Recently

PPP Blues“Start where you are and see where it takes you” is the wise advice from blogger extraordinaire Kerry Clare for those times when you want to write but don’t know quite what you want to say, so here I am, trying to break through the inertia of not blogging by just blogging.

Sometimes I look back through the Novel Readings archive and wonder at how much blogging I did in periods of my life when I was much busier than I typically am now, when I had two small children who needed attention and care of all kinds, drop-offs and pick-ups at school and daycare, swimming lessons and library visits, homework and piano lessons and chess club, highly particularized meals (allergies, aversions) necessitating frequent shopping and endless packing up of safe snacks, appointments with doctors and dentists and orthodontists; in those years the demands of teaching, too, were greater, because I didn’t have an archive of materials to fall back on, or years of experience to give me trust in myself, belief that if I just showed up I could probably actually do just fine. I took on more then, more committee assignments and supervisions and all the rest of it; I say no a lot more now, partly because after my failed promotion bid I “quiet quit” (a term I hadn’t heard of back then!)—not completely, of course, and I try to still be a good department citizen especially, but it was a good reminder that (another catch-phrase I didn’t know then) the university will not love you back.

Somehow those crazy busy years were also my peak blogging years. Busy people get more done, they say, but I realize now, too, that blogging fed me—gave me nourishment, intellectual and eventually social—in ways my busyness, my business, wasn’t otherwise doing. I came to feel part of something, something I could reach beyond the constraints of my schedule, my remote location, myself. I enjoyed advocating for something I believed in; I could feel parts of myself expanding that had become cramped and anxious after the hard slog through graduate school and which I had not had, or made, time for in the intense early years of my job here, which were equal parts exhilarating, terrifying, and exhausting. Then came Open Letters, which I also somehow made time for in spite of, on top of, everything else (a mistake, perhaps, professionally speaking, but one I can’t regret).

woolf-by-bellThere’s so much emptiness in my life now. It’s not just Owen’s death, although every day I confront the ongoing ache and mystery of his absence. Some of it is the ongoing isolation of our COVID-cautious lifestyle: especially as most of the rest of the world seems to be moving on, it feels worse than it did when we were all in it together. Being back on campus and teaching in person helps with that, but it’s not the same as it was: I’m in my office a lot, but mostly with the door closed, because masks are required in classrooms but not hallways and I like to take my own mask off while I work. It’s winter, so the outdoor visits that sustained me through summer and fall are less appealing, as are my long solo walks in the park, when I was alone but, somehow, never lonely. (I often think of Marianne Moore’s line “the cure for loneliness is solitude.”) I could be busier at / with work than I am. I will be, soon, as assignments start coming in, but even so I don’t expect to be even as busy with teaching as I was last term, just because of the nature of my classes this term, the easy familiarity of one and the high degree of automation in the other. There is other work I could be doing, even a writing commitment I should be doing. I can’t seem to summon up much urgency or energy for it, though, or for the book idea I still sort of believe is worth pursuing. I’m not even reading much. I can’t seem to concentrate on most books I try; I don’t seem to like many of them, and it bothers me, worrying that it’s me, not them, that’s the problem.

“Start where you are and see where it takes you.” I’m not in a great place, I guess, though things aren’t really so bad: another word for emptiness is spaciousness, and maybe that’s what I need right now. There are ways, I realize, in which it is a luxury, a privilege. Something I’ve heard a lot since Owen died was that grieving people should be kind to themselves, so I have been trying not to judge what I’m doing or not doing, or how much I’m doing, or just how I’m doing.

LittTwo things I did recently: a review of Emma Donoghue’s Haven for Canadian Notes and Queries, and a review of Toby Litt’s A Writer’s Diary for The TLS. My editor at the TLS thought of me for Litt’s book because it’s a novel that began as a blog, or at any rate as a Substack (which I realize is not exactly a blog, but Litt also has a WordPress blog). The novel was initially released one day at a time, like a real diary, but has now been released in bound book form: that change in form was really interesting to me, not least because (like many long-time bloggers, I expect) I have often wondered if there is a book here somewhere, and if so, how radical the transformation would have to be for it to succeed in another form. My conclusion about Litt’s experiment:

I wish he had resisted the temptation to republish A Writer’s Diary as a conventional book. He could instead have accepted the ephemerality that is a blog’s most defining quality, letting the posts scroll away as they first appeared, one day at a time.

