Heart Rock November 22It has been quiet around here. I’m not really sure why that is. I’ve been busy at work, but that has never stopped me before. When this term began, I intended to make posting about my teaching routine again. When I kept that up, in the old days, it didn’t matter if I felt I had something in particular to say when I started: eventually I would discover what I had to say, because (as I’ve been trying to convince my first-year students) that’s how writing works. My reading hasn’t been going very well, but I used to write about it anyway.

One challenge for me right now, something not directly related to my blogging or teaching or reading and yet maybe essential to them, or to me, to what I can do, is that I am still in what I imagined a year ago (a whole year ago!) as the corridor:

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.

Then, when I was still (to an extent that I didn’t really understand) in the first shock of my loss, I felt the passing of time, and especially the coming of spring, as an offense against my grief. Spring is here again, officially anyway, and though on the surface my life appears much as it did before Owen died, I still have not figured out “how to incorporate his death into my understanding of my life”; although my life continues, I cannot understand or experience it yet as continuous. “Superficially ‘fine,'” as Denise Riley puts it, sixteen months after her own son’s death,

as my daily air of cheerfulness carries me around with an unseen crater blown into my head, the truth is that my thoughts are turned constantly to life and to death; all that I can attentively hold.

Two years after, two and a half years after, three years after, she is still writing her shock: “The severance of a child’s life makes a cut through your own”; “No time at all. No time.” The corridor, it turns out, is long, longer than I could have known, or was willing to know (she tried to tell me) — and now that so much actual time has passed I feel self-conscious, even a bit defensive, that I haven’t emerged from it yet.

It’s not that anybody has said or even implied that I should be “over it” by now, but — rightly, understandably — for most people the urgency of my loss is over, the tide of sympathy and care has receded, new demands and crises and losses have come up. Life goes on, and “how are you doing,” while still a kind question, and sincere, becomes perfunctory, a question I answer in the same spirit, superficially, because what else, really, can I do? If sometimes I’m just going through the motions, well, at least that means I’m moving, and how else can I get to the other end of this corridor, whatever it means, wherever it leads? If I look straight ahead, it’s not so bad, either, although sometimes that’s actually the worst. “There’s no denying,” C. S. Lewis comments in A Grief Observed, “that in some sense ‘I feel better,’ and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness.” He’s wise about the complexity of that reaction:

We don’t really want grief, in its first agonies, to be prolonged: nobody could. But we want something else of which grief is a frequent symptom, and then we confuse the symptom with the thing itself.

Lewis talks of recurrences and cycles, like Riley seeking to articulate the temporal disruption and disorientation of grief. “Am I going in circles,” he asks, “or dare I hope I am on a spiral?”

But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?

How often  — will it be for always? — how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss until this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again. a_grief_observed

When people say “it takes time,” they aren’t thinking about the knife, about the craters. “What a different result one gets by changing the metaphor,” George Eliot says in The Mill on the Floss. At least a corridor connects, rather than severs. Maybe it also shelters, protects, directs.

One book I did finish recently is Stephen Marche’s On Writing and Failure. If it sounds like a discouraging read, well, it is, but it also isn’t, because amidst the real talk and the cynicism there is also sincerity, even conviction. I loved this little passage, which helped me understand why I keep this up (why I want to keep this up):

I do not know who I am writing for, or for what time, or to what purpose. But there is a deep longing in me — and that’s not a lie, not a fraud — to make these words for you. These ephemeral connections are the substance of victory, to belong to a constellation of meanings, to alleviate a specific, miniscule cosmic loneliness. It seems like such a small satisfaction to expend your life on. It isn’t. “You ask, why send my scribbles,” Ovid, in his exile, asked. “Because I want to be with you somehow.” Somehow, anyhow.

I also read a book of poems by Linda Pastan. I especially loved “The Bookstall” (“For life is continuous / as long as they wait / to be read”). Her poem “Yahrzeit Candle” begins “On the second birthday / of your death / nothing / much / has changed.” I’m not there yet. I don’t want to be there. It seems impossibly far off, which is both good and bad, but time passes.

Cold Trees Feb 2 23

Still the World: This Term In My Classes:

I’ve been reading through my archive of posts about “This Week In My Classes,” which goes back to September 2007, nearly the very beginning of Novel Readings itself. There are some (possibly) practical reasons for doing this, including considering what to say in my contribution for a forum on teaching Victorian literature today that my colleague Tom Ue is organizing for the Victorian Review.

I’ve also been thinking more generally about the unbearable lightness of blogging—the flip side of the immediacy that is such a big part of its appeal as a form is its ephemerality. I have put so much effort, and so much of myself, into writing here at Novel Readings; as it becomes increasingly evident that, however persistently some of us keep up the habit, the ‘Golden Age of Blogging’ is past (something that is clearer to me than ever as I review the vigorous discussions that once happened in my comments sections), I find myself wondering if any of this archive is worth revisiting, revising, repurposing in some way that might be—I don’t want to say “more substantial,” because I fondly believe it is already substantial, if in a diffuse way—so let’s say a bit stickier.

