Category Archives: Opinion Posts

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

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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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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Filed under Essay, French Literature, Opinion Posts

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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Filed under American Literature, French Literature, Opinion Posts

Some Words are Worth a Thousand Pictures

*A bit of a warning that this is not my usual post about books. It is deeply personal and sad.

What a difference a day makes. Isn’t that how the song goes?

On July 1st I was in the garden reading poetry, lots and lots of poetry and Esther Kinsky’s book Grove which is newly translated into English by Caroline Schmidt and thinking about a review of it for Music & Literature; I had finally just gotten my hair done since the moratorium on such things because of Covid had lifted. And I stopped at the pet food store to buy more (a lot more) food for the birds and chipmunks I’ve been feeding on our deck.

On the afternoon of July 2nd my daughter and I were just about to go swimming when we noticed a car in our driveway which startled both of us. We live in the country, out in the woods, and have a quarter mile long driveway so random, unannounced visitors are a rare occurrence. It was my daughter who first said, “That’s a state police car” and my heart started beating even faster. Different things began to go through my mind as to what the police could possibly want with us. Was I speeding somewhere? But I hadn’t driven on the highway, or much at all really, because of Covid. Did I go into a business without wearing a mask? But, once again, I had barely left the house since the pandemic. When I think back on all of the petty and ridiculous scenarios going through my head I feel silly and naive. When the officer asked me to identify myself and to speak to me alone without my daughter I was still clueless.

“Your husband was riding his motorcycle on US-24 east in Indiana ma’am and there was an accident.”

And desperately, “Well where is he now?

“At the coroner’s in Wabash County, ma’am. You’ll have to contact the Indiana state police.”

Alan had left on June 20th for what would be his third cross country trip from our home in New England to Montana. On that horrible day, July 2nd, a Thursday, he was on his way back home to us and was expected to arrive on Friday. He was a serious and avid motorcyclist and camper and enjoyed every minute of planning his trips and taking them. Locally he would meet with his friends from the Connecticut Rockers to ride and talk bikes but he also had a wonderful network of friends he met through Adventure Rider that were scattered across the US and Canada. A tough, stoic, yet gentle and kind group of men, their meet up in Montana had become a yearly tradition that they enthusiastically looked forward to. Alan considered them brothers—as an only child he always said that friendships were particularly important to him.

I met Alan in 1997 when we were both graduate students in the PhD program for Classics at the University at Buffalo. We liked each other instantly and like quickly grew into love. He had a bike, a Honda CX 500, when I met him so his passion for this hobby is something he had for more than 20 years. He learned everything he could about motorcycles and was meticulous about maintenance and repairs. He was also obsessed with safety, researching and discussing with his friends the most up-to-date safety gear. On the day he was killed it was 90 degrees f. and he had on a brand new, full-face helmet, a custom made Aerostich riding suit, and the highest quality gloves and boots he could find. He had certain rules about riding as well: he never went over the speed limit, he didn’t ride with other groups of bikes, and he didn’t ride at night. To say that he was careful would be a gross understatement.

But he was killed anyway. Yes, killed. He didn’t just die. He didn’t have bad luck, it was not an “accident”—I hate that word. The driver of the truck that killed him went through a yield sign and pulled across the highway–yes, the highway since such things are allowed in Indiana—directly into Alan’s path. A “failure to yield the right of way.” Negligence, stupidity, carelessness.

Two broken legs, two broken arms, a fractured pelvis, a fractured skull, broken ribs, fractured vertebrae, internal bleeding, lacerated organs and a complete atlanto occipital dislocation. A destroyed Triumph Tiger and all of his carefully packed belongings broken and strewn across the highway. And in that moment my life—our life together—was shattered as well.