October Reading & Teaching

atkinson-shrinesOctober was a terrible reading month for me. I didn’t even start many books, much less finish them. A last minute push (and, I’ll admit, a bit of fed-up skimming) got me to the end of Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety, which I had acquired precisely because I figured that, whatever gripes I have had in the past with her logic or narrative trickery, I could trust Atkinson to tell a story that would carry me along out of my slump. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen: Shrines just never clicked for me. Its overly elaborate plot is delivered piecemeal, with lots of chronological jumping around; although there are a lot of well-conceived characters, none of them came to life for me, at least not enough to provide any momentum; and the ending is beyond bad — the last several pages read as if Atkinson got tired of the whole project and just transcribed everything that was left in her notebooks. YMMV, of course: the novel has gotten a lot of glowing reviews, and many readers on Twitter replied to my grumpy report about it saying they’d enjoyed it just fine. flynn-berry

The only other (new) novel I finished in October was Flynn Berry’s Northern Spy. It’s a thriller, well paced and plotted and with a bit of intricate moral dancing around questions about how far it is right to go, for your family, for a cause, or for your conscience. I’m not rushing out to buy Berry’s other novels, but if I saw one at the library I’d definitely pick it up.

I’ve been reading steadily for my classes, of course. In Women and Detective Fiction we’ve finished Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place and now also P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman; tomorrow we have our first discussion of Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi.  Rereading Grafton today I appreciated the light-heartedness of it. I mean, obviously as it’s a murder mystery there’s a grim aspect to it, and at times it is very serious indeed, but Grafton has a sense of humor about the genre and is clearly having fun up-ending its tropes. My experience in previous years is that students find her revisions more dated than they do Sara Paretsky’s; there’s usually a certain impatience with Kinsey’s “I’m not a girly-girl” shtick. I admit, I relate to it, perhaps because my own early introduction to feminism was by way of Free to be You and Me and not being allowed to have Barbie dolls. I do think V. I. Warshawski is a more interesting character and Paretsky overall is more thoughtful about the politics of her novels. I also got pretty tired of Grafton’s series well before the end of the alphabet (she only got as far as Y). But A is for Alibi is brisk and smart and has plenty of unexpected twists, which I hope will help keep the students’ attention.

oupIn 19th-Century Fiction we have been working on Middlemarch for a couple of weeks. I wish I could say it is going well. I don’t think it’s going badly exactly, but honestly this term I don’t really know. Attendance is just appalling: most days, maybe 60% of the class shows up, which is unprecedented, in my fairly long experience. I don’t know what to make of this. I know it’s not personal, or at least I’m trying not to take it personally, but that doesn’t make it any less disheartening. The students who are present are pretty quiet; I think – I hope – they are engaged, but much of the time it’s hard to tell, and I worry that at this point I am mostly performing enthusiasm, not eliciting it. The ones who do speak up have good things to say, but I’m not used to having to work so hard to get anything out of the class, to get any energy back from them. I’m going to keep trying! The ones who are showing up deserve no less, and I remain hopeful that between us we can and will make the most of this opportunity to read this great novel together.

I was really looking forward to these classes on Middlemarch because I thought, or hoped, they would shore up my faltering faith in all the ways I have spent my “one wild and precious life.” Whatever else was going wrong in my life before all of this, I could count on my classroom hours to make me feel better, by taking me out of my own head for a while and also because of the joy of engaging with students about books in ways I really do value and cherish and believe in. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it isn’t so simple this term. The image I keep returning to lately is that it’s like I’m crossing a suspension bridge. It’s a bit unsteady underfoot, but as long as I look straight ahead it’s not too bad moving forward, just doing the next thing that’s in front of me, and the next, and the next. It’s when I look down and realize all over again what’s below it, or it’s shaken by a gust of wind (a memory, a place, a picture, or just a feeling) that the vertiginous sensations return —  “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed” — and I am overcome, unbalanced, beside myself, in spite of myself.

