Archives for category: Loss

I have spent much of my life alone. Mostly by choice. This might suggest that I am a reclusive solitary. I don’t believe so. My world is very often a peopled one. I am, nonetheless, quite content to spend long periods on my own.

Of late, I have been questioning that blurry distinction between aloneness and loneliness. I will be relocating later this year to another city, another continent. London has suited my need to be alone, and I have rarely felt lonely here. But then, being alone, or not, was usually a choice rather than an imposition. My daughter, and only child, is about to leave home. I have lived with her for 19 years, and although our lives are lived increasingly in parallel, her vague presence has no doubt protected me from many potential moments of loneliness.

Heading off to another place and another way of living, aloneness, and perhaps loneliness, may be forced upon me unless I make heroic efforts to ensure otherwise. The evidence suggests, strongly, that the more socially active we are, particularly as we age, the less likely we are to become depressed, and the more likely we are to delay the onset of cognitive impairment, and even possibly dementia.

I have been reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. The tagline for the title is Adventures in the art of being alone, thus suggesting a conflation of both terms, ‘lonely’ and ‘alone’, and an implication that they might be synonymous. I wonder whether I have tried too hard to see them as separate and distinct entities – aloneness being ok, even noble, while loneliness suggests an element of the loser. My own adjudication.

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I am only a third of the way through Laing’s book, an intriguing read thus far that looks to art, both the works and its creators, in an exploration of loneliness, and how inextricably linked it is to the essence of humanity .

Laing reflects that ‘You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people.’

True. I remember after my marriage ended, being acutely aware of my aloneness when witnessing the togetherness of couples and families so omnipresent in the urban setting.

As I read Laing’s thoughts on art, Alice Neel comes to mind. Her painting Loneliness has always resonated with me, signifying an emptiness that being alone can instil, and also now suggesting an intertwining of aloneness and loneliness that I hadn’t hitherto appreciated.

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I also think of poetry, particularly Carol Ann Duffy’s Practising Being Dead, which ends:

‘Nobody hears

your footsteps walking away along the gravel drive.’

I suspect that the arts – music, literature, cinema, theatre – have protected me from loneliness. When I find connection within the words of others, I am in a peopled place.

I have spent many hours over the past years in my little study, which is overcrowded with books. As I begin the process of packing up, I am gradually gifting them to friends and charities.

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It feels a little like losing friends somehow. These shelves have been weighed down by books that have kept me company for many years. The people, thoughts and adventures they contain have transported me to alternate realities, and alongside keeping me company, that have also allowed me to imagine, to dream, and to be hopeful.

Even hopeful enough to consider writing my own book.

 

CQ

 

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I saw this gem at the Camden People’s Theatre last night. Solo performed by Luca Rutherford, it focuses on ‘trying to figure out mortality and accepting our finiteness’. A tall order for 60 minutes, but the performance delivers many riches, particularly in how it challenges us to consider how we might enhance – or even re-define – what we call ‘living’, by changing our perspective on death.

I am instinctively drawn to any forum within the arts where death, and dying, is openly discussed. Having worked clinically within the field of dying, and now living outside it, it amazes me how separate those worlds are. Increasingly, and to be applauded, the arts are addressing this most taboo of subjects.

Thematically drawing on personal experiences of loss and impending loss, Rutherford delivers her thoughts on our finiteness in a uniquely engaging way. She is ‘us’, and thus relatable. We recognise our own thoughts in her outspoken ones. There is little new in the content in that we all know and (theoretically) accept our mortality, but Rutherford manages to give the truisms a fresh resonance. I left challenging my own perspectives on life, death, and the stuff of living, and filled with an optimism that I can do it ‘better’.

We are all dying, but mostly we don’t think in those terms unless death is imminent. At the performance we were all handed a label with a hypothetical number for our remaining alive days. Mine was 111. The challenge was to consider what we might do/change, knowing this fact. It is a intriguing exercise. I am not sure that I personally would change much, apart from supporting my daughter through the process of considering/accepting life without me.

