would be. Knausgaard[11] and Proust[12] dealt with it by using the void left by data loss to create fiction and art. (Well, I suppose that’s true of all of them, really).

So Japan and Benjamin primed me to read Proust. The fact that I’ve only just drawn the connection between Japan, reading Proust soon thereafter,  and my fear of data loss is itself illustrative of the process by which experiences affect us without becoming memories — and perhaps becoming more a part of us than memories ever could. So, it’s no small wonder that after Proust, Benjamin, and Japan — oh, how could I forget Knausgaard, too, which I’d even read before Japan — that data loss was on my mind. The chain of influence unwinds madly.

When I got back, as far as Japan was concerned, I’d come to peace with it. I was happy to have forgotten myself while I was there — that was enough. I knew I could rely on the burnishing effect of Proust’s mémoire involontaire[13] from thereon out. Those memories were lodged in me, and there would always be stimuli to wriggle them loose.

Obvious ones, such as a Skype call from Ikumi[14], have achieved this in only the last few days, but so have more tangential things, like perusing Story of the Stone[15] last night while Brenda studied. The Story of the Stone is Chinese, of course, but revisiting it with bits and shards and tufts of Japan in me caused the pleasure of my first reading of Cao Xueqin[16] and the lucent quality of Japan’s mémoire involontaire to overlap.

But also like Story of the Stone and Proust (my two desert island books, for sure — I need no others, really), I was possessed with a need to turn memory into art. Like Proust, this desire was driven by nothing more than a love of literature. Nothing within me was begging to be told; I wanted to write because I like to read. (As for Cao Xueqin, he never comes out and says that he wrote because he wanted to write and nothing more, but the first and especially the second two books are little else than books about books.)

My love for books is more like Xueqin, the verse collector, than Proust, the enraptured-hand-in-a-stream type.

Sure, when I first read David Foster Wallace[17], I wanted his opinion on each and everything I ran across, just like Marcel did of the Anatole France avatar in Recherche. But largely, my love of reading is a love of hyperlinking. I love Xueqin because nothing happens except literature and words, really — especially in the second volume, my favorite so far — and because the allusive nature of letters in China means Hong Lou Meng[18] is basically a repository of hyperlinks to other works.

It’s why I love collected letters, too. A beautifully written database you can live in. It’s quite video-gamish. Reading them reminds me of the way I just kind of wanted to hang out in Midgar[19] when I played Final Fantasy VII as a kid. Or Persona 2[20] more recently. The gameplay was fairly dull, but the sounds, the graphics with their smudged hardware fingerprints all over them, well, I wanted nothing more than to climb inside. The same with the scenes and landscapes described in Hong Lou Meng.

We can trace these fibers to the place they intersect: the internet. Memory, data loss, texts as hyperlinks.

Surprisingly, it took me a very long time to zero in on the internet (again, these things fold into the self and become invisible). This was probably because its influence on me was so enormous that I swung the other way in equal measure and was equally repulsed by it. Like hates like, as like recognizes like; I lived with no personal computer and no phone for months.

Interestingly, what I perceived to be my love of literature actually brought me around again to the internet. I wanted to write because I loved to read, so I began writing. I tried to write pen and paper, and I tried to keep .txt files because of their lightweight, but the former would destroy my wrists raised on keyboards and the latter would end up getting erased because I would never save them. So, I opted for the decentralized cloud method.

There are probably better options than Google Docs for the kind of scribbling I was doing, but I wanted serious stuff and scribbly stuff (and all my documents, really) in the same place because I knew the strain spreading my docs across several platforms would pose to my organizational abilities. Of course, that ended up backfiring. All that happened was I ended up keeping too much stuff in one great big pile. Google Docs ended up being too browser intensive (it’s basically an Office virtual machine inside your browser, so that’s not terribly surprising.)

Little did I know that this sporadic web of documents was jacking the sinewy chasm of my internet mind back open. I used Gutenberg[21] to chase down quotes instead of copying them by hand. I had a general file, which was my longest surviving .txt-based foray, which moved online and was quickly displaced by a document containing a list of links (I like this option over the bookmarks bar because I can make commentary). Separate docs for fiction forays, scribble pads, poetry forays, links, unorganized quotes, a full-on journal, thoughts about the internet, everything.

And that’s when I realized that the internet had given me my love for reading: I was building a massive database. And I interact with literature as though it were one great big database of interlinked works. Everything was flat and equal; the goal was to have an optimal unbroken path of digging.

