I harbor a secret addiction to shows like Hoarders. I admit I watch these shows to help me feel better about my own housekeeping, my own neuroses, my own particular brand of weird. It’s not a pretty admission, but it’s true.
While driving recently, I caught part of an NPR show about the life of Anne Sexton, whose poetry has always moved me. When I heard the words of her poem, “Her kind” ringing through the speakers I stopped to listen, taking in the pace of the words and the scheme of the rhyme.
When she spoke about being the possessed witch, “twelve fingered, out of mind” I imagined those wild moments when I have been unhinged—wandering my college campus at 3:00 a.m. with a broken heart or sitting up late at night with my first child battling through our first efforts with nursing and colic and sleep deprivation.
My hair was wild and my eyes blurry from my own crying.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
When she spoke of escape, to “warm caves in the woods” and “rearranging the disaligned” I was transported to the monastery cell I keep in my head. The one I cling to when the stress of living a messy life is too much.
When I find the mud of that stress tracked on the carpet and caked under my fingernails, I imagine my escape to that monk’s cell, sweeping that floor, kneeling in prayer, head bowed over laced fingers.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
While I knew a little of Anne Sexton’s difficult life, I did not know much detail, apart from the desperation and depression she conveyed in her own words, in her own poems.
Her pain was always visible to me in her poetry, and I guess I connect with that pain on some level. I dip into my own peculiar storehouse of melancholy more often than I care to admit.
And yet, hearing her story fleshed out a bit more on the radio, hearing her daughters speak about that pain and about how it affected them so deeply was jarring. I cried through most of the program.
The recording of Anne speaking in an interview about motherhood cut through me then, talking about not being “one of those mothers” who was able to be completely wrapped up in her children, feeling guilt about wanting and needing more—and I saw myself there.
“I have been her kind,” I thought, and I panicked a little.
“Am I that bad?” I wondered. “Will my children go to therapy and talk about me like this?” But I stopped there because the story shifted then, deepened, unfolded and spoke of Anne’s hospitalizations, about her excesses, about her infidelities and her outbursts.
I saw then how different our stories were, and I confess, I felt strangely comforted that perhaps I’m not as bad as all that.
It helped me, just as watching Hoarders makes me feel better about my housekeeping, about my neuroses, about my strange habits and hang-ups. It was an odd moment there, sitting in the car feeling the depth of the words, the pain of the poet and the grief of the daughters for the mother they wanted but did not have. When I got home I re-read the poem because I was conflicted, wanting to be in Anne Sexton’s club of deep emotions, but afraid of becoming the darkness that housed those emotions, being in the black water in which they swam and festered, poison to the good, toxic to life even as it fed the muse.
I don’t know if she wanted to be in that water, but in looking to the poem after hearing the story, I understood a bit more. One small piece maybe. The poet here does not chain herself to the comparisons she makes, to the possessed witch, to the misunderstood cave dweller, to the cart-riding survivor who is not ashamed to die. She brushes along the edges of them, dipping in here and there, still very much her own person.
No matter how often she has been “her kind” she is still, always, her self, and I found some comfort there.
I know that there are moments during which I have been in the black water. I have been “her kind.” I have connected with the pain and fear because I have been her kind. I have connected with the difficulties with mothering because I have been her kind. I have felt the deep sorrow because I have been her kind.
And yet, there have also been moments too, during which I have written some wise and sturdy words because I have been her kind. Perhaps someone has connected with those words then because I have been her kind. And I hope that in the end, after brushing along the sharp edges of life, dipping in here and there, I might come through it—still alive, still grateful, still learning—better for having been her kind, after all.
I’ve always loved the etymology of kindness, which comes from kin—those to whom we are bound by choice or genealogy. And yet I often find kindness is most difficult to practice with my family—those who have witnessed just how unkind I can be.
Last summer, the book project I was in the midst of was mapped out on a drafting table in my writing space: sheets of paper with lists and quotes, photographs and maps, excerpts from 19th century books on gold mining.
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