The Return of Hope

Our inaugural Substack issue, with inspiration from poet Saeed Jones and an essay on looking ahead.

Not gonna lie: After nearly a year of pandemic life in a country turned on its head, it’s been challenging to easily access feelings of hope. 

But this week has been a little different because I’ve started to feel some again. This reunion has felt a bit like meeting up with an old friend who’s been traveling off the grid for, say, four years. And what I noticed was that after I gleaned hope from one place, it’s become easier to spot hiding in others. A nice reminder that it’s been there the whole time.

As many of us do, I have enormous hope stemming from what I saw in Washington, D.C. this week. On Tuesday evening, during a beautiful, brief ceremony to honor the 400,000 souls lost to COVID-19 in the United States, I witnessed more empathy in ten minutes from the incoming administration than many of us have probably sensed for the entire duration of the outgoing one.

And on Wednesday, where two weeks to the day after a deadly coup attempt, the U.S. went from having a president who at every turn seemed to go out of his way to be The Absolute Worst to having one who finds strength in vulnerability and empathy. One who will embrace the role of Mourner-In-Chief instead of gaslighting those suffering through the mushrooming grief pandemic that will surely outlast the actual pandemic. 

And a leader who, as Anne Sperling so perfectly put it, on his biggest day chose to make it about a young poet whose above words transfixed the world, a historic vice president, a grieving nation, teachers, healthcare workers, and unsung heroes. Because he knew that in turn, this would beget even more hope.

I have hope that the extreme isolation we are enduring, which is forcing us to forego tried-and-true IRL rites and rituals, will actually give rise to some surprisingly meaningful new ones in loss and remembrance – ones we’ll hold onto even beyond this pandemic. And I get a hell of a lot of hope from the Modern Loss community, whose members pull each other through this jumbled experience every single day with kindness, commiseration, encouragement, and humor.

Having hope doesn’t mean you can’t grieve, or be occasionally pessimistic, or be scared. It doesn’t mean you can’t feel lonely or dejected. It just means that you want better things to happen. This week, they did. And it was really nice to feel it. So grab on while you can.

Thank you for being part of this community and movement. Together, we are eradicating the stigma of openly talking about the long arc of loss and helping each other to build rich and resilient lives. This is our inaugural Substack newsletter. Each issue will have a theme, and for our very first one, we’re kicking off with HOPE.

We’ll also have interviews with notable figures focusing on these themes. This month, we’re with award-winning poet Saeed Jones, whose coming-of-age memoir, How We Fight For Our Lives, won both the Kirkus Prize and the Stonewall Book Award and delves deep into identity, sexuality, blackness, and grief over his mother’s death.

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We’re so glad you’re here. And, speaking of the theme at hand, we hope you stick around for what’s to come.

– Rebecca Soffer

Saeed Jones On Hope, the Dead Mothers Club, and Becoming the Lead Character of Our Own Lives

REBECCA SOFFER: Thank you so much for speaking with me today. You're sitting in your very nice living room. Has Room Rater rated you? 

SAEED JONES: Room Rater better leave me alone!

SOFFER: I want to send them a screenshot because your room is so colorful and amazing. I'm in my guest room-slash-office, where I seem to exist all the time now. It’s like a cozy jail. But your situation…you could have a party, you could do a Zoom, you could host a dinner. Well done. 10 out of 10.

JONES: Thank you. That's the goal.

SOFFER: The other day, you woke up to a surprise. Margaret Atwood chose your poem, “A Stranger,” to read on The New Yorker podcast. It's gorgeous and haunting and has a seed of what many of us wonder after we lose somebody. 

JONES: I have to admit that when the episode actually went live, I was stunned. I think as a writer, as a poet, I'm always taken aback by the power of my words in someone else's mouth. There's a magic there. 

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SOFFER: Was there anything that came out of that conversation that made you regard your own poem in a new way?

JONES: Margaret Atwood's someone I've studied since I was a high school student. I mean, there are decades of experience between us. She's lived a very different life. And the way that she was just like, "Well, he has a dead mom. I have a dead mom. And this is how it is." And she was like, "And those of you out there who've had this experience, this is..." She always has this [way of speaking]. It's blunt. It's not cold, right? But this very simple, humane way of talking about difficult experiences. 

So there was something there like, "Wow. Even Margaret Atwood gets the depth of grief and where it makes you wonder and where it sends you in terms of thinking about ghosts," which was something she talked about. 

It was refreshing.

A post shared by Saeed Jones (@theferocity)

SOFFER: What do you think your mom would've thought about all this?