And this, I have come to: ”In Proust’s calculus, Swann’s error is not so much the failure to love Odette for herself, but rather directing at a living person the human largeness of feeling and imagination that can only find compensation in art.”[22] 


[1] Annotated with infinite love and heartbreak by his mother, Elaine Gantz Wright

[2] Time Transfixed by Rene Magritte, https://www.sartle.com/artwork/time-transfixed-rene-magritte

[3] The Philosopher Stoned: What Drugs Taught Walter Benjamin, Adam Kirsch, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/08/21/the-philosopher-stoned

[4] Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust, https://campuspress.yale.edu/modernismlab/remembrance-of-things-past-a-la-recherche-du-temps-perdu/

[5] The Life and Influence of Walter Benjamin, Rhys Tranter, https://rhystranter.com/2015/04/14/the-life-and-influence-of-walter-benjamin/

[6] The Pre-conscious, Conscious, and Unconscious Minds, Kendra Cherry, https://www.verywellmind.com/the-conscious-and-unconscious-mind-2795946

[7] A New Kind of Dream: Freud, Trauma and WWI: A Look at War and Artistic Creation through the Theories of Cathy Caruth and Sigmund Freud,  https://www.worldwar1centennial.org/index.php/articles-posts/4636-a-new-kind-of-dream-freud-trauma-and-wwi.html

[8] Fata Morgana: The Strange Mirages at Sea, https://www.farmersalmanac.com/fata-morgana-mirage-28630

[9] Borges and Memory: Encounters with the Human Brain, Rodrigo Quian Quiroga,  https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/borges-and-memory

[10] Algorithmic Intimacy, Prosthetic Memory and Gamification in Black Mirror, Jin Kim, https://blogs.strose.edu/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Kim-2021-Algorithmic-Intimacy-Prosthetic-Memory-and-Gamification-in-Black-Mirror.pdf

[11] How Writing ‘My Struggle’ Undid Knausgaard, Ruth Franklin, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/11/knausgaard-devours-himself/570847/

[12] The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories, Cretien van Campen, https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199685875.001.0001/acprof-9780199685875

[13] Proust ou la mémoire involontaire, Sebastian Dieguez, https://www.cerveauetpsycho.fr/sd/neurobiologie/proust-ou-la-memoire-involontaire-1592.php

[14] [Not sure about this one, but this seems plausible – doubting it’s ’the character with the same name.] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ikumi_Nakamura

[15] Story of the Stone, Cao Xuegin,  https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/series/BVJ/story-of-the-stone

[16] Cao Xuegin  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cao-Zhan

[17] The Unfinished: David Foster Wallace’s Struggle to Surpass “Infinite Jest,” D.T. Max, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/03/09/the-unfinished

[18] Hong Lou Meng https://www.amazon.com/Hong-Lou-Meng-Chamber-Classics/dp/1539851230

[19] Final Fantasy Wiki, Midgar, https://finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Midgar

[20] Megami Tensei Wiki, Persona 2: Innocent Sin, https://megamitensei.fandom.com/wiki/Persona_2:_Innocent_Sin

[21] The Gutenberg Project: A Library of Over 60,000 Free Books  https://www.gutenberg.org/

[22] Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust https://campuspress.yale.edu/modernismlab/swanns-way/

Data Loss Found

I just completed the final, apocalyptic season of Search Party, a quirky and bitterly clever HBO Max series. This is a bit unusual, as the darkness of my current grief grotto tends to throw a shadow on anything even remotely comedic. But the offbeat wit of this sinisterly snarky romp appealed to the cynicism of my perpetual-pandemic malaise. I’m finding the early 2022 vibe very disturbing in visceral, new ways. Could be that I’m starting the fourth year on earth without my son Elliot or that the uncertainty of our world at the tipping point has become business as usual. Probably a sum of the parts, but all I know is that it’s heavy and exhausting. And writing, usually my salve, has been a challenge in this “blue period,” too.  I might need to spend some time outside of my own head.

In Search Party, Dory, the protagonist, becomes unflinchingly obsessed with locating a college acquaintance named Chantal, whom she learns has gone missing. But the fixation quickly seizes her—dominating her life and all her relationships, including an eccentric fellow named Elliott. Interestingly, Dory never knew Chantal well, but for some unknown reason, she takes full responsibility for finding her with self-righteous zeal. It’s her raison d’être.

Dory’s all-consuming quest immediately triggered me—reminding me of my own desperate need to find my Elliot—everything, that is, about the tangled circumstances of his death and the elusive essence of his life. Much to my dismay, most of my attempts have been as fruitless as they’ve been frustrating—trying to access the data in his disabled and now permanently deleted internet accounts. These efforts have hit dead ends across the board—even after enduring the lengthy and costly process of securing the requisite court documents. I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, judiciously delivering the witch’s broom to the Google Oz and the Amazon Web Services (AWS) gods—with results similar to those of our scrappy Kansas gal.

And this is only one of many inconsistencies and conundrums that continue to haunt me with every inhale. What I have found is that looking for answers is a little like looking for grace. It happens in its own time—and it’s something you receive but can never ask for.

So, maybe this is not about unearthing Elliot’s digital footprints or picking up his blockchain breadcrumbs. Like the metaverse itself, this dark web of secrets seems to expand and contract exponentially with each new portal crossed and backdoor cracked. Maybe the lesson is this:  it’s time to let go of the need to know. Like Dory at the end of the series (spoiler), it’s time to just steep in the mystery for a while, breathe . . . and let acceptance bloom.

