A few years back i spent a year living in the city of Marrakech, Morocco. It was an important year for me. I had just lost my mother at the age of 26 to cancer and I was likely more lost than I’d ever been. The amazing thing about a time like that is, you are so open and tender that grace can pour in to an ordinarily organized and cordoned off heart.
I am posting here, an excerpt of something I wrote in that year (with a few editing updates) because this story also deals with floods. This week, the West has been overtaken with water and the flooding is extensive. The Gila River for example, rose from 15 inches to 9 feet in the length of a day. It is a fairly surprising turn of events in the depth of a harsh and ongoing drought. But it brings up these childhood memories for me, of the times when the Gila was flooding. It was always unexpected and thrilling. I know for those who have lost their homes in Colorado, thrilling isn’t the word that will come to mind for them. And I also pray for those families at this time. But, in childhood memory, it is what it is. Wild, amazing, electrifying, intense, humbling, beautiful even.
From “Unreal Condidtions” 2008
First there was wind and then there was rain. The red walls of Marrakech and the streets are strafed with remnants of things devoured. This ordinarily clean city, left, in the wake of a short-lived storm of dust, is dirty and used. Then the rain briefly makes itself known, a crush, a false alarm, a loosening of the noose. Suddenly there is hope again, and a peace descends. The heat and the ease of life, continues on. I not so secretly love this weather. I love the wind when it is hot and when it brings the heels of rain upon its shoulders. The wind is like the sound of so many things that reside inside of me, it mirrors a part forgotten; it is a memory of a home long gone. It breaks something open with elegant force. It is like the sound of a chain popping off of its track, the sound of bumpy streets, the feel of the tornado and of the flood. It seems perfectly alright today, to seek the rest that comes afterward. Shut the windows and rejoice in the stillness of what is inner. I don’t know quite why, but all I want is to go home to New Mexico, for reasons that have words and for those that do not.
Where I teach, at the American Language Center, I have this class I am growing to love. They are teenagers and some of them, shine brilliantly in this new framework, this new language. Sometimes we have to study grammar. Mostly I would prefer to just hear their stories, to tell them some of mine. But today we learned the language of regret. Or at least, we learned to use it grammatically. The ‘unreal past conditional’; it is the grammar that says: “If I had only known, I would have…” or maybe it is more precise to say “I wouldn’t have.” But no, I know myself far better that that. I know that if there is something to be touched, some love to be known even if it be crazy, reckless or forlorn, I will seek it. The ‘unreal’ part of the language is this: if I could have done something differently, I would have. It is too late, when the glass has been cracked on that floor. It is too late when that season of perfection is over, a summer in Idaho, a hundred miles from anywhere, a garden that has withered and been tamed. This language is connected for me to how grief works. Grief begins by asking, “what if?” The pain comes in the realization that there was likely very little you could have done.
I have been told, that you can only change your own feelings. I believe that no one who loves poetry or painting or language would ever buy into this sentiment. I love all these things desperately. I am immured in both the change and the changelessness of those inner landscapes. I think you can change your behaviors maybe, sometimes your actions. But feelings, they are a flood. I know that there are some emotions that are so big, breakingly huge in the inside smallness of me, that their job is merely in making way for a new floodplain, a new beginning. These feelings are unstoppable; they come unbidden. Grief has its very own language, which includes memory, regret, time, place and things even more elusive than this: love, childhood, innocence, loss of innocence.
When I was a little girl, my grandfather would take me down to see what the Gila River had done after a big flood. I barely remember his words. I remember them only from the stories my mother told me, and I remember his eyes, sparkly in a rough face. I remember his love had a sharpness and dignity to it and that he gave it freely to me. I remember what we saw together, just us two, after these storms—all the beautiful huge Cottonwoods, strewn about along the banks like toys, bridges and roads washed away in service of water. Stones and debris piled themselves into huge arced curves around the road, or the place that would now be river. I learned something there about what comes without warning, about what happens when the water escapes its confines. It brings destruction and renewal, simultaneous, majestic even, something to be in awe of. How often now do I let myself be awed? Perhaps it is too dangerous for the everyday, but I miss those seasons, I miss the huge scary water out there below us, as we stood on the eroded banks, doing its thing, making its way, eventually to the sea through a corridor of impossible desert. I miss the wreckage of the bridge, the ending of arbitrarily enforced human order, the whole of life, giving itself over to the moment of destruction that is creation, fierce in its passage. I miss the surrender to that wildness, and its importance to a whole town of people. I miss being a part of that collective acceptance.
If I had only known, If I had only known…
I would have spent more time there with my mother. I would have loved her more deeply. I would have been less afraid. If I had known what would come afterward, if I had known about the big silence that is filled with the strangest, inexplicable longing. Had I known, I would have greedily taken what those last hours had to offer me.
I dreamt of her just the other night, and she was a corpse. I wasn’t sure why she was there, but she told me that she had to let me know, that the baby girl, inside of her, was showing her the way home, setting her free. Afterward, waking up with an ache in my chest, all I could think is that I remembered the way her hair smelled, and how much I never want to forget it. And more than that, I want to feel it again. I want that afternoon back, when she laid her head in my lap and I sang her all my favorite songs and we wept together, in the afternoon, just me and my mom. This is the language of goodbye, the language of loving, the language of regret. Had I known, I would have spent more time there. This is what I tell myself, when I don’t want to tell myself the truth. When I don’t know how to cross that silence like an abyss from where I used to be, to what I am now. A cavern of uselessness, brightened only slightly by the falsity of remorse. A canyon inside being carved into new shape like a flood, like a dangerous rainstorm, like the empire of destruction.