This Obscure Warmth of the Soul: Memory, Grief and Love

A Girl Defending Herself Against Eros. William Aldophe-Bouguereau. Oil on canvas. 1880.

Grief feels like a race against time while I wait for my memories to fade—the memories of a happy life, the memories of a shattered life, the memories of the pain. Distract yourself with new activities, meet new people, make new connections is the advice I am constantly given. And strangely enough sometimes being with other people makes the grief and my sense of being alone worse.

Reading Paul Valery’s writings. on “Eros” in the final sections of his Cahiers/Notebooks 1 has especially struck a cord with me as I think about memory, grief and love. Valery had an eight year love affair with poet Catherine Pozzi and much of his writings about Eros are influenced by his love for her.  I’m not surprised he used the Ancient Greek word Eros for love—Eros is a complex figure that is unpredictable; Eros both elevates men and ruins them. Many see love as a distraction or a drain on one’s time and energy but Valery suggests that real love gives us more energy to accomplish other goals in life. Valery had some of his most productive and creative years of writing when he was with Catherine and she even gave him notes and encouraged him to publish his notebooks:

Happy love mobilizes all our strength. It creates superabundance, which is the supreme good, and the need for the finest works, making them necessary, easily accomplished, a relief. The happy lover is rich. He’s a physiological and psychological millionaire. He’s the king of expenditure. 

And:

To be profoundly loved, is the greatest thing in the world. It was the impossible object of God. ‘Profoundly,’ this is not about pleasure, nor about pride. But to received this obscure warmth of the soul, to warm yourself at the life which glows only for you…

What is a true, deeply loving relationship?  What is it, exactly, that I’ve lost? Alan wasn’t a distraction from my job or my reading or writing, but instead he enhanced it.  I think he would agree that I wasn’t a distraction from his work or his motorcycles or his camping, but I enhanced and encouraged and supported these things.  I hadn’t thought about this until Alan’s death, but I realize now that our lives were intertwined in a way that allowed us to complement each other;  and since my old life has been destroyed I feel that every day is an attempt to slowly build back my own foundation—find new supports, new ways of carrying on. Valery uses the metaphor of roots and a tree to explain this relationship-as-support idea beautifully: 

Love grows like a plant and what we see of it, namely the leaves and flowers, the fruit and stem, is nothing without what we don’t see, the roots. Nobody knows them exactly, neither their extent, nor their depth, nor their precise trajectories, nor the state of them.

For nothing imaginable explains the penetration, the vitality, the development of this plant by the apparent conditions of its nature. 

Any love love which can be reduced to a few things that can be counted out, described, understood, foreseen is a small plant of no importance.

But when we lose this kind of love Valery describes having a “soul-pain.”  When he is apart from Catherine  and when they finally go their separate ways for good the intensity of his grief is unbearable—something to which I can certainly relate. He writes about it simply and concisely as, “The one thing I think of tenderly, I think of also with pain. What is that thing? It’s you or it’s me.” 

Valery feels that the only true comfort for the pain is fading memory—he calls this a “fruitful forgetfulness.” When everyone tells me what I really need for the grief to pass is time that is what they are essentially saying—as the memories fade, so will the pain.  Valery writes:

The more or less powerful faculty we have…of diminishing the importance of something by taking other objects into consideration with it, by introducing a very different scale , or a much broader angle of view, —it seems that time, of its own accord, exercises this faculty automatically through the weakening of impressions, forgetfulness. Although intense pain can scarcely be weakened by thinking of or looking at other things, by reducing it to the point of the body where it’s apparently produced, still the succession of time undoes it and cancels it out little by little.

New people, new connections, new memories; grief as a race against time…

And so, is the pleasure, the beauty, and the intensity of love worth the pain?  I keep asking myself this question over and over and over. 

The answer to this, I think, is the last thing that Alan taught me.  We were always learning new things from each other and his final “lesson” was probably his most important.  His last text message to me said, “Goodnight, I love you! See you soon.”  And my response, “I love you too. Can’t wait to see you!” If given the choice to send a final message before he was killed, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have sent this same message and sent it to me. 