JONES: When I published the poem I was thinking about this. One of the things with grief is it's this weird experience where a milestone or new accomplishment is wrapped up in all these different layers of meaning. It's like tree rings, right? Of course the poem is about my mother. And I remember [as] a teenager I wrote a New Year's list of determinations, like “I will have a poem published in a prestigious magazine, like The New Yorker, like Harper's.” She knew about that. So I remember when I published the poem about losing her, and meditating on the idea that with our loved ones that we have lost, isn't there a point at which they would move on, in which they are kind of living their next lives? Here we are still remembering and lamenting the loss. And maybe they don't feel the same way. It was a real trip. A real journey.


JONES: Yeah. Very meta.

SOFFER: You were clearly in love with your mother, as many of us were with our own. But grief can bring gifts. I'm not talking about, like "look at the silver lining!!” Just the facts that it’s brought incredible people into my life, it's brought me this mission, etc.

JONES: You start keeping it real. And I do think that's a gift. You kind of get to the point... and maybe it's just the stress, but also an awareness of the fragility of life.

Things are temporary. I think it makes it a little easier to say what's in your heart.

Grief has been one of the most humanizing phenomena I've experienced. It makes it easier for me to connect with people I don't know well. And you've certainly had this experience. 

I tell people, “The dead mother's club is real.” People who’ve lost a mom, it's like we find each other. You see this in the book. We kind of gravitate toward one another almost on an energy level. It's a very specific kind of loss and it changes you. And I think in the years that follow, you find other people who have been similarly changed. 

SOFFER: One of my friends wrote a piece a few years ago when she turned 40. The title was 40: Ain't Nobody Got Time For That. And I was like, "This my favorite piece ever." It wasn’t that I don't got time. I want realness.

Like, "Oh, you're in the dead mother's club? You're in the dead whatever club?" I feel like I can get to intimacy with somebody more quickly now because we're both talking connecting against the backdrop of knowing each of us has had this profound loss. It’s a weird gift.

JONES: Yeah. It's the gift that is bestowed upon you by making it relatively through. As we said, it's never over. But making it through the long tunnel of any kind of deep, trying, traumatic experience.

And then here you are on the other side, with your new ability to connect with other people who have been through similar experiences. It is a years-long transformative experience.

A post shared by Saeed Jones (@theferocity)

SOFFER: I'm curious about your experience going on book tour, having to talk about your dead mom all the time.

JONES: Generally, people were graceful, even shy. And sometimes I found myself being like, "No, it's okay. I wrote the book. I know the themes of the book. There's nothing in the book that I'm not willing to talk about.”

I would be in the book signing line and people would come up crying...or sometimes message me moments after they finish the book: "I'm still crying as I'm texting." They're in a very different part of the journey than I am.

My thing is always I want to honor people where they are. 

Earlier in my career as a writer, I would share a personal essay or something very vulnerable and someone would have a very vulnerable reaction to it. Sometimes I would have a desire to comfort them, to talk them out of their feelings. And eventually, I realized, "Well, that's not really it." So the strategy for me was to rest as much as I could during the day before and after. And then try to honor people where they were, and listen.

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I think so often – I know you know this with Modern Loss – with people going through grief, they just want to be able to say it out loud and have it acknowledged without having their expression tamped down, placated, gaslit. They want someone to go, "Yeah. That sounds tough and real. And I've been there or I haven't but I feel for you."

SOFFER: Right. They're not looking for platitudes, they're not looking for anybody to start any sentence with, "At least." Or, "You know what you should do..."

JONES: Oh, God. “At least.”

A post shared by Saeed Jones (@theferocity)

SOFFER: Yep, the worst. So, you’re big on Twitter. How have you navigated this collective grief we're experiencing? How would you describe your role in this online conversation?

JONES: I try as best I can. I use my platform to signal boost helpful information, news from journalists and newsrooms I trust. And also I try, whether it's the pandemic, whether it's just the ongoing epidemic, to speak candidly about how I feel. 

I think sometimes there is an assumption that the tone in which I write my books or my poems is the tone of everyday life. And I'm like, "Sorry. Not always that eloquent." So I think it can be helpful, I hope, for me to just say, "I'm depressed. I'm exhausted. I can't get off the couch.” Or, "I'm so angry, I'm not leaving my apartment because I don't know what I would do right now and I don't think that's a good idea." 

I think it's important to color our humanity and to help honor the feelings that we all feel. Because I'm not the only one who feels this way about grief or racism or transphobia or poverty. 

So often you can feel that you are the only one going through what you're going through. And the shame and all of the feelings that come with that sense of isolation, I think, in the end, are what kill us. And so I think it's helpful for all of us to be a little bit open.

SOFFER: What you're doing, Saeed, is being a healthy grief model.

