Two types of losses

At the beginning of Lent I decided to subscribe to the Lent Daily Reflections by the World Community for Christian Meditation. I am glad that I did, because they have contained many inspiring thoughts alongside some gentle, wholesome counsel.

Today’s reflection (Friday of Lent Week 4) talks about the anguish of loss, making the helpful distinction between two types of losses. One is described as the deliverance from an addiction or a compulsive delusion, which, while very much experienced as a loss at the time, in the end leads to freedom and a life lived with renewed vigour. The second type, on the other hand, is a ‘genuine death experience that drags us into a vortex of surrendering to something vaster than we can control’.

Experience of the second type, which they describe as ‘major surgery with a strong anaesthetic that puts us out’, can take a long time to heal and integrate and can change your life forever. It probably will!

Best Reads 2013. IV: Anne Tyler, The Beginner’s Goodbye

Anne Tyler, The Beginner's GoodbyeYou probably wouldn’t read Anne Tyler for the plots of her novels. It’s not that nothing happens at all, though it would be fair to say that nothing much tends to happen. In any case, the plot is not what makes her books special. So why would you read Anne Tyler? Characterisation, I’d say, it’s all about characterisation.

The Beginner’s Goodbye is a novel about love and loss, grief and also, eventually, hope. When Aaron, an intriguing character, who stammers and suffers from the effects of polio, loses his wife (and house) in a freak accident, he finds his life drained of purpose and meaning.

The story is told from his perspective, the perspective of quite an ordinary kind of guy. And this, for me, is what makes the book special. Tyler deftly avoids the trap that all too many writers have fallen into, of using their characters as mouthpieces for their philosophical reflections, reflections that can easily become too sophisticated for the characters that are made to think and share all those amazing insights. Aaron is not cast in that way. Yes, he does offer us his reflections on life, love, grief and lots of other things (how could he not after all that’s happened to him?), but there is an ordinariness about him that makes him utterly real and believable.

Tyler has once again excelled at characterisation and come up with yet another very gentle book, to mention another one of her trademarks. Here are some of the little gems that Aaron dispenses:

… I had first tried to do without her – to ‘get over’ my loss, ‘find closure,’ ‘move on,’ all those ridiculous phrases people use when they’re urging you to endure the unendurable.

‘Reading is the first to go,’ my mother used to say, meaning that it was a luxury the brain dispensed with under duress.

That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.

As it turns out, Aaron grieves the loss of a marriage that had been far from perfect. It doesn’t get much more real than that, does it?

Divine love is incessantly restless

Some quotes from Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes to complement my previous post:

The starting point for many things is grief, at the place where endings seem so absolute.

Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, all embarrassment into laughter. In biblical faith, brokenness is never celebrated as an end in itself.

God can only be met in emptiness, by those who come in love, abandoning all effort to control …

… tragedy in one’s personal life can be trusted as a gift of God’s unfailing presence far more than trances, raptures, or visions received in so-called mystical experiences.

Referring to Moses’ and Elijah’s experience of God, Lane comments:

In both cases, their ‘seeing’ of God on the mountain was but an interlude in an ongoing struggle, given at a time when the absence of God seemed for them most painfully real. Transfiguration is a hidden, apocalyptic event, offering to those facing anguish a brief glimpse of glory to come. It incorporates a theology of hope into a theology of abandonment and loss.

‘When anyone escapes, my heart leaps up’ – Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap

Sharon Olds, Stag’s LeapStag’s Leap by Sharon Olds is a book of poetry, written after her husband had left her for another woman. I picked this up the other day because (a) I needed something to read over lunch, (b) the subject matter intrigued me, (c) the blurb had succeeded in deepening my interest, (d) the book has won the T. S. Eliot Prize 2012 and (e) I felt like buying a poetry book (I actually bought two as it happens, but that’s a story for another day). Olds’s book also reminded me of Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, which similarly won the T. S. Eliot Prize, deals with the loss of a husband, is published by Cape Poetry and which I had enjoyed.

Stag’s Leap then. This is a sequence of poems (though not quite a narrative poem in the sense of Carson’s Autobiography of Red) divided into six parts – January–December, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, Years Later – in which Olds reflects on love, the body, sex, loss, betrayal, divorce, pain, grief, anger, hatred ….

There are many poignant moments in these poems, but the earlier reflections in ‘January–December’ and ‘Winter’ moved me the most.

Now I come back to look at love
in a new way, now that I know I’m not
standing in its light. …

I am not here – to stand in his thirty-year
sight, and not in love’s sight,
I feel an invisibility

In the absence of love, Olds reflects, all that remains is ‘courtesy and horror’.

And yet, despite the horror and the pain, there are admirable expressions of tenderness and love even at the moment of separation:

In the last minute of our marriage, I looked into
his eyes. All that day until then, I had been
comforting him, for the shock he was in
at his pain – the act of leaving me
took him back, to his own early
losses. But now it was time to go beyond
comfort, to part. …

Olds finds it possible to think back on how blessed her life had been, partly because she had been able to love and had not lost her husband while he still loved her.

Here is another surprising and rather touching revelation:

… When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from,
I am half on the side of the leaver. …

The poems talk about Olds’s shame at having been left by the one who knew her best. She notes how every hour is a ‘room of shame’ but also how there’s a ‘being of sheer hate’ inside her and how, since it cannot harm him, she can wound him, in her dream.

