• Sarah Ratermann Beahan

State of Bewonderment Ep: 1

Updated: Feb 17

Uninvited Guests

State of Bewonderment is a written and visual exploration into moments of bewonderment. What is bewonderment, you ask? It is the space where awestruckness inspires action, where wonder pivots us and curiosity shifts the world.

It’s midwinter. I love winter and typically manage to make it through to nearly the end without too much discomfort, but this year feels long. In fact, it has been long. January 2022 was the coldest winter of the last eight years in our part of Minnesota, which means as a relative newbie to this great state, it was the coldest January I’ve ever experienced.

I have felt confined more than usual—which, after the last two years of pandemic isolation, is saying something. My dad is very ill with no immune system to speak of. Out of an abundance of caution, I have kept myself pretty well quarantined so that I can be with him when necessary. My old dog is ailing, so our walks are limited to a few blocks. All of this isolation and motionlessness is wearying.

If I look tired, it's because I am. Sometimes it’s exhausting to keep talking or even thinking about the difficulties. Mostly because we’re all wading through some river of previously unknowable challenge. My impulse, maybe yours too, is to shy away from adding to the orchestra of tribulation, as though by adding my own burden to that of others I’m making life more difficult.

I could share all the details about my trials. I could say a bunch of stuff about this being a hard year, the hardest year so far, a real shitty year. A cacophony of shit, really. But I get tired just thinking of how to explain the layers upon layers of challenge that exist. I told my friend Ashley that I am tired of being that friend, you know the one, the one with the oversized bag of emotional garbage she's carting around.

Honestly, I feel ashamed of this shit-filled garbage bag I'm carrying, as though somehow it's my fault or that if I can't see the bright side, I must be broken somehow. I also know that I feel this way because I have been taught to feel this way, by all the things that teach us over the course of our lives: family, friends, the education system, society. We are positively reinforced for a stiff upper lip, and left alone when our lip quivers with tears. We are left alone because the need for help, the loneliness, the grief might be catching.

I could also—and I am beating back every impulse to do so—list all the amazing things, the things I have to be grateful for, as though if I can go one for one with the shit, it will counter it. I will be the light, the bright spot, I sometimes think. This list of things I am grateful for will be an antidote for the sadness. The longer it is, the more proof that I don't have faulty wiring.Yes, it’s so hard and look! I’m okay! I’m strong fine winning the battle with despair.

I am endeavoring to look the challenges and triumphs in the eye, to extend a hand to both and say, hi, you are welcome here.

The truth is—and let me say that with a lower-case T, not a capital T, it is not the ultimate truth but simply mine—is that one does not counteract the other. Seeing the light does not erase the dark. Both of which, of course, are necessary, and we know this and yet it still rankles sometimes. I am not able to unsee my old dog's uncontrollable trembling, or unhear my dad’s frail whisper.

Grief will be with me whether they live or die, because this is tragically hard. We assume grief is reserved for death, but humans are more complex than that. We grieve loss of all sorts, endings of all kinds. Beginnings, too, because they are the next step in the cycle in which said new start was preceded by an ending. But society grants bereavement for a couple days after the death of a close loved one, thus anything outside those parameters feels indulgent.

But the grief shows up anyway, uninvited, and hangs in the corner growing larger and larger until it elbows its way to the center of the room. Because emotions aren’t orderly, nor do they respond to schedules.

I don’t have time for this sorrow right now, can you come back next week when my schedule frees up? I have time for joy between my one o’clock and two o’clock. Let's get on with the feeling, shall we?

I know this is not how it works, though I still have the impulse to push it all in a box of sorts.

I know that one of the best ways to work through any of these feelings is to express them in whatever way they emerge. For all my friendliness with words, speaking them—joy, sorrow, gratitude, rage—feels hard. So, here I am with pen and paper, my trusty companions.

The writer in me says you cannot write about this experience, this grief over the possibility of loss, while you are in it. You cannot fairly and accurate articulate the situation until you’ve had some distance. All my writing teachers, in the classroom and on the page have suggested as much. But the human in me cries how can I not? And the healer in me knows that to write it is to alchemize it. I know that to make something in the midst of despair is the truest (I keep coming back to that word true/truth, in this case I mean pure) form of creation. My spellcheck tells me that isn’t a word, truest, but I beg to differ and will use it anyway.

Recently, when I was deep in despair, my husband reminded me of how much joy we experienced during his own mother’s long illness. How we as a family laughed uncontrollably, fought terribly, worked as one and dreamt of lighter days. We learned so much about each other and ourselves, and our bond was set in stone. He reminded me of how grateful he is—we all are—for all of it.

One day, while his mother lay in a hospital bed, Brian, his brother, sister-in-law and I arrived at his mother’s home with a trailer and boxes of trash bags. She wouldn’t be returning to that house, and it was up to us to pack up what we wanted and dispatch with the rest. While Brian and his brother carted broken furniture and appliances out of the dingy basement, my sister-in-law and I went through piles upon piles of paperwork. It was mostly garbage, but amidst the garbage were notebooks and letters that colored in an outline of this mother-in-law I barely knew. Patty and I read through them with wide eyes over our dust masks. It was as if we were given a window into this woman, and therefore into these men we’d married. There was so much discovery in that day, so much wonder amidst the sad state of things.

Brian and Sean found old photos, forgotten toys, and a weird taxidermied owl (which, frankly, I think is illegal to own but is so old it probably predates any law against killing and stuffinging birds). We giggled at these discoveries, and at the sheer amount of things, and about things that weren't really funny at all, because what else would you do in a moment like this?

The laughter did not counter balance the challenge. It was not just that the joy made the grief more palatable. It was that one could not exist without the other. This relationship between grief and joy, melancholy and gratitude is not linear, it is not cause and effect. We aren’t so simple, I don’t think. It is a messy fusion of emotions that create something new, much like flour, sugar, egg and baking soda combine to make rise into something glorious to consume.

I took a cue from Brian and started to acknowledge what I have to grieve and rejoice. I recall long hikes through the North Cascades, and marathon training runs around the city of Seattle with Emmett. I laugh about how we’d plot our long runs to end at our favorite watering hole—a beer for me, a bowl of water for Emmett, surrounded by my girlfriends who didn’t seem terribly embarrassed by our sweaty condition. I remember my dad teaching me to plant and pick beans, both as a child and as an adult (I clearly needed a refresher). All that grief of what I’m being asked to let go, the recognition of a new stage of our lives, mine, Dad's, Emmett's, is intermingled with memories of so much exploration and growth. Emmett doesn't run with my anymore, but he's happy to have entered a phase where he supervises the household from his perch on the corner of the couch. I like to think that my dad, though he may not be spry enough to tackle woodworking projects for his daughters and granddaughter, will welcome a stage of life where he lets us take care of him more.

Perhaps this is a stage in my life where a lot of things start to slip away; I am creeping into middle age, despite the fact that I still feel so unprepared (I thought I’d know more by now, you know?). Like the cycles of the moon, the seasons of the year, our lives work in cycles. I am heartened by the fact that in the endings there are inevitable beginnings.

As I sit with all this swirling and eddying around me, I find that I am more at ease when I begin each day with a question rather than a statement.

I wonder what today will bring?

These episodes of State of Bewonderment are funded through a Mid-Career Artist Grant from the East Central Regional Arts Council of the State of Minnesota.

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