Conversing with grief

People often assume, when I tell them that I need to read pretty much constantly when I’m writing, that I’m reading things that are directly related to the work I’m doing.  Not so.  There’s the scholarship part of my writing, and yes, I do read a lot about the things I need to know when I’m in scholarship mode.  That’s a given.   I have a row of library books in my bookshelf, for instance, with the word “Descartes” on their spines, and I’ll be reading those when I’m writing about Descartes, a little later this winter.  But the reading that makes the most difference to me when I’m writing is actually not the stuff that ends up in my “Works Cited” list.  Really great writing of just about any kind is nourishment for me as a thinker and writer. In fact, the further the topic seems to be from what I’m working on, the better–it frees me up both to appreciate the quality of the writing, and to learn something new.  And often, that something new will generously offer up surprising connections to whatever I’m working on, helping me out of the ruts I work myself into.  In short, someone else’s great writing makes my own work better.  It’s like getting an underdog on the swing set: you could probably swing that high eventually, but it’s a lot better to have someone else–someone you trust–give you a boost.  Plus, it means that you’re not hanging out at that swing set all by yourself.

Most of the books I’ll write about in this blog will be those “companion” kinds of books.  Like Lab Girl (and yeah, by the way, give this a listen–thanks, Carrie), or Tribe.  Or The Mothers, which I’ve just started reading, by the literary wunderkind Brit Bennett.


It got a five-star review from my in-house librarian, and I promise to weigh in on it next week.

But over the last few days, in response to something a friend recently said about my own writing, I picked up and quickly inhaled a couple of books that satisfy my criteria for great writing and are more-or-less directly related to my own writing project.  Joan Didion–who is a marvelous writer–lost her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to a heart attack in 2003, and her daughter, Quintana Roo, two years later, reportedly to acute pancreatitis, but probably to something more like alcoholism.  Quintana was, in fact, in an induced coma in the ICU of a New York hospital suffering from septicemia (that she would sort of recover from) when Dunne died.  He and Didion had been at the hospital all afternoon, they took a cab home, and he died right in the middle of a conversation the two were having just before dinner.


The Year of Magical Thinking is the grief memoir Didion wrote in the year following Dunne’s death.  I read it right after it came out–in 2005–and I read it again this week.  It’s gorgeous.  I thought that the first time, and I think it still.  One of the things I’ve been writing about (or, more accurately, working through) in my own book has to do with what I’ve come to think of as the lack of reciprocity that so characterizes grief.  When someone important to us dies, one of the  ongoing conversations that made up the imagined reciprocity of our lived existence is suddenly gone.  The work of grief is, it seems to me at least, the attempt to restore that lost reciprocity.  That doesn’t mean simply replacing the person who is gone with another; it means trying to find the distance that will enable conversation again–not with the dead person, but with life.  The Year of Magical Thinking both registers the loss of the conversation–painfully, beautifully–and looks for ways to restore it.  Didion does so by remembering, but also by reading and thinking her way through to the first anniversary of her husband’s death.  There are so many ways in which she reaches outside of herself in order to bear witness to her grief–and that, to me, is her brave attempt to try to find reciprocity again.    I’m quite sure that Didion would not think herself successful in restoring the conversation she now lacks, but the seeking after it is so moving and literarily courageous, that the book, for me, became and has remained part of my own ongoing  restoration project.