Maybe it’s time to decide to just keep going and cherish the parts of Elliot that I already know: the infinite love that exists in every molecule of my being that gave him life almost thirty years ago. These are pieces I will find only inside my heart and in the hearts of those who loved him. (I think every story must be The Wizard of Oz in one way or another.)

Until . . .

You find an errant thumb drive in an old box of items you had tucked away in storage after cleaning out your deceased son’s apartment in a fog of tears three years prior. Alas, you simply can’t resist the call of the wild USB. Gingerly, you insert it in your laptop and open up the file directory as your heart beats with expectation, and you notice that much of it looks like lines of actual code, Elliot’s native language but one you do not comprehend. There are lines and lines and lines of machine-like text, strings of strange characters and backslashes, sprinkled with words like directory and subroutine. Trying to decipher it gives you a headache—as you focus intensely on each line of cryptic verbiage, hoping to uncover some hidden gem or morsel that will reveal all. You feel a little like James Bond, but the cruel reality is that without your Elliot, your “IT Help Deck,” you are still lost.

But then, you open the very last file in the list, and it’s a readable file. It’s English, and its curiously ironic title is: “Data Loss.” (Stay tuned.)

Remembering Aunt Virginia and Terms of Debridement

My fearless Aunt Virginia Thompson died at age 96 on this day in June 2020 from a withering body and what I suspect were lingering complications of undiagnosed COVID she contracted in December 2019 before testing was available. I learned much from our time together in her final years on this earth, including the intensity of her faith and the ferocity of her resolve.

            In May/June of 2018, I accompanied Virginia on her weekly visits to the  Presbyterian Hospital Dallas Wound Clinic. She was treating a stubbornly angry wound she had suffered from somehow hitting the outside of her right ankle on the inside of her wheelchair wheel. It refused to heal. The folks at Presbyterian Village North, her assisted living home, had run out of options. 

            At that time, little did I know that in a matter of weeks, August 5, 2018, my mercurial first-born son, Elliot Everett Wright, would soar off his motorcycle, over the inadequate barrier on the elevated LBJ TEXpress entrance ramp and into the arms of the angels. Little did I know that this extraordinary human would take his last shallow breath on an otherwise-normal Sunday, at the very same hospital and place where he took his first breath on a Sunday, just 26 years prior. The strange confluence of these significant events still takes my breath away.

            Grief is an obtuse companion—how it ebbs and flows but also is always present. Some days, it takes effort to breathe, and others, I am able to skim along on the surface of things. But I have been thinking about the weeks leading up to the day Elliot died, after which nothing has been the same—the encounters that were, perhaps, preparing me through some strange cosmic stratagem to carry the unbearable one day. On these biweekly visits with Virginia to the wound clinic, I definitely learned something powerful about grief and the importance of pain.

            On our first visit to this chaotic clinic, I was struck by the sheer volume of patients, all seeking some sort of pain relief. There were not enough chairs for everyone. I stood. There were babies, teenagers, grandfathers, society matrons and athletes. Pain is the great leveler. I saw one disturbingly gaunt man slouched in his wheelchair with his bandaged ankle plopped in the lap of a young man with a green mohawk and an illegible tattoo on his exposed upper arm. He might have been his son. The man spoke with a gusto that filled the room. I think he must have been a teacher.

            “I believe in word economy,” he proclaimed. “I read that boy’s paper, and he used commas like he keeps them in a saltshaker.” I chuckled, but no one else in the room reacted.

            “Ms. Thompson!” the out-of-breath nurse shouted as she cracked the door.

            That was Virginia’s married name. More accurately, her “formerly married” name—the fragile identity she’d maintained for more than fifty years after Don left. I grabbed the handles on the wheelchair she usually propels with her own two feet, and we were off down the hall, meeting Dr. Moran at the door.

            “How are you doing?” asked the chestnut-maned doc as she ushered us in.

            “Just fine,” Virginia quipped.

            “This is not uncommon,” said Dr. Moran, “but it’s a bear to heal. It’s a problem of pressure. I’ll bet you sleep on your right side, don’t you? We must offload the pressure. That’s all there is to it.”

            “Offload.” Ah, there’s a lesson, I thought.

            “This is gonna hurt . . . a lot,” she warned as her nurse squirted the swollen, red ankle with lidocaine.

            “This is what we call debridement,” Dr. Moran explained. “We have to remind the body how to heal. We need to remove the dead skin that gets in the way. This sends the body’s healing properties and enzymes to the wound to liquefy the rancid eschar and slough. ”

            Virginia winced and closed her eyes tightly, but I could tell she wanted to show Dr. Moran she could take it, whatever she dished out. Then, I saw one glistening droplet run down her wrinkled cheek.

            “Are you OK?” I asked quietly. I have never seen her register pain, and she has endured much in her life. She nodded.

            “I know that hurt . . .  Uh, Ginny, more lidocaine here,” said Dr. Moran. “We need to rally all the resources we can to heal this bugger.”

            Virginia took a breath as the kind and efficient tech wrapped her puffy leg with focused precision. Moran gave us a list of instructions and pointed us to our next stop—radiology in the main hospital for an x-ray.