The exercise so far has been at once invigorating and strangely mournful, or maybe not so strangely, given the context. For one thing, it’s not just blogging as a phenomenon that is past its prime but also, perhaps, my teaching career, although in my brighter moments I hope that there is time, and that I will have the energy, to make its last decade meaningful to both me and my students. Another context, of course, is Owen’s death and my continuing sense of disorientation in my own life, a feeling that is somehow harder, more confusing, to deal with when I am in the midst of what used to be normalcy, including especially, this term, on campus. So much is the same, including the work I am doing and (more or less) the person that I am while I’m doing it: how can that be? The discrepancy between my two realities continues to give me emotional vertigo, and rereading my old posts intensifies the effect, because they immerse me, in the moment, in the world before everything split apart. They are full, too, of casual references to my children—to sick days and holidays, to March break camps and Christmas shopping. Many of those years were actually hard times in many ways, both personally and professionally; frank as I have been about some aspects of my life, there’s a lot I’ve never talked about here. Now, though, they seem like such innocent times. Whatever my struggles, whatever I imagined or dreaded about the future, it was never this.

One question in the back of my mind throughout this term was: should I say anything to my classes about Owen’s death? Was there any way in which that recent experience of mine was relevant, not just to me personally but to what we were doing there together? Most of the time the answer pretty clearly seemed to be “no.” I did say, once or twice, that for personal reasons I wasn’t necessarily at my best and they should feel free to remind me or correct me about things if I got muddled. But in general I like fairly clear boundaries with my students (“be friendly, but not their friend” is the advice I got early on, and I still consider it sound); of course I’m always communicating my enthusiasms, interests, and values, just through what I teach and how I teach it, but I’m not a fan of oversharing, on either side. Suicide is also a fraught topic, and it is impossible for me to know how bringing up my own trauma might affect other people in the room. I think some of my students did know—and in fact one or two kindly extended their sympathies to me outside of class, which I appreciated.

I did finally bring it up, though, on the last day of class in 19th-Century Fiction. I usually end that class with a peroration about why I think our work is worthwhile, on what I hope they have learned from our readings and discussions, and, most important, on what I hope they will take away from it all. For many years (and my review of my teaching posts has shown me just how long this has been true) I have thought about my classes as less about conveying specific content than about teaching reading—about training better readers. Always, in these closing remarks,  I note that they will only be assigned “required reading” for a fragment of their reading lives; the rest of the time, what they read and how they read it will be up to them, as will be their relationship with books in other ways, from supporting public libraries to attending book festivals, from joining book clubs to getting involved in debates about the curriculum in the public schools. I do care about their engagement with the particular books I’ve worked on with them; I am always delighted when I hear from a former student who has carried away a love of Victorian novels and continues to seek them out, or who thinks back on our journey through Middlemarch as a highlight of their university years (and some do!). But I also hope that my students carry away a set of habits and skills for reading, and a set of questions to ask of anything they read, questions like the one Booth proposes as fundamental in The Company We Keep:  “Is the pattern of life that this would-be friend offers one that friends might well pursue together?” (The best literary “friends,” he elaborates, are identified by “the irresistible invitation they extend to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than I could manage on my own,” which is as good a definition of literary merit as I know.)

In my closing peroration in 19th-Century Fiction this year, I said a lot of the same things, but I also commented on two specific contexts for our work together that really mattered to me this term, both of which had given new urgency, in my mind, to questions about how we all spend our time, not just but especially in the classroom. The first was my return to in-person teaching after two+ years of teaching online, an experience which has prompted a lot of pedagogical reflection for me. Before COVID, I made a lot of assertions about the importance of teaching in person (some of them prompted by MOOCs, which seem to have fizzled out conspicuously as both promise and threat). I have learned a lot in the past three years about online teachingenough not to dismiss it or recoil from it, but also enough to know that I was right that, for me and the kind of teaching I enjoy and value most, being in the room with my students is preferable. I struggled a lot this year because it wasn’t clear that a number of my students thought the same; I hope that this is a lingering effect of the COVID years (not that they are really over, sadly) and that eventually those meetings will hum with their old energy. I didn’t go on and on about this to my class, not least because the ones who were present were the ones who had pretty much always been present, so they had shown their own commitment to what I strongly believe is, at its best, a collaborative venture.

