MattAndJojang's Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Grief

Between Solitude and Loneliness

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solitude-e1529987972633.jpg

Illustration: Antoine Maillard

At eighty-seven, I am solitary. I live by myself on one floor of the 1803 farmhouse where my family has lived since the Civil War. After my grandfather died, my grandmother Kate lived here alone. Her three daughters visited her. In 1975, Kate died at ninety-seven, and I took over. Forty-odd years later, I spend my days alone in one of two chairs. From an overstuffed blue chair in my living room I look out the window at the unpainted old barn, golden and empty of its cows and of Riley the horse. I look at a tulip; I look at snow. In the parlor’s mechanical chair, I write these paragraphs and dictate letters. I also watch television news, often without listening, and lie back in the enormous comfort of solitude. People want to come visit, but mostly I refuse them, preserving my continuous silence. Linda comes two nights a week. My two best male friends from New Hampshire, who live in Maine and Manhattan, seldom drop by. A few hours a week, Carole does my laundry and counts my pills and picks up after me. I look forward to her presence and feel relief when she leaves. Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns.

Born in 1928, I was an only child. During the Great Depression, there were many of us, and Spring Glen Elementary School was eight grades of children without siblings. From time to time I made a friend during childhood, but friendships never lasted long. Charlie Axel liked making model airplanes out of balsa wood and tissue. So did I, but I was clumsy and dripped cement onto wing paper. His models flew. Later, I collected stamps, and so did Frank Benedict. I got bored with stamps. In seventh and eighth grade, there were girls. I remember lying with Barbara Pope on her bed, fully clothed and apart while her mother looked in at us with anxiety. Most of the time, I liked staying alone after school, sitting in the shadowy living room. My mother was shopping or playing bridge with friends; my father added figures in his office; I daydreamed.

In summer, I left my Connecticut suburb to hay with my grandfather, on this New Hampshire farm. I watched him milk seven Holsteins morning and night. For lunch I made myself an onion sandwich—a thick slice between pieces of Wonder Bread. I’ve told of this sandwich before.

At fifteen, I went to Exeter for the last two years of high school. Exeter was academically difficult and made Harvard easy, but I hated it—five hundred identical boys living two to a room. Solitude was scarce, and I labored to find it. I took long walks alone, smoking cigars. I found myself a rare single room and remained there as much as I could, reading and writing. Saturday night, the rest of the school sat in the basketball arena, deliriously watching a movie. I remained in my room in solitary pleasure.

At college, dormitory suites had single and double bedrooms. For three years, I lived in one bedroom crowded with everything I owned. During my senior year, I managed to secure a single suite: bedroom and sitting room and bath. At Oxford, I had two rooms to myself. Everybody did. Then I had fellowships. Then I wrote books. Finally, to my distaste, I had to look for a job. With my first wife–people married young back then; we were twenty and twenty-three–I settled in Ann Arbor, teaching English literature at the University of Michigan. I loved walking up and down in the lecture hall, talking about Yeats and Joyce or reading aloud the poems of Thomas Hardy and Andrew Marvell. These pleasures were hardly solitary, but at home I spent the day in a tiny attic room, working on poems. My extremely intelligent wife was more mathematical than literary. We lived together and we grew apart. For the only time in my life, I cherished social gatherings: Ann Arbor’s culture of cocktail parties. I found myself looking forward to weekends, to crowded parties that permitted me distance from my marriage. There were two or three such occasions on Friday and more on Saturday, permitting couples to migrate from living room to living room. We flirted, we drank, we chatted–without remembering on Sunday what we said Saturday night.

After sixteen years of marriage, my wife and I divorced.

For five years I was alone again, but without the comfort of solitude. I exchanged the miseries of a bad marriage for the miseries of bourbon. I dated a girlfriend who drank two bottles of vodka a day. I dated three or four women a week, occasionally three in a day. My poems slackened and stopped. I tried to think that I lived in happy license. I didn’t.

