by Emily Parzybok | Contributing Writer
1. A Shared Mind
There’s a story told by the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron about a conversation she had with a Zen master Kobun Chino Roshi. Chodron asked him, student to teacher, how he related to fear. He answered, “I agree. I agree.” My former partner Elliott shared this teaching for the first time after a fight. We were having a scary conversation—maybe the familiar one about our disagreement over wanting kids—and I was sitting across from him in our bed, looking into his sharp blue eyes as they brimmed with tears. We were both frightened in that moment as the sanctuary we both most cherished, one another, was at risk.
In the years after that night, we’d sometimes reach back toward that shared moment in times of trouble. “I agree. I agree.” Or we’d playfully reference it. “What should we eat for breakfast?” “I agree. I agree.” We’d relate the parable to friends at the dinner parties we loved to host. I would ask him to tell it to me in times of trouble, when he was holding me in bed with my knees tucked into his chest. The point is this: he always told it. I connect to it best when it comes from his lips.
We broke up a few years back. That first year apart was a deep dive into my darkest fears and starkest grief. The question of how I relate to fear was nearly always topmost in my mind. Yet, when I tried to recall this teaching a few years ago, I came up with only “I agree. I agree.” I couldn’t even recall that Chodron had told the story. I spent days Google searching “Buddhist I agree I agree” and “Fear paradox” and everything in between until I hit upon it on a website for a Buddhist group in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
I recently read one of the now ubiquitous articles about how our phones are making us stupid, draining us of our capacity for connection and remembrance, and I thought about the strange relationship I seem to have with Google in the years since I lost Elliott and, with him, half my mind. “Lost” is the word I always seemed to use to describe my condition post break up, perhaps because I felt powerless more often than not in the years since our separation. Some days, I desperately Google things that have slipped out of sight, things that used to reside in the shared mind of my partner and myself, hoping that a mundane answer to the question might make me feel cognitively whole.
More than not, particularly in the first months, it felt like someone died and maybe that someone was me. I had the persistent feeling of living with an undiagnosed form of memory loss. There’s a way in which two partners fuse into a singular mind over months and years. Elliott’s knowledge and wisdom became mine to pan; I relied on his brain as an extension of my own. Over the years, it became hard to tell where his mind ended and mine began. Losing the ability to sift through his memory feels a lot like losing my own.
The memories I’ve lost range from the prosaic to the profound. I was teaching a yoga class one day. I’d guided students into a comfortable seat and asked them to begin tracking their breath for meditation practice. I noticed my inhale, felt the exhale leave my body, and from deep in my mind a little soap bubble rose carrying a single word: kaki. Who knows why that word came to me then, but I found myself thrown into a ravine of memory. Elliott and I in Turkey where we ate persimmons with a Slovenian who informed us that she loved kaki. Elliott spent our trip asking people across Europe how they referred to this fruit. Sharon fruit. Rose of Sharon. Kaki. Kakiaapka. Persimmon. With his aptitude for languages, he catalogued and stored a vocabulary of sweetness.
2. The Second Person
Persimmon. The word itself elicits past and memory, harkening as it does from a dead language. Persimmon comes from the Powhatan word pessamins, meaning “dried fruit,” or alternatively, “he dries fruit.” It can also mean fruit dried unnaturally, fruit that has lost something. Powhatan is an Algonquin language, now extinct, but its descendent vocabulary lives on in that amalgam of language, English. Though I’m unfamiliar with the Powhatan dialect, I’m familiar with its name thanks to Disney. Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas, who perhaps herself spoke Powhatan and who perhaps ate a persimmon in a market in England when she visited with her husband, John Rolfe. According to Wikipedia, the Powhatan language became extinct in the 1790s when “its speakers switched to English.” Switched is a funny word that covers all manner of sins. According to a website that might be bullshit, the word persimmon was first used in English nearly two centuries earlier in 1612. I picture a marketplace, a novel import, a berry that isn’t one. Like tomatoes, persimmons don’t seem to fit comfortably in the family berry, but still show up in the phylogenetic tree.
Powhatan speakers would have perhaps thought of persimmons as berries. Yet, it’s hard for English speakers to conceive of the way Powhatan speakers might have given animacy to fruit. In Powhatan, nouns are not only categorized as singular or plural, but also animate and inanimate. This is not unique to Powhatan; many languages of the Americas share this trait. These languages are also verb-heavy, imparting qualities of action and agency to concepts English speakers would think of in objective terms. Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks to this in her Braiding Sweetgrass:
A bay is a noun only if water is dead. When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikwegamaa—to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. “To be a bay” holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers. Because it could do otherwise—become a stream or an ocean or a waterfall, and there are verbs for that, too. [. . .] This is the grammar of animacy.