            I am grateful for these times with my venerable aunt. She shared so much about her life and so many of my family’s deeply hidden wounds. And this memory reminds me that sometimes the healing process requires a seismic jolt, or two or three—like removing the dead tissue multiple times, if necessary. We can’t let unattended wounds just scab over and pretend like everything is OK while the tissue underneath continues to fester in dank darkness. Ignoring pain does not relieve it. And it takes as long as it takes.

            Yet the loss of a child is a wound that will never heal completely. The tenacious scar tissue in my heart will always be there, but maybe, eventually, I can find a new way to live with the bittersweetness of the disfigurement. And maybe, talking (or writing) about my losses can help me get to that place—kind of like debridement of the spirit. It’s French – from débrider, to remove adhesions or to literally unbridle. Grief must be witnessed to help lift the weight of its bridle. Grief needs air to heal. 

            People may think talking about Elliot, Aunt Virginia, her son, or even my parents will upset me, but that’s exacting what I need. It triggers the pain, but the tears are the tonic. The pain never goes away, anyway. Not ever. But pain does play a role— signaling that something is horribly wrong, rallying the body’s resources—calling in the Navy Seals of the heart. Though the body possesses miraculous organic self-healing capabilities, sometimes the process hits a snag. It stymies, and it needs a little help to progress.

            With grief, we must do just that—debride it, as many times as required. Don’t cover it up with a bandage or pretend you are OK. We are not OK, because the pain of our grief is our barometer of love. That never dies. As complicated as our relationships might have been in life, we never stop loving—particularly those lives we brought into this world. We must revisit the pain that makes us physically wince to move through it. It’s a necessary cringe—with the caveat: Don’t build a condo there.

            We don’t always know why healing pauses, but we do know why pain exists—to tell us something is terribly wrong. Pain is a potent teacher. But senescence can happen to wounds. Senescent comes from the Latin senēscere, “to grow old.” In medicine or biology, it refers to cells that are still metabolically alive— but are no longer capable of dividing. Dormant.  Merely existing, not thriving. That’s why they need attention. Or else the virulence of unattended wounds will manifest somewhere else.

            Therefore, we must tell and retell our stories—that is our task as humans. That is why we are here on the planet. Finding situations and people who will listen and support us unconditionally is essential—people who give us the space to remember our losses and foreshadow what they mean for our futures. These people are rare and cherished. Without their divine grace, we will never completely emerge from this suffocating miasma (one of Elliot’s favorite words). In fact, a friend/mentor in my grief support community says that to endure grief, we need two things: faith and community. Together, they help us expand our worlds beyond the loss and give our festering wounds the room to debride.

            Having lost Aunt Virginia, Elliot, and almost all of my family members over the past decade, my experience of grief is constantly conflating, deepening, expanding and shifting—but it is always there. Still, grief is what makes us all excruciatingly human. Let’s fiercely embrace the pain—and each other.

            Godspeed, Aunt Virginia.

Rabbit Rabbit

I saw another rabbit blur
across my path today.
“Say rabbit, rabbit”
on the first day of the month—
for luck

For today,
tomorrow and
yesterday, still
braided in
conflating ache.

I saw a rabbit.
in a lush garden—
on a blustery day
of grace, all about grief
stricken souls
longing to fill chasms
of anxious loss.

Pain and peace together,
as one, contained
in this quiet space—
sacred, witnessed
healing.

But where are you going?
Where are you now?
Is that you . . . a sign?
So urgent and quick.
Darting—
across the graveled grass
playground, where
your brother once ran.

I follow but cannot catch you.
I tiptoe but cannot touch you.
I reach out but cannot hold you
in this life,
“late for a very important date”
in your quixotic Wonderland.

Detached but curious,
Elusive but Spirited
Away—forever
Hiding in the shrubs.

Leaving me,
heart-heavy,
heart-sick,
heart-full.

May your mischief
with my mourning
mix
in memories,
and mysteries,
everlasting
love

Grieving from the Inside Out

“Grief is universal, but every person’s grief is unique,”  says grief counselor David Kessler.

This duality is potent, especially in recent days. The collective grief that surrounds us now is overwhelming—the weight of mounting COVID casualties, the ongoing horror of senseless police violence, and the alarming escalation of gun massacres in this country. Along with the enormity of these disturbing realities, so many of us also carry the achingly personal losses that seem to cling to us like cobwebs in a dank, gloomy basement.

Grief is an ambient constant.

Having lost my oldest son, Elliot, and many family members over the past decade, my experience of grief is always changing, deepening, expanding, and contracting, but it is always there. It morphs and shifts into different flavors of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and despair, but gradually, I am becoming more aware of my most salient triggers. Slowly but surely, I am integrating effective self-management techniques—like grounding, breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and counseling. Still, grief is inextricably attached to my being—insistent, obnoxious and endlessly dogmatic. There is no escape, no place to hide, no satisfying its demands. Not even in sleep. There is no pill nor spirit.