Jane Kenyon was my student. She was smart, she wrote poems, she was funny and frank in class. I knew she lived in a dormitory near my house, so one night I asked her to housesit while I attended an hour-long meeting. (In Ann Arbor, it was the year of breaking and entering.) When I came home, we went to bed. We enjoyed each other, libertine liberty as much as pleasures of the flesh. Later I asked her to dinner, which in 1970 always included breakfast. We saw each other once a week, still dating others, then twice a week, then three or four times a week, and saw no one else. One night, we spoke of marriage. Quickly we changed the subject, because I was nineteen years older and, if we married, she would be a widow so long. We married in April, 1972. We lived in Ann Arbor three years, and in 1975 left Michigan for New Hampshire. She adored this old family house.

For almost twenty years, I woke before Jane and brought her coffee in bed. When she rose, she walked Gus the dog. Then each of us retreated to a workroom to write, at opposite ends of our two-story house. Mine was the ground floor in front, next to Route 4. Hers was the second floor in the rear, beside Ragged Mountain’s old pasture. In the separation of our double solitude, we each wrote poetry in the morning. We had lunch, eating sandwiches and walking around without speaking to each other. Afterward, we took a twenty-minute nap, gathering energy for the rest of the day, and woke to our daily sex. Afterward I felt like cuddling, but Jane’s climax released her into energy. She hurried from bed to workroom.

For several hours afterward, I went back to work at my desk. Late in the afternoon, I read aloud to Jane for an hour. I read Wordsworth’s “Prelude,” Henry James’s “The Ambassadors” twice, the Old Testament, William Faulkner, more Henry James, seventeenth-century poets. Before supper I drank a beer and glanced at The New Yorker while Jane cooked, sipping a glass of wine. Slowly she made a delicious dinner—maybe veal cutlets with mushroom-and-garlic gravy, maybe summer’s asparagus from the bed across the street—then asked me to carry our plates to the table while she lit the candle. Through dinner we talked about our separate days.

Summer afternoons we spent beside Eagle Pond, on a bite-sized beach among frogs, mink, and beaver. Jane lay in the sun, tanning, while I read books in a canvas sling chair. Every now and then, we would dive into the pond. Sometimes, for an early supper, we broiled sausage on a hibachi. After twenty years of our remarkable marriage, living and writing together in double solitude, Jane died of leukemia at forty-seven, on April 22, 1995.

Now it is April 22, 2016, and Jane has been dead for more than two decades. Earlier this year, at eighty-seven, I grieved for her in a way I had never grieved before. I was sick and thought I was dying. Every day of her dying, I stayed by her side—a year and a half. It was miserable that Jane should die so young, and it was redemptive that I could be with her every hour of every day. Last January I grieved again, this time that she would not sit beside me as I died.

–Donald Hall

 

Written by MattAndJojang

June 26, 2018 at 12:36 pm

Longing for the Beloved

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Grieving Mary, by Fra Angelico, c.1437–1446, Museo San Marco, Florence

At night on my bed I longed for my only love.
I sought him, but did not find him.
I must rise and go about the city,
the narrow streets and squares, till I find my only love.
I sought him everywhere but I could not find him.

—Song of Songs 3:1–2

THE FIRE OF SEPARATION

There is a longing that burns at the root of spiritual practice. This is the fire that fuels your journey. The romantic suffering you pretend to have grown out of, that remains coiled like a serpent beneath the veneer of maturity. You have studied the sacred texts. You know that separation from your divine source is an illusion. You subscribe to the philosophy that there is nowhere to go and nothing to attain, because you are already there and you already possess it.

But what about this yearning? What about the way a poem by Rilke or Rumi breaks open your heart and triggers a sorrow that could consume you if you gave in to it? You’re pretty sure this is not a matter of mere psychology. It has little to do with unresolved issues of childhood abandonment, or codependent tendencies to falsely place the source of your wholeness outside yourself. The longing is your recognition of the deepest truth that God is love and that this is all you want. Every lesser desire melts when it comes near that flame.

You realize that not everyone experiences this. For some people, the spiritual journey is not so dramatic. It’s less about the overwhelming desire for union with some invisible Beloved than it is about quietly waking up. It’s about developing compassion, rather than suffering passion. There are people who never doubt that God is with them, and so there is nothing to long for.

