The wind is howling outside my window, and I’ve been dreaming of death again. For over a week now, every night, I struggle against the current. The undertow pulls at my ankles. The water fills my throat. The sky is black with a faint green tinge, the way it used to look when I was a kid and the tornadoes were rushing in. We’d huddle in the stairwell, in case the windows shattered.
I forget that this is what spring looks like every year. I can’t get down to the River because the snow still blocks the way. As it does on all my favorite nearby trails. It’s worse than snow. With the melting underway, it’s a crust of brittle ice over slush and mud. There’s an invitation to a bruised hip. I’m stuck on paved roads. The daffodils still seem too far away. And my hands are craving the dirt in a way they haven’t in years, since the garden was fresh, and I couldn’t keep myself away from it.
These days, my garden is a land of words. Ever since I started writing again two months ago, it’s been a compulsion and a calling. I want to stop, but the words keep coming, “rushing out to play through the broken dyke,” in William Stafford’s phrase.
Joan Didion says that she writes to know what she thinks. I write to know who I am. I plant my words, not knowing whether they’re weeds or tulips, and then I watch them as they grow, holding my breath all the time. This gust of life, the undertow at my ankles, terrifies me. It comes in a rush of “who do you think you are?” or “is it any good?” or “it wasn’t that bad.”
Really, I fear my own power. I fear the truth within me that will not be put aside. How can we stand in front of our own lives? How can we look at them directly, and say, “Yes, here I am”? Where do we find the nerve to stand upright?
I’ve had Marie Howe’s poem “The Gate” running through my mind as I’ve been dreaming of death and listening to the wind.
I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.
We are only here for a while. Some, done at twenty-eight. There is not enough time to shrink back. So I fumble for the gate with the words that come to me. I stand tall as I can. I let the water pull me under and trust that I can breathe even there.
I find the nerve because I must, and because I know that God has brought me to this place. Maybe it’s as simple as that.