By Jen Pastiloff.
How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? ~ Stanley Kunitz The Layers
I read this poem often to my yoga classes and every time I get to that line I choke up. I remember going to Stanley Kunitz’ birthday party when I was a student at NYU. I think it was his 90th and it was in some kind of New Yorky basement, or maybe it was the NYU Law School. My memory of those years went up in smoke at some point. I had just decided I was a poet (it sounds so pretentious now but I really did wake up one day and decide that.) I went and had my black coffee (all I would eat for the day) and decided that I would focus on poetry, that in fact, I may be a bad poet but that I was a poet nonetheless and I had found my focus, finally. I knew why I was here in New York City. If I didn’t want to be a poet or an actor or some other ridiculous thing that was guaranteed to bring me heartache and no money than why wouldn’t I have gone to Rutgers or somewhere cheaper in New Jersey?
So yes, I would be a poet.
I went to Stanley’s birthday party and was so touched by all the poets reading his works, except they weren’t reading them, they didn’t have to. They’d had them memorized. They were just reciting them as an act of love, an offering, an honor.
How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?
That was probably the first time I heard that line. Or maybe not. Maybe I had read it and underlined it and memorized it but it was the first time I really heard it, there in that basement or church or NYU Law Library. I was hit by the reality that I’d had a feast of losses already and I was only 19 years old.
What if kept going, I remember thinking. What if every year I lose more people and things and memories? How will I ever reconcile this? How will I survive?
I’ve reconciled some of it, as to be expected at my age.
Why do some people experience such loss, so much mass at once, while others buoy through deaths and years like they are untouchable? When really no one is. They simply haven’t been hit yet by the storm and maybe they never will until they are. And by then they will have prepared greatly. Whereas some people never get to prepare or else they spend their whole lives (or what seems to be that) preparing and yet it doesn’t make a difference. Like my dear friend Emily Rapp, whose son Ronan is dying at any moment of the fatal Tay Sachs. She was hit with no warning and no matter how much preparing and how many lifeboats she throws in his little boat, he will sink. He is un-saveable.
I’ve reconciled some but what of those I haven’t? How does the heart reconcile? Does it?
We move on. We get up and go and come home and pour a glass of wine, or not, but we never fully get over things. What does getting over even mean? It sounds like some kind of vengeful expression that they would make a movie out of like Die Hard. Getting Over It Part 7.
I am going to get one over on you. I am getting over. It suggests that there is something underfoot, something to be trampled on and overcome.
My heart does not want to overcome or trample on my losses but rather assimilate them into my life so I can function like a normal adult with responsibilities and schedules.
Right now I stay in pajamas unless I have to work and I worry about having a girl because how do you even braid hair? I worry about having children period.
How do you make a diorama? How do you do algebra? What if I don’t want to watch their soccer practice?
What is a normal adult?
I know these questions are popping up because I am having a birthday in a few days and my mortality is at stake, and, as you know, my father died at the age I am turning when I was a child but still, I feel like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight. What if I don’t want the Prince?
I don’t know what I want. But this can’t be. I am a woman of a certain age. I am not young. (Yes, yes, in comparison, I am sure some of you reading are rolling your eyes and saying “Girl, you are so so young.”) But I am not. Not in baby-making years, I am not at all. Trust me on this and don’t condescend. I am young at heart and maybe young looking, but when it comes to ovaries and eggs I am meh at best.
Do I need to reconcile all my losses before I bring life into the world? Do I need to do the proverbial getting of my shit together before I make a move? What do I do? Who do I ask?
I have always fantasized about having someone to ask that would give me answers which is why it was especially devastating that my father died so young because although I am sure his answers would be fifty per cent bullshit I would take them as The Word happily and without question. (I would!)
Here I am a teacher to so many and a leader and I am searching for someone to tell me what to do. As I have written about before, the worst is deciding what to eat. Recently, in Bali, I went out to eat with a student, and, as is my way, couldn’t decide what I wanted and hemmed and hawed and changed my order and fretted. She said something to the effect of I have never seen that side of you.
This is one reason I don’t hang out with many people. What side? The pressure I feel to be somebody that always inspires, that always knows what to do and what to order and what to eat.
I don’t even know if I want a fucking baby and I am in my late late thirties.
This side of me.
So yes, there is this side of me. The side of me that doesn’t know. Who has lost a lot. Who has anxiety, still, yes. Who sometimes doesn’t leave her house and who would prefer to write than teach a yoga private and who tends to take things too personally and drinks too much coffee and gets stuck in the past and novels too.
I have reconciled those things for the most part (some I’d like to keep). But the questions are looming. (I am not looking for you to give me answers.)
I am looking to never stop asking the questions. To always look and uncover and dig and smell and retrieve and throw back.
If I stop asking the questions I die.
It may take a while for my body to die but my mind and soul and all other parts of me will wither away if the questions stop. The heart can never reconcile all of it until it stops beating.
I think that is why that line chokes me up. I know the truth behind it.
How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses? It doesn’t.
Some turns to legend, some to fact, some to dust and the rest, well, the rest you bury inside of you and reach for it when you are drowning knowing it will be there. And it will.