Writing into the places they once occupied

Sage CohenFierce writing, Uncategorized16 Comments

A few weekends ago, I drove myself to the beach. No partner. No dog. I walked alone for hours.

As I walked, I photographed the beach, full of emptiness and light. Standing at the thrashing eclipse of continent and ocean, I photographed myself smiling at nothing and no one.

Until my beloved Machi died eight months ago, I had never been dogless in Oregon. Never been to a beach without the amplified joy of my dogs. Never wanted to be.

For more than 30 years, my life rhythms revolved around a progression of eight pets: shopping for supplies, feeding, walking, scooping litter, driving to rehab, cleaning bodily fluids from every surface, sitting, sleeping, and working with an array of bodies draped over my own, and endlessly adoring my rag-tag pack.

Until a ricochet of loss in which my relationship with my boyfriend ended and my dog died, followed a few months later by my cat.

I was shedding beloveds and selves like a rose drops its petals: a scatter in the wind.

Who was I without a dog’s desire as my map, Machi’s combative canine inclinations as my hair shirt, my pockets free of poop bags?

As I studied my unaccompanied set of footprints in the sand, the allegory surfaced in which a person is feeling abandoned by God. When she asks why she no longer sees God’s footprints alongside her own at a time of such difficulty, God answers, I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it’s because I am carrying you.

I don’t know what this means to me, exactly. Only that in parallel with absence, I became aware of presence. As I walked, I was keeping time with a chorus of souls. Every being I have loved and lost was somehow with me. Splashing the lens of my life and leaving a salty residue of grief and joy. Making the crescendo of my solitude more precise and penetrating.

Next surfaced these lines from Marge Piercy’s poem All Clear which was taped to my dorm room mirror in my college years:

Loss is also clearance
Emptiness is also receptivity.
No, I cannot pretend:
the cells of my body lack you
and keen their specific hunger.
Yet, a light slants over this bleak landscape
from the low yellow sun,
a burning kite caught in the branches.

There is loss and there is light. There is a gaping space in which we are no longer occupied by the great love that has occupied us. And this gives us room to imagine how to begin again.

Like the relentless enormity of ocean, Elizabeth Gilbert’s “I am willing” moved through me in waves. I am willing. I am willing to feel this grief. I am willing. I AM WILLING. I walked. I sobbed. I gave thanks. Then I drove home.

The next day, my son wanted to know what happened to the screensaver I’ve had for his entire life: a photo of my dog Henry on the beach in the year 2000—smiling beside an exhausted tennis ball, encircled in a heart-shaped pattern of his own footprints.

In its place was this photo.

Because this is what our life is like now, I told him. An entire coastline awaiting our footprints.


What surprising grace have you found in loss? And how has writing helped you occupy the empty spaces? I’d love to hear.

16 Comments on “Writing into the places they once occupied”

  1. This was beautiful. I am still very much in the process of grieving my husband of 4 decades’ death a year ago, but I found parts of this really speaking to me.

  2. Thank you this, Sage. Your words are lovely and moving. The loss of a cherished home and a steady source of income are still alive for me and this has shown me that there’s a certain sweetness in the aftermath as well. <3

    1. Those cherished losses are our root system somehow, aren’t they? Here’s to all the footprints of wisdom and grace you are making today and as you move forward, Tomas!

  3. Hi Sage. Beautiful as always. I too am struggling with change and the loss of my beloved cat, with a new baby and in a new country. I’ve definitely been casting about for some grounding lately. Not easy with a six month old baby who needs so much attention! But I’ve found some comfort in his need; I can’t focus so much on the loss.

    1. Ah, Sarah, that’s a whopper of a life change. I’m so very sorry for the loss of your beloved cat! Wishing you deep grounding as you adapt to all of the NEW in your life and your family. Yes, there is an immediacy to an infant’s needs that can keep us in present time. (During my son’s first year, I considered just being present with him to be my poetry practice.) Sending you big hugs!

  4. So lovely! So much loss this past year, both of a lifelong beloved and of my 20 year career and income along with the strength of my body due to an injury. Still trying to make sense of all and find the beauty. Some days I can, some days just frustration. But an author I was reading one day suggested a writing line to start with and when I’m feeling the need, I write from the beginning phrase “What we want you to know is…”, and astonishing things pour forth. From there I find deep and magical grace. Thank you for sharing your beautiful grace!

    1. Oh, Kirsten, so many losses and heartbreaks. I love that you have an inquiry/writing process that is helping you alchemize grief to grace. Holding you close from here.

    1. Thanks so much, Peggy. Yes, the empty spaces can be so full sometimes, can’t they? Great to hear from you. xox

  5. Very thought-provoking article. Interesting how those who have departed from our lives are still a part of us. Perception is key. How we choose to understand these exits from our life determines how we deal with them. Great piece!

  6. so sage! thanks for these words of writing wisdom. And for coming to the first meeting of Willamette Writers in Vancouver where I got to hear you speak, get your books, and become an inspired fan… We’ll meet again, I’m certain. Bless you

    1. Thanks so much, Lori! It was wonderful to be with you in Vancouver. I look forward to many more adventures along the way!

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