Grief is relentless and narcissistic.

Grief both shrouds and accentuates the stubborn presence of loss. Grief is everywhere and in everything, like the trauma bond of an abusive relationship. You can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it. Grief changes all of your relationships—at times isolating you from your friends, family, and the community you need to heal. You are a different person in a toxic relationship and in the dance of grief. You often find yourself reassuring others you are OK—when you are not. You may even try to run away or distract yourself, but grief is persistent and undaunted. Wherever you go, there you are. And the dark truth is that part of you does not want to let go, because at least, the pain is connection.

Grief is not just something inside that you have to work through.

Grief is also on the outside, always next to you. It’s beside you, behind you, in front of you, over you, under you—hovering like a long shadow, even in the dark. Some say losing a child is like losing a limb. You can survive it, but you must relearn how to do everything. However, I think it’s also like gaining a limb you don’t want—an extra arm or leg you must constantly contend with, manage, or even hide. And it’s always in your way, awkward, and obstructive. You must relearn everything, but you still cannot escape it.

Do you acknowledge it immediately when meeting someone? Or do you pretend it’s not there, which can draw even more unspoken attention to it? How do you live with such an abnormality? There are no easy answers, and it’s a confusing question in a culture that minimizes and compartmentalizes grief to avoid its discomfort. So, how do you find meaning in life? Do mundane tasks even matter at all when the worst has already happened? But that’s where compassion is essential—individually and collectively. Things like meeting a deadline at work of separating out the recycling may not seem to matter much in a universe tainted by unbearable loss, but we must keep going.

And more important, we must be intentional about caring for each other, showing up, and creating a space for mattering. For me, regardless of how I conceptualize it, the gravity of grief informs every interaction, every experience, every conversation. Hopefully, over time, I will become more accustomed to its presence. I know I must find a way to accommodate grief if I am going to function in the world.

Yes, I am different now, and I work every day to accept this journey.

Grief will always be part of me, just as my love for my son Elliot will be. And grief will always be a layer between me and everything else. Whether a thin, hyaline veil or an imposing brick wall, at times it’s murky black and at others, sparklingly light. The light is the precious part, the awful glimmer of grief. That’s what illuminates the gold, the gleaming memories of a lifetime that will never die.

Together we can do our best to soften the fear, the anxiety, the alienation, and the pain—inside and out.

Shirt, Shakuhachi and Saxophone

Easter is a complicated and befuddling holiday—so many meanings, layers, beliefs, rituals and memories, but one stands out for me. Easter will always remind me of Elliot. In 2014, Easter Sunday just happened to merge with his spectacular fourth-year saxophone recital at the University of Toronto. His precise, riveting and affecting command of the instrument mesmerized and stunned his rapt audience of devote fans. I remember feeling there could not possibly be enough room in my heart to contain the flood of joy, love and pride I experienced in those remarkable moments.

On Easter, I do my best to stay steeped in the beauty of that sacred space seven years ago—which feels like both a lifetime and a heartbeat. As I honor this rare and extraordinary human, forever missed, I endeavor to embrace the grace and joy of this glorious memory—and the notion that love never dies.

So, here are two poems.

One is Elliot’s and the other is mine. I was inspired to write “Saxophone” in a recent poetry class with Megan Adler. We dissected “Shirt” by brilliant musician/poet Robert Pinsky, and I felt a flash of Elliot’s mercurial presence. I paired it with one of Elliot’s most haunting poems, “Shakuhachi,” which describes his love for another eccentric instrument. This piece evokes his unbridled passion for life’s music—and words.

SHAKUHACHI
by Elliot Wright

Someone should not-
ify the authorities—
This can’t belong to me.

I shouldn’t be
allowed to touch it when in
every Japanese

restaurant I’ve been
in they hasten to me with
a fork,

this mendicant ghost’s
pneumatic bamboo carapace,
this severed bundle

of lacquered vacuoles.
Hollowed stock, red bore tender
as a ribbon of

his throat—he who is
surely ululating to-
ward me from the Pure

Land in futile rage.
It came to me woven in
the raft of my

grandfather’s trinkets,
that gregarious poacher,
anxious collector,

lover of things and
strangers—those stop-gap measures
against that vacuum

the mind so abhors.
No wonder, then, that he should
have parted with this

chime-hammer of the
void, this attendant to the
court of nothingness—

this contradiction
given me

SAXOPHONE
by Elaine Gantz Wright

The reeds. The ligature. The body. The bell.
The saxophone’s bourbon-soaked wail lingers—
longing for another coda or infinite reprise

The keys. The mouthpiece. The bow. The crook.
Where is your rarified air, your circular breath—
that was snatched, silent in eternity’s niche?

The tenor. The alto. The soprano. The bari.
Fingers on fire made your practice perfect,
such mania that muted all but your memory

Coltane, Parker, Getz and Halladay—mentors,
brethren, your trenchant troubadours of note—
persistent signs of life and bittersweet balm

Shakuhachi and Linux. Yamaha and Proust—
virtuoso with far too many talents to be
soaring into forever on a regular Sunday

I want one more song on the saxophone,
redux to recall a melody long gone—again
to fill this abyss with your timeless refrain.

