To celebrate our ten year anniversary, we are inviting back former writers back to tpc in order to hear what they’ve been thinking about since leaving the post calvin. Today, please welcome back Gabe Gunnink. Gabe (’14) is more or less right where we left him. He still lives in swoonworthy Seattle and gets paid to enthuse about Europe. In his free time, he struggles to edit his elaborate dinner party menus, peer pressures friends into running too many miles with him, and patiently waits for Charli XCX to release new music. He is grateful to be back.

Debra Rienstra once taught me to always brainstorm eleven ideas before settling on an essay topic. Rule-follower that I am, I dutifully queued my options (twenty, Deb!), but since the moment I committed to writing this essay, I knew I wanted to explore psychic weight.

In my last year at Calvin, Professor Klatt had our poetry class read Robert Bly’s essay “What the Image Can Do.” In the essay, Bly maps out the six sources of poetry’s power. Among them are several well-worn tools: sound, rhythm, image. (A decade later, I still remember Professor Klatt’s example of image: Walking into Michigan March was like stepping into a blueberry pie.) But there was a source of power I did not expect: psychic weight.

According to Bly, psychic weight—or “soul weight” as he calls it in later essays—is a sadness distilled from lived experience that, when dripped into art, transforms it into a turbid storm of feeling. It’s what makes great art ache.

According to me, psychic weight is the heaviness of experience filling (and often overflowing) knowledge. And unlike rhyme and rhythm, one need not write poetry to understand it.

We all know our parents are full people, but the idea didn’t grow flesh until I’d squeezed my life into the back of my Hyundai, crossed the country, and learned to expand into a new job and a new city, wondering weekly how my twenty-three-year-old parents had braved the same uncertainties.

Our elders often preach that life won’t go to plan, but it wasn’t until I beheld him walking away down the Burke-Gilman Trail in his green jacket, until I felt the great charging train of my life switched onto the rails of a wrong parallel reality, that this truth settled itself on my shoulders.

We’ve all recited that “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” But I couldn’t appreciate what grim options the adage offered until I’d spent hours consulting the ceiling to decide if the fresh-baked focaccia and glimpses of him waiting at the front door were worth years of every blue Subaru towing grief behind it.

Once, when I failed to finish a particularly large slice of apple pie, my nana teased, “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” Now, whenever I taste focaccia, I worry if my heart is bigger than my psyche.

The best example of psychic weight I’ve encountered in art appears on page twenty-seven of Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is Lost. After he learns his mother has cancer, the author Arthur Less is counseled by his partner, a renowned poet, to “pay attention.” Less bristles at the idea of taking notes on his grief to fashion it into art later. The poet responds by telling Less a story of visiting Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel, where Giotto painted some of the first realistic human tears. He made the visit after his sister’s death, and one detail in Giotto’s paintings caught his attention, convincing him that someone centuries earlier understood his pain: “The tears were black.”

As I pay attention, one thing I’m learning is that psychic weight is always heavy, but it isn’t always black. Psychic weight can be a thick comforter when snow winks outside the window or an anchor when we’d otherwise be volleyed between waves. Psychic weight can steady us and hold us.

There’s a psychic weight when I see my mom on her knees to play trucks with my nephew or my niece transforming my dad into a jungle gym. I weigh all the years I’ve been loved and cared for, and I ache for the years of love and care ahead of those brilliant kids.

There’s a psychic weight when I reach the final mile of a well-run race. My whole body throbs like a thumb thwacked by a hammer, and fatigue hunts me like a wolf. But I’ve made friends with these discomforts, and a great power takes shape as I realize I can trust myself to withstand them.

There’s a psychic weight when I prepare dinner for myself and sit down to eat it off a plate, taking time to commune with my thoughts, even if we haven’t always gotten along in the past.

I recently received a Christmas card from a couple dear friends. It’s the only card I display with the (gorgeous) faces pressed to the refrigerator so the text on the back displays instead. The final line implores: “We wish that you may never lose sight of hope.” It’s a bold thing to wish for someone. The past few years have offered many lessons in how heavily hope can hurt. But I trust my friends knew that when they wrote it, and that trust also carries a lot of weight.

My friend and editor Abby Zwart and I often disagree over movie endings: I want either tragedy or happily ever after. She relishes the in-between, slice-of-life happy-sad. I’ll admit that I’ve often wanted to let the psychic weight crush me, parading my martyrdom to inspire guilt and sympathy. If I can’t have happily ever after, then give me tragedy, I thought.

But I’m slowly learning the reliable ache of psychic weight. That throbbing is a sign of a strong heart. I’m learning to welcome some sadnesses to steady my pursuits of hope.

I wish the same for you.

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