I have been grief nesting. Anger cleaning and sorrow cheese-making. Despair canning. Trying to enter the circle of passing on gifts, heartbreak jam, because the stories coming out of Portland about three men and the young women they were compelled to protect from hatred have shaken me at my core.
Here’s the thing about stories. You don’t get to pick and choose which ones affect you. You’re not the one who decides why a story of hijabed daughters and dutiful fathers and idealistic boys just sprung into adulthood, of autistic poets and strangers helping strangers in the churning debris of a failed mental health system will slay your heart more than any of the other terrible things that happen every single day.
But grief has a process, and the first step is denial. And denial, for me, moves quickly into anger, and anger into jam.
I have finally cracked the code for strawberry jam. The jam I made with my sons, 4 and 7, in the depths of my sadness, jelled perfectly. I looked at it like it was a foreign body. I am no master. It is the first time I have made jam that is a perfect suspension. The secret is Pomonas Universal Pectin. This is only to say that it’s a secret to exactly nobody, just us until we finally bought some.
I stir the jam to stay away from the news, which came nine days ago, heard first at a gathering of friends of s’mores of all things. See, we’re living the #smuglife in Oregon right now. Everything’s amazingly amazing. In the time since I first heard the news I have picked five flats of strawberries, filled 17 jars of strawberry jam, made two batches of chevre, two batches of banana chocolate buckwheat muffins, eight quarts of lentil soup, made ham hock broth, dried one large tray of dried chamomile tea, and cleared six boxes of unused clothing and toys out of our house.
Nesting is a process of deciding what you can live with.
Here’s a completely inept parallel about the moment I realized I was a grief nester. Whitney Houston had just died of some terrible cocktail of drugs, and I found the only way to deal with it was to blast “Nothing if I don’t have you,” while anger-cleaning my kitchen floor. A body dies, the floor sparkles.
It was as much a surprise to me as anybody. I’m a terrible housekeeper, after all, and my tolerance for mess and grime and detritus is actually quite high until someone dies in a stupid way. Come to think of it, there’s no such thing as the worst kinds of death, it all sucks pretty hard, but one category comes close for me: Death by societal failure.
For days there was something me preventing me from sharing my grief, something that made me channel it into cottage industry instead. I identify it as this sinking feeling that I am not entitled to grieve for complete strangers. That if I am struck down so completely by these particular heroes, why not others? Why not all of them?
My friend Kathleen tells me this when I finally post something on Facebook: “Heroes rise to these occasions and are not felled, really, but in reality, rather, their Spirits are released into the World to re-invigorate Her, and to continue to do their Work through all of us.”
I feel better for a moment. If just to know Kathleen.
My friend Marcie reminds me I am an empath and that it is okay, it is my superpower.
Em Path. Suddenly the world makes sense.
By now we have drawn labels for all of the jars and have listed all of the people we shall give them to. They have silly names like “Estate Jam,” or “Dash’s 2017 Jam.” My 7-year-old is just at the age when he is starting to understand the allure of a value-added product, and he wants to brand them all with his name, so I let him. Even though it was the 4-year-old who hulled the berries and stirred the pot with me.
I know what belongs on the label.
I know the stages of grief, and the final one can no longer be acceptance. I have responded to tragedy by hunkering down and protecting what is mine, by processing with my hands what you can’t with your heart.
But now it is time to look outward. I am still deciding what there is to do, action, not acceptance. I am still thinking about how to turn a dumpster fire of a world into organic compost for a strawberry.