I Am

A week or so before snowmageddon stymied Texas, my dear friend and writing pal Sue recommended a book called “When Women Were Birds,” by Terry Tempest Williams. I’m endlessly grateful, as it provided a warm and poignant embrace during the powerless hours. If Anne Lamott says it’s “brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder,” you can bet it’s a winner. As I sat on my big purple couch in the frigid darkness, swaddled in three blankets with a flashlight precariously perched on one knee, I devoured Williams’ evocative, lyrical prose and was instantly inspired to scribble this poem — just before the electricity sizzled back on for another brief round:

I Am

I am worn out.
I am scared.
I am alone.
I am freezing.
I can almost see my breath.

I am a balloon that is slowly deflating.
I am an opaque mosaic of dusty shards
that don’t quite fit.
I am the map of another country.
I am overwhelmed.
I am underemployed.
I am seeking.
I am hiding.
I am not knowing . . .
I am fried.

I am filled with emptiness.
I am hollow with grief.
I am here but not present.
I am shallow but deep.

I am aching to be seen, but I don’t want to be noticed.
I am yearning to connect but no energy to speak.
I am salt in the wound.
I am salve on the sore.
I am dented but still running.
Where is the door?

I am shadow.
I am moonlight.
I am desire.
I am disdain.
I am letting go.
I am holding on.
I am selfish.
I am shame.

I am kind.
I am cold.
I am love.
I am lost.

I am waiting in the wings.
I am milling in the mezzanine.
I am loitering in the lobby.
Where is the stage?
I am scripts unwritten.
I am books unread.
I am the Rock of Gibraltar.
I am the tools in the shed.
I am a frothy, white jet trail.
I am blood-orange sunshine.
I am Purple Rain.
I am Auld Lang Syne

I am select soccer and team tennis.
I am saxophone lessons and art classes.
I am ear infections and root canals.
I am a pair of new dark glasses.
I am fistfights in the kitchen.
I am boxes in the hall.
I am lullabies in the nursery.
I am drawings on the wall.

I am sighing
I am sobbing
I am wailing
I am praying
I am allowing
I am inviting
I am chuckling
I am fraying

I am a sutra unraveled, but
I am whole.

I am a cotton shirt, not pressed.
I am a pair of jeans, too tight.
I am a child without a mother.
I am a mother full of fright.
I am the tears in a handkerchief.
I am the words on the page.
I am a candle in the window.
I am a flashlight in the dark.
I am a sip of black tea.
I am a broken heart.

I am an imposter and an expert —
respected and dismayed.
I am confident and confused —
anxious and praised.

I am stardust.
I am golden.
I am taking.
I am giving.
I am releasing
Now
Forever
And for you, I am living.

Pieces of Me

The other night, I watched a new film on Netflix called “Pieces of a Woman.” It burrowed into my soul like the vaccination needle into your arm. Yet surprisingly, the subtle and deftly poignant images packed the most potent punch.

This provocative film takes us on the horrifying journey of a home birth gone tragically wrong, but that’s just the first half of the story. (Spoiler alert.) Though the cataclysmic event is harrowing and devasting, some of the most profound and affecting moments come after it.  Perhaps, I experienced the narrative in this way, because this heartbroken mother’s journey is similar to my own. Though the particular circumstances are different, the gravity of losing a child at any age carries its own unique, untenable weight.

“Elaine, why would you subject yourself to such a sad, triggering film?” one might ask, and one would be justified in posing that question.

But the answer might be just as confounding. As I walk this unbearable path, I find that connecting to others around our shared,  unrelenting pain—often through art, helps me feel less alone and even witnessed in a misery-loves-company sort of way. Being seen is a momentary salve on the gaping, unhealable wound.  And frankly, it takes the focus off me for a brief instant and gives me another way to contextualize what still feels impossible to believe.

Not every moment in “Pieces of a Woman” works, but this kind of story signifies a gradual shift in the way we are acknowledging grief in our culture. In the second half of the film, we come face-to-face with a woman’s unvarnished grief journey and emotional fallout—exposed, raw and unapologetic.  Martha’s grief takes center stage, often colliding with her husband’s incongruent mode of coping—ignited by rage and alcohol. Her pain is there for all those around her to see—in all its awkwardness and messiness.  Most people I encounter want someone who has suffered a tragic loss to get over it quickly and be “OK,” because they don’t want to face their own looming mortality. But Martha bears all.

Ellen Burstyn is brilliant and riveting as Martha’s mother—mounting a hostile resistance against her daughter’s unfathomable pain that also prevents her from providing the compassion and care her daughter aches for. In Burstyn’s mordant revulsion to her daughter’s festering sorrow, we sense her character’s own inability to process difficult feelings. This is at the same time fiercely intimate and unflinchingly universal.

 “You’ve got to fight and seek revenge,” she barks. “That’s the only way you can move on.”