And she reflects on having lived with an idea, an illusion of her former husband, whom she did not truly see or know.

‘Years later’, she says:

… Maybe I’m half over who he
was, but not who I thought he was, and not
over the wound, sudden deathblow
as if out of nowhere, though it came from the core
of our life together. …

Even so, she can’t let go of him yet but holds him on a string, watching her idea of him pull away yet stay, her ‘silver kite’.

These poems poignantly express the conflicting emotions experienced in the wake of betrayal and loss.

Best Reads 2013. II: Connie Palmen, I. M.: Ischa Meijer. In Margine. In Memoriam

Connie Palmen, I. M.: Ischa Meijer. In Margine. In MemoriamIn February 1991 Dutch author Connie Palmen is interviewed by the well-known talk show host and journalist Ischa Meijer. It is a meeting that changes the course of their lives, and what ensues is a relationship that is not easily matched for intensity. In this stunning and admirably honest autobiographical work Palmen reflects on their love and brokenness. And she gives us insights into the working habits and practices of two writers, whose approaches to their work couldn’t have been more different but who nonetheless profited immensely from what was an intensely symbiotic relationship.

This is also a book about travel, especially in North America, which Palmen and Meijer both adored, and it is a heart-rending and very honest account of loss and grief, because in 1995 Meijer dies from a sudden heart attack. Palmen devotes only the last forty pages to her struggle to come to terms with her loss and grief, but these are poignant pages indeed. My quotes from Palmen’s reflections come from this final part of her book:

Und inmitten dieses lautlosen Tumults lernte ich meinen Gott kennen, der in mir geboren wurde und der, so versicherte Er mir selbst, schon immer dagewesen war. Er verband mich mit allen Zeiten und allen Menschen, tot oder lebendig.

(And in the midst of this soundless tumult I got to know my God, who was born within me and who, so he ensured me himself, had always been there. He connected me with all times and all people, dead or alive.)

Sucht ist eine Freundschaft ohne Freund. Du suchst, was in unmittelbarer Nähe und greifbar ist. Eine Zigarette ist ein Halt, ein Halt, der verbrennt. Der größte Vorzug einer Schachtel Marlboro ist, daß sie dich nicht betrügen kann, dich nicht verlassen kann, daß sie niemals aufhören wird, dich zu lieben, und natürlich, daß sie nicht sterben kann. Das ist die Essenz einer Sucht, glaube ich. Du umgehst die Risiken, die du bei einer Liebe oder Freundschaft notgedrungen eingehst, weil du sonst keine Liebe und keine Freundschaft hättest.

(Addiction is a friendship without a friend. You search for something that is close and tangible. A cigarette is a foothold, a foothold that is consumed by fire. The biggest advantage of a box of Marlboro is that it cannot betray you, cannot leave you, that it will never stop loving you and, of course, that it cannot die. That is the essence of an addiction, I believe. You avoid the risks that you inevitably run in the case of love or friendship, because otherwise you wouldn’t have love or friendship.)

Ich mache die Trauer zur Vollzeitbeschäftigung.

(I am turning grief into a full-time occupation.)

Ich denke wie verrückt, aber es nützt mir nichts.

(I am thinking like mad, but it is to no avail.)

Gutes, Amüsantes und Schönes läßt mich leiden, weil ich es allein sehen muß, es nicht mit ihm teilen und dadurch verdoppeln kann, weil er nicht mehr genießen kann, was ich genieße.

(Good, amusing and beautiful things make me suffer, because I have to see them on my own, can’t share them with him, thus redoubling them, because he can’t enjoy anymore what I am enjoying.)

And so I’m hooked. Rumi (as mediated by Coleman Barks)

Having come across Rumi a few times in references by several writers, I was finally persuaded to give him a go when a woman I met on a recent trip to Chicago recommended him most enthusiastically. And so I began reading him. And so I’m hooked.

But am I really reading Rumi, or am I reading Coleman Barks, in whose translation I am currently encountering him? For Barks does not read Persian and thus can only work from literal, scholarly transcriptions. And he has apparently taken not a few liberties in creating poems that feature, in the words of Franklin Lewis (in Rumi: Past, Present, East and West. The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rumi), ‘a modern American idiom’ and present Rumi’s originally ‘rhythmic and perhaps even trance-like’ poetry as free verse.

Does this really matter though? Well, yes and no, I suppose. Yes in that, as again Lewis points out, Barks, due to his lack of Persian, sometimes misunderstands the original while also teleporting the poems out of their cultural and Islamic context into a modern ecumenical American one. Yet I do believe Barks is right to claim that Rumi would have wanted his poems to resonate with audiences from a different culture. And in Barks’s translation they do, which is why I’m hooked. Would I have been as interested if I had encountered Rumi in wooden, literal transcriptions? Probably not.

There is one thing that worries me a little though. According to Lewis, Barks has turned this ‘poet of overpowering longing, [who is] trying to grope through his acute and shattering sense of loss’, into a serene dispenser of wisdom. That frenetically searching poet I would have liked to meet, but I’m hooked regardless. And Barks does give us beautiful poetry.