capilano suspension bridge

Recently: Classes & Senior Moments

I haven’t been doing well at my plan to return to regular posting about my classes, and in fact today I don’t really have a lot to say about them, except that overall I think they are going okay—though not great. Gaudy Night fell pretty flat in Women & Detective Fiction this time around, which was disappointing, but In A Lonely Place has clearly caught their interest, so that’s encouraging. It’s unusual for discussion of Lady Audley’s Secret to be as sluggish as it was this time in 19th-Century Fiction, which makes me anxious about starting Middlemarch next week. Attendance in that class this term is also the worst I’ve ever seen it, but I think that is mostly due to COVID (infections and exposures), and of course I’m glad those students are staying away. I do worry that the strategies I put in place to mitigate the effects of those absences might be influencing other students; missing classes can have a snowball effect on their (dis)engagement. But all I can do myself is keep showing up and trying to make our class time worth it to all of us. I’m doing the best I can at this. Sometimes it’s a real struggle to get myself there, but once the class is underway I usually feel better. Task-oriented coping ftw!

The things I’ve been brooding on lately, more than these specific and quite familiar pedagogical ups and downs, have been work-related in a more general way. It turns out—unsurprisingly, I suppose—that going back to campus after everything that has happened in the last three years, and especially after Owen’s death, has prompted a lot of what I’ve been thinking about as “senior moments,” meaning not dithery forgetfulness (although I do experience those kinds of senior moments too!) but reflections on my career, on what it means to me, both personally and professionally, to be one of the most senior members of my department. Indeed, in just a couple of years I will be the most senior, in age and in years of service.

One factor is that I have come back to a changed department, one where many of the colleagues I was closest to or worked most closely with have recently retired. Thanks to previous retirements (and some departures for other reasons), our full-time complement had already shrunk by around 40%; we have been fortunate to be allowed to hire some great new full-time faculty, but there has been nothing like a 1 to 1 replacement rate. So before COVID struck we were already a much smaller community than we once were, and now in many ways the department feels like an unfamiliar community to me, one in which I don’t know many of my colleagues very well, much less my own place among them. I don’t feel well-equipped to be a mentor or a role model: my relationship with our discipline and with our institution is too equivocal, not to mention that I’m hardly a good example of professional success, on academic terms and perhaps on any terms. I’m not sure what I have to offer my newer colleagues, then, and I’m not sure they want or need anything from me—or if they do, whether it would be something I’m willing or able to give at this point. (I was asked about teaching a course on book reviewing, for example, something I have no interest in doing, for both petty and principled reasons.)

What do I want from my professional life now? As I stare down the remaining years towards my own retirement, what goals or hopes do I have for them? If you’d asked me where I stood in 2019, I would have described myself as mid-career: poised for what I hoped might be a period of expansion and flourishing as my family responsibilities lightened, as I recovered from the blow to my self-confidence and sense of purpose inflicted by my failed promotion bid, and as my years of experience began to really pay off in the classroom. I also had projects on the go I was excited about. Now here I am in 2022 feeling as if I have missed that phase and gone straight to the end game—and, in the shadow of Owen’s death, wondering what it has all been worth, and how or if or when to put that kind of energy in again. All those guilt-ridden years of trying to be both a good mother and a good academic, all the crises and compromises, all the books and paperwork and panics, about parenting, on the one hand, and productivity on the other—and before too long it will all come down to a giant recycling bin outside my office door and discovering nobody else wants my shelves of marked-up Victorian novels or my complete 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica. The writers of this article seriously underestimate the degree to which our department lounge, with its stacks and cartons of discarded books, is all the memento mori any of us really needs.

These are melancholy reflections, perhaps unduly so, both because my grief is still so raw and the reality of Owen’s death still so bewildering—its meaning and its impact both still unfolding every day—and because I have been on campus again for such a short time. Once, I imagined that a lot of the questions I have entertained about my life and my work since Fall 2020, when we first went online and I also got my first invitation to consider early retirement, would be answered by being back in the classroom. I knew then that it wasn’t the right time to decide: I didn’t feel ready to go (mid-career, remember?) and I didn’t think teaching online during a pandemic was the right context for deciding when I would be. Owen’s death raised more existential questions; I didn’t think returning to teaching in person would necessarily sort those out, but work—or teaching, anyway—has always given me a sense of purpose and accomplishment, so I thought it would at least help. It has helped, I guess, but the sensation of time travel I had over the summer as I tried to re-familiarize myself with campus has shaded into something different, something more like suspension between a past I can vividly imagine and a future that so far I can’t.

