Mark Doty - The Embrace

You weren't well or really ill yet either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.

I didn't for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You'd been out--at work maybe?--
having a good day, almost energetic.

We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we'd lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of the narrative

by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual look
of you? Without a photograph, without strain?

So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of you--warm brown tea--we held
each other for the time the dream allowed.

Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.

Tori Amos on Grief

I've written about my love for Tori Amos's music and how it's helped me survive the death of my father. I intend to write more about Amos in the future, especially how she copes with grief and loss on the album The Beekeeper, but right now I want to share a quote from an interview Amos recently gave to The Guardian. Her first musical, The Light Princess, is set to premiere later this month, and the story explores the subject of grief.

I think everyone understands grief, the journey it takes us on, whether it's the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, a disappointment. Some people don't deal with it, the power of it. Some do. Some feel the weight of it and it informs their choices. I've had to open up to grief in different contexts.

Marie Howe - What the Living Do

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

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.


A Powerful Monument of National Mourning

Images and text via isqineeha




This is a draft sketch that elaborates the thought process of Iraqi architect and artist Rifat Chadirji’s when producing the design for the “Unknown Soldier Monument” in Baghdad in 1959. The draft is divided into four stages:
The mother Wailing
She tries to pick up her son
The mother bends to embrace him
She plants her hands and feet in the soil and remains such.
The monument was completed in the early 1960s and was meant to represent the lives Iraqis lost fighting for their freedom and their country. In 1981 however, the monument was destroyed by the Iraqi government after the completion of Khaled Al Rahal’s “Monument to the Unknown Soldier” in 1980. The square which the destroyed monument was erected at, Al Ferdaws Square, became the location for a new statue of Saddam Hussein, the one we all witnessed the Americans branding Iraq’s modern history with shame when they covered it with the US flag as they were trying to pull it down. For the past 10 years, the Iraqi government have been contemplating reconstructing Chadirji’s monument, however, no actual steps have been taken towards that reconstruction.

Suzanne Scanlon on Karen Green's 'Bough Down'

At The Millions, Suzanne Scanlon wrote a complex, astonishing, and must-read review of Karen Green's Bough Down. I'm still processing the review, thinking about it, coming to terms with it, trying not to give up writing completely because Scanlon managed to write about grief in a way that I wish I could: with depth and nuance and ferocity:

6. 1992: I’m in the classroom for the first day of Death in Modern Fiction; my professor explains the focus of the course and its title this way: “I had to admit to myself — all of my favorite books are about death.”
Now I am able to put something important into words: All of my favorite books are about death.
7. 2013: My dad’s only sister, my beloved Aunt Mimi, dies on the first day of the year; one year earlier my dad suffers a near fatal heart attack. I hold his hand as a former priest administers last rites. I find myself reading what I can now identify as an important genre, which I begin to term Grief Memoirs: David Rieff on Susan SontagManguso on a friend who jumped in front of a train, Meghan O’Rourke on her mother, de Beauvoir on her mother — books written by, for lack of a better word, survivors: children, parents, spouses, friends. Books written through or beyond grief.
[...]
 13. Green’s text proffers — and refuses — to give voice to the howl of grief; to the self that will not Get Over It, that will not find solace in death’s beautiful tug, that never learned to Move On. As she puts it: “I could love another face, but why?”
14. Anyone who has ever loved and lost — which is to say, anyone who has lived long enough — knows that to move on, to let go, is to (a) betray the one who has gone and (b) betray the validity of the void. The rousing daily chorus of our cultural voices of self-help, the paeans to Good-Living like to proclaim Carpe Diem and so on — an erasure or coercion that reinforces the isolation, the alienation of grief, which is part of what we wish to deny about being human — not a linear process so much as an undoing.
If life isn’t about loss and separation — about a realization that we hurt people we love and need, that we bear grief and guilt — then I don’t know what it’s about.

Thinking About My Father

My father is no longer simply my father. Over the years, he's come to represent a variety of things in my life. He is the unknown, he is death, he is the shadow haunting my consciousness, the embodiment of everything I love and fear. He is the void we all come from and to which we all return. He is my first love, my first devastation, my loss of innocence. He is my death. He is silence and nothingness.  He is a myth, a memory, a bundle of atoms that will return to the cosmos.

I think of him now more than I ever have before. Often, he is even a distraction. I focus on him when I cannot deal with the present and all its worries, frustrations, and pressures. The grief is familiar and yet still intense, it takes me away, I am lost in it. It's the only thing I know. I don't know where he is or why death exists but I know this loss. I'll never be free of it. It's like my skin and you can't remove your skin.

I don't know if I can call this a life anymore. It feels like suspended animation. I can't go back, but I can't go forward. I can't move. I keep waiting for something to happen. I keep waking up, pushing the fear aside, surviving, but no matter what I do I cannot truly participate in the world around me or find the energy to make any substantial contribution. I'm here, but I'm not really alive.

Writing Loss

Thinking about silence, about the fact that I haven't written in my journal in months and how disconnected from myself this makes me feel. I've forced myself into this role of writer. I've put myself out there as someone who needs to articulate my loss, grief, pain, but I'm so worn down, so drained, so inadequate. Do I simply have nothing to say?

I expose myself. I confess these terrible feelings and memories. I'm trying to construct a narrative where one does not exist.  I'm trying to describe a void, an absence. And yet I fear that I will die without writing what is inside me. It might be my greatest fear next to death itself. I think of all the hours and days I've wasted not writing, not putting down one word. There has to be a space in between silence and shrieking. There has to be a purging, a reckoning, a healing and it can only come through the transformation of grief into language.

But grief cannot be put into words. It just can't. So I have to come to terms with the wordlessness and the silence in my own writing, how what I am reaching, searching, longing for can never be touched. It's the lack of resolution and closure that I seek to express.

I Will Be With You Again

I tend to remember the quiet moments with my father--the two of us watching television together, walking in the park, being in one another's presence. I can't recount whole conversations. Sometimes, I remember a joke. I wish I had more of his words. He remains a mystery to me.

As the years pass, my memory softens and blurs. I forget details and context. I know I will keep losing him. Loss never ends.

A moment I clearly recall is the two of us discussing U2. We shared a love for their music. I remember asking him what his favorite U2 song was. He said New Year's Day. I cherish that fact about him: a song he loved. You see, I can't ask him now. I can't write out a list of all his favorite songs. I will never know that about him. But I have this one song and it's become an important part of my life. Every time I listen to it, I think of him. The chorus devastates me:

I will be with you again
I will be with you again

I want to believe those words. I want to believe I will see him again but the terrible truth is that I won't. Somehow, though, the song creates a kind of reunion for me. When I listen to it, I am with him once more, if only in my mind.