Photo: Brett Hall Jones
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 familiar
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