And the second context I brought up was that this had been my first term back in the classroom since my son died. I did not go into any details about his death, but I told them that, inevitably, it had prompted a lot of questions for me about how I spend (and have spent) my life and my work, about what my priorities have been over the years. I have worked hard, I told them, to recover and sustain my conviction that if  teaching was the kind of thing that had been worth doing before Owen died, it was still worth doing, and doing as well as I could manage, after he died as wella principle I have tried to believe in and live up to in other ways as well, including maintaining this blog.  I got a bit choked up talking about this, which I knew was a risk, and maybe it was too personal a thing to say. Rightly or wrongly, though, it really mattered to me to tell themthis group who had stuck it out with me all term in our grim, windowless room, heads up, masks onthat our time together had really meant something to me, that I wasn’t just going through the motions, that teaching might be “just a job” in some respects, but that it is a lot more than that in others. I guess that’s something I hope they will carry away from my class as well, that (as Aurora Leigh tells us), “the world of books is still the world,” and that how we read, and how we think about reading, is inseparable from how we live.

“Otherworldly”: Richard Powers, Bewilderment

bewildermentI twitched in my sleeping bag trying not to wake Robin. A chorus of invertebrates swelled and ebbed. Two barred owls traded their call-and-response: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? Who would ever cook for this boy, aside from me? I couldn’t imagine Robin toughening up enough to survive this Ponzi scheme of a planet. Maybe I didn’t want him to. I liked him otherworldly. I liked having a son so ingenuous that it rattled his smug classmates. I enjoyed being the father of a kid whose favorite animal for three straight years had been the nudibranch. Nudibranchs are underappreciated.

Bewilderment is a heart-rending novel. It is about two failures, or two catastrophes. One is the failure of a father, Theo, to save his beloved, brilliant, difficult son Robin; the other is our collective failure to save our planet and the other creatures for whom it is also the only precious, fragile home. These failures are related: one source of Robin’s baffled fury—his terrifying, exhausting, destructive outbursts of rage—is the devastation he sees around him as some species are driven to extinction and others suffer needlessly because of human greed, selfishness, and callousness.

Theo is a single parent; he and Robin are still grieving for the death of his wife, Robin’s mother, Alyssa in an (apparent) accident, and that emotional struggle gives their close but fraught relationship additional pathos. Theo tries everything to help Robin learn to live in the world, to help him find his balance—everything, that is, except the one thing almost every other authority figure or expert involved in Robin’s life wants Theo to do, which is to medicate him. One source of Theo’s resistance is that he doubts their diagnoses:

When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from nonexistent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.

powers2“So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probably OCD, and one possible ADHD,” he tells Martin, a neuroscientist friend of Alyssa’s to whom he eventually turns for help. “Most of the common meds are pretty normalized,” Martin comments, but when Theo insists that he wants “some treatment short of drugs,” Martin proposes that Robbie enter his ongoing trial of a therapy called Decoded Neurofeedback, or DecNef, in which “subjects enter emotional states in response to external prompts,” generating scans that are then used to guide another set of subjects to follow in their mental footsteps. (I don’t pretend to grasp either the nuances or the feasibility of this intervention, or to know how realistic Powers’ evocation of it is.) This is Martin’s explanation of the approach they go on to take with Robin:

The scanning AI would compare the patterns of connectivity inside Robin’s brain—his spontaneous brain activity—to a prerecorded template. “Then we’ll shape that spontaneous activity through visual and auditory cues. We’ll start him on the composite patterns of people who have achieved high levels of composure through years of meditation. Then the AI will coax him with feedback—tell him when he’s close and when he’s farther away.

The treatments are successful from the start (“Brain Boy,” the researchers admiringly nickname Robbie) but they become remarkably so once Martin’s team connect Robin specifically with recordings of his mother’s brain activity from an earlier experiment she and Theo both participated in. Is Robin really reconnecting with his dead mother when he follows her thoughts and feelings in this way? It certainly seems like it, to him and to Theo: ‘It was her, Dad, Robin reports after one of the first of these sessions, and then, hauntingly, Your wife loves you. You know that, right?’

Theo’s hope is that the treatment will enable Robin to stay in and survive at school. It doesn’t work out that way, and so Theo begins home schooling him, with some costs to his own career as an academic astrobiologist. Robin flourishes under their new system:

He had no trouble keeping up with the public curriculum. He polished off his online self-exams with glee. We traveled everywhere that reading, math, science, social studies, and health let us travel. We studied at home, in the car, over meals, and on long walks through the woods. Even shooting penalty kicks against each other in the park became a lesson in physics and statistics.

Every success is precarious, though—the gains of the treatment wear off, even as Robbie becomes something of a celebrity as a case study, and the world around them continues to cause him distress Theo is increasingly unable to mitigate. Robbie finds meaning and motivation in activism, only to be crushed at its inefficacy, and at other people’s indifference (one of many ways in which his struggles reminded me of Owen’s). News of a devastating outbreak of bovine encephalitis necessitating mass killing of the “demented cows” causes a meltdown so self-destructive a worried neighbor calls child services.

powersTheo’s tense, beautiful, heartbreaking account of his life with Robin is intercut with their “visits” to other planets: part of Theo’s work is running simulations of what kind of life might emerge under wildly varying conditions which he and Robbie “explore” with exhilarating curiosity and awe. These sections are weird and wonderful, visions of possible worlds completely unlike our own and yet always imagined as possible points of connection. On the planet Pelagos, for instance,

Life spread through its latitudes from steamy to frozen. Hosts of creatures turned the ocean bottoms into underwater forests. Giant blimps migrated from pole to pole, never stopping, each half of their brains taking turns to sleep. Intelligent kelp hundreds of meters long spelled messages in colors that rippled up the length of their stocks. Annelids practiced agriculture and crustaceans built high-rise cities. . . . Dozens of dispersed intelligent species spoke millions of languages.

