On being out for review

Lordy!  barked the Drive-By Betsy*. I imagined her like a dog, her tongue lolling out and flapping in the breeze as she passed. This is too frigging depressing! Sheesh

Then she was gone. This was a long time ago, as someone chose to read along as I wrote from the NICU. See also, from the small but determined array of Betsys I have encountered since Liam died, some distant and some not:

She's bitter.
She's a non-coper.
She got angry at well-meaning friends! Sheesh

One of them, for real: She forces us to suffer alongside her, the 'forcing' being a book she picked up of her own volition, and I wonder, like a reflex, if I know that voice. ... ... yeah. I do. It's as much an archetype as it is a real person. It is both. She said other nice things about wisdom and striking chords but suffering sticks out. Doesn't it always?

For fuck's sake with The Drive-By Betsys. I come here, to safe company, to say it as plainly as I like, to identify and categorize onlookers who refuse to tolerate untidiness and unsightly distractions. The emotional OCDs who see grief as asymmetrical, maddeningly so. We are a loose thread to be snipped, an irreconcilable smudge in need of a spot of bleach.

I point at them for you, with you, because fuck 'em. We are untidy, loves. We are a collective of beautiful untidy. We get tired, sometimes, at living this close to the breach. We get angry not at well-meaning friends, but at well-meaning ineptitude, well-meaning passive-aggression, and well-meaning bootstraps criticism. It's a distinction The Betsys will never appreciate.


My husband and I are watching season two of The Handmaid's Tale. I must like the yogic exercise of holding my breath for an hour once a week. You could write a PhD on its use of light and colour alone, on the symbolism and composition of every frame. People have already, I'm sure, written PhDs on how Margaret Atwood's America is enveloped by the fascist regime of Gilead, which simply has to implode. I am banking on it.

June, known as Offred, has just experienced giving birth in captivity. Ending the latest episode, she narrates to an unknown listener:

"I keep going with this limping and mutilated story because I want you to hear it."

The part of me that flips birds to the Betsys pipes up. A bit like experiencing death in captivity.

I wait for that part of me to keep riffing. I'm curious.

You know. The captivity of a world that doesn't like irregularity. That writes off leftover numbers in unbalanced books. A fascism of social propriety, or at least, it once was. The moment you found your feet—your backbone—your vote—you became a democracy of one. You claimed back your rights. You expelled the fascist Betsys to the margins.

June continues as the camera pulls back, as Gilead may—or may not—envelop her again:

"I will hear your story too, if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in heaven. By telling you anything at all, I’m believing in you. I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are."

I've always wondered about the compulsion to tell difficult stories, and the sum effect of it on the teller. Why I staggered up in the hospital bed after the crash c-section, fumbling in the dark for a pen and paper. Why I went looking for you, why I made this place, why I wrote a book soon-to-be-released into a world that includes both you and all the Betsys, a spectrum of empathy and spaciousness, judgement and expectation.


If I tell the story of what happened to me and to Liam, and all the reckoning that came after, I might find you and your story. By finding you, I vote for myself. For us. I find my fortitude in someone else's listening. Does this make me a parasite? In mixed company, am I deriving nutrients at a host's expense?

Gosh. What a delicious prospect. Or, among us: symbiosis. We each perform a service. Mutuality. A closed loop with a shared pot of tea in the centre.

Grieving people are a newly-released book. We re-enter into the world in a new way. People appraise the cover, your face, wondering what lies within. They gingerly flip to a page and another, shudder, and decide we're no beach read.


"I'm so sorry, can I tell you something?" The friend of mine, a little drunk, happily so, at her birthday party the other night. "I just... I don't know..."

Then it all came out in a tumble as her eyes went glassy, tearing up. "I don't know if I want to read your book. I just can't imagine... I think it's amazing but I can't. I don't want to..."

I interjected, in that odd spot again of soothing someone with the difficulty of what I represent. What amounts to me apologizing for taking up space, for this story being hard to hear (never mind to bear), for being public in public as The Mother Whose Baby Died.

The uncountable scenario, having happened that many times: I step into a circle of people. One of the people looks at me. I see the wheels turning. They start crying. I hug them while they collect themselves. They walk away, relieved and excused and marvelling at my apparent courage. And the straw I pulled, miraculously, shrinks again.

Fair enough. The book's impending release dredges it all up again in this community in which nobody knew me that way. I have stepped into the circle fresh, making the wheels turn. I remember my cue.

"It's okay. I know." My hands are on her shoulders. We hug.

Is it okay? It's a privilege I no longer enjoy, but one I can't resent. The privilege of keeping a clear periphery in which babies don't die.


Anger has been a recurring study. Not because I feel it all the time. I don't. But I feel its heat almost all the time, gratefully, like the molten core at the centre of the earth from which all life springs. I don't call it anger. It is a necessary scrappiness, my conscientious objection to the oppression of what's proper. Someone else called it anger recently, though the right way: ...fiercely angry, fiercely funny, fiercely loving. She is one of us. She knows:

Grieving beautifully does not always look beautiful.
Grieving beautifully does not always look beautiful.
Grieving beautifully does not always look beautiful.

My heart pumps bigger on this staging ground not in spite of what I have seen, but because of it. Thanks to it. We exist in a stand of unanswerable questions that would make all the Betsys turn to stone and yet here we are: bruised, yeah. Bit of a temper. But carving it out ourselves, our fortitude. And it's beautiful.


What is your relationship to anger? To beauty? What do you stand for in grief?

* To all the medusa actual-Betsys and otherwise lovely actual-Betsys: you've got to admit you've got a particularly cheery name. It just fits. Tipping my hat.