Sarai Austin

In the year since Sarai died I have more than once thought about things I would tell her if I could. I had two lists, “Things I would tell you/her if I could,” and “Things I’ve learned since you/she died.” The lists overlapped, or got confused about their missions–is “it’s not as much fun coming home” something I’ve learned or just a fact I’d tell her if I could? And of course there’s the “if I could”: I can’t. Anything I write, if it’s not just for me (and if you’re reading this you know which way I went), is bound to be opaque, my only real audience dead, her ashes deaf dumb and blind in a box downstairs.

She sometimes said she hated irrelevant trivia I’d bring up. I tried, but I guess I couldn’t be stopped. I can’t be stopped now. So here I am, another pass, in a kind of Ted Hughes-like Birthday Letter, though on the anniversary of the other end of her life (not that far apart those days, birth and death days, less than a month).

 

Things that have changed around here since you died or, if not changed, have come to my attention:

laundry is never done
I’m no longer surprised when a friend goes down
I’ve learned to make kitchari
it’s not as much fun coming home
the little ways I’ve changed the house disturb me
I talk to myself when I’m alone
there’s still no place I’d rather be

the drought is over
the lake is full
the flag on the “island”
is the Bear Flag now
that Trump was elected
which you didn’t know

if nothing else keep the toilets clean
you feared I’d make a mess of things
that dust would settle everywhere
and cats would run free

Draper and Damon closed
the Radio Shack on the corner closed
the Yardage Town is on final sale
reducing inventory so the owners can retire
no more Passage to India
or Souplantation Sunday brunch
Simple TV went out of business
and with our lifetime subscription
went your Miranda videos
you exercised with
in the bedroom
as many days as you could manage
the bedroom you died in
a year ago today

I can’t disappoint you any more
or try to learn to make you happy
I can’t live our life alone
and freedom just feels shitty
time’s healing power is overrated
time makes nothing easier
time doesn’t heal
time


A bit earlier today I wrote: “52 weeks ago she had almost an hour left to live; a year ago, a day. It’s how the calendar works, and our trip around the sun,” a little fancy with the unimaginable. Much is still in place, her glasses on her bedside table, purses and belts on their hooks in the closet. I’ll try to make this not too sentimental. One of us goes on, the other doesn’t, nothing else has happened really. I still live in the house. After a while–too soon–I went back to work. Life, and death, continue.

Every relationship begins by accident, even if you meet in kindergarten. You get hired to tutor, you offer a ride home from a party and stick around to walk the dog, there’s a swinging door between your offices, or you meet in the parking lot of a grocery store, you make a date, specificity takes over, and twenty-seven years later, while you’re watching television, one of you dies. That’s how things go. Everything about this is unremarkable to one not living it. Most of the time we loved each other; the details were our life.

The year’s been long and, a cliché, not so long. I’ve moved things around a little, though it makes me feel funny to do so. There’s a bigger TV in the bedroom, one I can see. There’s still no meat in the house. Her studio is mostly as she left it. I have no religion, I know I’m not being watched whatever I do, I know I won’t see her again. I cry a bit. For a while I couldn’t do much of anything. I read her poems–there are a lot of them, unseen, mostly, by anyone but herself while she was alive. It’s conventional to say she lives on in her work. It’s not true, really, but reading I remember, and in some sad ways know more about her than I did before. (There are more poems now on saraiaustin.com, where I’m trying now to be less haphazard and more chronological.)

Grief empties you,
your flesh scarcely
noticeable.
As though you’ve
lost weight,
pound per pound
to whatever
the loss.
A frail aging
parent, you lose
half of yourself,
a lover
yourself plus half.

Sarai Austin
3/26/99

Time to get serious.

Things I’ve Learned since you Died

laundry is never done
I talk to myself when I’m alone
the little ways the house has changed distress me

it’s not as much fun coming home
it’s not the same, the house, my own
time makes nothing easy

and that’s about it

 

“What’s important in this life? Ask the man who’s lost his wife.”
–Chrissie Hynde

Fat chance. Or as the kids say these days, I call bullshit. Pretenders don’t know. Or know something different than what I know, whatever that is. I don’t know. I know what I’ve done since to get on, killing time to stay alive, work, visiting friends and family, music, concerts and dive bars and festivals. Things we didn’t do much together.  Good to have people around me. Some of the time.