But aside from being told that one’s death is imminent, the fact of our death remains this largely ignored and unacknowledged truism. Rutherford suggests that dying is about more than sadness. I agree. What if we changed our perspective completely, and lived a dying life, one that embraces death, imminent or otherwise? Such a living, defined by an acceptance of death, affords the enhanced ability to appreciate the joys of being alive, right now, this minute, and every minute thereafter.

It is such a curious paradox. We all know that we will die, but the thought is so unbearable for most that we choose to ignore it and to instead live a life that aspires to immortality. And yet, an acknowledgement of our finiteness may actually enrich our living…

Learning How To Die is not a depressing or downbeat show. It is at times poignant and sad, but also funny and uplifting, reassuring and hopeful. Like life itself.

It left me with much to consider.

Go see if you can.

 

CQ

I saw – experienced – Cleansed this week at The National Theatre. For a long time I have wanted to see Kane’s work performed. Yet, having read about audience responses to the current production – walk outs and faintings – I was apprehensive. It was difficult to approach the play objectively; every review that I have seen emphasises both audience reaction to the performance and Kane’s suicide at the age of 28, usually in the first paragraph (as of course have I).

I am glad that I experienced Cleansed. The relentless simulated violence did result in my shutting my eyes on occasion. I find physical violence, here as torture and rape, impossible to willingly witness. I imagine/speculate that Kane used violence metaphorically to reflect extreme psychological suffering, a means of externalising and communicating depths of internal distress that would otherwise remain unseen and unshareable. I can understand this approach, but I still find the use of violence to provoke a reaction problematic. Violence distresses me on a purely visceral level, and I also resent being emotionally manipulated by extreme provocation into ‘feeling’.

In terms of thematic content, I suspect that there are many possible interpretations. For me, Cleansed is about love, loss, and grief – in essence the suffering of humanness – and the impossibility of sharing emotions that threaten to destroy the sufferer. It seems to also question what in our lives, and emotions, is real or imagined, and whether this distinction even matters.

Cleansed was mesmerising and captivating for its entire 100 minutes. I was struck by the beauty of the choreography, which was enhanced by a perfectly chosen soundtrack.

It was a haunting performance, one that it will linger.

 

 

CQ

One of my heroes, the director Patricio Guzman was in London this week for the screening of his latest film The Pearl Button. It has been four years since his harrowing masterpiece Nostalgia for the Light (reviewed here). During that time he has been exploring the Patagonia hinterland of his native Chile.

The Pearl Button bears many of the hallmarks of Guzman’s earlier works. It is extraordinarily – and eerily – beautiful. Sublime feels appropriate. The landscape of Patagonia – the coastline, the ocean itself, the mountains, the lakes – is breathtaking, and the cinematography does it poetic justice and more. Guzman creates a world, interweaving narrative and images, where the history of the indigenous people of Patagonia, and their tragic fate at the hands of invaders and settlers at the beginning of the 20th century, is slowly revealed. Rich in metaphor – water, sky, planets, infinity – The Pearl Button is a story of loss, not only of the Patagonian people and their culture, but more recently – 1970s and 1980s – of those thousands who died during the Pinochet regime, and whose bodies were dumped anonymously forever in the ocean. It is almost impossible to comprehend the cruelty of not only killing loved ones, but to compound the grief of those left behind by deliberately denying them the possibility of burying their dead.

Guzman confers an animate and almost spiritual significance to water. It contains secrets, and ‘colluded’ with the atrocities that Pinochet sought to keep hidden. The exiled Guzman continues his work in The Pearl Button of revealing these secrets, and of exposing the horror of the dictator’s regime.

During the Q&A after the screening, Guzman confirmed that a further film will complete the trilogy, this time about the Andes and its people.

Good news, indeed.

 

CQ

The American writer and essayist David Foster Wallace committed suicide seven years ago, on September 12, 2008. I have just read his wife’s – Karen Green – grief memoir Bough Down, a beautiful and moving collage of poetry, prose and images.

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Green found her husband following his suicide:

‘I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound…’

‘The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.’

Bough Down is a wonderfully strange read, sometimes challenging to follow Green’s train of thought. But perhaps that is how it should be. The experience of grief, and of love, are ultimately subjective and individual, uniquely lived by those affected.

‘It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly.’

‘I have few desires and fewer aims. I dream of standing on the shore and not seeing his ear whorls in every shell.’