‘No telescopes, Dad,’ says Robbie; ‘No rocket ships. No computers. No radios.  . . How many planets are like this one?’ “There might be none,” replies Theo; “They might be everywhere.” ‘Well, we’ll never hear from any of them,’ Robbie concludes, not so much regretfully as with wonder. The planetary excursions reflect Theo and Robbie’s moods and needs: when their own world is too inhospitable—especially for Robbie, who is too sensitive to endure its sorrows, and too intelligent to be placated or distracted from them—they leave it behind. There is no escaping reality, however, and the last planet Theo conjures up is one “that couldn’t figure out where everyone was. It died of loneliness. That happened billions of times in our galaxy alone.” His desolation is complete.

powers3I was initially drawn to Bewilderment because of its description as the story of a father and his “rare and troubled boy.” I had a son like that, and while his specific passions and hardships were not the same as Robbie’s, Powers captures a lot of what it was like to try and to fail to know what was right for someone whose gifts and whose difficulties were equally extraordinary, excessive, sometimes exhausting, especially but not only for him. I too liked my son “otherworldly”; his ingenuousness was so precious, even as it made him, sometimes, so vulnerable. “His pronouncements were off-the-wall mysteries to everyone except me,” Theo says of Robin;

He could quote whole scenes from movies, even after a single viewing. He rehearsed memories endlessly, and every repetition of the details made him happier. When he finished a book he liked, he’d start it again immediately, from page one. He melted down and exploded over nothing. But he could just as easily be overcome by joy. . . . Tell me what deficit matched up with that? What disorder explained him?

I think Bewilderment is, in part, about the limits of explanations, which are not, after all, instructions. What lies beyond them, as deep and vast and mysterious as space, is love.

What Am I To Do With These?

‘Jacob! Jacob!’ cried Bonamy, standing by the window. The leaves sank down again.

‘Such confusion everywhere!’ exclaimed Betty Flanders, bursting open the bedroom door.

Bonamy turned away from the window.

‘What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?’

She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.

“To that question,” Winifred Holtby notes in her book on Virginia Woolf, “there is, indeed, no satisfactory answer.” The novel’s final image “leaves an impression of apprehension, of the solicitude of women and of the indifference of fate . . . Its melancholy, its extraordinary desolation, are indefinable.”

The famous six word story (attributed, apocryphally, it seems, to Hemingway) “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” is often cited as one of the saddest stories imaginable. I know that grief is not a competition, that there is no hierarchy of loss, and yet I have sometimes thought, since Owen died, that items often worn—like picture books often read—tell a tale every bit as heartbreaking, if not more, because they represent a love and a loss encompassing years. How well Woolf understood: I see myself in Jacob’s bereft mother, baffled, as I have so often been baffled, by the puzzle that completely ordinary things like shoes and clothes remain, even though the person who gave them meaning is gone. For nearly a year now, I have avoided them, but I have not been able to ignore them. Just by being present, by being what is left of him, they have relentlessly demanded my solicitude. But what am I to do with them?

There is, indeed, no satisfactory answer, but in the last few days, with loving help and support, I have at least (at last) done something. His clothes are cleaned, folded, and sorted, some ready to go to others who need them, some saved for our remembrance. I have never done laundry with so much love before: sad as it was, it also felt right, as if I was taking care of him again, as I did for so long. There is desolation in that, but also some comfort.

As always, a poet has shown the way.

“The Sadness of Clothes” by Emily Fragos

When someone dies, the clothes are so sad. They have outlived
their usefulness and cannot get warm and full.
You talk to the clothes and explain that he is not coming back

as when he showed up immaculately dressed in slacks and plaid jacket
and had that beautiful smile on and you’d talk.
You’d go to get something and come back and he’d be gone.

You explain death to the clothes like that dream.
You tell them how much you miss the spouse
and how much you miss the pet with its little winter sweater.

You tell the worn raincoat that if you talk about it,
you will finally let grief out. The ancients etched the words
for battle and victory onto their shields and then they went out

and fought to the last breath. Words have that kind of power
you remind the clothes that remain in the drawer, arms stubbornly
folded across the chest, or slung across the backs of chairs,

or hanging inside the dark closet. Do with us what you will,
they faintly sigh, as you close the door on them.
He is gone and no one can tell us where.

