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November is the Cruelest Month

T.S. Eliot seemed to prophesy the events of 2020 when he wrote that April was the cruelest month in The Wasteland. Although his iconic poem describes the broken state of the world in the era of World War I, the psychological and social breakdown he charts could easily be about the era of COVID in 2020. And it was cruel this year, to see the earth coming alive again while we were all lying dormant, wasn’t it? I get the poetic resistance to renewal and fertility when one doesn’t feel it in one’s spirit.

But for me, the late Autumn months of October and November have long been my cruelest months, for the dates of death and loss are branded onto my heart within their confines. Starting with my grandmother and soul mate dog Brady in October of 2014, and continuing all the way through November with the death anniversaries of my uncle, stepsister, and mom—with Mom falling on the last day of November. I call it my season of Grief. Like Eliot writes, I do know “only a heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter.” But only for a time. I let Grief humble me, and ice the hollow in my chest with sadness, as it has done since 1989 when my mom left us abruptly, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I have never quite grown skin over the crater her absence created in my physical and emotional hearts.

Yet, when I am rendered defenseless by Grief in yet another return to November, I start my own season of thanks giving that has nothing to do with the colonial history of the United States. I’m grateful for each one of the precious years I had with Mom who I loved with unabashed affection, for all that she taught me— from the names of the constellations and wildflowers, and even how to memorize piano sonatas. I’m grateful for Dad who has doubled as mother and father all these years with an enthusiasm that bolsters me every day, for my soul mate dog Brady who saw me through some of the most painful years of my life when I was sick with Lyme disease, and for the gift of health that came back to me unexpectedly. I’m grateful for the tiny family I have created with my husband. When I am so replete with thanks giving, the iciness in my chest melts, and I send Grief away again for a time. Grief can’t strip me of my hard-earned resilience, though, and I return to the woods to replenish it with long walks.

Nature theatricalizes the state of my heart with its falling leaves and quietude, so that when I look out from my writing desk onto the skeletal tree branches against a cloudy sky, the starkness mirrors the contents of my heart. This year, it wasn’t only nature that mirrored my heart, it was the surge of COVID death tolls across the world. It seems Grief has come for us all this year, whether we have lost loved ones, or whether we have lost our former lives. Any month this year could be dubbed the “cruelest.” Which one would you pick? What loss are you grieving that needs to be honored? And acknowledged.

As I murmured my thanks one evening this November while walking along the seashore with my family in Provincetown, Massachusetts—staring at the sun giving us yet another Impressionistic painting that disappeared as it fell—a rainbow rose up in the sky and curved down in a perfect semicircle. It reminded me that in the face of Grief, when even the beauty of a sunset is as fleeting as human life can be, we still have hope, we still have light, and we can cultivate resilience in response.

Resilience. I have been signing all of my letters, “with wishes for resilience,” since March. Yet another friend mentioned this past week that I remind him of Boris Cyrulnik’s case histories about resilience, because of my severe childhood losses. Cyrulnik writes: “When the word ‘resilience’ was first used in physics it referred to a body’s ability to absorb an impact. […] When it began to be used in the social sciences, it came to mean ‘The ability to succeed, to live and to develop in a positive and socially acceptable way, despite the stress or adversity that would normally involve the real possibility of a negative outcome. How do we become human despite the blows of fate?” We find our inner light, we find our thanks, and keep cultivating resilience as we walk through the final days of 2020.

To all of you: I acknowledge your grief, as we were all blindsided by the arrival of this virus that has been cruel to us all. May we all enter a season of thanks giving in spite of our collective losses. With wishes for continued resilience.

Peace, love, and light

By Michelle Slater, PH.D

An emerging writer, I have written two memoirs: Soul Mate Dog: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Dog, and Starving to Heal in Siberia: My Radical Recovery from Late-Stage Lyme Disease. I am currently seeking representation for these manuscripts, and I am in the process of editing my first novel: The Lunatic. A former professor of French and Comparative Literature, I founded the Mayapple Center for the Arts and Humanities, a non-profit program for adult artists.

One reply on “November is the Cruelest Month”

This is beautifully written, Michelle.

On Mon, Dec 7, 2020 at 12:03 PM Michelle Slater, PhD. wrote:

> Michelle Slater, PH.D posted: ” T.S. Eliot seemed to prophesy the events > of 2020 when he wrote that April was the cruelest month in The Wasteland. > Although his iconic poem describes the broken state of the world in the era > of World War I, the psychological and social breakdown” >

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