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.

Still

This so-called ‘work of grief’ is turning out to be a shatteringly exhausting apprehension of the needed work of living. It demands to be fully lived, while the labour of living it is physically exhausting—like virulent jetlag, but surging up in waves.

The notes and emails of condolence have stopped arriving and I’ve acknowledged each of them. Yet after all this ritual and effort, he still hasn’t come home. What more does he want?

Denise Riley, Time Lived, Without its Flow

rocky shores

“How are you doing?” people ask a lot these days in emails and messages, kindly reaching out, letting me know they are still here, still available, still caring. I am genuinely grateful, because (as many of them who have known grief themselves have said) grieving is a lonely business even when it isn’t midwinter during a pandemic. And yet somehow as time goes on I find I am less and less able to reply with grace, because (unfairly, unreasonably) what I hear, even though of course it isn’t what they’ve said, is “How you are doing now, what has changed, are you doing any better yet?” Actually, some people probably are tacitly asking that, or at least wondering it, hoping—for my sake—that I am doing better. “How would you be doing?” I sometimes want to reply. Riley talks about “kindly onlookers” saying “I can’t imagine what you are feeling.” “I’d like them to try to imagine,” she says; “it’s not so difficult.”

OUP MiddlemarchIt is terrible, the damage grief does to one’s own generosity. I don’t like it, though for now I can’t seem to help it. Anger is often mentioned as one of the ‘stages’ of bereavement; I haven’t seen any discussion of selfishness, but that’s what it feels like, or self-absorption. All these years reading Middlemarch and now I can’t displace myself and my sorrows from the center of my narrative: I’m disappointed in myself. How I have always admired Dorothea’s resolution after her night of mourning her lost love: “She said to her own irremediable grief, that it should make her more helpful, instead of driving her back from effort.” Of course, thinking the man you loved is not the man you thought him to be—even believing that your chance at joyful passion is over—is hardly the same as knowing your child walked away from you into the night and will never come back.

How am I doing? I am still sad, still (how, after two months?) shocked, still struggling to make sense of a life that has been dealt such a blow, still trying not to think about it but also still unable not to think about it, still counting the days since it happened, still remembering the days before it happened and marveling at their innocence. (Who know a bullet journal could take on such pathos when it turns out that its cheerful notations—decorate tree! Maddie here! Christmas dinner!—were counting down to this?) I am still unable to bear going in his room or looking at baby pictures (why are the happiest memories the saddest ones?), still finding it surreal that his ashes are on our bookshelf, still frequently startled into painful sobs by thoughts or reminders of his life and his death.

ignatieffThe other question I’m hearing more and more is some variation on “have you considered talking to someone?”—meaning, of course, someone else, someone professional, someone who knows what to say. (Maybe that’s why the “how are you doing” question feels a bit loaded, as the combined subtext starts to seem like “this has gone on long enough.”) This has made me think again about Ignatieff’s comments in On Consolation about our current reliance on “therapeutic professionals” who “treat our suffering as an illness from which we need to recover.” “When suffering becomes understood as an illness with a cure,” he says, “something is lost.” I don’t think anyone who has suggested this to me means to imply that it is wrong for me to still be grieving; again, I know that they want to help, they want—for my sake—for me to be feeling better, doing better, living better. I don’t know if a therapist would approach my grief as something to be fixed or cured. I hope not: I don’t want to “recover” from it, and I don’t think I could. (“Some part of you may still remain in the underworld,” Riley says, and that seems right, meaning both true and appropriate.) I will find out, though: I have found someone to talk to (it’s not an easy process, as many of you probably know), though they can’t fit me in for a while. It is hard to think even that far ahead, but it seems likely I will still need whatever it is that they have to offer.

I feel like I need to add: I mean it that I am truly grateful to everyone kind enough to check in with me. Please don’t read this as my wishing you wouldn’t.

Owen Maitzen

Seasons

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973The two things I’ve heard or read most often about grief are “it takes time” and “wait until you’re ready.” These are helpful comments, as far as anything is helpful; they lessen my anxiety and confusion by reminding me that there is no timeline, there are no rules, there are no ‘oughts’ that follow from this shocking and disruptive ‘is.’ They are also, less reassuringly, very vague: nobody knows how much time or can say exactly what “it” is, or when, if ever, I’ll be “ready” for the things I currently can’t face doing—sorting through his belongings, for example, so poignantly scant and so heartbreakingly reminiscent of him. But it has been good to remind myself that it is OK for now just to get from one day to the next as best I can.

SnowyTreesThe world won’t wait for me, though. The days keep relentlessly coming and going, their accumulation inexorably putting distance between this sad present and the innocent times before—especially that last happy day, the day when he knew but we didn’t that it was the last one, the day he told us, as it came cheerfully to a close, that he would remember for the rest of his life (how different that remarks sounds today). And now winter is starting, slowly and haltingly but perceptibly, to change to spring. Usually I am impatient, desperate even, for this to happen: the contrast between the shorter, milder winters I experienced growing up in Vancouver and the longer, harsher winters we suffer through here has always made me depressed. I never understood why April would be considered cruel until I lived here; if winter comes, I often crankily exclaimed, spring can indeed be ‘far behind.’ Now, however, the lighter mornings, the lengthening days, the brighter sunshine all exert the kind of pressure on me that those consolatory phrases attempt to protect me from.