Reading Week Reflections


It took some effort and some strategic skimming, but I made it to the end of Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads. There’s a lot of it – but that wouldn’t have been a problem if I had felt there was more to it. What was all that accumulated information for, in the end? What comes of it? What are we left thinking about, after wading through so much detail about people who are by and large quite unsympathetic and disappointingly static? I was never exactly bored, but I was also completely unable to get my bearings at anything but the most literal level. But a lot of astute critics loved the novel (that’s one reason I bought it, after not having read anything by Franzen since The Corrections) so as always we are left with the great mystery of reading, the inexplicable idiosyncrasy of it all.

Now I’m reading Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Case Study. I think it first caught my eye because it was on the Booker longlist. Then I read something else about it somewhere – now I can’t remember exactly what or where (typical of me these days, I’m sorry to say) that sharpened my interest enough that I went ahead and procured it. I’m engaged but not engrossed so far; we’ll see how it goes. I reviewed Burnet’s earlier novel His Bloody Project for Open Letters Monthly a few years ago and concluded it was “not wholly satisfying.” It too was a compilation of purported source documents; my main complaint (besides the voices being insufficiently distinct and exciting) was that it lacked a unifying idea about its elements. Maybe this should have discouraged me from trying another novel by the same author in so similar a vein, but Case Study seems tauter so far. I’ll see. If I can just concentrate on it long enough to read to the end, that in itself will be a mark in its favor.

Update: I did read Case Study to the end, and stayed interested in it the whole time. Success, then! I am not sure I read it in a suspicious enough way: I found the ending curiously anticlimactic and it was only on peering at some reviews that I started to think about more layers of unreliability and thus interpretation than had occurred to me on my own. Curiosity, too, rather than emotional engagement, was my main feeling as I read: I wanted to see how the elements were going to come together, and what they were going to mean, but I wasn’t particularly invested in the outcome otherwise. It’s a clever book, maybe too clever for a reader like me whose first instinct, at some level, is to give myself over to the fiction, rather than to mistrust every move.*

Also on my TBR pile are Ian McEwan’s Lessons, which my book club is doing next and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, which a member of my book club talked about in such an interesting way at our last meeting that it inspired me to pick it up. I’m stalled about a third of the way into Andrew Greig’s Rose Nicolson, and keep looking at but not actually starting Nicola Griffith’s Spear. I feel as if I keep picking the wrong books, as if my reading radar is malfunctioning. For this reason I am suppressing my urge to rush out and buy Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, even though everything I’ve heard about it so far makes it sound very tempting. Or maybe my “bandwidth,” as we like to call it nowadays, is just overwhelmed by the combination of work (which of course includes a lot of reading) and grief.


Today is exactly one year since Owen moved back in with us, for what was meant to be a restorative stop-gap measure while we sorted out his next steps. The onset of fall weather, with its crisp sunshine and bright colours, has intensified the feeling I’ve talked about before of time coming somehow full circle: the intervening months have been so strange, so foggy and disoriented, and the events of this time last year are still so immediate and vivid in my mind, that it is almost easier to believe I am still there, in November 2021, than here, helplessly reaching back to that hopeful reunion across the unfathomable chasm Owen’s death created in my life and my memories. But I’m not there, of course, but here, and soon there will be other, even harder, markers of the relentless way time puts more and more distance between us. I think often of Denise Riley’s comment that “the dead slip away, as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.” Current wisdom is that grief is best treated by finding ways to continue our relationships with those we have lost. It is an ongoing struggle, for me, to understand what that means in practice, although I am learning that it includes grief itself, which for now at least is the truest expression of my ongoing love for my son. Its pain is no less fierce now, but it is at least more familiar.

These lines by Philip Larkin capture so well what it feels like to live with sorrow, sometimes sitting quietly with it but sometimes sensing it stir, or stirring it yourself, so that it flares up once more, rending your heart. I know a lot of you live this way too. 

If grief could burn out
Like a sunken coal,
The heart would rest quiet,
The unrent soul
Be still as a veil;
But I have watched all night

The fire grow silent,
The grey ash soft:
And I stir the stubborn flint
The flames have left,
And grief stirs, and the deft
Heart lies impotent.

* One of the challenges of a novel like Case Study for me is that, deliberately, we are discouraged from accepting any of it as sincere. And yet in the midst of it, there was a passage – narrated by a character we can’t trust, about someone who by the end of the novel I’m not 100% sure ever actually existed within its fictional space – that hit very hard:

Then something else occurred. One evening, as we sat at supper, I turned to the place Veronica had lately occupied and was about to say something to her, before I checked myself. For the first time, I keenly felt her absence. From that moment, I saw her death in a different light. There was a Veronica-sized void in the world. As well as her physical presence, the contents of her mind were gone. The question I had been about to ask would never be answered. Everything she had learned, the memories she had accumulated, her future thoughts and actions had all been snuffed out. The world was diminished by her non-existence.

In the novel, this moment is either poignant autobiography or strategically affecting fantasy (or, perhaps, sadly troubling delusion). Whichever of these it is meant as, it’s also, in its own way, truthful, as are many of Burnet’s remarks – off-hand though they seem – about suicide and “dark thoughts.”

