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Good Letters

mother and child

This winter has been a difficult season.  I emerge from it wondering about the edges of my griefs and my joys, feeling around for my moorings, realizing in a new way the isolation of the single parent, the reality of mortality for aging and ill family members, the uneven texture of heartbreak, how it feels one day like a thing is done and the next like the wound is fresh. 

Women friends share with me that they’re moving through their own uncertain seasons, and we reach out over the weeks to steady each other, to lend support in the small and large ways we can, to right each other when possible. The image I’ve had these past months, though, is of several of us, mostly mothers, moving along dimly-lit halls or shuffling through hanging panels of thin but opaque cloth, something like the Cecilia Vicuña exhibit I saw in New York with my friend Sara this summer. In the vision, we walk along with our hands out, feeling our way, sometimes bumping into each other to clutch at each other and laugh a little madly, sometimes reaching out to pat the other’s back as she cries, before moving along through the cloth on our own.


Recently when teaching a course on writing the lyric essay, I realized I wanted to remind my students, mostly women somewhere in the middle of their lives, that it’s ok to follow their own interest and observations and threads of thought throughout the day, to witness the world and its textures, as well as the textures of their own minds, that this is the life of the artist, of the person striving to be awake in her life. 

A friend from graduate school, Ross Gay, recently published The Book of Delights, a project of paying attention to his everyday life, within and against the larger structures that would dehumanize us and separate us from our joy.  I realize that this has been my project of the last several years—to claim one’s noticing and in this way work to be more human, and I wonder how this works for women, specifically. How we need to give ourselves and each other permission to notice and celebrate our delights and also to notice and pay homage to our griefs, both. How they are part of one larger cloth of our lives, of all women’s lives. And how does this work for mothers? For women approaching menopause and possibly feeling the impending freedom and regret that comes from standing on the edge of the “matron” precipice, peering over at the crones, laughing and crying on the next shore?

I became a mother in my 40s, and so the joys and trials of early motherhood are blurring into the pre-crone days, that perimenopausal feeling of impending freedom, and also the grief and confusion of that. Part of what delights me now is celebrating and witnessing with other women the strangeness of being alive as a woman at this age. There is delight to this witnessing, but also a melancholy compassion, which is another way of knowing we’re alive. 

After my baby was born, I experienced a phenomenon which many postpartum mothers do, a visceral awareness of the world’s sorrow and pity, an almost overwhelming compassion for anyone suffering. Sometimes when my milk would let down as my newborn nursed, I would experience a wave of feeling I can only describe as “what a pity.” Pitiful and precious we are, all of us, in our vulnerability, our pain, our mortality. For most of us, the mother is our first witness, and that is why the connection can be so powerful, and also perhaps why we can’t bear to fully look at it in the post-industrial western world, the everyday sacrifice of mothers, except in overly romanticized ways, an impulse that further isolates. 

As British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott wrote in The Mother’s Contribution to Society: “Is not this contribution of the devoted mother unrecognized precisely because it is immense? If this contribution is accepted, it follows that every man or woman who is sane, every man or woman who has the feeling of being a person in the world, and for whom the world means something, every happy person, is in infinite debt to a woman.”

Women especially, though, seem to need permission to notice themselves in midlife. We make it through childhood, through young adulthood, and we lose the more constant witnessing (or at least adjacent kind regard) of our mothers and of the friends made in adolescence, the permission that such witnessing, if we’re lucky, gives us to follow that which delights us or fascinates us for reasons of our own. 

On a recent episode of the podcast On Being, the poet Sharon Olds shares that she had to grow into an appreciation of her own weirdness, her innate pagan delight in the world and in her own body, but also that friends are helpful in this way as one grows because true friends will delight in your weirdness. I thought, then, of moments from my fond friendships, as well as from my romances and near-romances, of the satisfaction of finding those who delight in your weirdnesses. (Was it my mother or James Baldwin who said, “Everybody needs a witness”? Both, I think.)    

Once when I was in high school, I was riding along a Chicago expressway in the backseat of my friend Jennifer’s parents’ Buick (“the boat,” we called it, as it was truly huge), Jennifer at the helm, Kari and Anna in their places. I found myself wondering about all the other humans floating along at such great speeds. “What if we could suddenly see everyone without their cars?” I piped up from my place in the backseat. “What if we were all just speeding along in a seated position, totally exposed?” The response to my weirdness was stronger than I had expected. “Oh, Joanna!” they all seemed to say, “You are our friend who would say that, and for that we are grateful.” To follow your own noticing, to have people along the way who will watch your watching—this is how a soul moves through time.


It seems that this is what we all need these days, all of us humans in this trauma-ridden time: permission to witness, to be witnessed. And isn’t this the work of the writer, of all artists, to celebrate this witnessing, this holding of space for the humanity of others? No wonder writers are a threat. In moments in which I question what I am doing being a poet, a role which isn’t really recognized in the capitalist system in which I function, I think of the words of my friend Simeon Berry, who reminded me in a recent conversation, “What we write could get us imprisoned in other countries. Our liberal lyricism is a finger in their eye!” (Simeon is my friend who says things like this: “When I read stuff like yours, I am reminded that we need psychic sustenance in order to reconcile the weirdness of sublimity inside this meat sack.” Now that’s a pep talk.)


I would like to provide an assignment here, or a moment of permission, adapted from an exercise I recently gave my lyric essay class: Today practice being interested in your own observations. Practice walking around with your eyes and ears open, practice being interested in the world around you, but also in the texture of your own mind. What do you notice and why? What delights you or piques your interest? What language does your mind begin to put to it? Take notes at the end of the day or even throughout the day. Then write a short piece called “Five for Today.” It should be a numbered list— with each item being one to four sentences each—that gives us some window into your current reality.

This could be concerns, scenery, memories, overheard language, a sentence or two from something you’re reading. “Five for Today” is an idea originally passed on to me by my friend poet and artist Todd Colby, one of several friends who have given me a kind of permission as a writer. Todd’s lists on his blog and his assignment to me to value my own noticing; my MFA mentor Paula’s encouragement of my “fine weirdness”; my women friends being interested and interesting—this is the witnessing that sustains me.  So, look for the images that call to you, the snatches of language that echo in your mind, family memories that bubble up at unexpected times. Pay attention to sounds, recurring threads, and pauses as you make your list, but also allow yourself to be loose and intuitive in compiling it. (Here’s a lyric essay I wrote a couple years ago called “Seven for Today,” if you’d like to read it as an example of the form I’m thinking of.)


The days are getting longer in my part of the world. Spring has finally come, even as the world’s brutality persists, unabating. Both of those things are true. Remember, though, what’s at stake in continuing to witness our human movement through this vale of tears, this three-ring circus. Psychic sustenance. Connection. Resistance. And, as my friend Simeon noted about the writing of poems, about our stubborn turns toward creativity in whatever forms they take:

“More importantly, it makes us happy and fulfilled, and no one can take that away from us, unless we let them.”

The image accompanying this post appears courtesy of the author.

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Written by: Joanna Penn Cooper

Poet and essayist Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of The Itinerant Girl's Guide to Self-Hypnosis (Brooklyn Arts Press) and What Is a Domicile (Noctuary Press). She holds a PhD in English from Temple University and has taught at Marquette and Fordham. Her work has appeared in The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day feature, as well as South Dakota Review, Zócalo Public Square, Open Letters Monthly, Poetry International, and other journals. Cooper teaches online workshops in flash memoir and lyric essay for the journal Creative Nonfiction and the Muse Writers Collective. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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