I suspect that when my own time is up that I won’t think to myself that I should have worked more, or worked harder or spent more hours making money or starting a business or fixing my house, or doing one of the million other chores I fret over everyday. Today especially I’ve learned that people, connections, relationships and love are so much more important than any of the number of things or tasks we spend hours of our time and effort on.  It sounds clique and almost silly to say, but the true measure of a successful life is love; that’s what we are here for and nothing else in the end really matters—even when it ends in incredible pain and tragedy and heartsickness—nothing else really matters.

And so the natural question for me is, “Now what?” Do I close myself off to new connections, new relationships, new love? Do I want to suffer that kind of pain again?

What would Penelope have done if Odysseus never came home?

A dear, kind, astute friend write to me recently and gave me an answer that has changed my thought process: “Consider the Universe and his possibilities,” he said.

 

 

 

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In Praise of Defeat

In Ancient Greek boxing, if a match was a draw the athletes could choose to do what is called a Klimax in order to determine a clear winner. One boxer would deliver a punch to the other while undefended, back and forth, until one of them dropped.

Yesterday as I was standing at the side of the road in the cold and the dark after hitting a deer with my car I was thinking that I felt like one of those ancient boxers—taking blow after blow after blow to the face, to the gut, to the heart…

At what point will I collapse? At what point do I admit defeat?

The past week and a half has been especially difficult and the car accident felt like another defeat in a string of defeats, both large and small. From the Latin de and facio, defeat literally means “to unmake” or “undo” something. Is it really a bad thing to admit defeat in some cases? Can we learn something from admitting defeat?

Moroccan poet and author Abdellatif Laabi, who was imprisoned and tortured by his government because of his writings, composes a poem in the midst of his suffering entitled “In Praise of Defeat.” The content of the poem and the striking title have been on my mind all week. Laabi acknowledges the balance in the universe—we can’t truly enjoy or appreciate victory if we haven’t first experienced defeat:

In this world so disparaged
you have everything
The sun, the moon
cows, pigs
the sea, the soil
love, hate
joy, sadness
peace, war
highs and lows
What more could you ask?

Defeat reduces a situation, a relationship, a circumstance, a life to a void, a nothingness. As I was standing in the dark on the side of that road with my daughter and my puppy in the car, scared for all of us, my mind started slipping toward a sadness—a kind of longing even—for my old life. I never had to take care of issues like this, they were taken care of for me. And I certainly never had to deal with stressful situations like this alone.

But I had to quickly adjust my mindset—and accept defeat. That previous life no longer exists for me. I had to accept its defeat. And if I didn’t I would be stuck, and sad, and consumed by grief indefinitely. How to take care of Claire and Phoebe, who to call for help now, how to get the car fixed—these are my tasks now.

I keep thinking about what is next for me. My life feels so completely different, and although fate has dealt me several unexpected and painful blows I am still standing. And I’m convinced that if I had never admitted defeat then I couldn’t begin to think, to have hope, for something different. Paul Valery writes about emotions in his Notebooks and his ideas about pain and suffering especially resonated with me after experiencing the defeats I mentioned this past week. “The simplest characteristic of pain is its capacity to force the attention, to distract, to deny freedom,” Valery writes.” An important result of embracing my defeat is gaining my freedom back—my freedom to decide what comes next for me.

“Just keep rolling with the punches,” he said.

He’s absolutely right.

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In Praise of Risk

I’m convinced that in life we are either moving forward or backward, and that rarely are we standing still or static. Even when we think we are stuck, we are being dragged downwards and backwards by a variety of thoughts, circumstances, people, etc. I was talking to a friend who astutely pointed out that Covid and the sudden change in circumstances for many people have exposed now more than ever the tendencies of individuals to move forward or backward.  Those who can adapt quickly to a loss or a lack, and who think about things from different aspects, are more likely to take risks and move forward despite what appear to be insurmountable obstacles. 

I’ve been mulling over lately what it is that compels me to more forward after a sudden tragedy that completely altered my life.  We can guess and speculate all we want, but it is true that we never know how we will react until we are faced with a difficult challenge or a loss.  Why do I get out of bed everyday? Why do I feel the need, the urge even, to move forward, to make a new and different life for myself? What compels me to find joy and happiness, even in simple things? Am I just wired this way? Is it for the sake of my daughter? Is it because of the people with whom I have chosen to surround myself, like the friend I mentioned above who encourages  and inspires me to write?