Pine, to wither away from longing or grief.’

Green addresses Foster Wallace throughout, Bough Down unfolding as a love soliloquy:

‘I could love another face, but why?’

The depths of Green’s distress are compounded by the nature of his death:

‘I call the doctor: I am suffering, it’s embarrassing, and I need I need I need…The doctor says if you were so quote perfect for me unquote you’d probably still be around, no offense.’

This is a gem of a book, raw, honest, challenging, sad and beautiful.

‘Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth. The tongue worries the phantom root, the mind scans the heart’s chambers to verify its emptiness. There is the thing itself and then there is the predicament of the cavity.’

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CQ

Being able to ‘read’ and to understand the language of pain and suffering is for me an essential life goal.

Below is a link to a recently published personal reflection on how I started on this journey.

http://www.hektoeninternational.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1746

CQ

I have just finished reading Magda Szabo’s Iza’s Ballad. This is the Hungarian writer’s lesser known novel. Her later The Door (1987) first brought her work to the wider attention of the international reading community.

Iza’s Ballad (Pilátus in the original Hungarian) was written much earlier, in 1963, but has only recently appeared in English, translated by George Szirtes.

Szabo immediately draws the reader into a world of grief, its confusions and complexities, through the eyes of the elderly Ettie, whose husband has just died:

‘She felt as if some elemental blow had destroyed everything around her and that only now did she really know what it was to be a widow, someone absolutely abandoned.’

Widowhood brings desolation – ‘her very breath a form of sadness’ – and profound aloneness in a world where ‘the dead did not answer’.

I was reminded of another work of fiction that also has at its core the grief that follows the death of a spouse. In Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster (2014), Nora’s husband has died prematurely, and she is suddenly catapulted into an alienating and isolating world:

‘So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing.’

Tóibín also considers how society deals with the bereaved, highlighting a wider need to have grief ultimately contained, if not annihilated:

‘ “And stop grieving, Nora. The time for that is over. Do you hear me?” ‘

In an article on the topic of grief and literature by Tóibín shortly after the publication of Nora Webster, the author draws our attention to other works that exemplify the theme, including Mary Lavin’s The Widow’s Son, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Anne Carson’s Grief Lessons, CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, and Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life [http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/02/colm-toibin-literature-of-grief].

I have just re-read Barnes’s Levels of Life. The writer’s wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, died within 37 days – ‘from a summer to an autumn’ – of diagnosis of a brain tumour. The final chapter of the book – The Loss of Depth – deals specifically with Barnes’s grief following Kavanagh’s death:

‘And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.’

And:

‘Grief reconfigures time, its length, its texture, its function: one day means no more than the next, so why have they been picked out and given separate names? It also reconfigures space. You have entered a new geography, mapped by a new cartography.’

Barnes addresses the difference between grief and mourning:

‘Grief is vertical – and vertiginous – while mourning is horizontal.’

He concludes:

‘And so, perhaps, with grief. We imagine we have battled against it, been purposeful, overcome sorrow, scrubbed the rust from our soul, when all that has happened is that grief has moved elsewhere, shifted its interest.’

There are very many works of literature  – fiction, non-fiction, poetry – that hold grief as the central theme. A list of such works, like grief itself, can never be finite, or closed. Grief touches all our lives, an essential and unavoidable component of the lived experience. Within the words of those who have chosen to share such experiences we might come to discover a kindred compassion and empathy that goes some way towards defining our humanness and our salvation.

CQ

I have previously spoken about Clive James’s poetry here (https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/poem-for-today-by-clive-james/).

I am a fan.

In recent years, his compositions focus largely on death and dying – he has leukaemia and emphysema – and he has chosen to speak openly about his own personal experience (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/18/clive-james-japanese-maple-dying-valedictory-farewell).

From Leçons De Ténèbres:

‘But are they lessons, all these things I learn

Through being so far gone in my decline?’

‘…I should have been more kind. It is my fate

To find this out, but find it out too late.’

‘… But now I have slowed down. I breathe the air

As if there were not much more of it there

And write these poems, which are funeral songs

That have been taught to me by vanished time…’

 

The New Yorker recently published James’s poem Japanese Maple, which continues the now established theme in his current work:

‘Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact…’

 

It ends:

‘My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.