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.

Words

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 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.

Half a Year

Owen OrnamentThe mind is not only its own place, as Milton’s Satan observes, but it can also be a pretty strange place, or mine can anyway, especially these days. Today, for example, it has been six months (six months!) since Owen’s death, and what keeps running through my mind is a mangled version of lines from “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: “half a year, half a year, half a year onward, into the valley of death …” and then nothing comes next, it just starts over, because not only (of course) are these not the poem’s actual words but I don’t know what words of my own should follow to finish the thought.

tennysonIt’s hard to imagine a poem that is less apt, for the occasion or for my feelings about it. (I hate this poem, actually, though I love so much of Tennyson’s poetry.*) I can’t think of any reason for this mental hiccup besides the generally cluttered condition of my mind thanks to two years of COVID isolation and now six months (six months!) of grieving. Six months is half a year—half a year! I have to keep repeating it to make myself believe it, and it’s probably just the repetition and rhythm of that phrase that trips my tired brain over into Tennyson’s too-familiar verse.

Half a year. That stretch of time seemed unfathomably long to me in the first days and weeks after Owen’s death—a future too far away to imagine, never mind plan or prepare for. Time passing was supposed to be what helped, but that oversimplifies it, as everyone who told us “it takes time” probably knew but didn’t know how to (or didn’t want to) explain. That feeling I had that he was receding—not from our memories or our hearts, of course, but from our present reality—is even stronger now, which is worse, not better. I don’t want him to belong to the past, but time doesn’t stop. I can’t hide from my own future any more, either: my sabbatical (so eagerly awaited, so much of its work so different than I expected, and so much more difficult) ends today. Half a year, half a year, half a year onward: it’s relentless.

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973How should the thought finish? As I walk through the valley of the shadow of Owen’s death, I have no sure path or comfort. All I know, or hope I know, is that at some point, in some way, I will emerge from it and he will not. Six months ago today, devastated beyond any words of my own, I copied stanzas from Tennyson’s In Memoriam into my journal. It remains the best poem I know about grief, though as it turns towards a resolution not available to me, maybe it’s more accurate to say that it contains the best poetry I know about grief. (For that, I can forgive him the jingoistic tedium of “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”) This has always been my favorite section—it is so powerful in its stark simplicity:

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more—
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

He is not here. Half a year. How long, how short, how impossible that feels.


*It is amazing that you can listen to a recording of Tennyson actually reciting it, however. Why do I find this so moving? Maybe for the same reason that I found myself in tears when I ran across some of the original issues of Bleak House at the V&A.

That Extraordinary Extinction


Content warning: depression and suicide


diary v 5Not a happy summer. That is all the materials for happiness; & nothing behind. If Julian had not died—still an incredible sentence to write—our happiness might have been profound . . . but his death—that extraordinary extinction—drains it of substance. (Woolf, Diaries, 26 September, 1937)

I’ve just finished writing a review of Sina Queyras’s new book Rooms: Women, Writing, Woolf, a book that (among other things) examines the influence Virginia Woolf has had on Queyras as a writer and thinker. Woolf, as Queyras discusses, may actually be uniquely influential:

If you’re a woman who has written in English in the last hundred years, you have come through Woolf and have at least some cursory thoughts on her work—if this year is any indication, you’ve written at least a paragraph about her.

