In the recent weeks I have been terrifically busy. Florida State University is abuzz with students and activity which has in years past filled me with hope and excitement. Fall has a nip in the air, and I smile at the end of the day when I hear the Marching Chiefs practicing as I leave my office because regardless of what has happened in the past 7 months, that cacophony of drums and trumpets is the same as it has been since I was a student here in the late 1990’s. To see the new young men and women at the precipice of new experiences, different friends with their lives spreading in front of them immediately takes me back to my own early collegiate days. I was not always as focused on my studies as I should have been, sometimes opting to hang out in my sorority house TV room watching Titanic or Girls Just Wanna Have Fun with my friends instead of going to Biology Lab (sorry Mom and Dad!) but those experiences were just as enriching to this young 19 year old. I grew up in those four years of college and found my focus and love of language through classes and experiences I hold dear to my heart like memories forever captured like fossils in amber. But now I am older and not surprisingly none of these young students mistake me for “that girl” in their Intro to Communications class. If anything, they might think I’m teaching the course, but I still feel a tug in my heart as I watch their young shoulders carrying backpacks and pedaling bikes to class.
Part of my college experience was an awakening in the world of literary theory through the numerous literature classes I took as an English major. From Milton’s Paradise Lost to modern Irish literature I analyzed and thought deeply on topics such as how James Joyce’s later works influenced the oft-ignored Samuel Beckett short stories. I spent countless hours in the study carrels at Strozier Library working on my papers on these topics, but what captured me most was feminist theory and specifically Virginia Woolf.
One thing that I always was affected by was the image of her suicide. Virginia Woolf was suffering from crippling depression in the early 1940’s, one day she put on her overcoat, filled her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse near her home, and drowned herself. Now before you go dashing to the phones to call the authorities or see this anecdote as a transition to me talking about ending it all, fear not. That is not my point.
But the thought of someone putting on her coat, perhaps brown and green houndstooth or tan camel hair or black wool, and filling her pockets with heavy rocks to weigh her down as she ended her life was an image that stuck with me as a young feminist literary scholar in college. I poured over A Room of One’s Own and Mrs Dalloway, and pondered hours over essays that praised and reviled Woolf and other feminist scholars and authors. In short, I put my nose in a book and occasionally raised my angry fist against patriarchy. But that vision of her brilliance cut short by her own doing…it haunted me.
My mind returns to that image of filling one’s pockets with stones to weigh one down in many moments of my bereavement. I find that there are times in dark shadows where I am searching the shores of my mind for rocks to place in my own metaphorical pockets. I look at the smooth, round pebbles and great craggy stones and feel them weighing me down as I imagine me placing them in silk lined pockets of the black Brooks Brothers wool coat that Wesley loved so well. I find sorrow in moments that could be joyful; Julia throwing her little arms around me at night and hugging me so hard I fall against the pillows, laughing with friends over some frivolous little joke, discovering a song that Wesley put on my iPhone that I did not know was there. I feel joy but then guilt, sorrow, heaviness. Julia should be hugging Wesley’s neck too. Wesley should be taking the joke a little too far as he was wont to do, I should be calling him to say how much I love that song he surreptitiously sneaked onto my music playlist. I take moments that should lift my spirits like a bird in flight, and I feel my emotions tether me to the ground. My shoulders stoop as I grab dirty and jagged rocks of despair and bitterness and shove them deep, muddying the silk lined pockets.
I yearn for the joy, hope and the grace I felt in the early days following Wesley’s death. Over and over I extolled how blessed we were to have the time we had together, that I was thankful for our rich lives and the incredible mercy shown to us by God. Logically, I know those first dark days were a time of shock and that I was not living in the permanence of Wesley being really, truly gone, but that fierce and determined woman who was so present then seems far away now. It is as if the soft cocoon of anesthesia has worn off. A month ago I had a lightness of heart and saw blessings in every day that had blue skies and in every sweet and kind thing Julia did or said whereas, now I struggle to see bright days when my eyes often cannot focus on the beauty through tear-clouded eyes.
But my shoulders hurt under this weight, I find myself brought to my knees by my desire for my old life, my real life. And it is when on my knees that I can look up, I can hear the stones of hurt and bitterness clicking in my metaphorical pockets and feel the weight momentarily lifted. I can pull the stones from my pockets examining them and seeing the beauty of their shape, the sharp ruggedness and find the beauty in the loss I have felt and still feel. I have loved, desperately and with my whole heart. I was loved likewise. That is the beauty and the tragedy I believe at its core. We had such blissful happiness with most of the days of our lives filled with terrifically happy moments of safety and comfort. We were blessed beyond measure. My stones, not ugly and burdensome are monuments of grace and solidity. I place the stones around me forming words of love and peace, each rock a reminder of not pain but love shared and I realize I’m not Virginia Woolf whose terrible grief and depression drove her under but Katherine Cline whose grief is measured in stones and rocks and bits of earth that I tread on with my husband and my love. There is a peace in the pain if I look at the stones surrounding me forming words of comfort and care.