creative nonfiction by Christine Hale

Negotiating my way down a steep slope, winter-dried oak and poplar leaves six inches deep and slick as clay slip, slip is what I do. My butt, already only inches above the near-vertical slant of the ridge, hits hard and slides but not far. My dignity is saved by acres of forest in every direction; no one saw me go down. I clamber up, balance unsteadily and peer downhill through naked branches at the felled tree, a towering poplar. The color palette of these woods in the first days of March, too soon for spring green, is all last fall’s gold and russet and tawny, and I am east-facing on a sunny day so the light espaliered through the standing bare trunks is also golden and I can find no distinction between what is form and what is photon. Just how far downhill is the poplar’s crown—a hundred feet? Less? What has it crushed? The property line fence, or underbrush? I can’t see. I just cannot see.

This is my existential condition five months past the sudden death of my beloved, but also my physiological one five months after emergency surgery for a detached retina. When the retina ripped, he was only ten days gone, the abrupt end to fourteen years of joyous late-life marriage preceded by a dozen years of passionate, fraught, chaste attachment conducted at a distance and largely in silence. His fall—cardiac arrest in a tennis match—is something I did not witness and cannot stop trying to see. How sudden was the cessation of heartbeat, breath, consciousness? Likely there was pain. Was there fear? Regret? Release? In the bag of scissored-off clothing returned to me by the EMTs was his cell phone, smeared lightly with gray granules of court clay. Had the phone been in his hand when he fell? Was he reaching for, fighting for more life or did he embrace as he fell the inevitable and let go? 

That I can never have answers to these questions is a given, and a torment. Persisting inflammation in my damaged eye, first in the retina and now in the cornea, conflates with my sorrow that despite the tumult and the fervor of our love, he and I had no goodbye. I live off-kilter: vision in the bad eye light and shapes and blurred colors, the other eye working properly but its perception undermined by the wonky contribution of its partner. 

Depth perception in particular is impaired. I know how steeply the ground slopes away from me; I’m long familiar with this ridge. I feel my feet and knees working to maintain balance in counter to gravity’s pull, but my eyes contribute only the visual equivalent of static to my proprioception. I’m not blind, but—the archaic term purblind comes to mind—half-blind. Every step, every choice, every insight I reach toward is half-ass, and shaky. 

Fifteen minutes ago, from an upstairs window, I noticed the standard arrangement of standing hardwoods on the slope altered by one new angle and thought is that a tree down? Impulsively I set out to investigate, leaving the house without the polarized sunglasses that would dampen the light shimmer that now maroons me.

My butt-drop into the leaves hasn’t injured me, which is lucky, and I note my gratitude about that. It would be easy to hurt myself more, to become more disabled, in this insular, uncertain state of being-while-not-quite-seeing. I am alone in the woods, a quarter-mile at least from any house other than my own, and my cell phone is in my house, a hundred yards away, uphill. Will I be able to make it up the slippery slope to my house without falling face-first? Up is harder than down on these grease-slick leaves, and tree-shadow scintillating in sunlight angling through bare branches refracts off that swollen cornea in pure glare, obliterating any solid sense of direction. 

If I fall on my way back to the house with no sunglasses on, will a bare stick from the winter’s deadfall pierce the wonky eye or, worse, the good eye? After decades of resilient self-directedness, I view myself as someone to whom terrible, surprising, debilitating things happen. Why stop with just the catastrophes so far? Why not another, today, right now? Doubt and fear brim out of me as if my head were a pot boiling over.


The mind is always in motion. Reaching for what’s wanted and rejecting what’s not, quivering on the cusp of uncertainty as to which category to assign each bodily sensation, each mental perception. Our thoughts and our feelings constantly shift because everything and everyone around us is also shifting, inwardly and outwardly. However much we may want and need to stop or to control that flux, we cannot, because all phenomena are impermanent, and interdependent.

I first directly experienced the accuracy of that core Buddhist teaching—fleetingly, my busy mind only briefly stilled—on silent retreat over twenty years ago. 

