I’ve never been good at math. After nearly failing algebra in high school, I chose to attend a liberal arts college in part—in large part—because there was no general math requirement.
Even now I’m sometimes criticized for using “bad math”—unrealistic statistics—in the poem I’m most known for, “Good Bones.” In that poem I wrote, “The world is at least fifty percent terrible” and “For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.” For the record, I realize there aren’t an equal number of birds and rocks on this planet. I’m well aware that though the world often feels “at least half terrible,” it’s not a provable percentage.
I’m a poet, not a mathematician. But each time “Good Bones” goes viral, typically after a tragedy, the literalists make their presence known in the comments: “You need to take a math class! These ratios are impossible!”
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After the song “Yesterday” was released, did anyone complain to Paul McCartney, “You’re not half the man you used to be! That’s impossible! You’re still a whole person!” I doubt it. Still, feeling less than whole—particularly in one’s grief—is a pervasive metaphor.
When I was newly divorced, trying to make a fresh start for myself and my children, my thinking about my family and my new life was shaped by absence. I looked at us and saw what was missing instead of what was there. After a major loss or upheaval, it’s natural to think in terms of before and after. For me, there’s B.D, Before the Divorce, and A.D., After the Divorce. It’s natural to lay the shape of your new life over the template of your former one, and to see all the contours that don’t line up.
We had been a foursome as a family, so when my—our—children first had overnight visits at their father’s rental house, I thought of myself as the quarter missing. When the three of them were together, they were three-quarters of the family we once were. When the children were with me, we were missing a quarter, too. No matter the arrangement, I saw us as asymmetrical and off-kilter. Incomplete.
The math of divorce is painful: division and subtraction. When my marriage ended, we divided our assets, our furniture, our dishes and pots and pans. We divided our time with the children. We divided our friendships: Who were more his people, and who were more mine? We subtracted, too, again and again. I lost “my other half.” I lost, over years of litigation, tens (and tens, and tens) of thousands of dollars. I lost weight. I lost sleep. I lost my sense of security. I lost the future I’d expected to have and the upbringing I’d wanted to give my daughter and son. I grieved all of it. I looked at my life and it didn’t add up.
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One evening an old friend and I were sitting in Adirondack chairs in my backyard, commiserating about our divorces. I told her how bewildering it had been for me, and how estranged I felt from my previous life—the B.D. years. I said, “My life is unrecognizable from what it was five years ago.”
Then we were both quiet, and I reconsidered. I took it back. No, it was about constants and variables. When I looked again, I saw that despite the losses—the dividing and subtracting—so much remained the same: I was mothering my two children in my house. They were in the same schools with the same teachers. My neighbors were the same, my close friends and family were the same. My office looked out on the same street. The same dogs walked by daily, and I greeted them by name—Molly, Brutus, Daisy, Monkey. I recognized my life. I realized something then: If I knew nothing of what was missing, what had been removed, my life would look full and beautiful.
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I can’t make the equation work any differently: 4 - 1 = 3. But since that night I’ve been telling myself a different story about the math. If divorce is a time of division and subtraction, then rebuilding is a time of multiplication and addition. I’ve lost, but I’ve also gained, namely, perspective, as I’ve learned to see our family for what it is, without comparing it to what it was. When I look at myself, I see a complete person, not half of a former couple. When I look at my children, my family, I see wholeness, not a fraction.
Our house isn’t three-quarters full, it’s full. And my heart? That’s full, too.
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