What I must do

Is live to see that. That will end the game

For me, though life continues all the same:

 

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colors will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.’

 

Yet, although James so consciously and explicitly speaks of his own increasingly imminent death, I do not find his words maudlin or despondent. Sad, yes, but also hopeful. He does not bemoan his fate. On the contrary:

“Even with my health, things could have been worse. It could have hurt, for example, and it didn’t. So I haven’t got all that much to be miserable about.

“I like to think I have a sunny nature, but a sunny nature doesn’t last long if you’re in real pain. I’ve just been lucky.”

(http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-27587898)

 

CQ

 

 

 

I love Sebastian Barry’s writing. His prose is so lyrical and poetic, you do not want to miss a single word. Having enjoyed The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side, I very much looked forward to his new novel, The Temporary Gentleman. I read it in less than 24 hours and was not disappointed.

In many ways, it reminded me of John Williams Stoner as it also tells the life story – a tragic life story – of one man and his family. It differs in many ways also, not least because The Temporary Gentleman is narrated in the first person of the main character, Jack.

We follow Jack’s story as he begins, in his 50s or so, the retrospective diary of his life. It is a sad and mostly regretful life, not least because alcohol dominated throughout. It is this that I want to focus on here, how Barry depicts the tragic effects of alcoholism. The Irish and alcohol are intimately and historically interconnected, but Barry does not default to stereotyping. The tone throughout is empathic rather than judgemental, as the situation in which Jack and his wife Mai inescapably find themselves unfolds:

‘It was as if the bricks and mortar of the house itself were saturated in alcohol.’

‘To remember drunkenness is so difficult because it is really a form of human absence, a maelstrom that blanks out the landscape.’

Behind the alcohol is the story of a couple who have lost each other, and who fleetingly regain something in the shared camaraderie of drinking. But as drink follows drink, the inebriated state again turns them into enemies:

‘But the savagery, the gear of savagery. The subtle metallic click of the machinery, when the rack is brought to the starting point, and the ropes are tied to the body.’

‘The terrifying eloquence of the barely articulate drinker. Insults, that might have done as well in the form of a knife, fashioned into a great bludgeon, for fear it would not strike home…

…Turning ourselves night after night into monsters, the creations of some failed Frankenstein…

..Nothing left at the centre but the cinder of what had been, splinters of the lost panel depicting out setting forth nearly thirty years before, in heroic guise, on this darkening journey.’

‘In the morning — nothing ever mentioned.’

The darkness is infinite and the black hole in which Jack and Mai find themselves is bottomless. But there is redemption here, of sorts. And love. The Temporary Gentleman is perhaps not an uplifting read, but a necessary one.

 

CQ

The Spanish-Argentinian writer’s most recent novel has three narrators, 10 year old Lito, his mother Elena and his father Mario. Mario is dying, and the three contemporaneous voices tell the story of this experience from their own personal perspectives, the stories sometimes running in parallel, sometimes tangential. This is a wonderful book, which somehow manages to capture in just 160 or so pages the individuality and the heterogeneity of our approaches to life, heightened here in the face of dying and death.

We are first introduced to Lito as he embarks on a road trip with his dad. Mario wanted to do this trip with his son, at least once, just like his own father had once done with him. Mario is clearly already very ill, and just about manages to complete the journey. There are no deep and meaningful father-son chats during the trip. The opposite in fact, as Mario has deliberately chosen not to tell Lito that he is dying, or even that he is seriously ill. Later, when Mario has been admitted to hospital for the last time, Lito is sent to his grandparents. From here, Mario, at this point very near death, questions whether keeping his son in the dark has been the right thing to do:

‘you’re at your grandparents’ and you don’t know why, we’ve sent you there until the end of the holidays, I’m meant to be travelling, we talk every day, I try to sound cheerful, am I deceiving you, son?, yes, I’m deceiving you, am I doing the right thing?, I’ve no idea, so let’s assume I am, I prefer you not to see me like this…’

Instinctively, one feels that the lies were a mistake, but it perhaps easy for someone outside the tragedy within which the family find themselves to make a cold-blooded judgement call. Lies beget more lies, which become increasingly complex and entangled the longer they are allowed to continue. After his father’s death, which Lito has been told was the result of a road traffic accident, Elena reports:

‘He asks me how such a big truck could get crushed. I tell him sometimes big things break more. He asks me why Pedro [his father’s truck] looks the same as before, if he had such a big accident. I tell him his uncle did a really good job fixing him up in the workshop.’