The grim reality is you never move on. You don’t “get over” the love of your child. You just find a way to carry the pain.

In fact, Martha vehemently protests the concept of revenge. In one of the most searing moments in the film, Martha finds a beautiful photo her husband snapped on that bittersweet day, just after she delivered her baby. As she views image, we see Martha’s hardened heart soften like molten lava. She begins to replace some of the hard darkness with light, some of the fierce anguish with love. I felt that so deeply. She actually begins to forgive—her midwife, her husband, her mother, and perhaps, even herself.

The other gorgeous detail that brings me to tears is Martha’s meticulous collection of apple seeds, nurturing them carefully in cotton pads or tiny blankets in the refrigerator. She mentions at one point that her newborn smelled like apples, and we often see her eating apples—unconsciously drawn to them in the grocery store, as well.  But when she opens the refrigerator one day to check on them, she discovers they’ve begun to sprout and bud, and she is awestruck by the persistence of nature and the miracle of life before her eyes. This becomes its own solace, its own comfort. This stunning nuance seeped into every cell as I empathized with every tear she shed; every wail she unleashed. The sensitivity of this storytelling is breathtaking—and the performances, masterful, as devastating as it is glorious. This shattered mother is able to find a glimpse of grace and a moment of infinite connection—an uncharted path back inside her own shattered heart.

Today, I noticed a similar miracle in my own living room. The delicate orchid plant a friend gave me for my birthday about six months ago had lost all its blooms. Since the leaves remained green,  I continued to water it as my late Aunt Virginia, the orchid whisperer, had instructed. She used a turkey baster to gently inject two squeezes per week. Carefully infusing every Saturday, I have been watching the tiny green pouches with anticipation, and to my surprise, one opened this morning—a fragile, tiny orchid saying, “Hello world.” 

Like Martha when she lifted the carefully arranged cotton pouches from her refrigerator, tears welled. There is something magical and comforting about witnessing life  . . . its brazen persistence, the continuity of creation, the divine order of things. I must allow this to sink in, to feel it down to my marrow. Another day . . . another glimpse of grace.

Love in the Time of Corona

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty,” said Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers. “Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” I feel this speaks to our journey in the world today — as well as my journey through the dark persistence of grief. Today, I am grateful for even the most minuscule flecks of glitter.

Trying to make sense of this messy miasma, “love in the time of Corona,” as I’ve termed it, I had an epiphany. I realized I have been living in isolation for months — quarantining myself emotionally, spiritually and physically in a dank and dreary cave called grief. For the past year and a half, I have been hibernating, encased in a dimly lit reality not of my choosing. In fact, it’s a confederacy of losses that looms in every moment — my amazing son Elliot, both my parents, my treasured mentor, an exhausting 8-year relationship, several battles for justice, and the list goes on. Sinking under the weight of it all, I finally landed in the inertia pit.

Since Aug. 5, 2018, when Elliot left the earth so suddenly and violently,  my intersections with humanity have been infrequent, and alas, when I have engaged, it has required every ounce of energy I could muster. Still. Sad. Stymied. And yet, as much as I have resisted them, I am certain that these occasional human connections have kept me alive. A heartfelt ping from a sweet greeting card or a Facebook message from a faraway friend have rescued me from the deepest abysses of numbness. I have subsisted in a dystopian environment for months. I rearranged my life to work from home by taking a job with a company based in Atlanta. As the firm implodes into its own maelstrom of bankruptcy and confusion, my interactions there have been limited, as well. However, though I am practiced at this kind of separation, I am profoundly unsettled.

The dire predictions and mounting closures feel like a pall of doom folding into the gaps of our lives, slowly and steadily suffocating us. It’s not fear of catching the disease that troubles me most. It’s the fear of our fraying social fabric. In recent days, I have become keenly aware that my brittle inner being is now mirrored by the precariousness of the world surrounding me. There is certain terror in that. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to feel safe. Life, all of it, is so very fragile. Perhaps, that’s the essential lesson. Stability is an illusion, as much as it is manipulated, orchestrated, packaged and spun. Who can you trust? Why weren’t we better prepared? Who knew what and when? Was there biohazard release from a research lab in Wuhan? Was it on purpose or an accident? With fake news, Trump’s arrogant incompetence, the Russian agenda, data mining, Big Pharma, The Family, Fox News, CNN, and even MSNBC, where do we turn for truth?

Likewise, as I grapple with my internal grief, every effort to find answers to the questions around Elliot’s death and life delivers parallel rabbit holes and partial veracity. Why did Amazon Web Services (AWS) delete every trace of his business account when their customer service people strung me along for five months assuring me that the appropriate legal documentation would grant me access as his heir? Infuriating. Why is the Human Resources Department at Global Payments, Elliot’s employer, still giving me the administrative runaround about accessing his 401K? Why did the only witnesses to Elliot’s accident refuse to provide their contact information — and the police did not investigate? Why did the Texas Attorney General deny my private investigator’s request for photos of cars driving on that deadly ramp where Elliot lost his precious life?