When I write about Woolf myself, I feel the same anxieties Queyras expresses in their book, about taking Woolf as a subject and about adding to what’s already been written about her. It’s hard not to feel both inadequate and superfluous. On the other hand, there are few other writers (for me, there’s really only one other writer) whose work is as rewarding to inhabit and to think about. Most recently, I’ve been working on The Years, which I reread last summer as I began to lay out my plans for my current sabbatical leave.

holtby-woolfI haven’t written much new about Woolf yet this year (I’ve been focusing on other pieces of my project) but I have thought about her a lot—specifically, I have thought a lot about her suicide. One of my favorite things about Holtby’s Critical Memoir of Woolf is that Holtby died before Woolf did and so no shadow darkens her celebration of Woolf’s capacity for joy. It’s a shame (and I know others, more expert on Woolf than I, who feel this even more strongly) that the popular image of Woolf is so dreary. But she did suffer greatly from depression, and she did ultimately choose not to go on suffering. It’s tragic, of course, but in a way I think the saddest part is not that she died but that she did not wish to go on living, a small distinction, perhaps, but to me a meaningful one. I sometimes feel this about Owen’s death as well: that it’s his life I am mourning—his difficult life, the life he ultimately did not want to live any more—as much as his death. There’s a passage in Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss that captures what I imagine he might have felt:

Normal people say, I can’t imagine feeling so bad I’d genuinely want to die. I do not try and explain that it isn’t that you want to die. It is that you know you are not supposed to be alive, feeling a tiredness that powders your bones, a tiredness with so much fear. The unnatural fact of living is something you must eventually fix.

How I wish I could have fixed it for him instead, some other way.

v-woolfWith Woolf on my mind again thanks to Queyras’s book, I picked up Volume 5 of her diary (1936-1941), which I have to hand because it covers the time she was working on The Years and Three Guineas. So much is always happening in her diaries and letters: you can dip into them anywhere and find something vital, interesting, fertile for thought. This volume of the diary also includes the lead-up to war and then her experience of the Blitz, and the final entries before her suicide, which are inevitably strange and poignant—even more so to me now. Leafing through its pages this time, though, it was the entries around the death of her nephew Julian Bell in July 1937 that drew me in: Woolf as mourner, not mourned.

Woolf experienced a lot of painful losses in her life, including her mother and father and her brother Thoby. Julian’s death (in Spain, where he had gone, over his mother’s and aunt’s objections, to drive an ambulance) was another terrible blow. Woolf doesn’t write about it at length, but her grief comes up often over the following months in terms that are now all-too familiar. In the first entry she writes after he dies, she notes how odd it is that “I can hardly bring myself, with all my verbosity . . . to say anything about Julian’s death.” There’s a sense of helplessness, as all she can do is be there for his bereft mother:

Then we came down here [to Monk’s House] last Thursday; & the pressure being removed, one lived; but without much of a future. Thats one of the specific qualities of this death—how it brings close the immense vacancy, & our short little run into inanity.

More than once she resolves to let this renewed consciousness of the brevity of life inspire her to make the most of it: “I will not yield an inch, or a fraction of an inch to nothingness, so long as something remains.” “But how it curtails the future,” she adds, “… a curiously physical sense; as if one had been living in another body, which is removed, & all that living is ended.”

“We don’t talk so freely of Julian,” Woolf remarks a few days later; “We want to make things go on.” After another few days, she writes that Vanessa “looks an old woman”: “How can she ever right herself though?” Woolf herself struggles to focus on her writing projects.  “I do not let myself think,” she says; “That is the fact. I cannot face much of the meaning.” “Nessa is alone today,” she notes on August 6; “A very hot day—I add, to escape from the thought of her.” But the thoughts return:

We have the materials for happiness, but no happiness . . . It is an unnatural death, his. I cant make it fit in anywhere. Perhaps because he was killed, violently. I can do nothing with the experience yet. It seems still emptiness: the sight of Nessa bleeding: how we watch: nothing to be done. But whats odd is I cant notice or describe. Of course I have forced myself to drive ahead with the book. But the future without Julian is cut off. lopped: deformed.

“How much do I mind death?” she asks herself in December, concluding that “there is a sense in which the end could be accepted calmly”:

It’s Julian’s death that makes one skeptical of life I suppose. Not that I ever think of him as dead, which is queer. Rather as if he were jerked abruptly out of sight, without rhyme or reason: so violent & absurd that one cant fit his death into any scheme. But here we are . . .

