Friday, February 07, 2020

Of Grief

Sitting here, staring at my computer, fingers resting on the keys, as I listen to music with the background window scene of the drizzly rain dampening the day and snow deciding whether to stay or whether to go, it strikes me that trying to write about certain subjects can feel so ridiculous.  Some things are just too difficult, too complex, too painful, too personal, too uncertain, too precious to talk about.  How do you go about it? What is even the point.  For me, it happens that I even try because the overwhelming feelings bubble up inside me and my natural, automatic response to this is to thrust forward my hands and find them onto a keyboard, whether it be computer or piano.  Articulating my feelings through music is different than through words.  Word are more concrete, more visible, more tangible, more editable.  Music flows more easily but like a whole rushing river you'd like to cup in your hands, it's that much more elusive.  It's like a sunset or a passing moment in nature, something you got lucky to see and just as you're even able to recognize it as a moment, it's gone. Those "what just happened?" experiences are what I seek in life but they are difficult to find, and seem much more out of my control.

Words are hammers and nails, screws and fixtures and other tool words I don't even know. They're a mess around me but at least I can pick them up, hold them in my fingers and roll them around, deciding whether or not that's what I need for this particular purpose.  I do a lot of discarding and learning of what does what, hoping that what I'm slowly building turns into anything at all.

Grief. The deep sorrow. Misery, sadness, anguish, pain. Distress, agony, torment. Affliction, suffering, heartache and heartbreak. These are all found synonyms. All experienced around the inescapable presence of loss. Forced to stare at the space of what was once there, or, interestingly, was never there to begin with, but for which a place has been carved out still.

I don't share my grief too much.  I keep it in to mull over and decide what I'm going to do with.  Do I keep it, do I let it go. Is that even a possibility. And if I keep it, how big of a space do I make for it.  And if it stays, do I transform it into other things? Does it take on a shape, a color?   Become something worth setting on the wall and examining, perhaps to even be proud of?  I recently listened to an interview with an writer who, when asked about why so much of the best writing comes from pain, he said, "It's really not given to humans to be constantly happy. Suffering writes boldly and happiness writes white." And I loooved it. Can pain be transformed into beauty? Can I be bold and do this myself?  How deliberate can I be in this process? These are my questions. 

Last summer at a book club during a particular trying moment, we got to talking about this and that and, in a way I hope was relevant, I brought up the dark places we find ourselves in from time to time. How, in mine, I had noticed I had been much more productive creatively because of it.  And because it didn't seem to be going anywhere soon, I had time to analyze it a bit.  It gave me a chance to discover that the pit I felt myself in could at times be considered a well, depending on what I did and how I felt and what I chose on a given day.  I love the idea of giving difficult things a place in our lives and our souls.  To acknowledge it and say its name.  To not be scared of it and too hasty to be rid of it or avoid it.  But see what you can make of it.  And honor the pain and what it represents.

Some months ago I sat with some friends who, one by one, shared difficult things they were going through.  I listened to each one, finding myself able to connect and relate to each.  Two of them shared similar experiences with their health where they had things happen to them that weren't immediately understood or solvable, and still hadn't been at that point.  But they were happening, and they had to figure out a way to live with it, to co-exist with the uncertainty of this unwelcome thing, but have it somehow be a part of them so it didn't feel so foreign or frightening.  One described her life shifting to the very small moments of each day, being more focused on identifying these physical episodes where she had to work mentally to combat them. Manually handling her life in ways that felt more automatic before. Deciding if there's a place for renewal amidst crippling loss and how to make it.

Another friend shared a story of her family members going through extremely difficult and painful things, particularly a brother who was newly in jail for abusing his children.  She described her own journey coming to terms with what he did and who he hurt, but also with the remaining fact that he was her brother, in jail, with seemingly no one.  He'd call her and she'd ask, why is he calling me? Why does he want to talk to me? Of all the members of their family. But as she spoke to him she could see a change within him and allowed herself, in spite of the pain and anger and hurt, to let some love exist with the grief.   Like a terrible alchemy, she separated the things he did from who he was, as well as she could, and observed. To see what can be gained from what's been lost.

