Why Must I be Preyed Upon?

Pain, and grief and heartsickness can be so lonely and isolating. The rollercoaster of emotions settle down, but there are still days when the pain, the memories of what has been lost feels like a harsh punch in the chest. Who can I talk to? Who can I call? To whom can I describe this almost unbearable sensation? It’s nothing new. It’s more of the same. It makes me weary and I feel like a broken record repeating these tiresome things to those in my inner circle. I’m sick of myself, I think, so how can they not be sick of me too?

Writing and reading poetry are what I end up retreating into when the loneliness and isolation set in. I like to think that all of the books of poetry I have voraciously consumed in the last few years are paying off in the form of solace. I share here two recent favorites that have helped me in the hopes that they might be comforting to anyone suffering in any way—there seems to be an abundance of pain everywhere one looks nowadays.

Cuban poet Dulce Maria Loynaz’s collection Absolute Solitude, beautifully translated by James O’Connor and published by Archipelago Books, is full of memorable lines that are worthy of writing in my notebooks and revisiting for those tough days. Here she envisions grief as a wolf to which she falls prey:

There was a lull in the pain. I fled from it as if I were fleeing a wolf suddenly taken with sleep. But when it wakes, it will pick up my scent and follow my trail. I know this. And it doesn’t matter where I hide, it will know how to find me, and when it does, it will pounce on a body too weary to resist it. Why must I be the preyed upon? Why does its mouth water every time it spots me? I have no blood to slake its savage thirst and I carry nothing in my saddlebags but the echoes of dreams grown cold. Where did I lose my way? I can’t remember. What flowers did I step on pretending I didn’t see them? Before me the great jungle grows dense.

And from Kathryn Smith’s Collection Self-Portrait with Cephalopod published by Milkweed Editions a poem that envisions the possibility of being whole again after tragedy. “A Permeable Membrane in the Mutable Cosmos”:

Tell me again of the lepers who learn to shed their disastrous skin by eating the meat of vipers: something transmutable in the flesh. The ancients spent lifetimes considering the resurrection of irretrievable parts: wolf-devoured flank, eyes of martyrs pecked clean in the village square, Tell me again about the new heaven and the new earth, when the bear returns an unblemished arm to its faithful socket, when mountains open their mouths to receive conduits and I-beams and engagement diamonds and the fish ladders the rivers will give up with their dams when the earth is made new. Tell me the formula for feeling whole again after tragedy. The equation for how much time I needed after saying no before I’d tell you yes. Tell me I’ll never be alone, even when I want to be alone.

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Filed under American Literature, Opinion Posts, Poetry, Spanish Literature

Grief as a Test: The Collected Poems of Louise Glück

Achilles and Patroclus. By Philippe Auguste Hennequin. 1784-1789.

Grief, I have learned, any type of grief, is a test—albeit a cruel, harsh, and unfair one—of the people around us, those whom we lean on and consider our support system.  Grief strips away any pretensions, facades, masks, and posturing and challenges all types of relationships in a way that no other human emotion can. People deal with a grieving loved one in with such a vast range of emotions and reactions—some rise to the occasion to offer support, love, kindness and others back away, withdraw, remain silent.  

I’m not making any kind of a judgment here. People are who they are. There is no changing that—for a variety of reasons some are wired to avoid any type of emotions whatsoever, especially the difficult ones.  But on the other end of the spectrum there are those who have a special presence, know just the right things to say, and show unconditional love and kindness.  I keep thinking about grief-as-test in the last few weeks as I’ve made my way through Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012; her insights on loss, grief, pain, heartache, and the everyday difficulties that life throws at us have struck a cord with me.    Glück writes about growing up and watching her mother grieve over a lost child and the effects it had on  Glück and her sister. Grief as a test of the family, especially the surviving children:

It was something I was good at: sitting still, not moving.

I did it to be good, to please my mother, to distract her from the child that died.

I wanted to be child enough, I’m still the same,

like a toy that can stop and go, but not change direction.

Glück also processes through her poems the death of her father with whom she had a difficult relationship. She writes: “I thought that pain meant I was not loved/it meant I loved.” And her struggles with grief suffered in various romantic relationships, including marriage, are raw, honest and astute. “Seated Figure” has particularly been on my mind, I’ve thought about this poem every day for weeks:

It was as though you were a man in a wheelchair,

your legs cut off at the knee.

But I wanted you to walk. I wanted us to walk like lovers,

arm in arm in the summer evening,

and believed so powerfully in that projection

that I had to speak, I had to press you to stand.

Why did you let me speak?

I took your silence as I took the anguish in your face,

as part of the effort to move—

It seemed I stood forever,

holding out my hand.