Julian did not choose his death (although presumably he accepted the risk of it, when he chose to go to Spain). That’s a big difference between his “end” (which causes Woolf so much grief) and hers. I have always respected Woolf’s choice (and also Carolyn Heilbrun’s, though her circumstances were very different). I try to respect Owen’s too, to understand it as an expression—the ultimate expression—of his autonomy, his right to decide he had suffered enough. I cannot accept it calmly, though; I feel like Vanessa, “bleeding.” “Here there was no relief,” Woolf says in the immediate aftermath of Julian’s death, watching her sister suffer; “Then I thought the death of a child is childbirth again.”

No Words

PPP-ShoreI’ve been thinking about how many times people have expressed their love and sympathy for us by saying “there are no words,” and then about how important it has felt to me, since Owen’s death, to try to find some words for what it feels like to lose him and grieve for him. Writing has helped, even though I have also often felt the truth of Tennyson’s lines:

In words, like weeds, I’ll wrap me o’er,
Like coarsest clothes against the cold:
But that large grief which these enfold
Is given in outline and no more.

Now what I’m discovering is that it is hard to keep finding new words in the absence of change. Narrative requires movement, not repetition or stasis. How many times (how many ways) can I say “I am sad”? If it weren’t so painful, it would be dull. (Maybe it already is: I’m sorry.) I suppose that’s one reason novels and memoirs about grief usually end on a hopeful note, with a moment, or at least a promise, of uplift. Where else would the momentum come from—without some sense of being on a journey towards a better place, why turn every page?

Life is not a book, though, and while time does of course pass and thus some things do change—some good things even happen!—the hard facts of his death remain the same and I seem to have have no words for it now except to say that I am, still, sad.

Unwilling

Owen died three months ago today. I’ve been remembering how, with babies, you begin by measuring their new life in days, then you slip into counting by weeks, then months, then years. I suppose it makes sense that something similar happens with deaths, except that it’s no longer about growth, about a presence expanding further into the world. Instead it feels like he is receding, which might be why it’s true (as people warned) that the loss actually feels worse now in some ways. At first, the overwhelming grief was because he had left us so deliberately and irrevocably. That sorrow remains, with all of its complications, but as time passes for us but not for him, it’s hard not to feel that now we are the ones leaving him, which we did not choose to do—which we desperately do not want to do, but can’t help or stop.

“The dead slip away,” Riley says, “as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.” I’ve been thinking about other times I left Owen, more or less willingly—the first time I dropped him at daycare, for example, and then I sat and cried in the car, because even though everyone told me (and everyone was right) that he would adapt and come to love it there, it felt unnatural to walk away while he cried and reached for me. I watched him head into school so many times, knowing things weren’t always easy for him there but that I couldn’t go in with him and try to make it better, as much as I wanted to. I also remember, more happily, leaving him in residence when he started his degree at Dalhousie—that was such an optimistic time for us all. Separation is part of growing up, of course, part of parenting, part of life: as wise Joe Gargery says, “life is made of ever so many partings welded together.” But this parting is different, because instead of holding our lives together it has broken them apart.

“Unwillingly”: yes. I think that’s why it still feels impossible, unbearable, to sort out his room, his clothes, his few other possessions. There were things we had to do after he died—practical things, from arranging his cremation and writing the obituary to sorting out his bank accounts and cancelling his phone plan. These steps weren’t voluntary, though: they were hard necessities, responsibilities his choice had pressed onto us. The rest of it, whatever else we do, is up to us. We will be doing things on purpose: we will be making deliberate choices (willing choices) that put him, that keep him, in the past, separate from our present, which—no matter how much we wish otherwise—will keep getting further and further away from his last day.

That doesn’t mean we are or will be “moving on.” Megan Devine (who rightly notes how unhelpful it is to be “reassured” about the imaginary “better” future in the very early days of grief) offers a hopeful vision of what might happen eventually:

In your own ways, and in your own time, you will find ways to stitch this experience into your life . . . Grief changes you. Who you become remains to be seen. You do not need to leave your grief behind in order to live a newly beautiful life. It’s part of you.

Now, though, I still find that new world hard to imagine, much less look forward to. How can I go there willingly, knowing it would represent (in Riley’s words) “a second, now final, loss”? I still, hopelessly, just want to hold on to him, to keep him from slipping away, not from his life, which he had the right to leave on his own terms, as he did, but from mine.

Time Passes

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.

Time passes.

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.