My friend’s father has died. Last week, as it was happening — as she and her family spent agonizing hours of waiting and wondering at the hospital — I searched for the words to write to her. I was at a loss, so I kept typing the same things again and again in my texts: Thinking about you. Love you. Just checking in.
It wasn’t enough.
“I wasn’t sure of the right thing to say”; “I’m sure I said all the wrong things” — sentiments we all have heard, and said, during times like these. What I learned many years ago was that I wouldn’t remember anyone saying the wrong thing, but I sure as hell would remember who said nothing.
So I continued to text the same things and searched for what I wanted to really say instead.
I bought a Mary Oliver collection and looked for it there. I read this one poem, “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses,” and cried, because it was exactly right, and completely wrong. Anyway, it goes like this:
I step into the painting of the four blue horses.
I am not even surprised that I can do this.
One of the horses walks toward me.
His blue nose noses me lightly. I put my arm
over his blue mane, not holding on, just
He allows me my pleasure.
Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain.
I would rather die than explain to the blue horses
what war is.
They would either faint in horror, or simply
find it impossible to believe.
I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us.
Now all four horses have come closer,
are bending their faces toward me
as if they have secrets to tell.
I don’t expect them to speak, and they don’t.
If being so beautiful isn’t enough, what
could they possibly say?
I didn’t send her the poem, because I was incapable of articulating how Franz Marc and his blue horses and Mary Oliver felt exactly like the hope I wanted her to feel in this time of deep despair, the beginnings of grief. I tried to write, but wrote a shitty poem instead. I read a book. I felt angry at the world that would make my kind friend ever have to sit in a hospital room and wait and wonder.
I didn’t feel good about the outcome. I tried to think positive thoughts, but I knew too much. I’ve been in that kind of room before.
So I read more Mary Oliver.
Recently another friend said to me, “This album will always make me think about this time.” I was playing the new The War on Drugs and I knew exactly what she meant.
This week I’ve been listening to Shannon Lay, a singer I just discovered. I’ve listened to her new album, Living Water, every night, and thought: “This album will always make me think about this time.”
The sparseness of it, the melancholy — listening to it feels like reading that Mary Oliver poem. But I wasn’t going to send my friend songs like “Orange Tree” or “The Moons Detriment” and try to explain what the hell that could possibly have to do with what she’s going through.
Although, like the Pitchfork reviewer wrote, “Living Water is shot through with a kind of ragged hope—not optimism, exactly, but a determined belief in the power of that life force to pull us all toward something like transcendence.”
So, it makes total sense and no sense at all — pretty much exactly like what it feels like to lose a parent. You think you’ll know. You don’t know. And then you do.
This morning I was eating avocado toast cause I’m a real asshole like that and as I stared at my cat Mufasa staring at me, this Frank O’Hara poem popped to mind and I thought I had it — the right words for these feelings. And also fittingly, a poem with a reference to avocado toast.
I’m so brilliant in the mornings!
Turns out, the poem, fittingly called “Poem,” doesn’t have a reference to avocado toast at all and doesn’t make any more sense than Mary Oliver talking about stepping into a painting of horses.
Here it goes:
Light clarity avocado salad in the morning
after all the terrible things I do how amazing it is
to find forgiveness and love, not even forgiveness
since what is done is done and forgiveness isn’t love
and love is love nothing can ever go wrong
though things can get irritating boring and dispensable
(in the imagination) but not really for love
though a block away you feel distant the mere presence
changes everything like a chemical dropped on a paper
and all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement
I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing
I’ll probably never know the right thing to say, and maybe none of us ever will. But as we all search for the words, what counts most is the feeling behind it. I am sure of nothing but this.