The French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle’s book In Praise of Risk has struck a cord with me as I think about this choice between moving forward, or backward in life.  Dufourmantelle points out that in spite of the 21st century obsession with zero risk, extensive insurance policies and 100% guarantees, life is a risk.  There is no way around it.  Dufourmantelle emphasizes throughout her book that love in particular—and the desire, passion, fear and sadness that come with it—is always a risk.  Whether it be familial, platonic or romantic love all relationships will inevitably end through separation, estrangement or death.  Durfourmantelle writes, “Love happens in spite of violence, stupidity, style, envy, and our dreams; it is also constantly ill-timed.”  And we continue to seek out and move towards love in spite of the risks of pain, of heartache, of sadness and, even more surprisingly, love happens without regrets or second thoughts.

“Snowdrops,” a poem composed by Louise Gluck, the recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, captures perfectly the desire to move forward, to live, to seek out new risks:

Do you know what I was, how I lived?  You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring–

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

Gluck’s placement of those four words together at the end of her poem—crying yes risk joy—makes us feel the author’s forward movement into her “new world.”

Every single day brings for me the renewed risk of finding love, joy, happiness. And lots of questions. So many questions. What was I thinking adopting a puppy, beginning major renovations on my house, filling two 30 yard dumpsters with years worth of accumulated junk, putting my career on pause or welcoming new relationships/connections into my life? But all of these things represent a way forward for me; and I could not have moved any way but forward. A friend wrote a note to me over the summer that keeps playing over in my mind: “…the arrival of an unsought and unthought-of future alone is just an ongoing perplexity. But I believe, perhaps more on a hunch than anything else, that you have a natural buoyancy that will emerge and keep you from sinking under all of this.”

And so I carry on and, perhaps stupidly, ridiculously, I take more risks.

I think that maybe I’m just wired this way.

Our golden retriever puppy, Phoebe.

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There’s Always a Solution

“There’s always a solution,” he texted me when I was having another bout of anxiety because something else had broken around the house and needed fixing or attention or whatever. Those four simple, wise words had an instant calming affect on me.

Two months ago I had fallen into such a deep depression after the death of my husband that I was afraid I would never pull myself out of it. And I knew I had to pull myself out, that no one could do it for me. I kept thinking about the post-partum depression I suffered after my daughter was born because the symptoms I was experiencing were nearly identical—days of feeling like I was in a fog, no desire or drive to do anything that I enjoyed, a never ending sense of utter sadness that I could never imagine going away. During my experience with the post-partum depression I keep saying that I didn’t feel like myself and I so wanted to fight my way through this fog. Little by little I tried everything I could to break myself out of it. And so I did.

My instinct to fight took over during this most recent episode of anxiety and depression as well. There are a couple of people who have come into my life since this personal tragedy—the person who sent me that text above— and some relationships that have grown stronger because of it as well. At first I thought that fate has a strange way of giving us people we need just at the right time. But then again I am responsible for the deliberate choice of surrounding myself with loving, kind, generous, positive people.

When an unexpected tragedy happens—especially the one that happened to my family—the natural instinct is to feel completely helpless. But in retrospect I see that I did have choices. And I made some crucial ones even in the midst of an ugly, all-consuming depression. I invited my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews to come visit almost every weekend. I asked my parents to go with me to pick up the new puppy I adopted. I accepted a former colleague’s—now a good friend’s—invitation to walk and talk and mourn. And I made a phone call to a contractor to rebuild the massive deck in my backyard.

It’s interesting to discover what different things for each of us become a symbol or an image of hope. A photograph, a painting, a special place, any number of trinkets or objects.

I know this might sound very strange to some, but my new deck has become that symbol of hope for me. Especially in the summer I will spend hours sitting on it, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin, reading, feeding the birds, thinking. In recent years this happy place of mine has become worn to the point of being a mess and even unsafe. Within two weeks of Alan being killed I made that phone call to the contractor I mentioned above. At the time it felt impulsive, but in retrospect it was the beginning of creating a space that feels like my own, that I have control over, and that I’ve made a deliberate decision to change and improve. I keep joking that the puppy and the new deck are the two best decisions I’ve made this year, but I do think that this is actually true. A friend on Twitter commented that I’ve created a healing space with the new deck and some other areas of the house I’ve redecorated and rearranged. She couldn’t be more right.