The role of nouns in English is reflective of a relationship to the natural world that places human beings as the subject at the center. In English, speakers are actors and objects are acted upon. A persimmon is there to be eaten. For Powhatan speakers, it just as likely might not be there since the persimmon, like other objects of the natural world, has an agency and animacy of its own.
The verbs in Powhatan function differently too, according to a quick search on my browser. Wikipedia says of Powhatan transitive verbs that “there are circumstances of animacy hierarchy with direct objects.” In other words, instead of the hierarchy moving from first to second to third person, the form we’re familiar with (which centers our subjecthood), Powhatan arranges things with second person coming first. The second person form is the default. Said another way, Powhatan is a language that prioritizes the listener, rather than the speaker.
I’ve been wondering if there’s something in listening that allows for a different or deeper understanding. My memories of Elliott are suffused with import and weight. I did a lot of listening, and digested his words as teaching. A story feels different when told to us than when we do the telling.
I agree. I agree.
Maybe some stories are meant for listeners while others indulge the speaker. I wonder if we change stories unconsciously when we hear them in the same ways we do when we tell them. Courtrooms everywhere provide evidence that we’re unreliable narrators of our own observations. Over the years, I’ve embellished my own stories, consciously and not, to the point where I know many of them contain details that spring from the well of my mind rather than the events themselves. I’m constantly shifting the narrative as I deliver it, perhaps for dramatic effect or to create a certain perception in the listener—or in myself. Do I edit stories as they’re relayed to me as well? Does the editing happen in speaking aloud what we think we heard? Or is our memory faulty? I wonder about a vault of memory unblemished by the years, a sacred room of truth. I imagine the memory morphing when it is communicated, like an errant letter in a DNA transcription, the copy imperfect alongside the blueprint.
My edits are lost to time and my mind. I can’t be sure how much of what Elliott said was actually just me speaking to myself.
3. The Empty Space
I’m allergic to alcohol. Still, in college, I persevered and got drunk with regularity, often resulting in blackouts and monstrous hangovers. I favored flavored vodkas and tequila shots which I’d down in high heels, fearless despite the pound of makeup on my face soon to run and the inevitable descent into darkness and unmemory. In a blackout, you lose time. I often lost other things as well. Once, I lost a single shoe on my walk home from a party: a black patent leather heel that I never managed to find in the snowy graveyard between the dorms and my dirty apartment with its fridge drawer filled with broccoli floating in raspberry vodka left unscrewed and tipped over by a roommate. How I returned home without the shoe remains a mystery. Another time, in Amsterdam, I lost a whole night and nearly lost a bike. The Dutch are the tallest people in the world, so I spent my first weeks in the Netherlands tracking down a bike small enough for my five-foot frame, a used kid’s bike. I guarded my tiny bike—still too big for me so I had to jump off the seat whenever I wanted to stop—with vigilance against the rampant bike theft in Amsterdam. It’s important to lock your bike. But one morning, after a night out I still don’t remember, I walked out the door of my apartment to find my little black bike sitting, unlocked, right in the middle of the road waiting for me.
The shoe and bike incidents came before Elliott. But another terrible time, a year into our relationship, I lost a whole night’s events and woke up with an ex in my bed. I wonder if my self was present then, in the moments I took him home, took him inside of myself. My ex recalled for me in the morning, painfully, things I had said the night before. They sounded like me, but maybe me if someone was writing my character for a television show. I didn’t feel I’d been there, in that bed, having sex with him. If I recorded no memory, was it still me? I think Elliott and I both managed to get past the incident and stayed together by deciding that I had been absent. But that empty space still said something about who I was beneath the perceived self-control and working mind.
Losing memory seems an important part of constructing a coherent self. Maybe the largest injury to our memories is the slow drip of time, but recently I’ve been thinking about memory loss as an evolutionary advantage. About a year ago, on NPR, a man matter-of-factly explained that we are walking around with every pain we’ve ever felt still in the body, muted by the right level of serotonin and dopamine. Our injuries and pains never leave us. The brain titrates the right cocktail to keep us unaware of the constant barrage. When I heard this, I pulled my car over and cried. This felt intuitively right to me, as if I’d known it all along. Our minds manage painful memories in just such a way: quieting the ache as the year’s pass so we hardly note our loss. Elisa Gabbert, in The Unreality of Memory, reflects on the memory of sound:
My husband, who is losing his hearing, tells me his auditory memories are losing their coherence. He says that part of the reason one eventually gets used to hearing aids is that you forget the way things sounded before—he can’t remember his favorite songs, he can’t imagine how traffic or the ocean used to sound with natural hearing, unamplified and uncompressed . . . These stories suggest that if through injury or illness we lose the code to our memories, if we can no longer embody the method of encoding, we lose the memories entirely. We forget how to remember them. And then finally what was remembered will lose its significance.