Hands of Water

PPP flowers“This is me trying,” I said in a post back in May. I was trying to read again, and also to write about my reading again. I have been trying even harder recently, though with mixed success: I’m still abandoning more books than I used to, and watching TV instead of reading because it’s more quickly and easily distracting, but I’ve also written up some of the books I have managed to read in something more like the old spirit of “just say what you think and don’t second guess it.” What a liberating feeling that was, back in the early days of this blog, and it really has continued to be freeing—this space, while in some senses a public one, is my space, a place where I just write what I want to.

I was surprised, after Owen’s death, by how strongly I wanted to write about it. Words and phrases came to me and would echo in my head until I found a place for them. That still happens, but as time keeps relentlessly passing the sameness of my grief feels like a reason to write less about it; I have been trying, here anyway. What else is there to say, after all? My son is still dead; I am still grieving him daily and deeply. And yet things aren’t exactly the same: how could they be, eight months later? One of the strangest things for me now—and here I think I am understanding better what Denise Riley meant when she talked about her grief in terms of dropping out of time—is that the passing time suddenly feels less linear than circular, as if instead of its carrying me further and further away from Owen (unwillingly left behind in his timelessness, as Riley puts it), it is bringing me back, impossibly, to a time when he was right here with us, because it was just (just!) last summer that, after hardly seeing each other in person for the first year of the pandemic, we had begun visiting again, and just (just!) last August that he came to share his finished Hackenbush video with us. He was also starting classes again at Dalhousie; things seemed to be looking up on all fronts. Those days are so vivid, so immediate, in my memory, that it makes me literally dizzy sometimes when I bring myself back to this moment, this August, the start of this new term.

Something else that’s different is how emotionally confusing and therefore exhausting I’m finding the present. The early days of grief are awful but absolute, almost simple, I realize now: there are no options, no expectations, for anything besides mourning. I have learned so much about grief since then, from experience but also from others, and from reading. One thing I’ve learned is that “it takes time” doesn’t mean that with time the grief lessens; it means something more like you get used to living with it, you learn to walk around with it, but it’s still there, fierce and painful and disorienting. Something else I’ve learned is that grief changes your relationship with happiness. I’ve read a lot of poetry in the last few months, taking comfort in finding words “in the shape of [my] wounds” (in Sean Thomas Dougherty’s phrase). I like this poem by W. S. Merwin, which captures both the relief of finding words for my pain and the pain of encountering “the joy of the world” when it feels impossible to share in it.


When the pain of the world finds words
they sound like joy
and often we follow them
with our feet of earth
and learn them by heart
but when the joy of the world finds words
they are painful
and often we turn away
with our hands of water

I am trying—to read, to write, to be—but it’s hard and uncomfortable and often I would rather not. Turning away is easier. Still, time keeps passing, and soon I won’t be able to default to comfortless passivity: next week, I will be back in the classroom.

In a Dark Wood: William Styron, Darkness Visible

Content warning: depression and suicide

styronThe vast metaphor which most faithfully represents this fathomless ordeal . . . is that of Dante, and his all-too-familiar lines still arrest the imagination with their augury of the unknowable, the black struggle to come:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
For I had lost the right path.

Early in his brief “memoir of madness” Darkness Visible, William Styron tells us about the op-ed he wrote for the New York Times after Primo Levi’s suicide, which to his great annoyance had left so many “worldly writers and scholars . . . mystified and disappointed.” “The argument I put forth,” he explains,

was fairly straightforward: the pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne.

Straightforward, perhaps, but the “spontaneous—and enormous” reaction to his article convinced him that it was worth saying more about his own experiences with depression. The result was first a lecture, then an article in Vanity Fair, and then this slim but powerful book.

darknessI read Darkness Visible on the recommendation of a friend who knew that I have been struggling to understand Owen’s decision to end his life from his point of view, not just because he did not share many details of his struggle but because I have never experienced depression myself—sadness, yes, and now grief, but these are far from the same thing.

There are always going to be things about Owen’s life and death that elude my understanding. An article I read about grief after suicide loss talks about the damage suicides do to people’s “assumptive world,” the things they assume to be true, which includes their beliefs about other people. There can perhaps be no more drastic reminder that other people are ultimately, precisely, other. I am working on accepting that many questions I have will never, can never, be answered. I also think it would be a mistake to think that depression in itself answers those questions: for one thing, as Styron emphasizes, many—in fact, most—people who suffer with depression survive it:

one need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul’s annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease—and they are countless—bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable.

Still, keeping that in mind, and also knowing that Styron’s experience was uniquely his own (something else Styron is clear about—”I don’t intend my ordeal to stand as a representation of what happens, or might happen, to others”), I was grateful, reading Darkness Visible, for the clarity and intensity of its depiction of depression from the inside, from the perspective of the sufferer. It was not an easy read, especially in my situation, but it made depression less “unimaginable” for me.