But there are those, like you, who have felt the Divine move like an ocean inside them, and, incapable of sustaining an unbroken relationship with that vastness, feel they have been banished to the desert when the wave recedes. There is a tribe of holy lovers, who have tasted the glorious sweetness that lies on the other side of yearning, when the boundaries of the separate self momentarily melt into the One, before the cold wind of ordinary consciousness blows through again, and restores your individuality. You would risk everything to rekindle that annihilating fire. You would leave your shoes at the door and run after the cosmic flute player, if only you could hear that music one more time.

You give up everything for one glimpse of the Beloved’s face. You sneak into his chamber in the middle of the night and say, “Here I am. Ravish me.” But when you awake the next morning, swooning and alone, you realize you missed the entire encounter. You throw your clay cup on the cobblestones and it shatters. You thought you would marry, bear babies, make a career in broadcasting. You wander city streets during siesta hour and wonder where he is sleeping. Your longing and your satisfaction are reciprocal. The moan of separation is the cry of union…

 

Death has been my own gateway to the numinous. I did not pick this path. I have simply experienced an unusual number of tragic losses, which propelled me to plunge into spiritual practice as if my life depended on it, which in many ways it did. As the years went by, death after death continued to reveal traces of grace. As long as I can remember, my sorrow has been the catalyst for my longing for God.

Yet the inner harvest these multiple losses yielded did not prepare me for the avalanche that would sweep through my life, annihilating everything in its path. The year I turned forty, the day my first book came out, a translation of Dark Night of the Soul by the sixteenth-century Spanish saint John of the Cross, my fourteen-year-old daughter, Jenny, was killed in a car crash.

Suddenly, the sacred fire I had been chasing all my life engulfed me. I was plunged into the abyss, instantaneously dropped into the vast stillness and pulsing silence at which all my favorite mystics hint. So shattered I could not see my own hand in front of my face, I was suspended in the invisible arms of a Love I had only dreamed of. Immolated, I found myself resting in fire. Drowning, I surrendered, and discovered I could breathe under water.

So this was the state of profound suchness I had been searching for during all those years of contemplative practice. This was the holy longing the saints had been talking about in poems that had broken my heart again and again. This was the sacred emptiness that put that small smile on the faces of the great sages. And I hated it. I didn’t want vastness of being. I wanted my baby back.

But I discovered that there was nowhere to hide when radical sorrow unraveled the fabric of my life. I could rage against the terrible unknown—and I did, for I am human and have this vulnerable body, passionate heart, and complicated mind—or I could turn toward the cup, bow to the Cupbearer, and say, “Yes.”

I didn’t do it right away, nor was I able to sustain it when I did manage a breath of surrender. But gradually I learned to soften into the pain and yield to my suffering. In the process, compassion for all suffering beings began unexpectedly to swell in my heart. I became acutely aware of my connectedness to mothers everywhere who had lost children, who were, at this very moment, hearing the impossible news that their child had died. I felt especially connected to mothers in war zones, although I lived in safety and abundance in America.

Interdependence with all beings has never again been an abstract concept to me. I am viscerally aware of my debt to every blade of grass. Innumerable, unexpected blessings emerged from the ashes of my loss: a childlike wonderment and gratitude in the face of the simplest things: a bowl of buttered noodles, reading poetry to my husband in bed, two horses prancing across the field behind our house. These are the blossoms that unfold from my growing relationship with the Mystery of Love. This is the holy potion that has been given as the antidote to my brokenness.

Grief strips us. According to the mystics, this is good news. Because it is only when we are naked that we can have union with the Beloved. We can cultivate spiritual disciplines designed to dismantle our identity so that we have hope of merging with the Divine. Or someone we love very much may die, and we find ourselves catapulted into the emptiness we had been striving for. Even as we cry out in the anguish of loss, the boundless love of the Holy One comes pouring into the shattered container of our hearts. This replenishing of our emptiness is a mystery, it is grace, and it is built into the human condition.