November 18th of this year would have been our 20th wedding anniversary. We were happy, very happy. Our relationship wasn’t perfect. No relationship is, especially if it lasts 20 years. We both made mistakes. But there was a lot of kindness, and patience and forgiveness and love. A lot of love. We both taught Latin in secondary schools in New England which is where we decided to move after our days in Buffalo. I always thought it was hilarious that we did well for ourselves as teachers of what people call a “dead language.” But Latin, and sometimes Ancient Greek, sustained our household quite adequately and, more importantly, we both loved what we did. In 2006, after suffering an initial miscarriage, we had a daughter who is the best of both of us. She is kind and funny and smart and adorable.

And now my 14 year-old daughter asks me questions like, “Is daddy in heaven?” “Are we going to be poor?” “Will we ever be happy again?” “Are kids going to treat me differently at school because I don’t have a dad anymore?”

A failure to yield the right of way….

I keep having these conversations with him in my head about what happened to his precious bike and his camping things and what paperwork I have to file and who I have to call and how his students and colleagues and motorcycle friends have all been stricken with such grief by his sudden death and how to carry on now. But there is no “we” anymore. Just a mountain of paperwork and chores and decisions that need to be made on my own. The little routines we had are what I miss most—going to bed together, him making me coffee in the morning, watching silly TV, sharing bad jokes, debating over who Henry our tuxedo cat liked better. The loneliness and the emptiness without him is the worst pain I’ve ever suffered. Truly unbearable.

Now that our daughter is about to begin high school we had had many discussions about what we wanted to do when we retired. Various ideas about moving farther north in New England or closer to where our daughter might attend college were always tossed around. But no matter what we decided to do, it would be together—just the two of us, empty-nesters.

But these plans, too, were shattered on that highway in Indiana.

Alan and our daughter.

Alan really had a dislike for social media—the only place he really engaged with people in a meaningful way was on his Adventurer Rider motorcycle forum. So out of respect I never posted about him or shared photos. But since he was killed it has felt cathartic and therapeutic for me to post photos and memories and anecdotes—a small glimpse into the man he was and our happy life together. His quick and sardonic wit were unmatched—one of the qualities that attracted me to him the most. He wore bow ties to work (when we were at work) nearly every day; he was a gifted teacher who connected with students and prided himself on his ability to lecture and engage kids at every level (he was voted faculty member who is most quotable three years in a row); he loved notebooks and fountain pens; even in winter he would work on, improve, and maintain his two motorcycles and camp in the woods on our property. And more recently he took up blacksmithing and set up a makeshift forge in the yard. I’m still not sure what to do with the anvil and giant bag of coal I have sitting in his workshop.

Alan and Henry.

Alan’s belongings, scattered across that highway, have been respectfully and lovingly packed and returned to me by one of his motorcycle friends—the last person to see him alive—who happens to live in Indiana. Today his travel journal arrived and I began reading it and looking through his various notebooks. He had an obsession with notebooks and today, alone, I found a dozen of them around the house and in his workshop. They are mostly filled with to-do lists, travel plans, travel descriptions, packing lists and notes for teaching. His wit, his talent as a teacher, and our everyday life together–those little routines I mentioned—are all present in these notebooks. I felt closer to him reading these than I have since he was killed—as he wrote in one of them, “Some words are worth a thousand pictures.” And a passage he composed for a lecture to first year Latin students felt like he was speaking to me now:

The Greeks and Romans thought of the universe by picturing it as a tapestry—one that was constantly being woven, but never to be completed. Three divine weavers called the Fates created the tapestry of the universe—Lachesis, Clotho, & Atropos—who spin the wool, measure the thread, and cut it. Each thread is a human life. And all of these threads interconnect. You cannot tamper with one without unraveling the others. Although individual life-threads come to an end, they still have their place and interact with others.

That thread, Alan’s thread, cut too soon on that highway in Indiana. And my thread and my daughter’s so interconnected with his own. And all of the wonderful people interconnected with me—friends, and colleagues and Twitter people and readers of this blog who have reached out with love and support. Proof that his theory of those interconnected life threads is so true.

Teacher, friend, colleague, husband, father.

July 2nd.

A failure to yield the right of way.

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