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Paula J. Lambert


I’m in stasis. It began for me in December when my father died. The family was with him when he passed away, and we had a lovely funeral. But his remains could not be buried until spring. Dying in winter, when the ground is frozen, puts everyone in a state of suspension that’s entirely surreal. There should be closure, but there’s not. Even though we watched him die. Even though we had the funeral. Even though he was cremated. His ashes were to be buried in the lot where his headstone had been erected years before. My parents did their pre-funeral arrangements ages ago; their names and birth dates were carved in the stone with just that other date left blank. Even when December 19, 2019, was carved into that stone, we waited. Stasis. We were expecting he’d be buried in March. But then things shut down. No one knew how anything was going to work, and as more and more people started to die, the funeral homes were quickly overwhelmed. “It’s a nightmare,” my sister told me, when I asked if there was any word yet about dad. We started to plan for April. My dad was on a ventilator before he died. When it was removed, my mother and all six children held hands in a circle around his bed. His death was unexpected but beautiful. It was horrific, tragic. But we were together. He reached for my mother’s hand. What better way for the spirit to leave the body? Ventilators began to be in the news constantly, and I understood for the first time, truly, what the word “trigger” means. I was having terrible nightmares, the kind where you wake up in full paralysis, trapped in your own body. I’d drift back into the dream, always trapped in a room or in a house where someone was beating down the door trying to get in. When I’d wake for real, my body was exhausted with the struggle of trying to move, every muscle aching like I’d overdone it at the gym. That was sleep for me. But dreams are good medicine. I’ve been doing dream work for years and learned a long time ago that bad dreams portend good things. I used to have the most awful, bloody dismemberment dreams until I understood they weren’t about death; they were about rebirth. When things come apart, they have to be put together again—in new ways. These pandemic dreams were all about somebody needing to break through. I started writing 30/30’s in April, one poem a day for each day of National Poetry Month. I missed, I think, about three days, but on other days I wrote two or three. One day I wrote five. At the end of the month I’d written 33 poems, and since I’d already written two at the end of March, I counted my total as 35. I posted every one on Facebook. I did everything you’re not supposed to do. Don’t show new work too soon. For god’s sake, don’t make it public. But people were responding. Editors were sending private messages asking me to send them work. I lost track of how many people messaged me saying, “Please keep doing this. Please keep going. This is helping.” When this COVID crisis began, I knew the creatives were going to be helping everyone get by. We do the emotional work most people either can’t do or won’t do. We know how to process really difficult emotions. That’s how we live every day. That’s why it was important to me to post every single poem, and sure enough, the ones that were hardest for me to put out there were the ones that struck the biggest chord with somebody else. It was spooky some days. In the month of April, my cousin’s life partner died of COVID-19. They live in Queens. My father’s youngest brother, a very dear uncle, passed away in Florida. His funeral was live-streamed on Facebook. Everything was dreadful. My father’s burial, scheduled for April 17th, was rescheduled for May. Intact bodies were needing to be buried before they could get to the ashes. So we kept waiting. And I kept writing.

Stasis. My nightmares went away, sort of. The energy behind them was channeled into the poems. I’ve been meeting with my psychiatrist once a week for months. We use FaceTime. We started with talking about the nightmares, but eventually I just read him the poems. It’s the same work. It’s the unconscious rising. A beautiful divine feminine. Memories were coming up, things I hadn’t thought about in decades. Things that never made sense before or that had never been resolved started falling into place so easily. All of it was being processed through the poetry. And none of this was knock-off work. None of it. I’ve been producing the best work of my life. I put together a gorgeous chapbook dedicated to the memory of my cousin’s partner, Tom Waters. It’s called Hyacinth. And I have enough poems now for a full collection, which I’ve already titled How to See the World. I have 65 pages of work as of this writing, and I’m still going. It’s hard to know how this book will end. The world is starting to open back up, but I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. I’m entirely sure it’s too early for anyone to go anywhere. My dad’s graveside service was finally held last Friday, on May 15th. I was completely overwhelmed by it and cried all day. I was the only one not home. I live in Ohio, and my family is in Massachusetts. They filmed it for me. I thought the ceremony was going to be a formality, that the priest would say a few words and that would be it. My sister told me it would last twenty minutes at most. I dressed in black and sat with my husband at 10:00, when it was due to start. They texted a little while later and said it was over, that they were working on the video and would send. My siblings went back to mom’s house, and they sat in the yard. They texted me a really beautiful photo of mom wearing a black dress, a purple sweater, and an N-95 mask. The video I got later was 11 minutes long. The priest did say a few words, but then my sister came forward and read a poem my father had written called “Ode to Eternity.” It began “In the shade of the old apple tree/no one was there but you and me.” It was about meeting my mom and then marrying her, “going on forever” to have each of us six kids, and then grandchildren. It went on and on, and I’d never known my dad had written a poem in his life. Then they played music that had a special meaning no one but we who grew up with him could possibly have understood, and I fell apart completely. Breakthrough. Honest to God, it was beautiful, and it should have given me some kind of closure. But it didn’t. The whole world right now is an open wound. We’re all grieving something that will never be the same. Some of us are angry. More of us should be. Anger is its own energy, and it can be wielded in powerful, positive ways. But I don’t have it yet. I don’t have room for it. I’ve lost track, really, of the love I was trying to channel outward. It’s time for me to receive, I think. That’s something else we’re not very good at. ‘Tis better to give than to receive, right? It’s a lost art, one more thing that got tangled up in translation. First we pitied the receiver. Then we blamed him. Now we kick him when he’s down. We don’t like being on the receiving end of anything; it seems wrong. We’ve lost track of the grace behind it. That’s what all this energy work is, all the dreams and all the poems. It’s an untangling. It’s a miracle, really. It’s what the stasis has been and what it continues to be: a slow, untangling miracle of learning. How to be still. How to just be. How to receive whatever the lesson is, whatever lesson comes next.

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All images other than author photos and artist artwork ©Matthew Batt 2020