Darkness Visible by William Styron: 9780679643524 |  BooksStyron dislikes the term “depression”: “melancholia,” he thinks, “would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder,” whereas “depression,” bland and innocuous sounding, inhibits understanding “of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.” Styron carefully chronicles his own descent into the worst of it, frankly examining the role of his drinking (which he believes actually held the depression at bay for some time), the onset of “a kind of numbness” in which his own body began to feel unfamiliar to him, and then a pattern of “anxiety, agitation, unfocused dread” leading to “a suffocating gloom” and “an immense and aching solitude.” He recounts the medications he took (this was before the widespread use of today’s most frequently prescribed antidepressants), the therapy he finally sought out, and his eventual hospitalization, which in his case proved life-saving, mostly because (as he tells it) it bought him precious time:

In the hospital I partook of what may be depression’s only grudging favor—its ultimate capitulation. Even those for whom any kind of therapy is a futile exercise can look forward to the eventual passing of the storm. If they survive the storm itself, its fury almost always fades and then disappears. Mysterious in its coming, mysterious in its going, the affliction runs its course, and one finds peace.

visibleNot always, of course, and as a book like this can only be written by just such a survivor, it is bound to tilt more towards optimism than might in other cases seem warranted. From his own experience, Styron appreciates that convincing a depressed person (usually “in a state of unrealistic hopelessness”) to see things as he now does is “a tough job”:

Calling ‘Chin up!’ from the safety of the shore to a drowning person is tantamount to insult, but it has been shown over and over again that if the encouragement is dogged enough . . . the endangered one can nearly always be saved.

In some ways, these cheering “chin up” sections of the book were harder for me to read than the other, grimmer parts. This one in particular actually angered me, for implicitly blaming friends and families for not offering dogged enough encouragement or, Styron’s other key term, “devotion,” to save their loved ones.

Instead, insofar as depression is an explanation for “drowning,” its deadly force surely lies in what Styron powerfully conveys as its horrors, which can be “so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression”: 

for those who have known it, [depression] is a simulacrum of all the evil of our world: of our everyday discord and chaos, our irrationality, warfare and crime, torture and violence, our impulse toward death, and our flight from it held in the intolerable equipoise of history.

“If our lives had no other configuration than this,” he considers that “we should want, and perhaps deserve, to perish.”

PPP-ShoreTrue to his own experience, though, Styron does not end on this gloomy note, but on a more uplifting one:

For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as “the shining world.”

The last words of the book are not his but Dante’s:

And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.

I only wish that were true for us.


ghostJuly was not a very good reading month for me. By habit and on principle I usually finish most of the books I start, at least if I have any reason to think they are worth a bit of effort if it’s needed. In July, however, I not only didn’t even start many books (not by my usual standards, anyway) but I set aside almost as many books as I completed—Bloomsbury Girls (which hit all my sweet spots in theory but fell painfully flat in practice), Gilead (a reread I was enthusiastic about at first but just could not persist with), A Ghost in the Throat (which I will try again, as I liked its voice—what I struggled with was its essentialism and its somewhat miscellaneous or wandering structure). I already mentioned Andrew Miller’s Oxygen and Monica Ali’s Love Marriage, both of which I finished and enjoyed, in my last round-up post; I can add Maggie O’Farrell’s forthcoming The Marriage Portrait to the tally of successes since then (I liked it a lot).

smithAli Smith’s how to be both was a mixed experience for me. My copy began with the contemporary story (as you may know, two versions were published), and it read easily for me and was quite engaging, in the same way that the seasonal quartet books all were (though it was funny—funny strange, not lol funny—to find that once again, but this time accidentally, I had chosen a book fundamentally about grief). But the Renaissance section pretty much lost me, and I was not willing or able to put in the work to understand and appreciate the connections between the parts. I’m quite ready to blame myself, not Smith, as my concentration has been quite poor recently, as has my motivation to persist with anything that isn’t either required or readily rewarding—but this was also a reminder of why until fairly recently I had been wary of her fiction: I’m not an experimentalist by habit, my sensibility or taste just runs to the more conventional. I like my novelists to actually write their novels, not leave the work of making sense of it, or filling in the actual content of it, up to me—not absolutely, of course, or I’m in the wrong job, but how to be both was too far in the wrong direction for me, for now.

Ow1Another reread for me in July was Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End. As with everything I’ve read about both grief and suicide, this novel made me very conscious of the particularity of loss, and also of relationships, including mother-child ones: there is not much in it that specifically reminds me of my own son or what it was like being his mom. But there are some passages in it that vividly capture emotions I have had or thoughts I have struggled with, of sorrow, pain, confusion, disorientation, and helpless, bereft love. I am so grateful for the writers who have done the hard work of finding words for these feelings.

Owen would have turned 25 on July 22, another ‘first.’ On his birthday last year I told him (as I always did) that the day he was born was one of the happiest days of our lives. This year it was one of the saddest.