Mostly, Lito’s voice is simply that of a 10 year old child, caught in the reality of his own day to day life, which is, at least until the moment of his father’s death, uncomplicated by anxieties for the future, and still in possession of a naivety that allows life to continue unquestioned despite the fact that the worlds of those around him are collapsing.

In Mario’s chapters, he speaks directly to his son, as if writing letters to be read posthumously. Yet, despite this direct address, Mario already seems detached, not quite present. Perhaps the lack of punctuation in his chapters contribute to this, with the text flowing as a stream of consciousness away from him, as his strength and life progressively ebb from reach. Much of what he touches on seems too painful to stay with. Speaking of the lie that hangs around the story he and Elena have concocted for Lito about his illness:

‘…I’d give anything to know what’s going to happen to this lie, what you’ll think of me when you discover it, you’ll have a few photos of me…but I have no way of seeing you, I mean will you be a nice guy or a rogue…’

Reflections on suffering and the aftermath of being given his prognosis are particularly moving:

‘…the worst of it is that I’ve learnt nothing from all of this, what I feel is bitterness, before…I though suffering was of some use…a bit of suffering in exchange for a conclusion…crap, it’s all crap…’

‘…from the moment they diagnose you, the world immediately splits in two, the camp of the living and the camp of those who are soon going to die, everyone starts treating you like you’re no longer a member of their club, you belong to the other club now, as soon as I realized this I didn’t want to say anything to anyone, I didn’t want pity…’

‘…I don’t want to touch anything that’s part of my body, everything in my body is my enemy now, this is what it is to be dead.’

For me, the most captivating voice was that of Elena. She raises many issues around the witnessing of dying, and the complexity of emotions, which can be contradictory and inconsistent, that can accompany this experience. Elena’s chapters are a rich source of references to authors who has written around the subject, as she questions what is happening to Mario and to all their lives in the face of his dying.

Quoting John Banville, Elena speaks of the effect of Mario’s diagnosis:

“It was as if a secret had been imparted to us dirty, so nasty, that we could hardly bear to remain in another’s company yet were unable to break free”

“From that day forward all would be dissembling. There would be no other way to live with death”

Elena also speaks of the divisiveness of serious illness, how it has distanced herself from Mario, at times even alienating each from the other:

‘It drives me crazy when Mario assumes that controlling attitude of his. As though illness depended on our level of composure. Mario is brave, his brothers keep repeated like parrots. If he were as brave as all that, he would weep with me each time we speak.’

‘When I go into the room, dressed in clothes he likes, my hair styled for him, I can sense resentment in his eyes. As though my liveliness offended him.’

So much of the loss around death and dying can happen before physical death itself:

‘By avoiding the subject of his death, Mario delegates it to me, he kills me a little.’

‘By caring for our sick person, we are protecting their present. A present in the name of the past. What am I protecting of myself? This is where the future comes in…For Mario it is inconceivable. He can’t even speculate about it. The future: not its prediction but the simple possibility of it. In other words, its true liberty. That is what the illness kills off before killing off the sick.’

‘For us carers, the future widens like an all-engulfing crater. In the centre is already someone missing. Illness as a meteorite.’

Inevitably, the aftermath rests with Elena:

‘If death interrupts all dialogues, it is only natural to write posthumous letters. Letters to the one who isn’t there. Because he isn’t. So that he is. Maybe that is what all writing is.’

As Elena looks at photos of Mario when he was well, she questions the truth of what we remember:

‘Looking at you again when you were beautiful, I wonder whether I am celebrating or denying you. Whether I am recalling you as you actually were or forgetting you when you were sick. Reflecting about it today…the biggest injustice about your illness was the feeling that this man was no longer you, that you were gone. But you weren’t: he, this, was my man. Your worn-out body. The last of you.’

A gem of a book, which haunts and lingers…

 

CQ