Reading #1

“Roman Charity” by Traci Brimhall

An expiation is the act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing. In most religions and spiritual practices, expiation is a means of atonement. (The most well-known example of expiation is the Christian belief that Christ died on the cross to absolve the world’s sins.) At its heart, expiation is restorative: it aims to make whole what has been broken or ruined. Since this desire to restore is relational, or focused on restoring a relationship, expiation aims towards a future, even as it imagines that no such future exists.

Traci Brimhall’s essay, written in second-person, invokes the missing directly.  She performs a sort of expiation which reaches back into Roman mythology and rituals to deal with the death of a mother, and a troubled relationship. Notice how using the second-person point-of-view complicates the essay: it allows the speaker to navigate her grief at a distance while also making the reader complicit in the failures of commemoration.

Why do we feel this guilt when mothers die? Brimhall addresses the guilt squarely. A mother’s love is ridiculous, consuming, possessive, suffocating, the essential model for smotherlove, “unfailing and stupid and true,” to quote Brimhall. Becoming a mother is knowing your children will be devastated by the loss of you. It is to know this so deeply that your flesh becomes the site of possible grief. Despite their eye-rolls and disgust when spying you in the carpool line. Despite their declarations and assertions of independence.

The lion in God is the smoke in God is the whirlwind swayed by an image, Brimhall continues.  The love is the chord is the rage is the weft. The loss is the theft. The child is what’s left to carry the ashes. We reside in the complexity of expiation. Roman kids who didn’t honor their parents had to perform special rites, diaculum, to restore the filial bond. Often this included leaving an animal sacrifice on the altar.

After my mom died, I paid an Orthodox monk to fly to Tuscaloosa, Alabama and bless waters and say all the right prayers in Romanian, in the language where my mom felt close. The problem is that I can’t tell whether paying the monk was an expiation intended to restore a bond with my mother or a propiation intended to make a god go easy on her in that sky or whatever exists. (Propitiation is the act of appeasing or soothing a deity to incur divine favor or avoid divine retribution.)  I think these strange old words based in ancient rituals are both comforting and horrifying: like the scent of my mom’s favorite perfume, Magie Noire, and how different it smells on my wrist.

“But I don’t know if I’m remembering or making it up.”

Lydia Davis