Is it time to stop asking why?

Maybe.

I am just so damn tired, and it’s hard to imagine how I will ever process and internalize all of this — ever. Mostly, I feel alone. My reclusive son, Ian, Elliot’s younger brother, is here with me, but he is not truly present —  perpetually cloistered, as well, in his room and virtual computer universe. I wish I could be his rock, but I feel more like his handful of sand. My grief seems to well up in the void of isolation. It feels different now — so ubiquitous and inescapable. Social distance and virtual interaction — they have become de rigeur.

For the next couple of weeks, I have decided to just be —  no expectations, no questions. I will cherish the surprising moments, the shiny flickers of glitter dancing in the sunlight, when and if they come — paying a visit to an elderly neighbor; lingering for an hour on the phone with a friend I have not spoken with since Elliot’s death; losing myself in a particularly delightful episode of Schitt’s Creek; “Zooming” with my soul sisters, or taking in the healing wisdom of my cherished online writing group. Though these moments feel somehow incongruous within the rest of life, they are the treasures.

The times are overwhelming. There is no exit. Nothing is certain, and I struggle daily with the fundamental concepts of faith. So, I must try to make peace with uncertainty and notice every glimmer of the light . . . that’s returning.

That’s all we can do.

 

 

Terms of Debridement: Living into Grief

“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
(Henry VI, Part III, Act II, Scene I, Line 85)

I have learned something important about grief from wound care.

Last summer, before my days shifted into darkness and just before everything I have ever been sure of in my world dissolved, I wrote an essay about the curious medical language of wound care.

In May and June of 2018, I accompanied my then 94-year-old aunt Virginia on her weekly visits to the Presbyterian Hospital Dallas wound clinic to treat the stubborn, angry wound she suffered from somehow hitting the outside of right ankle on her wheelchair. It simply refused to heal. The folks at Presbyterian Village North, her assisted living home, had run out of options.

At that time, little did I know that in a matter of weeks, my precious son Elliot would soar over the miserably inadequate barrier on the LBJ TEXpress entrance ramp – while riding his beloved motorcycle.

Little did I know that my brilliant firstborn son, a truly astonishing human, would take his last shallow breath in just over a month at that same hospital – where he also took his first breath 26 years prior. It’s all too much to process and handle for this bereaved mom. To tell you the truth, it takes every ounce of my depleted energy to barely function every day – still, over a year later. Don’t know how I ever breathe at all? Some days, it takes too much effort, and in some ways, it’s getting more difficult with each passing moment.

One of the reasons is this peculiar and uncomfortable statute of limitations on grief we perpetuate in American culture. Our “get over it, because it makes me uncomfortable” vibe is like living every day with a sheet of Saran wrap on your face. And no one seems to notice you can’t breathe.

I know it’s unpleasant.

I know people mean well. But death sucks. It’s unavoidable. I know they don’t know what to say, but we all need to figure it out – and do a better job seeing each other and caring for each other emotionally. It’s not weakness. We need to stop ranting at each other about all the “big, bad -isms” – and start paying attention to ourselves as individuals with open hearts and tender souls. Being present for each other is what matters – life and death matters. The loss of a child is an emotional wound beyond measure – one you will never get over. You must learn a new way to live. My soul sister Patty says, “If the loss of child were a physical wound, we’d be in the ER.” I’m not saying we all need psychology degrees. It’s about intentional acknowledgement – recognizing the profound wounds of loss – physical and emotional – early and often.

The fact is that we need to talk about the loss to move ahead. I treasure the friends most who say Elliot’s name and ask me to talk about him. His friends Chase, Brian and Alec – they are angels on earth. Overwhelming loss is the deepest, the most insidious kind of wound.

Grief needs air to heal.

We can’t just let it scab over and ignore the tissues below. And, like my aunt’s deep, festering physical wound, an emotional wound often needs debridement. That’s one of the wound words that truly resonates. You may think talking about Elliot will upset me, but that’s exacting what I need. It triggers the pain, but the tears are a tonic. The pain never goes away, anyway. Not ever. And, pain plays a role – signaling that something is horribly wrong, rallying the body’s resources – calling in the Navy Seals of the heart!

Technically, debridement is the term for the medical procedure that deliberately aggravates the wound in order to help it heal. With grief, we must do that – revisit the pain that makes us physically wince. It’s a necessary cringe, but we must not linger there. Telling and retelling our stories – that is our task. Finding situations and people who will listen, allow and support us unconditionally is essential – people who give us the space to remember the losses in our past and foreshadow what they mean for our futures. These people are rare and cherished. Without their divine grace, we will never emerge from this murky miasma (one of Elliot’s favorite words).

With debridement, we remove the unhealthy tissue and promote the healing – exposing a new day. The body is designed to heal, but the muck is heavy. The wound can become senescent or old when the cells are still alive and metabolically active but not able to divide and thrive. They are merely surviving, not thriving . . . senescent.

We can’t let that state persist – with unattended wounds scabbing over, harboring our deepest traumas.