An Unwilling Elegy

reasons-endNo, it’s not an elegy, I thought. No parent should write a child’s elegy.

I read Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End three years ago. It was hard: I could barely finish it. “Imagine,” I said then. Now, of course, I don’t have to imagine.

I reread it this week, because I’m still always looking for words, and finding some comfort when they are in the shape of my wound.

Two more excerpts.


Days: the easiest possession, requiring only automatic participation. The days he had refused would come, one at a time. Neither my allies nor my enemies, they would wait, every daybreak, with their boundless patience and indifference, seeing if they could turn me into a friend or an enemy to myself.

“I don’t have to live in days,” Nikolai says. “And yet I have to live in days,” his mother replies. Me too.


Words provided to me—loss, grief, sorrow, bereavement, trauma—never seemed to be able to speak precisely of what was plaguing me. One can and must live with loss and grief and sorrow and bereavement. Together they frame this life, as solid as the ceiling and the floor and the walls and the doors. But there is something else, like a bird that flies away at the first sign of one’s attention, or a cricket chirping in the dark, never settling close enough for one to tell from which corner the song comes.

“I am in fiction now,” he says. Yes: but what story? This is the ongoing work.

yiyun-liJuly 2019

Three excerpts from an unwilling elegy.


We once gave Nikolai a life of flesh and blood; and I’m doing it over again, this time by words,


How can anyone believe that one day he was here and the next day he was gone?

Yet how can one, I thought. How can one know a fact without accepting it? How can one accept a person’s choice without questioning it? How can one question without reaching a dead end? How much reaching does one have to do before one finds another end beyond the dead end? And if there is another end beyond the dead end, it cannot be called dead, can it?

How good you are, Nikolai said, at befuddling yourself.


You write fiction, Nikolai said.


Then you can make up whatever you want.

One never makes up things in fiction, I said. One has to live there as one has to live here.

Here is where you are, not where I am. I am in fiction, he said. I am in fiction now.

Then where you are is there, which is also where I live.

Some books are too hard to write about. Imagine how hard this one was to write: if you think about that while you’re reading it, you might have to stop, as I nearly did. I liked this review by John Self, in the Irish Times. This one by Rachel Veroff in the LARB is good too.

In This Room

Why did I come in here.

For Wedge.

Well, that was stupid. He’s not here. And now you have made your dad dead in this room. And you will keep doing this. Every new room you enter, you will make your dad dead in it. Now he is dead on the second floor. He is dead on the ground floor. There is only one floor left.

I’ve been working (and it does feel like work) on going out a bit more—not far, not anywhere unusual or exciting, just out of the house and a little way further into what used to be my everyday world. I didn’t expect it would be so hard. I used to go to campus almost every day, after all; I worked in my office there five days a week pretty much year round, until we all went home in March 2020. I went there so often that I was getting tired of it. I used to pull into the parking lot with resignation. Now I arrive in tears. I can’t help it: they start on the way there, as I travel the streets and pass the schools that are mundane but evocative landmarks in our family history, and they continue as I wander the grounds where I loved to visit the kids at lunch time during their summer camps, and when I look up at the residence where Owen spent two pretty happy years and then more unhappy ones, and when I remember the flags flying at half mast in his honor. Then I sit at the desk where I have sat for so many hundreds of hours before, and there are pictures and reminders everywhere.

It isn’t just the memories, though: it’s the uncanny sensation I get when I’m there of having traveled back in time. Because I have spent so little time there since COVID, the campus feels as if it belongs to another life altogether—except that Owen was alive in that other, past, life, so the disorientation that has settled somewhat around home (where he has been dead for so long now) comes back full force. “Every new room you enter,” the grieving narrator realizes in Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise, “you will make your dad dead in it.” That’s it exactly: that’s why it is so hard “just” going back to campus, and why it was also so hard when I made myself go to the Public Gardens, where I had not been since just before he moved back in with us in November. I love the Public Gardens, but going there meant that now Owen is dead there too.

Everywhere I go, I have to keep doing this. It’s easier when I have a focus, a task, a distraction, a friend. Constant distraction is a kind of avoidance, though, a way of not thinking or feeling. It’s a useful strategy—it has been invaluable, really, essential (as mindless TV has been) for helping me get through this hardest of all times. Before long I am going to need to be able to walk across the quad and not break down, though, and that means not just getting used to being there again but somehow closing the gap between the old life it was the setting for and the realities of my life now. I’ve been thinking again about Woolf’s image of the corridor between two blocks. I feel as if I am still in that transitional space: I am further along it, but I haven’t emerged yet, and I haven’t yet figured out that new story that reconciles what still seem like incompatible realities—the sameness of it all, and, simultaneously, the absolute difference of it. The dissonance still can make me reel, literally. I have been grateful for the quiet benches that let me rest for a while, just sitting with the sadness until I’m ready to take it with me somewhere else.