One week into a three-week stay, that day like each day shaped by four two-hour sessions of sitting practice, eight hours of every twenty-four spent cross-legged in silence or chanting long, intricate patterns of mantra. The mind’s clatter dulled down to a white-noise drone, the body a seamless ache. At day’s end, collapsed on my cot in a ramshackle hut, my gaze settled on the open window and through it a cerulean sky and between the two the vibrancy of late spring. Rain-rich green everything: foliage, unmown grass, vines, moss, lichen. In a honeyed slant of late day light, the leaves of an oak shimmied on a slight breeze. Cupped in stillness, the light, the leaves, and the breeze all shivered, their oscillations inseparable, their being—and my being—interpenetrated.  

I felt in body and mind, simultaneously, as in the wordless shift from asleep to awake, a truth I’d been told repeatedly by Buddhist teachers: all things in motion, always. All things interconnected, always. Nothing and no one concrete, ever.      

Relief flooded me. A release of tension—impermanent, but viscerally memorable.

I had come to retreat to make a decision. An important, agonizing, life-shifting decision. Instead, by the time I left, I’d realized that I could not decide. I could force an arbitrary conclusion but proclaiming I have decided would not alleviate the uncertainty I faced. Instead, I embraced what I felt: ambiguity I could not resolve because others’ choices were also pending. I felt what I felt—uncomfortable and uncertain—and knew I would have to feel that until I felt something else. 

The conditions of spiritual retreat—exhaustion plus enforced absence of distraction—had temporarily shut down my cognizing self, leaving only direct experience of empty space and what moves within it. Beauty and peace and ephemerality perceived all at once through the senses with no labels, no grasping, no rejection. Leaf-light shimmer became for me, that moment and to this day, somatic analog for sunyata, the union of openness and appearances, a brief-and-already-dissolving moment of balance inside the mind’s helpless, anxious, endless sorting into yes/no, good/bad, come here/go away. 

That unending wobble is the real reality of being alive. 

I feel encouraged by the resurgence of spring. 
I feel angry to be faced with spring. 

In my unchosen new life—unpartnered, purblind—spring advances. The ridge-face my writing chair fronts through a wide and uncurtained window is again awash with feral azalea, a fiesta of coral, shell pink, hot pink, and warm white blossoms overflowing chartreuse baby leaves. 

I feel encouraged by the resurgence of spring. 

I feel angry to be faced with spring. 

I feel two ways about so many things, and living the shake between the one and the other is like rattling across the washboard ruts of a hard dirt road. One day I work myself up to packing a box of his jeans and tees and underwear and socks, deliver it immediately to the local group supporting the unhoused, feel lightened and purposeful but afterwards pitch face-first into a new, deeper vale of sorrow about erasing the beloved from our home. I drive a half-hour to the outlet mall to buy new tops and pants one size smaller than before, to fit my now-bonier body, feeling, as I try things on, a surprising heart-lift into a brave new world in which I care about my appearance but, reaching home, hit a brick wall of loss: my beloved loved to buy me clothes, would shop with me and make good choices, but I cannot even show him these. I avoid entering his writing studio, but go in any way to raid office supplies, feel soothed by the thick presence of him in his books and journals and the him-shaped dent in his recliner but, leaving, feel myself freshly disoriented exiting one world for another, to neither of which I can fully belong. I accept, warily, an invitation to coffee from a male writer, recently bereaved himself; I’ve been acquainted with him for decades and if he were not male I’d have no qualm about sitting across a public table from him but because he’s a single male I cannot not understand this meetup as potentially a date, although its express purpose is to discuss publicity for the beloved’s posthumous work. Face-to-face with this genial, lonesome man, I feel his open wish for companionship but my only vector of connection to him is his ability to appreciate my unassuageable grief. I wish to be comforted but I do not wish for male touch nor to offer a man my affection; I belong to the beloved and I flee, to vibrate sleepless all night between horror—at having permitted even the possibility of disloyalty to my man—and a widow’s self-care doubt—maybe I was supposed to push myself to open to a new experience. 

Did I feel what I felt and act accordingly, or was that self-isolating self-sabotage?

Am I holding on to my lost beloved, or beginning to let go of my lifelong need to be partnered? 

Is it even possible to know? 

Not knowing, I wobble. 


