In Mourning, You Are Blessed

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By Joy Howard | Twitter: @DrJoyAJHoward

F_Joy

My students and I read the 17th Century poetry of Anne Bradstreet this week. Many of them embraced her pithy lines asserting her right as a woman to publish her poetry in a man’s world that said women’s hands were meant for sewing, not writing:

“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits.”

Even the self-declared cynics rejoiced in the sweetness of the love poems Bradstreet wrote her husband. They joked that they understood why the couple had eight children after reading those poems.

“My love is such that rivers cannot quench”

It was fun to celebrate the poems of the gutsy first Euro-American woman poet. It was much less fun to think about the tragic loss that lay behind one of her most famous poems written after her family’s home burned to the ground. My students agreed that they did not like the poem mourning the loss of the home and everything in it.

I asked the class to step into her sadness with me and I read aloud Bradstreet’s metered words:

“I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of ‘fire’ and ‘fire’”

The discomfort in the room was palpable. The discomfort in my own body was thick, too.

When I read the line that claimed: “I blest His name that gave and took,” there was a small sigh from the corner of the room. I looked up from the poem and one of my students expressed relief that that Bradstreet could “move on” so quickly. “That’s good,” he said, “it isn’t healthy to hang on the bad stuff that happens in life.” The other students seemed to agree.

I wanted to agree with them, but Bradstreet does not stop her poem there. I pointed out that she wrote another 20 lines of verse listing what she had lost in the fire. She wrote that she walked past her old home often and thought about everything that had burned.

“I think it would be healthier for her to just move on,” said another student softly on the side of the room. The class echoed her sentiments. “Sometimes, shit happens and you just need to move on,” said another, summing up several comments.

I thought I understood why my students resisted walking through this sadness with me. Our culture likes us to “move on.” We are notorious for our “I’m good!” answers to “How are you?” queries. We like Instagram posts that remind us to “Let Go and let God.”

I thought I understood what was behind my students’ resistance, but as it turned out, I didn’t.

We explored the list Anne Bradstreet gives us readers. She mourned the big table that had been the place of joyful conversation and dinner for her family and for guests. She remembered the chairs she sat in when she rocked her babies and fed them.

She mourned her trunk and the chest—moveable wealth, as early Americanists would say, emphasizing that furniture was often the only thing a woman could claim as their own. Perhaps she kept her children’s baby shoes or locks of their hair in the trunk. Her books were probably stored carefully in that chest too, safely tucked out of reach of toddler fingers and mouths, waiting for the busy momma to have a spare moment in the middle of a night to read and to write.

She mourned the loss of the quilts and blankets she had made to keep her family warm in the cold New England winters. She mourned the loss of her bedroom where the love of her life, her “bridegroom” husband and she talked about how to raise their children to be kind in a colonial world that was defined by war, slavery, and illness.

I suggested to my students that perhaps Bradstreet poem models a way for us to mourn—a pattern we might follow. Slow down and walk through our sadness item by item. I liked this interpretation of mine. I was fairly certain that for Bradstreet, writing this poem was healing. It takes a long time to write a poem with such brilliant meter and feet and in that time, she walked with her sorrow. She didn’t “move on” quickly. She walked past the charred shell of her house and she cried, day after day after day for many weeks.

And my students shook their heads in disagreement.

They agreed with me that it never helps to have someone tell you “get over it” when you have just lost your house, or your mom, or your job. One student asserted to affirming laughter, “No one should ever say: When God closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.”

“But there is always so much loss,” one of them said when the defensive chuckles faded away, “we cannot list it all.”

The classroom was silent.

“And,” said one of the English majors who usually saves her words for the printed page, “Anne Bradstreet had time and money to go back and mourn her stuff. She had somewhere to live. Her husband was rich. They had friends that were wealthy and those friends had big enough houses to help them out. Her kids weren’t starving. She could still take time to write poetry.”

I was silent because I knew I was in the presence of truth.

Of course, it is true that Bradstreet’s mode of lament was healthy. There is “a time to weep—a time to mourn,” the author of Ecclesiastes says. We read that Jesus told his followers: “Blessed are those who mourn.” We are given blessings and love when we grieve. We are not told to pull ourselves together and get it over it.

It’s okay to list our losses. It’s okay to lament. It’s okay to say “Enough! I’m broken. This is too much.”

It’s also okay if you cannot mourn this way because your list is too long. It’s okay if your truth is like my students’.

My students are spot on. It is a result of privilege to have the time, the emotional space and the physical energy to mourn.

If your list of sorrows and losses is too long and you do not have the time to even begin to mourn the way Bradstreet did: you are not alone. And you are Blessed by a Savior who said “Blessed are those who mourn.”

You are Blessed not because of a particular way in which you enact your mourning.
You are Blessed because in your heart, there is still space for sorrow and that in and of itself is amazing.

You are Blessed not because you have gotten over your sadness.
You are Blessed because you carry your losses wherever you walk even though they are invisible to many.

You are Blessed not because you have figured out a way to move on.
You are Blessed because you get up when little ones need you.

You are Blessed not because you have Let it Go.
You are Blessed because you are precious in the eyes of Heaven.

You are Blessed not because you can write a poem or say a prayer or go to Bible study.
You are Blessed God made Flesh whispered it thus.

You are Blessed. In your sorrow, you are Blessed.

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About Joy:

Dr Joy HowardJoy is an Assistant Professor of English at New Jersey City University and Early Americanist. Her current book project explores ways of hearing voices assumed to be silent through the case study of Rebecca Kellogg Ashley, an Indian captive turned missionary translator in the 18th century. She’s also one half of Sistercraft, where she is Chief Crocheting Officer!

You can connect with Joy on twitter.

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Image credit: Volkan Olmez

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