A letter on grief to my dead brother

I had to call our mother

To tell her you died.

She wasn’t responding to my texts or calls

So I had to call the nursing home where she worked

And have the nurse’s desk page her.

What’s going on, she asked immediately.

I told her to sit down.

She said Just tell me.

I said are you sitting down.

She said no, just tell me

As if the refusal to sit

Was some sort of protection

From what was coming.

Read the full piece, “A Letter on Grief,” up now at Fanzine

“A Letter on Grief” is, in fact, a letter to my brother. Or rather, a hybrid poem/letter/nonfiction piece I wrote in response to his death. 
 
He died in 2016 from a heroin-fentanyl overdose at the age of 27. I publicly performed this piece in June 2017 at an event I hosted called “Never Sent,” which focused on art/writing/letters never sent. My work has been focused on the experience and performance of grief, lately. It is a trying yet interesting and illuminating place to be. People are afraid of it, but everyone experiences it. I got tired of feeling like I needed to hide it.

What to do when the news makes you feel like a human ashtray

photo-by-mario-calvo (1)I never realized how much we take the absence of pain for granted. Instead, we cite boredom, general malaise, and complaint rather than sheer gratitude for the stardust shooting through our bodies, for those perfect moments when speck and cell align, humming, harmonious.

We’ve got to be grateful at the cellular level. We’ve got to work on that.

Remember that when you feel like a human ashtray. Like a gaping hunger. Like a dry thirst. Like garbage.

*

The horrific news over the last 36 hours — the white man who massacred dozens and dozens concertgoers in Las Vegas with assault weapons and injured hundreds — is severe. It is outrageous. It is unprecedented. It was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. I want to call him a “terrorist” but the truth is, the motive for the shooting is not yet known (and a terrorist is defined as “a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”).

There is a very real issue here that will not be solved with “thoughts and prayers” and if I see that line one more time I think I will throw up. It makes me angry. DO something. Call your senators. Vote. Resist. Getting into flame wars on the Internet with that dude Billy who you hung out with one time in high school is not the way to go. It does not matter. I am so tired of how we all keep wasting our precious energy on things that do not have staying power, that do not have worth.

Think about it: you know when a conversation is worth having. You know. Your fellow person is engaged. Instead of raising the defenses — sighs, obvious shifting of the feet, opposing body language, interruptions — s/he is listening to you.

It may sound crazy, but what I’m saying here is that YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE THE CONVERSATION. You don’t. There are too many precious things that need your energy — to uplift, to protect, to resist, to empower. To love.

*

I work in news. I’ve been in this business for just about 10 years. That means that I am exposed to a barrage of emails, tweets, calls, notifications, newsletters, and television screens for 40+ hours a week. I do a lot of things at my job, but one title that’s always on is the “information filter.” Usually this runs at a low grade, like a background app running on your phone. But when there is major breaking news — like the horrible massacre yesterday — this kicks into high gear. Everything is on alert. I may be safely sequestered away from the action physically, in an extremely secure building almost 2,000 miles away from Las Vegas. But this still does nothing for my head and my heart.

And before you laugh it off or tell me to “put the phone down” or something equally derisive and dismissive, I think it’s worth considering the effects of news — particularly horrible, traumatizing news, our access to it, and the speed at which it all travels.

“According to some psychologists, exposure to negative and violent media may have serious and long-lasting psychological effects beyond simple feelings of pessimism or disapproval …violent media exposure can exacerbate or contribute to the development of stress, anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

(From “What Constant Exposure to Negative News is Doing to Our Mental Health,” Huffington Post.)

Combine these symptoms — stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD — with the fact that no one seems to be able to have a conversation anymore (online or in person) without interrupting or trying to take the other out at the knees, and it makes for a pretty toxic mix. 

Yesterday, when I woke up, I checked my email. I do this every day, usually before I even move from my bed, to get a sense of what to expect. Immediately, email after email with “LAS VEGAS” and “LAS VEGAS SHOOTING” and “VEGAS MASSACRE” began to pop up. Dozens and dozens of them, all from the overnight hours. I headed into work with a sense of icy-cold dread — you know the kind, right? The dripping, cold fear you can feel deep in your bones? The kind of chill a sweater really won’t warm?

((I also wrote something very similar about my experience in news when the Boston Marathon was bombed.))

After a few hours, I felt overwhelmed and nauseous. When I left work, I was still nauseous. I did things that usually help restore some sense of normalcy: I cuddled my dog. I drank lots of water. I kept the lights low and the noise off. I did the things I thought would help me decompress. It didn’t work. I got ready to go to a meetup with several friends about a creative project we were working on, but had to psych myself up to even get out the door. I couldn’t shake the sense that I was going to be not in the right mood, a wet blanket thrown over the whole thing.