Listening to these stories, I considered what was feeling like to me as the "in-between moments,"  the difficult to describe, indecipherable and left in the shadows, the unclear and uncertain things of life that we're left to live with for who knows how long.  In this particular example of this friend's brother, who considers the perpetrator? Who keeps them? Who reserves a place for them in their hearts after they caused so much damage. What's left of them? What's to be done?  It's the underside of a rock, the torrent taking place under the facade of calm or moving forward or things typically left behind.  The gritty work of processing, or simply the continuation of life undefined.  She's giving space for her brother and his own personal process of dealing and coping and living and she's letting it change the grief that exists in her, and sharing the grief in others.

Last year I watched a close friend of mine embark on the treacherous road of cancer. Pre-diagnosis discovery and fear which was then confirmed and grappled with.  Steps taken, new plans made, intensive and reluctant study and research. Treatment, a new existence and understanding of unwellness and, conversely, what it means to be well.  I watched her come to terms with it in very nonlinear, complicated ways. Blessedly coming to the end of horrible things and expecting one thing and having it be something different altogether.  Asking questions like, is it ever really "over"?  What does "healing" actually look like?  Now, post-treatment, clean scans--what now? I think of my cousin with a different kind of cancer, one that she won't be rid of, ever, and must now reconcile her life, over and over again.   I think of Frodo and the burden of the ring, how, after destroying it forever, it was never completely gone from him.  He carried it and carried it and then after it was gone, he carried it some more.  This is what I mean.

I've grieved before, and I shall grieve again.  I think I've relinquished the notion that it's something to rid oneself of, or to fully overcome. It's a wretched reformer and one that, for humility or hurt, can not be avoided. Like Death, in the story of the Deathly Hallows in Harry Potter, when the third brother and Death finally walk together, as friends, because death is unavoidable, and can be reconciled with. At times it can feel like imprisonment, but if I let it be transformative, I don't feel so trapped.  I think of my friend's brother in prison for probably a long time, and having to decide every day what to do with that.  I think of my friends struggling with health problems, physical and mental, and figuring out how to make both work for them and each other in a new kind of harmony, in this one body and one life. Struggling with feelings of being held captive by them. If "post-cancer life" can even be a thing. I think of what these friends are making of all of this.  Turning affliction into balm.  Or at least creating one from derivation, like an antidote to something toxic.

Sean recently showed me an old painting he'd made of me when we were first married. I barely remembered it and I think he made some adjustments to it at some point.  But I stared at it, and it pierced me a bit.  "I love this," I said.  Amused, he wanted to know why.  "Because, I feel like I'm looking at myself in prison.  From the outside. I feel like I can breathe again." 
Plus, I really love the colors. 


)en said...

NOTES: The interview mentioned was of Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and other novels, on a podcast called What It Takes in an interview titled "Illuminating the Human Condition."

Alanna said...

I love this. And I love the Ian McEwan quote. I love his writing, but I can only handle a little bit of him every now and then because it always just seems like too much and how dare he understand every single nuance of what a person is feeling so well?

I think one of the reasons I love reading novels (and also advice columns!) is because it gives us a peak into what other people deal with, all the things that we're so rarely given the opportunity to see or share. Part of me wishes everyone could be more open about the pain in their lives. But then I realize that I have spoken to exactly three people about the worst things I've ever dealt with. So who am I to demand openness, when I am not open at all?

On a silly note, I used to enjoy writing sonnets-- I like that they have so many rules, even if you write a lousy poem, you can say that you followed all the rules! But I find them much easier to write when I am unhappy. When I'm happy, what is there to write about? Happiness write white indeed!!!

)en said...

That is sooo great- writing sonnets when you're unhappy. The Unhappy Sonnet. Just love it. Let's hear one.

Yeahhh.. openness. I feel like I am pretty open and frank but I do it with a lot of editing. I am careful with how I present it, thinking about my goal or purpose with it. So I'm particular. And I am DEFINITELY a proponent of others being open, especially when someone in the group has taken that step to present some vulnerability. There's such a crucial moment there when, if it is not received well, the results can be quite damaging. And when that happens, I feel like we fail a little bit as a human race. So let's all just keep trying, fellow humans.

Love what you said about writing about happiness! INDEED.This also reminds me of an activity i participated in recently where we were to bring 5 things that represent us. Everyone went around talking about what they love (referring to the objects) and I commented how fun it would be to bring objects to represent what we HATE. I love strong and I hate strong too, and sometimes it's just more interesting.