This world needs to see people expressing grief and loss and resilience and all of that. You're giving permission for others to feel the same way, whereas maybe some of them might not have outwardly expressed it. It's like you're creating a ripple effect and you don't even know how powerful outcome is.

JONES: Thank you.

SOFFER: So, this issue is about hope because we just...I mean, we just literally–

JONES: Need it.

A post shared by Saeed Jones (@theferocity)

SOFFER: We so do. After your mom's death, do you remember the first time that you really had a feeling of hopefulness at any point in time? 

JONES: If you've read the memoir, this is within a few weeks of the last chapter of the book. And I'm in Europe, in Amsterdam. And I've taken shrooms earlier in the day. I'm not still hallucinating. I spent time in a botanical garden. But later in the day, I'm still feeling wonderful and it was a beautiful day in Amsterdam. 

I got a bike and I was just riding around the city. And it occurred to me, I’m Saeed Jones born in Memphis, Tennessee, raised in Lewisville, Texas, public school education. All these things, all the eviction notices I remember growing up with, with my mom and I struggling to pay bills. That familiarity of living paycheck to paycheck. And here I am in Europe on a bike. Nowhere to be, no obligations. Just living.

I remember being awestruck by it. So I pulled over for a second, because you cannot have deep meditation while bike riding. It's not safe, even in Amsterdam. And I remember saying, "It's like I'm a lead character in an independent movie." 

There was just something really comforting and hopeful about the idea that this insane experience had led to a place I never would have anticipated. And I had no idea where it would take me to next.

Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Will I Be All Right Again in 2021?

In 2019 my mom died. In 2020 we had a family suicide, a botched burial, and a catastrophic pandemic. Now, I’m looking ahead with (gasp!) hope.

By Cate Honzl

On New Year’s Eve one year ago, my widowed stepfather and my sister-less aunt joined me in throwing my mother’s funeral confetti into the frozen air at midnight. It was 2020, and it was melancholic, bittersweet, and hopeful. We lost my mother to metastatic breast cancer in July and together our family survived six months of intense grief; the new year brought with it the promise of a pain that was slightly less acute and a tad more manageable, so long as we held each other close. 

During one particular early February “self-care” bath, an optimistic phrase popped into my tired head for the first time: “Maybe, I’m going to be all right.” In the depths of winter, I was taking a writing course (a thoughtful “sorry your mom died” gift from dear friends). I’d started meal planning, doing yoga, and was even going to bed on time. My screenplay was selected for a dream opportunity! I was not just a functioning person but – gasp! – an almost happy one.

Then one night on my icy commute I called my aunt Lynn’s cell phone. I knew we both missed my mother desperately and thought connecting might cheer her up, even momentarily. She didn’t answer, which was typical, so I left her a voicemail. A few hours later, just after I’d tucked my toddlers into bed and sat down to work on a new essay, my phone rang. It was my sister who, in an unusually stressed tone, asked if I knew where Lynn was.

“Maybe, I’m going to be all right.”

My dear Auntie Lynnie — my godmother, my fellow Gemini, the classiest and most generous woman I’d ever known — had purposely overdosed. Though she very much meant her attempt to be final — there were suicide letters meticulously left behind — she laid in the ICU for three weeks before she finally died. The word “ventilator” was one of many technical terms flying around our family during those long, torturous days, and we never could have guessed that a mere month later it would be part of some larger cultural vernacular.

As we wrote her obituary, edited the eulogy and planned for hundreds of guests to attend her funeral, an almost impossible-to-imagine global pandemic knocked on America’s door. My husband’s extensive travel schedule for work was indefinitely postponed, as was the professional table read of my screenplay.

Then, as I sat in a private room of a hibachi restaurant with my grieving cousins, sipping on cocktails and sweating in the heat, lamenting that things could not possibly get any worse, the phone rang yet again. Only this time, it was the country club calling to cancel my aunt Lynn’s funeral. As we’d soon learn, “large gatherings” were now banned.

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  • Technology gave us ways to be together, as best we could, helped us figure out how to live apart. Now, we are simply apart.  – Matt Orlie’s new monthly column on Catapult, Grief at a Distance, examining his grief over his mother’s death in the Philippines during the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • Most Americans will never know one another personally, see one another. Yet it's in moments of national mourning... that we come together, that we experience those bonds of nationhood and community across all of these many different lines of difference. – The power and necessity of collective mourning in building a sense of unity. 

  • A ceremony like Wednesday’s can’t really begin to help her heal…unless there’s restitution to those who have had loved ones died because of how poorly the pandemic has been handled by authorities and private businesses like some nursing homes. – A nod of gratitude to the first national moment of grief but a push for a reckoning on how we got here.

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