Photo from the Robert Frost Stone House

The Ten Best Days of the Year (2021)

Last year, and the year before that, I wrote and published a recap post on Medium where I ranked my top ten favorite days of each year. In 2019, it was begrudging gratitude born from a long lament against myself. In 2020, it was an optimistic tribute to a year of barely-theres. The Ten Best Days of the Year is a happy activity, one predicated on my willingness to find the good in everything, an exercise in self-awareness, a way to capture all those instances of joy that I don’t record in enough detail in my journals or on social media.

And, come on, a blog I only need to update once a year? Perfect, flawless, outstanding.

On January 3, 2021, my grandma died. If you know me, you know that I call her Gram Cracker, that I called her every week, that I talk about her regularly, that I visited her often. I was home for Christmas when she was hospitalized and I was next to her when she died a few days later. I need to tell you, it happened. It was sudden. It was unexpected. It was nothing like the nightmare scenario I’d rehearsed in my head since leaving home at 18. It was better and worse. Mostly worse, because every time I imagined the worst-case scenario, she was still alive when I stopped imagining.

She was 94. She was tough. She had one kidney and no belly button. She had broken her arm a year prior, but sort of forgot that she was never supposed to recover full mobility in her hand, and kept embroidering. She didn’t “stop existing” when she died; some essential, nutritious part of her separated out and floated away, leaving a watery body behind. I spent hours with that body as it emptied. Curled up on my side, Reader’s Digest in hand, reading jokes out loud, I was not sad, yet. I was spending time with my Gram Cracker. This was something I knew how to do. After she was gone from her own house, I became sad.

I would be lying to you if I said that this year, I only grieved. But I am not sure how to articulate my grief-flavored year as a list. At first, I thought some aspect of precision had been taken from me, but then I realized it was stuck further into my gut — my ability to voice an emotion was subsumed by my ability to feel it — I need to excavate anything I want to yield.

I wrote poems. I used to be embarrassed about my poetry but I’m too tired to have any shame about things I love anymore. When I very first began writing poetry, years ago, it served a purpose I had not yet accomplished in any sophisticated way with fiction. That is, poetry let me explore an emotion, or a sensation, in a way that also documented it for later replication. Fiction was good and interesting and compelling, but it took me a long while to infuse it with any feeling. Poetry has line breaks like that because it is leaving room for how you feel.

So: I wrote poems, about my Gram Cracker, but also about my friends and my friends’ friends and my dreams (involuntary, nocturnal) and my dreams (voluntary, waking) and my breakup and my new apartment and my family and my cat and my weird almost-dates and my weird oh-that-was-a-dates and my shower thoughts and my anger and my longstanding crushes and my affinity for Little Women and my chest pain and snakes and kissing.

And then, miraculously, I published a lot of those poems! It was my first time really publishing in earnest. I made a goal, in February, to submit one poem, essay or short story for publication in a journal every weekday. I ended up surpassing that goal and submitting over 30 pieces in 28 days.

Then, I revised my goal: to receive 12 acceptances in 2021. I beat that, too, with 21. I decided I wanted to have three specific pieces accepted to journals: a poem, a short story, and an essay. All three of those were accepted; the poem, called The Morning in My Chest, was published this year and the others are forthcoming.

My only other writing goal this year was my Ten Best Days list. And I couldn’t write it. I couldn’t say to you in bullet points what I am proudest of and happiest about. Trying to say plainly how generous my friends have been this year moved me to tears. Every attempt to explain the joy and pride I feel in my family reduced me to a puddle. It’s humbling, to be loved again and again and again, to be given more than what you believe you deserve, to have a days-long stretch of perfect happiness. And even with that sadness, waiting in the back of my throat? Framing all that, within ten days? No. I just couldn’t do it.

I decided instead to do what I was capable of. I pulled together some poems I wrote in 2021 and wrote a couple of new ones that fit my theme, and I compiled them into a PDF.

You might not give a shit about my poetry and that’s fine, I won’t be offended. A part of 2021 that came as a genuine shock was how many people do seem to care, deeply, about my writing. People who love me, and always have, find new, surprising ways to show it. People I barely know said I have helped them know themselves. Thank you to everyone who reached out and told me they read all my writing, and to the people who reached out because one single piece hit them in the heart. I write, mostly, for me. It is something I give myself. But the more I write, the more I am, and I am so happy that everything spilling over the edges has somewhere to go.

Last year I wrote this: “There’s a lot I haven’t had a chance to mourn. There’s a lot I didn’t feel safe celebrating. Every single bit of it is the best I could’ve done.” Okay, hold that over. Maybe it counts forever. There’s a lot I haven’t had a chance to mourn, even as I’ve logged hours in the sorrow department. There’s a lot I still don’t feel safe celebrating, even if I let my heart rejoice in private. But these poems, this year — the best I could’ve done? Absolutely.

I have assembled 18 poems into a little zine called The Year in Pictures. I hope you read it, and if you don’t, I hope you know how glad I am to have written them all anyway. You can download it for free right here.

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hattiejhayes@gmail.com

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Hattie Jean Hayes

Hattie Jean Hayes

hattiejhayes@gmail.com

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