Few among us would ever opt for the narrow gate of grief, even if it were guaranteed to lead us to God. But if our most profound losses—the death of a loved one, the ending of a marriage or a career, catastrophic disease or alienation from community—bring us to our knees before that threshold, we might as well enter. The Beloved might be waiting in the next room.

 

THE IMMOVABLE SPOT

The Great Sixteenth-Century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila was not always in love with God. In fact, during her first twenty years in the convent, she alternately envied and disdained the girls who openly wept with the pain of separation from their Beloved. Teresa prided herself on being a practical person. “God dwells among the pots and pans,” she declared. If one of the young nuns in her care displayed a tendency toward altered states of consciousness, Mother Teresa would yank her from the chapel, stick a broom in her hand, and order her to sweep the portico until the delusion passed.

One day, however, during her thirty-ninth year, the Holy One rushed the boundary Teresa had built around her heart. The efficient nun was bustling through the halls of the convent, readying the place for an upcoming festival, when she noticed a statue of Christ at the pillar unceremoniously propped against a wall. Irritated, Teresa bent to pick it up. Suddenly, her eye caught his, and she was transfixed.

Christ’s face radiated unbearable suffering and unconditional love. Even as his back was bent and scored with lacerations, the blood dripping into his eyes from the thorns that pierced his scalp, he gazed at Teresa with a tenderness that felt absolutely personal and offered her his undivided attention. Never had she felt so fully seen. Never had she imagined herself worthy of such a love as he was pouring upon her.

Teresa’s knees buckled and she slid to the floor at his carved feet. Then she kept going. She unfolded her body in full prostration, pressing her face to the ground, arms stretched above her. Her heart overflowed and she began to cry. She cried tears of longing and tears of fulfillment. She wept with remorse for never having loved Christ as he deserved to be loved, and she wept with supplication that he never, ever leave her.

Like the Buddha as he sat in meditation under the Bodhi Tree, vowing not to move from that spot until he had broken through to enlightenment, Teresa drove a bargain with her Lord. She told him that she would not get up until he gave her what she wanted: the strength to adore him and never to forsake him again. Once the dam had broken, all the tears of a lifetime cascaded through her heart, and Teresa lay weeping for a long time. When she was spent, she rose transfigured. From that moment on, Teresa of Avila began to undergo the stream of visions, voices, and raptures for which she is so famous.

Near the end of her life, Teresa finally experienced the union of love she had so fervently longed for—in what she referred to as “the seventh chamber of the interior castle,” where the Beloved dwells at the center of the soul. Once this love had been consummated, all the supernatural phenomena fell away, the ecstatic states and levitations ceased, and Teresa became a fully integrated being. Like the bodhisattva in the Buddhist tradition, Teresa found the highest expression of spiritual love in dedicating herself to the service of others.

–Mirabai Starr

Written by MattAndJojang

September 6, 2017 at 6:23 pm

Where Does It Hurt, O City of Light

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Photo: Jim Roberts

Photo: Jim Roberts

Upon receiving the news from Paris, I did what I often do in moments of crisis. I turned off the TV — and sat with the grief. I turned, as I often do, to poetry, nature, scripture, and prayer. I retreated to solitude, leaving time for sorrow to sit with me before having to answer the inevitable crush of media speculation.

In those early hours there is no real analysis, only a parroting of ideological perspectives. I find it more fully human to welcome grief, and connect with the humanity of those for whom these tragedies are even more personal, more intimately destructive.

The poem that I turned to was yet again from the amazing Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

Everywhere, everywhere. Everybody hurts. It hurts everywhere.

I watched the outpouring of grief from all over the world, including most of my Muslim friends. I saw hundreds of Facebook profiles being changed to the French flag-themed profile pictures, and thousands of #prayerforParis and #Prayers4Paris tweets.

I also saw, as I knew would come, wounded cries of the heart from friends in Beirut wondering why their own atrocity (43 dead) just one day before — also at the hands of ISIS — had not received any such similar outpouring of grief; friends from Pakistan wondering why there was no option to “check in as safe” during their experiences with violent attacks; friends from Central African Republic wondering why their dead — in the thousands — are the subject of no one’s global solidarity.