Not complete bullshit of course. Depends on where you’re looking. When I look back I know what was important, but for living life today that doesn’t help. The worst has already happened. I know what I’ve lost, but that’s not that much help with now.

“So many things I know but they don’t help me.”
–Regina Spektor

Here’s the thing: soon after she died I started saying, to myself and to others, “the worst has already happened.” This was a helpful mantra: it mean we (her daughter and I) couldn’t fuck things up: where or whether we buried her didn’t matter for example; we should make the best choice we could for us (her ashes are in a box next to the chair she sat in every morning), but we couldn’t screw it up. The same for many, mostly less-important, decisions since. But the corollary is “the best has already happened,” the 27 years from when we met in the parking lot of the old Mayfair Market in La Jolla to five minutes before, without discernible warning, she died eleven months ago in our house in Escondido.

“I went to the store one day.”
–Father John Misty

“Grievers use a very simple calendar: Before & After.”
–Facebook post

My “after” begin eleven months ago to the hour from when I’m writing these sentences, when the best had already happened, and the worst was taking its place. Not to minimize the importance to me of my daughter, grandkids, brothers, nephews, niece, ex-wife, sister-in-law, various long-time friends, etc., but they were only occasionally, not my constant, daily life. “Before” is not the same as “after.” We carry the weight of what we don’t have with us.

all those moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain
–Rutger Hauer

Grief empties you,
your flesh scarcely
noticeable.
As though you’ve
lost weight,
pound per pound
to whatever
the loss.
A frail aging
parent, you lose
half of yourself,
a lover
yourself plus half.

 

Sarai Austin
3/26/99

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(This is an appreciation, and an introduction to www.saraiaustin.com.)

Sarai Austin, poet and writer, mother, sister, and wife, died suddenly and unexpectedly four months ago, October 16, 2016.  Besides friends and family members and all the detritus of a normal life she left behind a lot of writing, mostly poetry.  There are a lot of poems.

We were a bit reclusive these past years: I went to work, and she did too, finishing, in the carpentry sense, decades of writing work.  There was no urgency we thought, but she wanted to get it done, and given that writing is only finished when you stop, what we have is what she gave us.

Like Emily Dickinson, whom she mentions in her long poem Cowboys (“I have been asking for a cowboy hat all year / …every occasion, I ask for a cowboy hat/ and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, /but no one ever takes me seriously.”) she didn’t publish much, though not for lack of submitting manuscripts to magazines and little presses at fifty bucks a pop, a brutal and foolish business to someone not directly involved.  Publishing has changed in the internet age, particularly poetry publishing, the door moved and the locks changed.  She went back to the writing itself, and a few small chapbooks she laser-printed and folded and stapled in her studio down the path to the other side of the backyard of our 118-year-old house.  She loved the house, she loved her studio, and she loved her work.

So, here’s a website, www.saraiaustin.com.  She secured the domain and did some design, but I’ve taken it over.  The layout is mine (I’m learning as I go), the words are all hers:  I haven’t changed anything, not on purpose anyway, not even the spelling of Sassafrass, the title of her chapbook of blues poems, nor have I softened any of the moments in her poems that are no more flattering to me than I deserve.  (She might say I’m making it all about me, but they’re not all about me.)

I hope she would like this website if she could, like that some of her poems are out now, available to more than the small audience of small press literary judges and recipients of her small batch handmade chapbooks.  There’s also a selection of photos. There will be more poems later, as I go through what she left. 

In truth, the real reason I worked this website was so that I could have access to these photos and poems wherever I have an internet connection, but I doubt I’m their only audience.  I’d be remiss if I weren’t partial, but the more I read and reread her work (she didn’t show me everything, and I’m finding new stuff as I go) the more I appreciate this aspect of the person I lived with for 27 years.  I hope—I expect—some of you already or will love these poems too.  It’s not language poetry, it’s not poetry I would or could write (though she told me if she died first I’d probably steal it), it’s not political except in the way that the personal is always political, but maybe it’s what poetry is supposed to be if it’s supposed to be anything: wrought from the lived experience of the poet, in this case of a woman born at home on a farm on the banks of the Mississippi, living the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first in America—Missouri, Arizona, Utah, California—married twice but a long-time single mother, a mentor and friend to other writers, and, of course, to me.  I miss her, but I hope it’s not too foolish to say she’s still here, in these words and in these photos, in the memories of all who knew her, and of those who meet her here for the first time.