The Isolation of Grief

I have a habit of locking doors. It started in my childhood and has persisted ever since. I cannot be in a house or a room without barricading the door. I need to keep the world out, but I inevitably imprison myself in the process. As Woolf writes in A Room of One's Own, "I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in." She's talking about the exclusion of women from institutions of higher learning, about gender and writing and all the places that a woman cannot access. The room Woolf writes about is not so much a physical space as a way of life, a mode of existence. Women do not just need a room of their own, they need the freedom to meander and travel through the larger world. They need unrestricted access to life. 

Several centuries before Woolf wrote her famous manifesto, Julian of Norwich locked herself in a room attached to an English church and dedicated her life to God. She had two windows through which she could sometimes see the world but, beyond that, there was very little contact with either humanity or society. She was a woman completely isolated inside her own mind, vision, and space. She blocked everything out in order to directly access the divine, to go into the depths of her faith and her being. Going in was the only way she could get out.

In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes that "To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest. Being able to travel both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond. This is the expansiveness that sometimes comes literally in a landscape or tugs you out of yourself in a story." Solnit smashes the binary. We don't have to choose between plumbing our  depths or launching ourselves into the world, into everything outside of us, we need both forms of seeking and searching. The trick is finding the balance.

Meditating on what these women have said, I come to the conclusion that I am too within myself, that I need to dig a tunnel out because that's where the light lies, within reach, just outside the cell I've built. There are griefs so annihilating, so all-consuming, that we cannot escape them. I wrote yesterday that my grief is like a skin but it's more like a burning skin, like wearing flesh that is on fire, knowing your life is at risk but you can't extinguish the blaze. The heat and agony trap you, That's what my grief has done to me. I retreat to my rooms. I lock my doors. I maintain some semblance of control and safety even as I am always on the verge of catastrophe, even as I feel death and tragedy so close. Sometimes, I must lock everything out. That's the only way I can survive, it's a necessary part of living--to hide away until you can face life again. I must admit that Julian of Norwich in her small room is appealing to me, not just because female mystics and recluses fascinate me, but because I would like nothing more than to put a wall between myself and the world. So far, I've managed to do that very well.

These days, every time I lock a door, I wonder what exactly I am trying to keep out and what the cost will be. There is value in the self, in cultivating a rich and imaginative inner life, but there is also something deeply satisfying, even essential, about reaching out to others, crossing boundaries, being vulnerable, hearing other stories, trying to understand experiences outside your own, and I fear that my current state of intense, choking grief is depriving me of all this. I am so entrenched in my own perspective, my own memories and fears and experiences that I cannot engage with other narratives. I can't even write book reviews (I'm woefully behind on The Grief Project) because I'm trapped in my own head and habitually relate what I read to my life instead of looking at the text as a whole and using the opportunity to discover someone else's viewpoint. As different as Woolf, Julian of Norwich, and Solnit are, all three women seek what is beyond them but they never sacrifice their own subjectivity in the process. Woolf was able to enter the consciousness of her characters; Julian wrote of the revelations bestowed upon her by God; Solnit weaves together disparate landscapes, ideas, allusions, histories to create rich tapestries of meaning. They alternate between the self and the Other without sacrificing either one. They retreat but they also access something greater than themselves--creativity, the divine, stories. They show how inextricably linked the inner is with the outer, how both are lost if one is discarded, how walls are necessary but so are leaps of faith into the unknown with only your vision to guide you. Not every door needs a lock. Not every room is a prison. And the world outside need not be guarded against but welcomed, embraced, explored.