Somewhere in the midst of grief and devastation, here was the cry that I also heard again and again: What about my pain?

In some of the news coverage, we get told that “bombings are nothing new” to Beirut. I cannot help but read this as implying not that some countries are witnessing more violence than others, but that some lives matter more than others. Some outposts have been even more forthright, talking about our selective outrage masking a two-tiered model of human life, and outright racism.

It is a subtle shift, but I think there is a difference in tone between recognizing someone else’s tragedy and saying, “But what about mine?” and saying, “Yes, I see your tragedy, and I offer you my condolences and sympathy. And I see your tragedy and mine as connected.” It is the second that strikes me as more spiritually and morally mature.

Having sat with grief for a day of silence, here are a few thoughts that come to my mind:

Need to Grieve, Need to Mourn.
When I got the news and had a chance to catch up with the grief, I then made a point of turning down media interview requests and actually took the time to mourn. I hope more of us do take this necessary time. How sad it is to see analysts on TV opining, when we have not yet buried the dead and mourned the loss of life. I am concerned when our response in times of crisis is to strike out, lash out, and express rage before we have had time to sit with, and process, sadness and grief. Unprocessed grief always lashes out in ignorant, unhelpful ways.

My heart and prayers go to the families of the deceased, and to all who have felt the impact of this horrific attack. I wish we could extend the time to sit in solitude, hold each other, wipe each others’ tears, and mourn together.

Yes, Paris Is a Dazzling, Beautiful (Global) City of Lights.
Paris is charming almost beyond what a heart can bear. But no, Paris is not unique. Today, Paris is a global city. The very same global process of colonialism has brought the children of the colonies, largely North Africans, into the metropole. Today, Muslims are the most visible minority population in France, and they are both racially and economically marginalized.

Today, Paris is part of the global narrative. New York, Madrid, London, Ankara, Bombay, Damascus have all witnessed grotesque acts of terrorism. The primary victims of terrorism by ISIS are Muslims in places like Iraq and Syria. Muslims have been killed on a magnitude hundreds of times the scale of the Paris atrocity. Remember that, according to a recent United Nations report, some 8,493 Iraqi civilians were killed and 15,782 Iraqis were injured by ISIS in the summer of 2014 alone. According to credible reports, approximately one million people have been killed in Iraq since the start of the U.S. occupation.

ISIS and Islam.
As has been the case with previous tragedies, national Muslim organizations extended their sympathies and their condemnations of the horrific acts of terrorism. But I wonder if now, almost 15 years after 9/11, if we should still have to. I don’t know how many times we have to keep saying that acts of violence on civilians can never be justified, no matter who is the victim and who is the perpetrator.

Simply put, when Muslims condemn acts of violence from extremists, and they get asked again and again why don’t they condemn terrorism, I wonder if is because some of us are not listening. And perhaps that we don’t want to listen. There is a sad place deep in my soul that has to admit this: there are some in our midst who do not want to believe that faithful, pious Muslims could find and do find acts of violence morally repugnant. That attitude, as common as it is, tells me nothing about the humanity of Muslims that I know, or about Islam. It does tell me a lot about a xenophobic spirit of ignorance that is rampant in our society.

Ultimately, this spirit of ignorance and racism is a common enemy, just as much as state-sponsored violence and violence committed by groups like ISIS is an enemy. All of these stand in opposition to the dignity of all of us.

I don’t know how to say it more directly than this: Yes, the members of ISIS come from Muslim backgrounds. No, their actions cannot be justified on the basis of the 1400 years of Islamic tradition. Every serious scholar of Islam has confirmed this clearly, and unambiguously. ISIS is about as Muslim as the KKK is Christian. If you don’t look to the KKK to tell you about God’s message of love as expressed through Jesus, don’t look to ISIS to tell you about God’s mercy as expressed through Muhammad.

Avoiding the Trap of Divisiveness.
The ISIS terrorist attacks are precisely intended to create a divide, a false divide between Muslims and the West. Acts of terrorism are not only about the violence and mayhem created. They are also anticipating, and bringing about, a backlash from the societies that have experienced violence. This goes back to the days preceding 9/11, where al-Qaeda hoped to bring about a U.S. attack on Afghanistan. It succeeded.

