Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
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Blindly Threading the Needle

Every summer I marvel at morning glories wrapping up my porch like spiral stairs. Every fall I study auburn leaves, watch the neighbor tinker in his yard. Like many of my essays, “Beyond Grief” began with observations that breed curiosity—curiosity I obsessively and compulsively essay into stories. As I sat on my porch listening to a foreign accent roll off my neighbor’s tongue while he shuffled through old items in his yard, the questions began: Where is he from? Why has he been hoarding this junk for so long?Eventually, other questions began to surface—questions that had been lingering in my subconscious mind long before sitting on the porch: How’s my mother doing? Do her traumas still chase her, like mine chase me?

With “Beyond Grief,” I wasn’t surprised that more narratives appeared as I continued to describe my setting. My job, then, was to weave them together. The tinkering neighbor, my uncle’s suicide, my mother’s grief, our shared inability to communicate. My task was to first figure out how they all connected, and then translate that discovery onto the page. Once those threads became dependent on one another—new meaning accumulating with each paragraph, the sum of them illuminating previously veiled truths—I knew the essay had found purpose.

Still, it took nearly a year of revising, ignoring the essay for a few months and then revising again with a fresh perspective, to realize the parallels between the neighbor’s hoarding and my mother’s grief—to connect my mental landscape with the physical one before me. What’s essential to all of my work is that in spite of the initial uncertainty new writing almost always guarantees, I instinctively and necessarily continue on without a map. That’s the beauty of essaying: identifying an obsession and following it down a dark path until I finally arrive somewhere new, somewhere ripe with meaning, somewhere that doesn’t necessarily guarantee answers but guarantees the joy and exhilaration and discovery of the pursuit. Even after I believed “Beyond Grief” was finished, when I began to contextualize it within my memoir-in-essays, Items to Survive, its meaning grew. As the exquisite poet and memoirist Richard Hoffman taught me years ago, putting one thing next to another—putting one image or vignette or essay beside the next—almost always yields new meaning and truth.  

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