There are still days when I think of how my husband was killed and our shattered family and the effect on our daughter and it feels like I’ve been punched in the chest all over again.

But this morning I was standing in the kitchen baking muffins, with our new puppy sitting at my feet, while my daughter was taking her morning class online, and a friend stopped by for coffee and to pick up some tools. I had a sense of happiness, and contentment, and even joy.

I have pangs of guilt—-which everyone tells me is natural—when I feel happy. Is it wrong for me to carry on with my own life? Is it fair that I get to carry on? But what is the alternative? Should I not do things that make me laugh or smile? Should I stop finding joy and pleasure in the company of the people with whom I’ve surrounded myself? Should I stop finding things, small things, to be grateful for every day?

But if I stopped, then I would give up that fight. And I don’t think that’s even a possibility for me.

As the season changes to autumn and the air is cooler I finally feel like I can breath a bit easier. The fog and sweltering oppression—literally and figuratively—of this summer is lifting. And the colors on the pond in my yard are starting to turn into lovely shades of red and gold. John Clare’s poem “Autumn” that I happened to read this morning captures my feelings very well:

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun, And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run; Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air; Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.…

When I look out over my yard I see my new deck in progress, I see the talented person crafting this beautiful space for me, I see the colors on the pond, I think about John Clare’s poem. I smile. I feel hope.

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It Is Unnatural For Us To Be Apart

I was chatting on Twitter with a friend who lost his mother this year after she fought a long, difficult battle with cancer. When I mentioned the overwhelming amount of paperwork I feel buried in after my husband’s death he remarked that when a loved one dies it’s very difficult because we must expend all this energy to erase the life of the one whom we are grieving. It seems so cruel.

And in some cases in order to cancel Alan’s existence it wasn’t enough to produce a death certificate but his birth certificate and our marriage license were also required which I found equally depressing and funny. Alan was a packrat who kept everything, so I waded through his drawers of papers to find this proof of his life with which I was going to erase that very life. As I was searching I found a box filled with every handwritten letter I had given or sent him.

I was, by far, the hopeless romantic between the two of us, oftentimes leaving him little notes—I actually packed his and our daughter’s lunch every day and would still leave both of them notes—from the very beginning of our relationship. I have always loved handwritten, personal letters; they are so much more tangible, intimate and sensual than the digital correspondence to which we have become accustomed in the 21st century.  There is a certain anticipation and excitement when one sends a letter and eagerly waits for a response; to see the other person’s handwriting, to touch the object they once touched, to tuck it away in a special place are all of the things we lose with electronic communication.

I don’t have many notes or letters from Alan, but apparently he kept every single one I wrote to him. It was too painful and too soon for me to read all of the letters and notes now. So I picked two of them to look at—the first one a birthday card in the shape of a motorcycle (I don’t remember how I managed to find that!) and the second a letter I sent during a year in which we were dating long distance. When I got my first teaching job in New England I moved here while Alan finished up graduate school in New York and we wrote letters, called and saw each other whenever we could. In a letter during this time apart, words that so haunt me now, I said to him: “In case you haven’t already guessed, I really miss you. I can’t wait until we can be together again…I thought what you said on the phone tonight was so touching—that it is unnatural for us to be apart.”

Yes, unnatural for us to be apart. Someday I will show these letters to our daughter so she will remember how much love we shared. But I also feel like I need to show her that the best way to honor that love is for us to move on and find happiness in other ways.

One of the later letters that author Paul Celan wrote to his lover Ingeborg Bachmann, when it was obvious that their love affair would never work out and they were doomed to be apart, keeps occurring to me. Celan writes to her, “Life is not going to accommodate us, Ingeborg; waiting for that would surely be the most unfitting way for us to be. Be—yes, we can and are allowed to do so.  To be—be there for another. Even if it is only a few words, alla breve, one letter once a month: the heart will know how to live.”

A daily and delicate balance of grieving and yet moving forward. A life lived to the fullest but now erased. The heart will know how to live…

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