And all that time, you could no more heal yourself 

than I could accept what I saw.

Although it’s not specifically about grief, I do see it through that lens. Glück wants this man to stand and be in a relationship with her; oftentimes because of grief, pain, heartache we ask someone to stand for us—for support, kindness, patience, love, understanding—and are faced with silence. As  Glück says we believe so powerfully in the projection we have of a person that we refuse to accept the reality of who they are and what they are capable of giving us.

Finally, I need to mention Glück’s use of Greek mythology as examples of grief-as-test. She has a series of poems written from the perspective of Penelope, Telemachus, and Circe and how they deal with the grief caused by Odysseus’s absence. Her best poem involves one of the most heart-wrenching examples of grief in ancient literature, Achilles’s reaction to the death of his best friend and fellow warrior, Patroclus:

In the story of Patroclus no one survives,

not even Achilles who was nearly a god.

Patroclus resembles him, they wore the same armor.

Always in these friendships one serves the other,

one is less than the other: the hierarchy is always apparent,

though the legends cannot be trusted— their source is the survivor,

the one who has been abandoned.

What were the Greek ships on fire compared to this loss?

In his tent, Achilles grieved with his whole being

and the gods saw he was already dead,

a victim of the part that loved, the part that was mortal.

Achilles’s grief tests his mortality, his emotions, his fellow soldiers, and an entire Trojan army. The end of the Iliad and Greek’s return home show us the various ways that men on both sides handle that test, for good and bad.

Grief has certainly cast in a new light every relationship that I have now or will have in the future. 

Grief as a test.

Of myself.

Of those around me.

Who stands up and who is incapable of standing up?

I’ve even learned that sometimes I’m the one who needs to stand up.

And maybe even walk away…

 

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Putting My Shaken House in its New Order: What 2020 Has Taught Me

I normally compose a year-end post discussing the books I’ve read and how my reading, writing and thinking about literature progresses and shifts over the course of time. I contemplate my ever- evolving literary choices in light of what George Steiner writes in his essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order.”

But this year I’ve read fewer books then ever and a personal tragedy has overshadowed every aspect of my life. It seems much more fitting to write a post about what I’ve learned about myself—how my perceptions and views of the life, love, happiness and the people around me, have shifted over the course of the past 6 months. Every day I feel like I struggle to do what Steiner describes in that last sentence: put my shaken house in its new order.

I was riding home with a good friend today and we were having a discussion that comes up often between us—attempting to look for the positive that comes out of a tragedy. But there is no silver lining, so to speak, to my story or my daughter’s—at least not yet anyway. A husband, a father, a teacher being tragically killed while doing what he loves most. Where is the sense, the positive spin to that? It’s nearly impossible to find something, anything. But this struggle and this pain have taught me many valuable lessons most of which are admittedly cliche or mundane. But I share them nevertheless for those who look at me with sympathy, pity, and yes, even horror, because life is so damn unfair and this could happen to any one of us.

In the days and weeks immediately after my husband’s death I learned practical things which I believe helped me to keep moving forward and keep my mind from sinking into an abyss of despair. How to plan a funeral, how to get a body home across state lines, how to deal with coroners and autopsies and police reports, how to hire a lawyer, are just a few of these tasks that carried me on day after day after day. And then began the numerous household tasks that occupied me—and still do—how to run the generator, how to deal with the tank for the well, how to figure out what’s wrong with my leaky sink, etc. I have had help and lots of offers of help, but in the end all of these things are my responsibility and their success or failure comes down to how I handle them. Every time something else breaks or stops working I keep reminding myself that it’s another learning experience and that the number of things to quit on me around the house are finite—eventually everything will be replaced at this rate!

I’ve also learned that having even just a little bit of a sense of humor every day is a lifeline.

I’ve learned, and thought a lot about, what kind of a single parent I want to be. Raising our teenage daughter by myself is the scariest part of life nowadays. I want her to see me as an example of strength and perseverance despite suffering; I want her to think that I have been a good provider for her and given her a warm, nurturing and comfortable home. And, most importantly, I want her to know she is cared for and safe and loved. I constantly think about what she will remember from this period of time and I plan my actions sensitively and carefully with this in mind.

I’ve learned that, quite surprisingly, I am a dog person after all. We adopted a golden retriever puppy and I love that big, goofy dog—and her best dog friend Quantum—with all my heart.

Phoebe and Quantum.

