This piece was written at a writing toward healing symposium in Warrenton, Virginia in November 2012. Carol Henderson was leading the workshop and several of the Farther Along mothers were present along with community members from Warrenton. I was thinking of having taught Homer’s Odyssey for many years as I wrote to the prompt, What does grief look like?
What does grief look like? Thinking of how we often wear our grief to the world or hide it away, I think of Penelope, wife of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, who wove her grief into a shroud. She grieved for her husband, who was away from their island home for twenty years and was presumed dead. The shroud, though, was a ploy to stall the suitors who wanted to take her husband’s place, a ploy to avoid something dreaded and a piece to contain her grief for her missing husband. She told the suitors that she must weave a shroud for her elderly father-in-law before she could choose one of them as a husband. And so she wove.
Every day she patiently wove the cloth, the warp and woof making something visible from next to nothing, a new fabric from thin threads revealing a pattern for sorrow, a product that could be seen and acknowledged, perhaps also a hope made visible—although that hope was certainly different for her from that of the would-be husbands who eagerly watched its progress.
Every night, though, Penelope tore apart the weaving and left the disconnected strands of thread tangled and matted with tears, only to start all over the next day weaving and ordering the threads into a burial garment once again. And this may be the pattern of grief for many of us: Each new day may be a starting over, and we may not see much progress at all to this journey of grief. Even when there is progress, we may tear out the pattern, tangle the threads and have to start all over again the next day.
After twenty long years, Penelope’s husband came home, displaced and dispatched the suitors (what a word–”dispatched”), and there was no need for the unfinished shroud she had labored over for so long. I wonder if Penelope kept it as a souvenir of her anguish, her hope when a future looked dismal, her determination. The shroud has been called “Penelope’s web,” and now a task that is mysteriously unfinished is called that.
I wonder if for me there will be a time that grief is so much farther along that Penelope’s web is complete, the weaving all done, the grief all packaged and instead of ready-to-wear, ready to fold neatly away. I suspect that a few strands of hope lie between the warp and woof of threads, but I don’t really think it will ever be finished.