On Forgiveness

Traci Brimhall’s newest book of poetry, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod, is now available from Copper Canyon Press. In anticipation and in celebration of its release, we’re happy to publish “On Forgiveness,” an essay that expands on the themes in the collection.

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I’ve always been a little suspicious of my heart.

Perhaps that sounds ridiculous since I am a poet, but I’ve always preferred to think my thoughts, unsure of what to do with their stormy tantrums and foolish urges that lurk in the realm of feeling. Bu when I found out one of my friends was murdered, I learned an unfortunate truth about myself. What I thought about forgiveness, what I believed in theory, was different than the forgiveness I was able to feel in real time, in practice.

When I first found out he was dead, I cried—a rare event at the time—in the shower, and itemized my memories of him as if I could administrate my grief, organize it somehow. I laid in the tub with the shower running and promised him the force of my memory, that I’d never forget the night we watched Princess Bride and inscribed a copy of the book I gave him; how he found me years later in New York, those kisses in the cab rides; the meals, and jokes, and all the kisses outside of cabs, too. Those memories have already started to fade. The promises grief wants to make in the beginning get stolen by time. That was a hard lesson, but what was worse was discovering the failure of my moral imagination.

Before my friend’s murder, I believed that nothing human was strange to me. My therapist even told me I had a Jesus complex, and I said thank you before I realized it wasn’t a compliment. I was a person who understood why hurt people hurt others, maybe even prided myself on a radical proclivity for forgiveness. After my friend’s murder, I couldn’t not find the mercy that I’d been so sure was foundational to my very identity. I’d like to say I am a person with very little anger, but here’s another truth: once anger is roused in me, it takes a long time to cool, and that’s all the more difficult in the age of the Internet and refresh buttons. Every time I wanted more information on my friend’s kidnapping, his murder, the coroner’s report, images of where his body was found, all, all, all of it was available to me. I could feed that rage so easily. I learned more than I should have if I wanted a heart that could still forgive.

When the men who murdered my friend were on trial, I was pregnant. While I carried my first child, the world felt especially porous: every tragedy or child harmed felt personal, and in this case, of course the tragedy was personal. It felt absurd that I could bring a child into a world where such things happened. Everything terrified me more. Every fear felt like foreshadowing. My mom got sick, and the trials were separated, and dragged on. One of the men was sentenced to death. My son was born. The second man was sentenced to death. My mother died. The last of the three murderers was given life. And nothing healed. Nothing felt forgiven. Everything gaped open, then grew calloused. I kept moving through my life. I did not cry.

As my son got older, I could see my son was a child of big feelings—big joy, big sadness, big anger. For him, from him, I had to learn how to be vulnerable enough to feel in front of someone. When we talked about how to handle anger, I realized that if I didn’t model that emotion, I couldn’t show him how to do it well. And so I let it happen. I got mad. I used my words. I took breaks so my heart could get calm. And in this way we both learned what anger was like. In this way we both learned how to get better, though he was the one who taught me how quick and easy forgiveness could be. Even as my heart rate would be slowing, he was already smiling again and hugging me, saying that he loved me. He almost never needed me to say, “Here’s what mommy didn’t do well with her anger and how she’s going to do better next time.” But I said it anyway, and I still say it, just in case the quickness of his heart now does not stay with him, just in case he’s like me and forgiveness gets harder with age.

When my mother died, her best friend said her heart failed because it had too much unforgiveness. Even twenty years after my parents divorced, which was longer than they were married, she was still angry with my dad. Every day that her life didn’t look like she felt like it should was a reminder of what my dad took with him when he left—not just the blue couches and her faith in forever, but daily visions of what should have been possible. I admit that I would roll my eyes when she complained about my dad at every holiday, something else he’d ruined by his absence. But after my friend died, I better understood. Every day is a day he should have been alive and wasn’t. Every day represented meals he should have eaten, memories he should have made. The men who murdered him took those days. It’s hard to let that go. It still hurts, but I don’t want to die like my mother. I don’t want my heart to fail.

Reading The Tale of Despereaux to my son, we reach the end of the book where Princess Pea must forgive the person who orchestrated her kidnaping, who meant for her to die in a dungeon. She tells them she forgives them, not for the sake of their heart, but for her own. It seems unrealistic to me—my brain, my reliable thinker—that she could forgive so quickly, but I knew when I read that passage that it was time, that years had gone by, and I had not figured out how to forgive those men. I know my anger isn’t justice. My moral imagination knows better. My son knows that to be good at loving others and loving ourselves we have to practice forgiveness. We don’t have to be perfect at it. We feel what we feel. And when our hearts fail, we have to forgive that, too.

Traci Brimhall and Adroit correspondent Kylie Gellatly sat down to talk about Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod. You can read their conversation here.

Featured image: “Ophelia” by Heather Betts, from Issue Thirty-One.

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Traci Brimhall
Traci Brimhall

Traci Brimhall is the author of four collections of poetry: 'Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod' (Copper Canyon Press), 'Saudade' (Copper Canyon Press), 'Our Lady of the Ruins' (W.W. Norton), and 'Rookery' (Southern Illinois University Press). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Slate, The Believer, The New Republic, Orion, and Best American Poetry. She’s received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship and is currently Director of Creative Writing at Kansas State University.

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