Birthday, loss, poetry


December 6, 2012

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.


All Jen Pastiloff’s events and workshops listed here.


Jen Pastiloff is part of the faculty this year at Other Voices Querétaro. It is a vibrant, multi-faceted writing program in Querétaro, Mexico. Focusing on both fiction and nonfiction, as well as on the ins and outs of contemporary publishing. Application: We're keeping it simple! Admission forms and letters of recommendation are not required. Please email Gina at or click photo above. Also on faculty are authors Emily Rapp, Gina Frangello, Stacy Bierlein and Rob Roberge.

Jen Pastiloff is part of the faculty this year at Other Voices Querétaro. It is a vibrant, multi-faceted writing program in Querétaro, Mexico. Focusing on both fiction and nonfiction, as well as on the ins and outs of contemporary publishing. Application: We’re keeping it simple! Admission forms and letters of recommendation are not required. Please email Gina at or click photo above. Also on faculty are authors Emily Rapp, Gina Frangello, Stacy Bierlein and Rob Roberge.


Click to order Simplereminders new book.

Click to order Simplereminders new book.

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  • Reply Lisa December 6, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    :):) so raw and honest…
    Buon Compleanno

  • Reply jamesvincentknowles December 6, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    The most purely honest thing I’ve ever read. (& I’ve read a lot).

    Keep asking questions & you’ll enjoy all there is TO enjoy. So will those who read you.

  • Reply Danny Nicola December 6, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    I’ve been doing nothing but questioning everything today. My attention span is at “bright and shiny”. I’ve literally picked up dozens of books only to shelve them after reading anywhere between a page and a paragraph. I question why all the bullshit? The red tape? The beauracracy? The being fifteen fucking points short on a credit score that would give me the loan that would change my entire life for the better? Questions are good. Answers are better. I keep hearing the answers are within. To wait until the mud has settled within my consciousness and I can see the clear water again. But then, i stir it up with more questions. I try to meditate. To fast. Anything for clarity. And I decide I’ll sleep on it.

    • Reply amyesacove December 8, 2012 at 10:03 am

      I hear you about the shelving book thing! attention span…feeling like I am not “in it”…and that I have no interest in life. listless. But oddly, I am absorbed and pulled in by this entry/blog post…and your reply.

  • Reply Katie D December 6, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    I’ve always loved the word reconcile, without thinking too much about why. Maybe it was just the cadence of the word. But tonight I looked up the definition, and one was “to restore to harmony”. And I think that could be what we’re always searching for…harmony. Why we feel unsettled in dissonance, like at the end of a song whose chords don’t come together in resolution. Why we continue to ask questions, seeking that settlement. Please keep asking, and live for those moments of harmony.

  • Reply Katie December 7, 2012 at 12:55 am

    Jesus christ you are good.

    Moved beyond words. I’m speechless and awe struck and hurting that good kind of hurt when you read something that hits that deep dark tucked-away spot you think you hide so stealthily but really you don’t.

    I love you. Thank you.

  • Reply OneHotMess December 7, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    I am left speechless, which is rare. This was so honest and real and gorgeous. Thank you.

  • Reply Elise Ballard December 7, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?

    this reminds of one I always turn to too:

    “Though nothing can bring back the hour
    Of splendour in the grass,
    of glory in the flower,
    We will grieve not, rather find
    Strength in what remains behind
    In the primal sympathy
    Which having been must ever be;
    In the soothing thoughts that spring
    Out of human suffering;
    In the faith that looks through death,
    In years that bring the philosophic mind.”
    ~William Wordsworth

    Thank you for your beautiful, philosophic mind…xo

  • Reply Lisa December 7, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    I actually kind of feel like you wrote this out of my brain. And it reminds me of all the times, also, that I don’t really want my heart to reconcile my losses… what if I did get over things? Then does that mean they’re not important because they were get-over-able? Does it invalidate things I went through and people I’ve lost? I remember being in the middle of a tragedy and the feeling of when I realized it wasn’t happening anymore… and then it was just life again, except everything was different (and so was I) and I didn’t want it to be. I didn’t want the tragedy part to be over–I wanted it to keep happening forever, because it’s the Rest of Life part that’s really hard, not the moment when things changed forever.

    Seriously. You’re right. I reach down and pull out my tragedy-security-blankets when I need them, and they fit right in with my glass of wine, too much coffee, daytime pajamas, and question-filled life.

  • Reply amyesacove December 8, 2012 at 10:08 am

    Jen, I know everything you feel. Really. Especially the child thing. I am staying in a home right now in Houston and as grateful as I am to have a place to stay during a huge transition of my life, I am locking my door in the hopes that no one will bother me because all i want to do is write, read, sleep and move with the rhythm of my own body which is what I have always done. This house where I am staying is too busy. Its a family house. And I can say right now, I need some Calgon. Anyway, Im babbling. I just wanted to say that i love you, I hear you and can’t wait to see you again, my friend.

  • Reply Lindsey Mead (@lemead) December 8, 2012 at 11:20 am

    This is so lovely. The Layers is one of my favorite poems and I have written about that very line myself ( and think of it all the time. So much to be reconciled with. So much to accept. My personal opinion is that there won’t ever be a day that it all feels sorted, absorbed, reconciled. xox

  • Reply barbarapotter December 11, 2012 at 12:35 am

    I know all sides of you and love the whole that it makes. We all have many sides that spin around and glow with the light. We need them all to be real. The child will come when it is ready to appear if it chooses too. You will know that moment and you do not have to think too much about it. It is already decided. Love you.

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