I was really annoyed by the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse the first time I read it. It’s beautifully written, of course: evocative and poignant and intentional. But it draws so much attention to itself, to its writing: it’s fiction as high art, and not just art but art on self-conscious display. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, on its own terms, but that’s not (usually) my favorite kind of fiction. Woolf’s “calculated parentheticals” especially rubbed me the wrong way.
I admitted at the time that I’m not a very good reader of Woolf’s fiction, and it showed. I wouldn’t say I’m much better at reading her now (although last summer I read The Waves and was completely entranced, so something has changed) but I have been thinking a lot lately about the way time is passing, about the way time has passed, since Owen’s death, and just as the poets were there for me when I was first searching for ways to express my shock and grief, it turns out Woolf is here for me now as I struggle with the strangeness of a world that has its own process of continuity and change, indifferent to my personal loss. Like Mr. Ramsay’s, my arms remain stretched out but empty; here too spring is coming, “bare and bright,” “entirely careless of what was done or thought by the beholders.” For all its beauty, Woolf’s account of time passing is not a comforting vision: it isn’t a version of the mourners’ mantra “it takes time.” Perhaps the beauty of the writing is its own consolation. Woolf’s illuminating attention, too—not just to the effects of time passing but to her beholders, like Lily Briscoe, and to herself as a beholder—resists that cold carelessness.
Woolf described the structure of To the Lighthouse as “two blocks joined by a corridor,” with “Time Passes” connecting the main parts, “The Window” and “The Lighthouse.” One way I suppose I could think about where I am right now is precisely in a corridor between two blocks, one of them my previous life, which included Owen, and the other my future life, which will go on without him. In a literal sense, of course, I am already in that new life, but it doesn’t feel that way yet: I feel disoriented, adrift, unsettled. What’s missing, I’ve been thinking, at least in part, is meaning, which is not to say that there is some intrinsic meaning in Owen’s death for me to find out (thankfully, nobody has been insensitive enough to tell me “everything happens for a reason”), but that eventually I need to figure out how to incorporate his death into my understanding of my life. Somehow, that is, the end of Owen’s life has to become part of the story of my own life: rather than considering it a break, a catastrophic rupture, in that story (the way it feels to me now), I need to learn to see it as belonging to a new, different continuity. (Mrs. Ramsay, though dead, is still very present in “The Lighthouse.”) I just don’t know how to tell that unified story yet, or how to live that life, a life connected to but also separated from my past, with this sad, confusing period as the passage from one to the other.
I’ve realized that some of the books I picked up to reread, seemingly at random, in the first few days after his death were actually stories about lives that have been broken in this way: The Accidental Tourist, for example, which is a novel all about grief, or Disturbances in the Field. I put them down again without finishing them, I think now because ultimately these novels are about recovery and renewal, and I wasn’t (I’m not) ready for that. The “it gets better” narrative is insistent and not as encouraging as I know people mean it to be. It has been a relief, in that respect, to spend some time with Megan Devine’s (badly titled) It’s OK That You’re Not OK. Devine’s mission is to push back against efforts, however well meaning, to “fix” someone’s grief; like Ignatieff in On Consolation, she emphasizes the importance of acknowledgment, and of just letting sad people be sad. Everyone’s grief is different and so books about grief are bound to strike people differently as well. I don’t like everything about Devine’s, but some of it makes a lot of sense to me, and I found this video on her website both soothing and wise:
In her book, Devine quotes a friend who wrote to her after her husband died and explained “how my therapist used to ask our group to ‘be like the elephants’ and gather around the wounded person.” “Gather your elephants, love,” her friend tells her; “We are here.” I am so grateful to my elephants; thank you for being here.