I have heard Elliott’s voice precious few times over these last years. Early in our separation, I kept his voicemails in my phone. I used to go back and listen to them until the one where he stopped telling me he loved me. I avoid the voicemails these days, the sound of him an invitation into a void I try to steer clear of. We speak seldomly, and I almost forget that he calls me Em, that his voice carries an accent that sounds like a blend of East Texas and East Germany. I think part of me believes that, given enough time, I’ll forget the significance of him speaking altogether.
Right before our break up, I had a dream: I was pregnant in our house and going into labor. Like watching a film, I watched myself make my way to the hospital while Elliott made his way home on his bicycle, the scenes commingled and overlaid together. There’s a slow-motion car wreck. I’m still driving. His body on the street. My body opening to new life. In the dream, I named the child Elliott Smith Parzybok, an amalgam of our names. I showed the baby to Elliott’s family in our shared grief and joy. The moment I remember most clearly is holding my baby, swaddled and in my arms in a hospital bed, and crying softly. “I just thought your dad would be here,” I kept saying.
And then a few days later, he wasn’t.
In Ted Chiang’s Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, the characters use prism technology to access the alternate threads of their lives. It works like this: they buy a device, a prism, that connects them to some other version of them, a paraself. They encounter the version who picked up the device in an alternate timeline. For a stretch of moments, they are connected. The device has a finite life, but during that lifespan, the two selves gaze into the mirror of an alternate reality. Chiang’s characters longingly gaze upon alternate versions of themselves until the machine runs out of time, a finite glimpse of a different possibility. Some develop a hatred towards the other self, some an envy, some a certainty that they have chosen the correct course. Inevitably, I wonder about the woman who is still with Elliott, perhaps even married to him, mother to that baby boy with the same name. I used to wonder if, in some alternate space, we were still a unit. In some other version, were Elliott and Emily holding one another a little more tightly, bemused by their sudden longing? I woke up one morning and scrawled down a now-lost poem about the two of them dancing together in my dreams, unaware that their daytime counterparts had not laid eyes or hands on one another, upset by the feeling of distance upon meeting at twilight.
This was a stage in my grieving when I found myself obsessed with the idea that I’d missed a pivotal moment. I would think back across time, trying to isolate the exact point at which I’d truly lost Elliott. Like most break-ups, ours had its fits and starts. We made love in the room adjacent to ours the night after breaking up, my body erupting when I climaxed as if it knew this was the end. Making love outside the bounds of our bedroom felt like entering a neutral zone, a place where the separation wasn’t happening. It took years for us to feel fully separate, for the intimacy to disappear completely from our text message threads. And through that time, I tried to piece together where I had erred, at what moment I could have changed the outcome.
Stories that fill the Western canon would have us believe there’s punishment in looking backward. Characters are warned. Peril lies behind them, and they are punished for their longing. Lot’s wife, forever anonymous in Genesis, looks back upon her lost life in Sodom and turns to salt. Orpheus turns to look upon his love, Eurydice, sending her back to the underworld as he ascends without her. Why does he look back at the last moment? Is he impatient? Does he prefer her memory? Does she call his name and seal her own fate? It’s not lost on me that women in particular seem to suffer for their disordered gaze in storytelling traditions framed by linear time. Perhaps if we thought of time as a river flowing downstream to the past, as some Native American cultures do, we’d gaze differently. As for Elliott and I? We’ve both gazed back at different moments. If we both looked back at the same time, would we turn to stone, preserving our memories forever?
There’s a negotiation to loss, a bartering we engage in to soften the blow, like my searching for the key moment. When Joan Didion lost her husband, she began this kind of arbitration. She says:
I found myself wondering, with no sense of illogic, if it had also happened in Los Angeles. I was trying to work out what time it had been when he died and whether it was that time yet in Los Angeles. (Was there time to go back? Could we have a different ending on Pacific time?)
This line of reasoning makes sense to me. Grief renders us skeptical of time and its structures, reticent to acknowledge the one-directional linearity that has burned us.
Carmen Maria Machado writes that “the memoir is, at its core, an act of resurrection.” According to her:
Memoirists re-create the past, reconstruct dialogue. They summon meaning from events that have long been dormant. They braid the clays of memory and essay and fact and perception together, smash them into a ball, roll them flat. They manipulate time; resuscitate the dead. They put themselves, and others, into necessary context.