Mourning in winter has been very hard, and very isolating, because of the added complication of COVID concerns, but it has also made emotional sense to me that the weather has stayed as bleak as my feelings. “He left us in the dead of winter,” as Auden’s poem goes; “the day of his death was a dark cold day.” Beauty and brightness seem so incongruous. I went to the park one rare mild morning, hoping to find some consolation in the loveliness of sea and sky, but I was immediately flooded with memories and overwhelmed with grief knowing that Owen would never again turn his face to the sun.

PPP February 11 2022

It takes time, I know. I’ll try again, when I feel ready. But spring will come whether I’m ready or not, and this year I can’t imagine that the renewal of warmth and life around us will seem anything but painful, a constant reminder of our loss. It takes time—but “the dead slip away,” as Riley says, “as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.” I’m not ready for that.

smith springAs it happens, my recent reading has also been seasonal, though I don’t think there’s any connection to these ruminations. At any rate, if there is a link, it’s not conscious or deliberate. Prompted by my attempts to conceptualize my book project, I looked up information about Ali Smith’s recent Orwell Prize win. What I read about it and her it sent me back to reread Autumn, which I had liked but not loved before; with questions about form and content and ‘novels with a purpose’ in mind, I found it engaging and thought-provoking, so I read on through Winter and Spring, and I will get to Summer soon. I’m not confident that the connections I was making between her series and the other earlier books I am planning to write about are good ones, or that it makes sense to include a contemporary example, but the flicker of intellectual excitement this idea gives me feels good enough to make it worth following up on anyway.

Image: Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman (1937, Tate Gallery)

Unfurled

Mona Arshi’s essay talked about Denise Riley’s Time Lived, Without Its Flow in a way that made me want to read it for myself. Riley wrote the essay after the sudden death of her grown son from an undiagnosed heart condition. After he died, she found herself experiencing time differently; the essay is a meditation on “that extraordinary feeling of a-temporality” and its implications for grief and consolation.

I hadn’t been thinking about my own experience in temporal terms, though I have often had the sometimes overwhelming sensation that I am standing still while the rest of the world is moving, which I suppose is a version of what she means about “living in suddenly arrested time.” When I try to describe my emotional state, I am drawn to metaphors of weight and especially of carrying: it’s a lot to carry, I can’t put it down, I can’t bear it, it’s very heavy. Arshi’s word “sticky” resonated with me because I also feel stuck in one place, unable to let go or move forward; there is a repetition, a sameness, even a tedium to my grief. Reading Riley’s essay, I thought that this feeling too could be a form of “temporal suspension,” a state in which, as she notes, “your reflections will crop up all over again but as if, on occasion, they’re newly thought.” On the other hand, perhaps her grief and mine are not the same: grief is such a strange blend of the intensely individual and the commonplace, even universal.

Time Lived, Without Its Flow begins with a series of notes recorded at intervals (from two weeks to three years) after her son’s death. They are followed by an analytical postscript that includes comments on some poetic treatments of grief and “temporal distortion”—”this is literary criticism as love,” Max Porter observes in his Afterword. After his own first reading, Porter says, he sat “marvelling that so few pages could have such an impact, could contain so much.” My own reading experience was not so thrilling. I found the essay more abstract than I expected, more conceptual, less immediate; I regretted the same lack of sentimentality Porter admires. Porter calls it “non-fiction burnished to the point of poetic intensity.” It is, but (like Riley’s own poetry) it’s very cerebral—which is not to say it is not often moving and powerful. There are lines in it that will echo in my mind for a long time, especially this one:

Perhaps what’s specific is this: that with the death of your child, your own experience of time may be especially prone to disturbance because the lost life had, so to speak, previously unfurled itself inside your own life.

Commenting on the inevitable return to “a communicable social life and its familiar chronology,” Riley notes that

the cost of recovering your conventional apprehension of flowing time is intolerably high. The dead slip away, as we realize that we have unwillingly left them behind in their timelessness.

How well that explains something I’ve been trying to understand: how being “stuck” in grief can feel preferable to the alternative, which is “a second, now final, loss.” Riley’s concluding vision, though, is a consoling one: a “temporality of love,” in which “the time of the dead is…freshly contained within your own.”

Riley’s collection “Say Something Back” is included in the same NYRB volume as Time Lived, Without Its Flow. Here’s an excerpt I particularly liked from one of its poems, “A Part Song”:

ix

They’d sworn to stay for ever but they went
Or else I went—then concentrated hard
On the puzzle of what it ever truly meant
For someone to be here then, just like that,
To not. Training in mild loss was useless
Given the final thing. And me lamentably
Slow to “take it in”—far better toss it out,
How should I take in such a bad idea. No,
I’ll stick it out instead for presence. If my
Exquisite hope can wrench you right back
Here, resigned boy, do let it as I’m waiting.