With Intersection, her monthly column, celebrated poet Chelsea Dingman enters a place of questions left hanging—of lyric understanding, of addiction, and womanhood, and politics, and death.
The Year of Magical Thinking
I pass Joan Didion’s National Book Award-winning tome at SEATAC between flights. I’ve watched the Netflix documentary and hear her reciting certain lines. The title follows me through concourses, past gates. A year ago, I had two children. Now, I have three.
The sun is bright outside the windows, as though Washington State won’t be touched by winter. Water all around, holding the sky at bay.
I’m afraid. I’m not sure why. I keep walking.
The cysts in my breasts have grown to golf balls. I sleep on my stomach. They migrate. I wake in the mornings & hunt them. I want them gone.
Disappearance cannot be commanded.
I revolve between haunted and sad. My writing reflects this. Yet, on the surface, I am sun-filled. Shiny. Is this what it means to live with the past?
Or is this how one reinvents oneself?
[I dressed as Madonna for Halloween four years in a row as a preteen. Perhaps, I was trying to learn something as she pivoted in her career choices. How to embody the future. How not to be caught wanting.]
Every time I leave the house without my newborn daughter, I feel like she might not exist. Like I might’ve dreamt her. Like I’m not sure what is real. It’s been four months already.
I give a reading in Georgia. I fly to Phoenix for my older son’s hockey tournament. I meet people. I work. I sleep. I write. I read. I can’t think. I get dressed and my body has shrunk to its pre-baby state with the stress of the last few months. Or maybe, it shrunk to convince me that I didn’t have a baby at all. Some days, I can’t tell.
I am separate. A(part). From my life, my body, my poetry.
What is postpartum? An ending? A hormonal imbalance? Or is it the beginning of the self all over again? Born anew. Mother of a daughter. Of three kids. Of dragons.
The walls of a hotel room whisper: how could you leave her?
Indictments—ti(me) / (natural) childbirth / love / a closed door / voices of the dead / apologia / a dream come true / the sonnet / the future / … /
In The White Album, Joan Didion begins: We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
Did I tell myself the story of having a daughter and my body believed it? Is that how she came to live inside me and I came to live?
My daughter, Willa, cries in another night, another room. I am not sleeping in Athens. I am sick. I am not breathing well. I am not aware of her. I am angry. I can’t believe I could forget so easily. I can’t believe I let myself forget. I can’t believe she is out there somewhere.
What cruel game is this, to hide what one loves from oneself?
Is this the power of fear? What I don’t remember will not hurt me?
A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.
After my grandmother lost three children, she lived in front of her TV set in a lounge chair until she was 96 years old.
When I was nine, she told me that World War III was coming. Her husband had escaped Poland in the wake of WWII. I hid in her bathroom and cried. My father came to find me kneeling over the bathtub, a makeshift pew. I prayed to Prime Minister Mulroney not to get Canada involved in any military conflicts.
My father died a few months later. It turned out that my grandmother was right, on some level.
At our house after my father’s funeral, my grandmother sat on the winding staircase with my pregnant aunt, her last living child (of four children). It was the last time that she visited us. It was the last time I saw her outside of her chair, though she’d live for two more decades.
When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.
Paradox: to have so much and to be empty. Even so. Even still.
When I was suffering miscarriages, the presence of the absent child was larger than anything I could touch.
I’ve described guilt as the bird that beats itself against the world and snaps its own neck.
The world outside is cold. Or it’s not. I’ve been known to be wrong.
Didion talks about how dislocating grief can be.
I’ve been trying to find myself inside my body lately.
From Merriam Webster: Definition of dislocation
a: displacement of one or more bones at a joint : LUXATION
b: a discontinuity in the otherwise normal lattice structure of a crystal
c: disruption of an established order
Displacement. Discontinuity. Disruption.
Outside [as the scope of a global pandemic shifts], there is new fear and grief. I wonder if we weren’t already grieving together before this, as a global community.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
Often, there is nothing as isolating as having a new baby. This is what no one tells you.
The baby is growing daily. So is the global crisis. So is the fallout.
At the end of Blue Nights, when describing what it is like to rise again and again to the fact of her daughter’s absence, Didion says:
I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is.
The fear is not for what is lost.
What is lost is already in the wall.
What is lost is already behind the locked doors.
The fear is for what is still to be lost.
You may see nothing still to be lost.
Yet there is no day in her life where I do not see her.
I think I’ve been hiding from myself. The fear is for what is still to be lost.
At home, my daughter slow-smiles at me. I can’t see myself in her face. I can’t see the future anywhere around. I realize that fear is a weapon. I’ll need it. I’ll need it to live long enough to see her through this life.
A child’s game comes to mind: Mother, may I—
May I know how to love, to accept love.
May I live a long life for my daughter.
May I not outlive her.