I’ve learned that letting go, and even forgetting, is okay. Some days the pain of what I’ve lost is still unbearable, but new memories, new connections, new surroundings are not bad things. At first I felt guilty about connecting with an old friend and making a new one—two people, in particular, that happened to enter my life as a result of specific choices I made after this tragedy. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think that in life we are either moving forward or backward and we have a choice about which direction we are going in every day. Letting go of a life that no longer exists is both sad and hopeful. As a friend wrote to me recently, “…You have suffered greatly and yet are transcending suffering. That is the greatest and most terrible lesson of life—that we suffer and yet also can, must, and do transcend suffering.”

I’ve learned that the book community and literary Twitter are some of the best and kindest people I know from around the world. Even though I haven’t met many of them in person they have sent me, and continue to send me, gifts, notes, well-wishes and love. I’ve realized there are a few, in particular, that I’d like to meet in person as soon as it is possible.

I’ve learned that everyone handles grief and suffering in such different ways. At first I was surprised at some of the friends, colleagues and former acquaintances that didn’t reach out or say anything to me. But those looks of sympathy and horror that I do get have taught me that sometimes there just are no words.

I’ve learned that I am as strong as, or stronger than, I thought. In the beginning it was a struggle just to get out of bed, sit on the deck and stare at the sky. I still catch myself staring at the sky, but my days have slowly filled with new, wonderful people and activities and ideas and endless possibilities. I was having a conversation with my daughter the other day about what we’ve both learned through this experience. She mentioned that she was afraid she would become a different person—dark, depressed, angry, bitter. But she learned that she is much stronger than she thought as well. We both agree that anger is a wasted emotion and that we are determined to get through this together and are, at heart and soul, strong people, committed to finding gratitude and happiness despite a horrible situation.

I’ve learned that, regardless of a lack of concentration for my usual, epic reading projects, poetry continues to be soothing and thought-provoking and mind-bending in brilliant ways.

And finally, I’ve learned that when all is said and done, nothing else matters in this life but love. Neither possessions nor careers nor broken appliances nor money nor anything else matters. For a while I was haunted by all the questions I would really like to ask Alan: Why do you have so many tarps/tents/knives? What did you think was wrong with the furnace and why did you keep working on it? How did you keep track of so many notebooks? But then I realized that the love expressed between us in our last text messages to each other were simple, and said it all—that was everything we needed.

If anyone learns anything from me it should be this: don’t be afraid to express love or find love or show love or seek out love. Even if it’s not returned. Trust me, love is always a good thing. Don’t let anger or bitterness or any number of other obstacles close your heart off to love. Edward Hirsch’s thoughts on this in his poem “Heinrich Heine” are perfect:

For man and woman the days pass into years

and the body is a grave filled with time.

We are drowning. All that rescues us is love.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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Respice Futurum: The Future Doesn’t Help

Every year I compose a reflective piece entitled “Respice Futurum” describing the books I plan to read in the new year. As I’ve explained in previous posts, the institution where I have had the privilege of teaching Latin and Classics for many years now is one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States and has this simple yet profound Latin motto which reflects and respects this tradition: Respice Futurum–-translated literally as “Look back at your future.” Using this motto has always been a fitting way for me to think about and discuss reading plans for the new year since my previous literary patterns help to shape what I will read moving forward. It seems wise that our past should be taken into consideration when we plan for the future, so it’s a good way, really, to think about and frame any future plans, not just those that involve reading.

But this year I feel untethered, like a woman with no future, or at least a highly uncertain one. A personal tragedy has destroyed my previous life and has forced me to start over. Every day feels like an attempt to slowly rebuild my life from the foundation up—one small, agonizing step at a time.

And when the past is gone—my past feels more definitively gone now—what do I look back to for guidance towards and reassurance of the future? The present is all that exists for me, it is all I can focus on—taking care of my daughter and pets, making my home as safe and comfortable for us as possible, wrapping the Christmas gifts I got for family and friends. I realize all of these short-term things will come to an end—Christmas will be over, I can only make so many repairs/changes to my home, and my daughter needs me less and less as she gets older. Then what? I ask myself every day: then what?

Reading a poem entitled “Tangerine” by Robert Kelly yesterday—an especially low day for me—gave me some comfort:

TANGERINE

The past spoils now
and the future
doesn’t help. I want
this simple thing, this
tangerine of the moment
to peel and pull apart and taste
segment by segment, each
in all its sweetness,
and chew the soft pulp of it
after and after, and it still
will be now.

And so I guess it’s not such a bad thing that I take one day, one hour, one minute at a time. Savoring, appreciating, taking in all the sweetness that the present has to offer. A dear friend also reminded me recently of the importance of this in a note that brought tears to my eyes, “To have a spouse, to keep a house, to raise a child–these are vast gifts of our humanhood. They do not last, but they should be treasured all the more for that.”

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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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