ISIS, as well, is hoping to create a culture of backlash against Muslims in Europe, to foster a situation of persecution of Muslims there that will bolster future recruitment of extremists. And, Western attacks on Iraq/Syria will, in turn, lead to further extremism. To put it simply, we can’t bomb our way out of the ISIS mess. Military campaigns are part of the solution, but they cannot be the whole solution. Diplomacy, including with parties that we have political differences of opinion with, have to be part of the answer.

If we are to confront ISIS, we have to confront the sources of their funding as well as their ideology, which will force us to ask difficult and challenging questions from many of their Wahhabi and Gulf area supporters — who are also American allies.

The Mythic “Attack on Universal Values.”
President Obama released a statement regarding the terrorist attacks:

Once again we’ve seen an outrageous attempt to terrorize innocent civilians. This is an attack not just on Paris, it’s an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.

As a humanist and a person of color, and as a person critical of both Western colonial conceit and violent extremism, I can only half-applaud the President’s statement. On one hand, both the Qur’an (5:32) and the Mishnah [Sanhedrin 4:5] tell us that to take one human life is as if to take the life of whole humanity, and to save one human life is as if to save the life of all humanity. True, from that perspective the attack on Paris is an attack on all humanity.

What I question is the selectivity of the “universal values” part in President Obama’s statement. I don’t know what that means. Liberté, égalité, fraternité were not, ever, universal values. The Europeans never intended for the values of the Enlightenment to be applied to the whole of humanity. The Enlightenment — which gave birth to both the French and the American revolutions — was also a profoundly exclusionary principle that never applied to the victims of the empire: not to native Americans, not to the humans stolen from West Africa and brought to the Americas as slaves, not to women, and not to the French colonies. The “universal” values were never universal.

I would love for compassion, dignity, and the sanctity of each and every human life to be a universal human value. If it is to be, that day is in our future. I will believe that we have arrived when the atrocities in Syria, in Palestine/Israel, in Central African Republic, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Myanmar, in inner-city America are all treated as attacks on “universal values.” When these atrocities are treated as global and universal human atrocities on par with attacks on Paris and New York, I will believe the declarations. When we see politicians marching for African lives, Afghan lives, Palestinian lives, and Black lives, I will believe their statements.

Watch Out for Trolls.
No sooner had the atrocity in Paris happened, before the bodies were buried, out came the trolls. There was Richard Dawkins, who came out against Islam yet again:

 

There was Donald Trump, who somehow managed to turn the Paris tragedy into a stump speech for the NRA, stating,“Nobody had guns but the bad guys.” As if the solution to violence is somehow more guns.

Franklin Graham was at it again, stating that “Islam” was at war with the West:

He spent just as much time on Twitter bashing Islam as he did offering prayers for the victims. In collapsing ISIS and Islam, Graham is actually granting ISIS the very Islamic legitimacy that it so craves — and does not deserve.

No, the answer to ISIS’s violence and hatred cannot be more hatred and more ignorance. We have to transcend this hatred through something more beautiful and loftier: a call for universal love, and a holistic sense of justice.

We cannot curse our way out of this darkness. This fragile and broken world needs more light, more light.

Protect the Refugees.
The news out of Paris indicates that one of the assailants has been identified as a Syrian. The fear on many people’s part is that this will lead to a backlash against all Syrian refugees. That would be a humanitarian catastrophe of immense scale. Let us remember this: the Syrian refugees are fleeing the brutality of the very same ISIS that has now unleashed its savagery on Paris (and Beirut). In short, the millions of Syrian refugees are themselves the primary victims of ISIS. Let us not doubly punish these desperate people by associating them with the atrocity of their own tormentors.

In the afternoon I took my children out for a long, slow walk in the woods. We took time to reflect on the trees, the light, the fallen leaves. In the midst of grief, there is still time to hold a friend’s hand, to hold a beloved in the heart, and go for a gentle stroll.

