Posted in Lanscape of Loss

The Shelf Life of Pain

detail, Fernandex, visipix.com

I think pain surpasses Twinkies and even hot dogs when it comes to shelf life.

27 years after I left my family for a semester abroad, the guilt still burns.

In my therapist chair, I discover that it’s taken the form of a red-hot poker, lodged in my side.

She suggests I remove it; But I’m afraid of what it will take with it.

“What is it saying?” she asks.

“I’m WRONG,” I reply.

Tears spring to my eyes, and I remember the anguish of abandoning my younger siblings to a family that was falling apart; while I went off to England for months of travel and fun.

But what does this have to do with going to South America all these years later?

I’m 47. My siblings are all grown. My mother is dead. My father has moved on. There’s no family falling apart here, just my lifelong partner of 25 years and the gift of two sons, both old enough to thoroughly enjoy two weeks without Mom.

I make an incision in my side, like the one I saw in the painting that hung in my grandfather’s office. At 4, that canvass is bigger than me and the scene it depicts of the first surgery, is older than all of us combined.  In my minds eye, I can still see the gaping flesh, the exposed tissue, the blood; but now it is I who is on that table; having “I’m WRONG” removed from inside.

I throw this red, hot poker into the lake and hear it sizzle and watch turn black with cold, and then I wrap my raw flesh in comfrey leaves and gold-specked calendula cream.

“What would like to feel instead of “I’m WRONG?” my therapist asks.

And I can’t imagine anything else; it’s been with me too long.

I massage my incision, and ponder the shelf life of pain, and finally the words come, the ones I needed to speak to all of them, and to myself:

“I’m MINE.”

Kelly Salasin, the Ideas of March, 2011

addendum:

After the surgery, I gather in a sacred circle with my seven siblings, plus one; and each of us takes his turn speaking the words:

“I’m MINE.”

(try it on for size)

Posted in Lanscape of Loss, Markers, Poetry

The Ghost of Dr. George

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.

~Sonnet # 73

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Kelly Salasin, Autumn 2017

This poem returns to haunt me each Fall in the voice of Dr. George–my freshman English professor at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, 1981.

It’s only now, 25 years later, as I enter the Autumn of my own life, that I begin to understand why Professor George was moved to tears when he recited this particular sonnet of Shakespeare’s:

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

At 17, I couldn’t fathom how a poem could make anyone cry–let alone a grown man in a suit–who was old but only generically so, like everyone else over 30.

It was abroad in London, my junior year, when I got word that Professor George was dead.

Upon whose boughs which shake against the cold,
bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

At 20, death was still so unfamiliar that Dr. George’s shook me to my roots, and also filled me with guilt for all the complaints I’d lodged against his. All those sonnets that he made us memorize!  The time he kicked me out of class for a “poor” answer!  The C he gave me on my descriptive essay.

Given his preoccupation with maudlin things like death, I think it was my topic that he dismissed with that C, because it’s a good piece of writing. I still have it–with its grease stains–because I ordered from Overbrook to immerse myself as I wrote about my beloved Pizza.

How then did his words, his spirit, his sonnet creep into my life?

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,

A few years after graduation, my grandfather was told that he didn’t have much longer to live. Upon receiving this crushing news, I sent him a letter and tucked this poem inside, hand-written, not knowing, at 25, how it would land; but he called almost right away to tell me how much it meant to him that I was willing to connect with what lie ahead for him; while so many others dismissed the reality in favor of talking about recovery.

Which by and by black night doth take away,

In my thirties, I relocated to New England where, as a new mother, I began to pay closer attention to the shifting seasons. I watched as the world outside my window moved from blush to green to gold to bare–and I was moved to write. Poetry.

It was often early October, when the Ghost of Dr. George comes to call; and I hush him, telling him it’s too soon to speak of bare ruined choirs; but he silently points toward the inevitable:

            Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

Typically, he teases me, with the repetition of the first two lines. Which lets me know. It’s not my time.

And then I wonder, did he know?

Is that what brought tears to his eyes when he offered himself to the disdainful audience of immortal freshman?

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

I’m not sure why Dr. George visits me year after year, but I’m glad he does. When I was at the University, I thought of him as a tyrant, but now I know that he–and his tyranny–were a gift to the ungrateful.

It was George who INSISTED that we KNOW the meaning of EACH and every WORD in each and every poem we recited; so that after two semesters with him, I could no longer say:  I just don’t get poetry.

Professor George forced an understanding, and with each year, it grows–until I am moved to tears by poetry–which no doubt will be among my companions when at last my own time comes:

As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.