At one time or another, it happens—the person we most love goes away. How do we survive it—and thrive? Celebrated poet Sharon Olds weighs in. Married for 30 years and the mother of two children, Sharon Olds was suddenly informed by her husband that he was leaving her for another woman. This fall, in her astonishing book of poems Stag's Leap, she describes her experience—from the grief and betrayal to her life-expanding discovery of her own freedom. Here she reveals some of the small, tangible things you can do that helped her though the loneliest times—then and now.
1. Tell People
In the city and in our summer community, there were several groups of families my husband and I had been close to for many years. I felt guilty about the pain they were going to feel for us (me) when I told them about the divorce, as if we were harming the community. At the same time, I knew they needed to know. So I crept from apartment to apartment, then from house to house, like a Typhoid Mary—a Divorce Shary.
After I delivered the news each time, our friends immediately looked terrible—wide eyes, altered color. Their shocked reactions, though, helped. I was over the illusion that if I remained quiet and polite maybe events could reverse themselves, but I was also still in denial. Visiting these close friends, telling them the truth, acknowledged that some kind of death had happened, the end of a marriage. It moved me forward, and the empathy that people showed me reminded that I was still loved.
2. Carry a Power Hankie
I've always had weakness for certain kinds of handkerchiefs—not lace ones, hankies with pictures. My favorite is my California (the Golden State) hankie with a map with illustrations and lot of golden poppies. And I have heaps of others, too, some of which I've made myself.
As a child, I saw hankies as tokens of womanly power, emotion and beauty. Mothers carried them, and grown-up older ladies who also wore stockings and gloves. Hankies seemed to imply good luck, too, and maybe magic. What might a magician draw out from under a hankie? Easter eggs? Babies?
I still think of them that way—as tokens of power. During the divorce, I made sure to carry a few with me in my purse. Even now, I rely on them. When I'm teaching at New York University, I spend three nights a week in the apartment I have lived in for 40 years. The rest of the time I spend in New Hampshire. On gray, gloomy days, while I'm doing the commute on the train, I'll pause a moment and pull out of my purse a dark gold and scarlet and cerise and indigo and green hankie!
3. Write What You Really Think
I think that whenever we give our pen some free will, we may surprise ourselves. All that wanting to seem normal in regular life, all that fitting in falls away in the face of one's own strange self on the page. From the day my husband told me he was leaving, I was writing—a lot. I wanted to make something of my altered life, to break into song, to cry out on paper. Reminding myself that no one else would ever see what I wrote—with my ballpoint pen in my wide-ruled spiral notebook—helped me be less censored and less afraid. Later, I could decide to show or not, because whether anyone ever read it was not the most important thing.
Writing or making anything—a poem, a bird feeder, a chocolate cake—has self-respect in it. You're working. You're trying. You're not lying down on the ground, having given up. And one thing I love about writing is that we can speak to the absent, the dead, the estranged and the longed-for—all the people we're separated from. We can see them again, understand them more, even say goodbye.
Next: Why you should find a new kind of familiar4. Find a New Familiar
Before the divorce, I lived in New York. Now I commute to New Hampshire, and I have noticed myself, in an almost painless OCD way, looking for a few favorite sights along the way: the golden statue (Nike?) on a tall pole in the Bronx; an old broken-down footbridge in a field in sight of the Atlantic shore; a long narrow boardwalk, in three parts, from a house on a hill to a little pier.
The familiarity of these places makes me feel as if the whole Northeast corridor of tracks is my home. They comfort me. They make me feel welcomed. I even have names for some of them: What I call the "Old Spool Factory," an old big stone building with round windows, and what I call "the Weir," a place where high water broke through a dam near an old mill a couple of years ago. The train goes by very fast—swoosh!—golden and brown foam!
5. Hold Your Own, Even if You Have to Hold onto a Chair
Slowly, over the years, my feelings of being torn apart by the end of my marriage quieted down. But once single, I realized I was still a fairly dependent person. I was not always really standing on my own feet. I was still afraid of people, and—except when I was writing —not self-confident. When I met with other professors at work, and they expressed opinions that I disagreed with, I would say, "That's interesting." Or "I see what you mean," instead of directly debating them.
So I pushed myself. The first time I said, "I disagree with you," to a colleague, I had to hold onto the back of a chair, my knees were shaking so. But I did it. Being more assertive made me feel as if I might be able hold my own in a new relationship—or gave me the hope that I'd be able to.
6. Claim Your 50 Percent
This one took a long time. What helped pull me back up from the devastation of the loss—the shock and horror of suddenly not seeing my husband or living with him anymore—was to see my part in the long success and eventual failure of the marriage. We'd had a lot of good years; then our lives slowly changed, our characters changed, and we were not so well suited to each other anymore. He just realized it long before me. As I began to be able to see some of what happened (not all) from his point of view—his wish to be with someone more like himself, someone not a writer—then I didn't feel like a victim but more like an equal. As one of the poems in Stag's Leap says:
50/50 we made the marriage
50/50 its demise
Seeing yourself as responsible for the quality of your relationships, as a prime mover in your life, I think is a bold, amazing step. How freeing, to know we too can act, and that our own choices have helped bring about the joy as well as sorrow in our own lives.
O tulle, O taffeta, O grosgrain—
I call upon you now, girls,
of fabrics and the woman I sing. My husband
had said he was probably going to leave me—not for sure, but
likely, maybe—and no, it did not
have to do with her. O satin, O
sateen, O velvet, O fucking velveeta—
the day of the doctors' dress-up dance,
the annual folderol, the lace,
the net, he said it would be hard for her
to see me there, dancing with him,
would I mind not going. And since I'd been
for thirty years enarming him,
I enarmed him further—Arma, Virumque,
sackcloth, ashen embroidery! As he
put on his tux, I saw his slight
smirk into the mirror, as he did his bow tie,
but after thirty years, you have some
affection for each other's little faults,
and it suited me to cherish the belief
no meanness could happen between us. Fifty-
Fifty we had made the marriage,
Fifty-fifty its demise. And when he came
home and shed his skin, Reader,
I slept with him, thinking it meant
he was back, his body was speaking for him,
and as it spoke, its familiar sang
from the floor, the old-boy tie. O silk,
O slub, O cocoon stolen. It is something
our species does, isn't it,
we take what we can. Or else there'd be grubs
who kept people, in rooms, to produce
placentas for the larvaes' use, there would be
a cow who would draw from our womb our unborn
offspring, to make of them shoes for a calf.
O bunny-pajamas of children! Love
where loved. O babies' flannel sleeper
with a slice of cherry pie on it.
Love only where loved! O newborn suit
with a smiling worm over the heart, it is
forbidden to love where we are not loved.