So I figured I’d try something different: I’d talk to them about it. I’d put it out there that I was feeling really weird — mentally and physically off. That I didn’t want to hijack the meeting, but that this world felt extra-super-fucked at the moment and I just needed to release it. And a funny thing happened: it was like releasing a pressure valve. We all felt it. We all needed to acknowledge it.

*

Today, a colleague sent a note to the newsroom staff, which I’ll paraphrase here:

“Dealing with the news is tough no matter who you are. And it can be really tough for people who work in news, who get a constant barrage of sad and horrible information at any given time. It’s okay to feel this way, and it’s okay to seek help. And we support you.”

This applies to anyone. It’s okay if you’re pissed, sad, devastated. That’s an appropriate response to this atrocity. To any atrocity, really. Do what you need to do. Talk to a friend. Cry. Boil a pot of tea. Hug your dog. Make an appointment with your therapist. Take care of yourself and your mental health.

And if or when you feel up to it, fight. Resist. Speak up in ways that will multiply your energy rather than deplete it. Write your politicians. Research legislation. Inform yourself. Work hard to stay informed.

And above all, don’t forget what to do in those perfect moments when speck and cell align, humming, harmonious. Don’t forget to be grateful at the cellular level, when you can.

Recently published: “I Am Not the Girl You’re in Love With”

“Awake, I think how nice it would be to fall asleep in your bed, to sink in to your cool, grey sheets. The music surrounds me, brings me up. It brings me out of shelter, it breaks something. I open my ribcage like a cabinet, I offer you my heart. Kiss me hard before you go it sings, dripping, as I hand it over.

I hear love where it should be hard and there we are again, another case of crossed wires.”

My lyric nonfiction essay has been published in the 2017 edition of Flights.

I’m thrilled to have my lyric nonfiction piece published in the 2017 edition of Flights literary magazine. See the PDF here, or order a hard copy here (it’s just $8!).

Cosmos, a variation: part i

maybe it was just one last story,

the greatest:

life.

welcome.

nobody knows

evidence was destroyed —

no fear,

no shame.

volcanic vents

and unbroken thread

nearly 4 billion years old

discern day from night.

oh, the things molecules do.


NOTE: The “COSMOS” poems are a true experiment. They’re iterations of previous “found text” poems I wrote, using Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” as source material. They appear in their original form on my Medium page

fixed points in the universe: the homestead

There are few places where the past seems alive and well, where I am confronted with the characteristics of age, items attesting to the inevitability of decay everywhere I turn. But age isn’t a bad thing. It didn’t only mean death, though some days it does. It meant a history. That’s what we heard, my brother and I, as we walked through the backyard, ruling over our tiny kingdom. We passed rusted meter maids with missing doors that had somehow mutated, becoming a mind-boggling hybrid with the earth, all of it dust and rust and malleable material, a handful of silt sliding through our fingers. We passed stacks of hardened rubber tires that had turned shiny, cracked with sun and snow. The pickup truck that came with the property surrounded by voracious summertime weeds that threatened to swallow it. We passed the knotted swinging rope dangling from the tree, so thick it was nearly twice the width of my wrist, and it all sounded the same: a chorus of enticing whispers that beckoned — story, story, story.

Photo taken July 16, 2017 at my family’s farm, Collins, Ohio.

Words and photo by Ashley Bethard.

Some essays take 4 years to write.

I mean, this one did. I turned it over and over again, like stones in water, finding things that glimmered and caught the sun. But there never felt like a real sense of cohesion.

I’d also add that it’s one of the more experimental essays I’ve done. So experimental and feeling/sensory-oriented that I considered categorizing it as something else. But the truth is, it’s the truth. It’s real life. So regardless of how uncomfortable I was putting something that was abstract out there, it is what it is.

1-OL1Mn10E4XdYjbOaRfESIw,

Here’s an excerpt, and you can read the whole thing on Medium.

I think we were supposed to run away with each other long before this. There was that night on the motorcycle, the loud buzzing engine that cracked through the air heavy with rain threat, as we took the backroads and their curves too fast in a rush to get to the lake, my white fingers pressed into your ribs.

You write to tell me you have not stopped listening since I left and your faith startles me. I cannot handle the music right now. There is too much noise, or too much feeling, or too many words. After the song’s opening seconds I am already switching to the next. There is no irony here, only direct correlation. I am, have become, noncommittal. “I am not the girl you feel in love with,” I hear myself say. I am almost telling the truth.

Read the full essay.

How to write about blood

“Basic laws of physics: how to lodge a hook in your head. Treble means three. Simple motions. Hold, run, cast. You tell the story for show now, choosing words carefully, measuring impact, showing ownership of memory. I can tell it too, that is the subtext of what you’re saying. But you’re not trying to compete. You are sharing. This is our memory. You should have some say in its resurrection.”

This essay is about blood, literally: brother and sister and other. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I’m grateful to Rappahannock Review for giving it a home, especially among so much fantastic talent (Brian Oliu and BJ Hollars, to name a mere few).

Read “Of Blood” in Rappahannock Review here.