I don’t have the answers to ISIS, or how to defeat them. But I do know this: at the end of the day, love and unity will have the victory. If we are to get there, we have to remain fully human.

If we close our hearts to love, to each other, to nature, to God, we have already lost. If we close our hearts to one another, we have already lost.

There is grief in the city of light, and in so many cities of light. In the midst of the grief, in the late hour of a Fall, a beauty lingers. Love shall have the victory at the end of days.

Let there be light inside our hearts.
Let there be light around us.
Let the light permeate us.
Let’s rebuild the City of Lights, one illuminated heart after another.

The City of Light needs no more darkness. Let us welcome light into our hearts, and be agents of healing.

–Omid Safi

The author, Omid Safi, is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Written by MattAndJojang

November 16, 2015 at 8:49 am

Allaying Grief Through Books

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Photo: Antonio Mantero/Flickr

FOR three years after the death of her adored eldest sister, Anne-Marie, Nina Sankovitch mourned by staying relentlessly busy. She felt a guilt-strafed survivor’s obligation to live life enough for two.

The mother of four sons, she signed up for PTA committees, coached soccer and a Lego robotics team, taught art appreciation classes to elementary school students, took Pilates classes and parenting classes, joined a book group and a tennis group, began kayaking, started a theater group for children in her basement and a Web site for trading books, gardened ferociously and wrote a novel (unpublished).

But in her increasingly frantic efforts to taste joy for herself and her sister, she tasted only ashes. She would still wake in the night, sobbing.

Finally, she jettisoned almost all her commitments in favor of the one pursuit that had always given her special pleasure. She committed herself to reading a book a day for an entire year.

“After years of chasing after joy, I finally sat down and let it come to me,” Ms. Sankovitch, 48, a tall, tennis-vibrant woman, said over coffee at her kitchen table in Westport, Conn. A photo triptych of Anne-Marie in thick reading glasses, posing in merry solidarity with Ms. Sankovitch’s son Peter, wearing his first pair, gleams from a rosewood frame nearby.

On Oct. 28, 2008, her 46th birthday, Ms. Sankovitch began the project, dedicating it to Anne-Marie, who died four months after receiving a diagnosis of bile-duct cancer, a week shy of turning 47. That last day, driving home from an encouraging visit with her sister in the hospital, Ms. Sankovitch got the phone call, pulled her car to the side of the road and screamed.

In the resulting memoir, “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” (Harper Collins), whose title alludes to her reading armchair of cat-clawed, faded purple brocade, Ms. Sankovitch writes about that redemptive year of contemplation. The book is also an account of her family traumas: not only the death of Anne-Marie but also the World War II murders of three of her father’s siblings. It is a meditation on grief and healing, on values held sacred by her family and the life well lived. It is, of course, a paean to reading.

“I was looking to books for more than just escape and pleasure,” said Ms. Sankovitch, an accomplished environmental lawyer who gradually gave up practicing after she had children. Now she was seeking answers about “how to live with sorrow and how to find my place in the world.”

While the mechanics of the project could occasionally be daunting, Ms. Sankovitch found the solace she yearned for. Books like “The Laws of Evening,” the short story collection by Mary Yukari Waters, taught her about addressing loss. “The characters were past the denial stage, past anger,” she said. “They were figuring out how to go on living with loss. Everyone’s solution was different, but many used memory to cope, as proof that good things will come again.”

Diana Athill reinforced that lesson. “Somewhere Towards the End” is a memoir she published at 91. “Every day is still a new day for her,” Ms. Sankovitch said.

Sitting in Ms. Sankovitch’s sunny kitchen, as her sons, ages 10 through 17, tromp in and out of the house, and talking books with her can be just plain fun. As she trades ideas about characters, her blue eyes sparkle. She opens a worn notepad to jot down unfamiliar titles.

“I do read a Kindle on the exercise bike, but I love a real book, especially from the library or a used one,” she said. “I like knowing that other people have held it. I like reading what others have scribbled in the margins. I’ve even seen people make little grammar-correcting marks.”