I continue to live in the same room after Elliott moves to Texas, and it takes me two full years to begin to empty it of his presence. In the end, I keep his gifts to me and part with the possessions he left behind. I stop trying to resurrect him through talismans he forgot.
Things I get rid of after Elliott leaves:
A mattress we saved from a dumpster in Boulder, Colorado
that sags on his side
that we slept hundreds of nights on
that carries the imprint of our bodies making love
that has a stain from when I bled through the sheets
that I place outside in the rain before requesting a pick-up to the dump.
A cardboard bison head that Elliott hung in our bathroom around the time he started using a children’s desk as his bedside table, when he brought home from a thrift store a print of a woman’s black silhouette on a red backdrop. At the time—and even now—I hate all of these things and their strange lingering in my carefully crafted rooms. I cry taking down the bison from the bathroom wall.
that belonged to me
that he played when we sang Emmylou Harris songs together in bed
that he left behind with all the photos of me in a box on the floor of our empty room.
The medals from his triathlons and the run he did on his birthday to the top of Mount Evans while I faithfully drove the winding road in my Jetta up the fourteenth thousand feet. I place these medals in a box without a card and address it to him.
“Pain is a kind of emotion,” writes Elissa Gabbert.
Here, at the turning of a new year, I’m far less haunted. At night, I note my dreams down carefully in a journal by my bed and Elliott is not in them. Instead, I dream maps and codes, cyphers to discern and solutions to arrive at. In one of my dreams, circles and squares of varying sizes on parchment mark the trail to a bomb in a rotunda. I arrive to find an older woman grimly holding the detonator. I’m surprised, and maybe a little proud, to encounter this disheveled and unlikely villain in my psyche. She pushes the button.
In my waking life, the places where Elliott enters my daily experience are fewer. I walk through the world we inhabited, live in the house we shared, shop at our grocery store, and rarely see flashes of him anymore. It used to be that every place rang with his absence. I would walk up to my bedroom assailed by grief, magically placing him at the top of the stairs. I would weed the beds in my backyard with tears running down my face. I felt like a shell holding the space where he used to be.
Didion writes that we cannot know ahead of time:
The fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
Next to this line in Didion’s book, I wrote, at some point, “Yes. Tomato plants, etc.”
I started to garden maybe as a way to hint, from thousands of miles away, to Elliott who was not watching, at a shared camaraderie, an alignment that couldn’t be ignored. And still, in those moments—my mind quiet, my hands finding weeds of their own accord, my contact with the world soft—I would think to myself: this gardening is his, like he first dreamed this act of hands in soil. I’m borrowing it somehow. Sometimes in the midst of showing my plants to a visitor, I would have an urge to tell them that I’m not the real gardener. He is. I’ve wondered if he had this same sense when he settled in bed at night with his book open, skimming pages I’ve charted before. Does he think those stories are really mine? Does he feel the narratives are borrowed? As the years wear on, the garden does become my own. Nowadays, I don’t think of him when I gaze across the beds. The tomatoes smell like tomatoes.
Time passes without him. For years, Didion saw herself through her husband’s eyes, a gaze in which she did not age but stayed forever the woman he first fell in love with. Without Elliott’s gaze, I’ve confronted aging and changing in a new way. Initially, I resented every shift in myself, marking it as further departure from him. I would compare the present to the blueprint of memory and note—with no small amount of despair—the variances. The woman Elliott loved was thinner. The woman Elliott loved had a different job. The woman Elliott loved was a runner. It occurs to me less and less to measure my present against my past as time goes by. The memories have faded and, with them, my inclination to reach toward an imagined before. Perhaps, I’ve now forgotten even the clues and shimmers that once alluded to things lost. They’re at a distance I can’t reach anymore, invisible to me. In Korean folklore, the dried persimmon supposedly scares away tigers. I learned of this superstition during my foray into the etymology of persimmon. I didn’t even know tigers once roamed Korea. It’s been decades since they stepped foot on that land and now it’s hard for me to remember they were ever there.
Emily Parzybok is an essayist and political consultant living in Seattle. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Balance Our Tax Code advocating for progressive revenue policy in Washington state. Emily has published satire and political writing in The Satirist, The Syndrome Mag, and Points in Case. She has work forthcoming in the Uncertain Girls, Uncertain Times anthology, a collection of inspiration and encouragement for young women. She is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at New York University’s low-residency program. In her spare time, Emily can be found hanging out with her cats and honey bees and plants.