The beloved in lectures spoke of “dynamic balance,” which his artist’s pedagogy defined as the simultaneous condition of about-to-fall-into/about-to-fall-out-of balance. He meant by this the embodied tension of paradox: getting up while falling down, in the moment when either is possible but neither has quite happened yet and the one is still indistinguishable from the other. The first dozen or so times I heard him speak on this energizing attribute of literary structure and character construction, I felt intrigued but flummoxed. Mmm, elegant concept, but how to do? I now understand it best as experiential expression of the Buddha’s pedagogy on The Middle Way: the path—rocky, vertiginous, uphill and ambiguous all the way—between attachment and aversion. Neither grasping for nor turning away from emotions, people, experiences. Feeling the pull, one way and the other, while choosing not the one or the other but, instead, abiding in the wobble in-between. 


Spring grows fulsome. The beloved’s garden rebounds despite two late and deeply killing freezes. Peonies burst their tight bud-corsets, hostas fist pump skyward, ferns unfurl, iris blossoms unsheathe into origami bee palaces. I feel this seasonal renewal, lifeforce persisting past setback, and recognize that my participation—watching, weeding, and watering—signals that I, too, am a living persisting thing. I will, without conscious choice to do so, go on without him. Feeling shaky about that, I drive five hundred miles with a woman I’ve known since sixth grade to a beach we’ve neither seen before. The sea and the big sky soothe, and throughout that vast space his absence is ever-present. I wade deep into his finished and unfinished manuscripts, shepherding three books toward posthumous publication and that immersion is solace and strain as it reminds, complicates, resets who I know and knew him to be. I fly west to hike the Cascades with a friend who knew us both for thirty years and the moment I enter her house I am embarrassingly undone by memories of dancing with him there in her kitchen. And all the while the purblindness gets worse despite my assiduous adherence to the prescribed steroid treatment which, it turns out, when I insist it stop, has exacerbated the problem. The root cause remains officially undiagnosed as I bounce between siloed specialists after my internet digging suggests a cause one accepts and the other discounts while nonetheless prescribing a treatment that produces improvement and no cure. Between appointments I keep pushing my eyes to their limit, pressing on with his books, and beginning another of my own.  

His work/my work. Which should I prioritize, in a given morning’s brief window of adequate vision? Is the sense of purpose I find in moving his work into the world a dodge of the emotional risk inherent in nudging my own work toward fruition? A writing friend praises my devotion to the beloved’s books as “fidelity.” Reading an old journal of mine, I see that twenty years ago I noted, uneasily, the psychic costs of my “swan-like loyalty” to him. 

Now on my widow walk I teeter restlessly on what I perceive as a cusp, fidelity on one slope, self-actualization on the other. Could fidelity be self-actualization? Swans are said to mate for life. My mate is dead but I live on, still mated. A writer who was witness at our courthouse wedding sends condolence, admiring how as a couple he and I were “well stitched together.” Were we so thoroughly fused—"inosculated,” he wrote in a poem, “skin and torso and phloem”—that no letting go is possible so long as one of us lives? Am I trying to force a hard end to our union to escape the tension of feeling what I feel?

In his last works of his last year, he spoke of deliquescence and final fruiting as two faces of a single process. Falling more deeply in while also falling out of life. Parsing my path each day between doing for his writing and doing my own, between giving away his clothes and his books to those who can use them while hanging on to every photograph, each memory, his bathrobe, our home, I observe the debate my mind wages: is all this effort my deliquescence or my final fruiting? 


Sometimes the only answer is no answer. In the bigger picture he invoked, then embraced, there would be no decisive distinction between holding on and letting go. Rather, there would shimmer the creative tension of paradox. Of dynamic balance. It could be that by striving to integrate his words and his possessions into the beyond-me, I more fully assimilate him—his persisting presence within his unremitting absence—into me. 

It could be that all I can do is inhabit the unresolved, uncomfortable in-between place, because that’s where I am. Oscillating, for now, between okay and not okay, seeing well and seeing poorly, drowning in grief and finding new footing—fully experiencing the now and now and now through which I fall, into and out of balance.  

Christine Hale is the author of a novel, Basil's Dream, and a memoir, A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Arts & Letters, The Sun, Still: The Journal, Hippocampus, and Prime Number. A retired teacher, she has been faculty at Warren Wilson College, the University of Tampa, the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, and Antioch University-Los Angeles MFA Program. She lives on a ridge above the Swannanoa River near Asheville, where she and her late husband the writer Kevin McIlvoy gardened, wrote, and danced since 2008.