Seeking safe haven in reading was natural for a woman who grew up in a family of book worshippers. Her middle sister, Natasha, had been a comparative literature professor (later a lawyer); her Belgian mother, Tilde, taught French literature at Northwestern. The year her Belarusian father, Anatole, now a retired surgeon, spent in a sanatorium for tuberculosis, he and another patient read novels aloud to each other. The books Ms. Sankovitch read to her young sons, all passionate readers, include volumes of poetry she had written for them.

Reading was a means of communication for her close-knit family, with its European formality. “My parents are private people,” Ms. Sankovitch said. “Americans are raised to ask personal questions. But I feel that if something isn’t my business, I won’t pry. Books are a shield and a way to get closer to those questions, so you can talk about taboo subjects. You can have those intimate conversations without prying.”

Anne-Marie was an art historian who loved the written word, and the sisters, unlike in many ways, often found common ground through books. “She was smarter than me and more beautiful,” Ms. Sankovitch said sadly, recalling her sister. “But I was more fearless and socially adept. She didn’t suffer fools. I’d been at dinner parties where she would up and leave if she was bored. But she was a saint to me.”

In “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair,” she describes how she and other family members would bring books to Anne-Marie’s sickbed. The visits often included book chats. After her death, the family dedicated a bench in her memory in the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, where passers-by can sit, contemplate the surrounding blooming beauty and read.

During her reading year, Ms. Sankovitch received recommendations for books from readers of a blog she had started (readallday.org), where she posted short reviews of each book. She also drew inspiration from the deep, eclectic collection in the Westport Public Library.

“My year would have been different with a different library, in a different town,” she said. She discovered new stacks, exploring genres outside her comfort zone of novels: essays, plays, science fiction, travel.

Typically reading 70 pages an hour, she’d try to finish each book in about four hours. She still did the laundry and carpooling, reading while the boys were in school, percolating at night, posting in the morning.

She described her reviews as “a public diary.”

“They’re not intellectual dismemberment,” she continued, “but more of my emotional response to the book.”

About “Little Bee,” the devastating novel by Chris Cleave, she wrote: “We connect to those we can see and touch; we protect the ones we can. But even then, a sister can die, and you won’t even know it until you get the phone call driving home over the Henry Hudson Bridge after what you thought was a very good day.”

The quixotic intensity of the project did not surprise those who know Ms. Sankovitch: she seems hard-wired for the full-bore experience. When tennis elbow threatened to forfeit her daily match with her husband, Jack Menz, a Manhattan lawyer (their home sits on two acres, including a clay court), she switched to her left hand, playing poorly but gamely. As a young associate at a Manhattan firm, a position demanding 16-hour days, she was focused and efficient, largely because other priorities called, including books. She would skip lunch and close her door to read for pleasure.

Once, while biking, recalled Stephanie Young, a friend from Harvard Law School, Ms. Sankovitch mentioned that her father advised “everything in moderation.”

At that, Ms. Young laughed. “Nina doesn’t do anything in moderation,” she said. “While she was telling us this, she was eating her sixth FrozFruit bar.”

As Ms. Sankovitch began to emerge from grief during her year of reading, her husband said the impact on the entire family was salutary.

“Nina had such a serenity,” Mr. Menz said. “And part of it was that the pace of her life was just slower than everyone else’s. We had fun dinners, because you’d not only hear about what our guys did during the day, but Nina would talk about the new characters she had just read. I’d watch Giants games with our son Michael, and she’d be there, but reading. We just gave her that space.”

Now, Ms. Sankovitch’s own readers have written her, saying that her memoir has become their handbook about how to read through grief.

“I am so happy that what I found in books, someone else might have found in mine,” Ms. Sankovitch said. “It’s all back to Anne-Marie, what a tribute to her.” She is thinking of writing a new book, based on letters from the late 19th century that she found in the family’s former Upper West Side brownstone.

And she is still reading. Last November, she proposed that she and her husband tackle “War and Peace” together. He somehow set it aside.

Naturally, Ms. Sankovitch finished. But not until January.

Some books are just not meant to be read in a day.

~Jan Hoffman

Written by MattAndJojang

November 29, 2011 at 4:57 pm