Blue Nights is an entirely different sort of book.  It is, ostensibly at least, a eulogy for her daughter.  And the verbatim repetition–echoes, I think Didion would call them–of parts of Magical Thinking would seem also to insist on its being a sequel of sorts to that book. So  I don’t think I should be faulted for expecting it also to be a book about grief.  It’s not.  It’s a book about sorrow, that’s for sure.  But if grief writing, according to my definition at least, has to claim some sort of attempt to locate the conversation again, and if, by conversation, I mean with something outside of the self-fettered “I” of pure lament, then this book is not about grief.  It’s like she’s saying, to herself, “We had everything: the exquisite homes in LA and New York; the Westlake school; the movie star friends; the black challis dress from Bendel’s back when Bendel’s was really something; the Christian Louboutin shoes; the peach-colored wedding cake from Payard.  How could all that now be gone, and how could I be old and alone?”  I know, it doesn’t really sound like Joan Didion, does it?  All that product placement, for one thing, seems at best a desperate grasping after something that only pretends to be meaningful.  There just aren’t very many ideas in this book.  Where Magical Thinking included many challenging voices other than her own, this book quotes only her husband, her daughter, and herself–and the same words over and over. You could call it “incantatory,” as the Washington Post blurb on the front cover does, but I would call it “confined,” as though she’s trapped in an endless loop of regret.  It is a very sad book, a frail book, and I suppose that makes it also an honest book.  But I don’t think it’s a book about grief.

She still composes some of the best sentences, though, and that alone is going to carry me into another writing day. And my own conversation with grief.


Packs and tribes

Here is something I learned today: it is not easy to settle into an entirely new routine, even if it’s one you’ve fantasized about for a few years.  Today, the high school student and professor are both back in their regular routines, and the one who just submitted the last of her grad school applications (my in-home librarian) left for the mid-morning shift at Feldman’s at 9:30 AM.

It’s quiet.  Where are the problems to solve?  The fires to put out?  The emails to answer (oh, right–I’m just ignoring them)? The documents to write?

Hold on a second, there are documents to write.

But at the moment, the quiet is a bit disconcerting.  There’s not even a dog–yet–to distract me.

There are several dog books in our living room, though, and they have been a bit distracting, if also necessary.  Here are the ones I’ve read in the past two weeks.


I will spare you the full review, except to say that if my family thought this year was the chance to see me in non-dean mode, they were entirely wrong in their thinking.  I am going to be the dean of this dog.  Because if I’ve learned one thing from these books (together with the unpictured one by Cesar Millan that I’m listening to on my Audible app), it is that a pack animal needs an alpha.  I can do that.

But here’s another thing I’m learning this week when I’m not consuming the dog books: we are pack animals, too.  I’m reading Sebastian Junger’s Tribe with a group of folks, a kind of a tribe come to think of it.  We haven’t met yet to talk about it–we have a date tomorrow–but I am grateful that I will have the opportunity for conversation about this book.

Tribe is a full-blown indictment of modern American society written from the standpoint of a journalist who has been surprised to discover that he’s been happiest–or, most content–in his life when he’s been part of a collective effort to avoid being killed.  Embedded with American troops in Afghanistan in 2010, Junger found that he’d never felt more clear of purpose, more truly and meaningfully alive, than when he was at war.  Coming back felt “morally dispiriting” because he was no longer part of a group of people who  relied so urgently on  each other for their survival. This, he says, is precisely what’s wrong with the modern world–it “eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good” (59).

Junger’s focus is, at least ostensibly, on veterans, and the assault of modern self-interest and alienation on their mental health when they return home after having been part of a tribe.  The prevalence of chronic PTSD in returning veterans in the twenty-first century is not normal, but it is also not caused by what they have done and witnessed in the combat zone.  It is caused by what they are forced to bear witness to when they come home–a society, he says, “that is basically at war with itself” (cue the entire 2016 election cycle).  I found this line particularly stunning: “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it” (124).

Here’s the kicker–and this is the reason I absolutely need to talk with my own little tribe about this book–he seems to be suggesting that there is no way out of our self-interested, depressive mess of a society except through catastrophe.  He’s not saying that our self-interest is going to lead to catastrophe (though I suppose that is also true); he is arguing that only a genuine disaster can save us from ourselves.  Only a huge catastrophe could stimulate the kind of “social resilience” that will make us all healthy again.  He seems to want it.

I gotta say, he’s not wrong about the “community of sufferers” thing.  Writing about grief as I am these days, I am reminded again and again of how I never felt more strangely alive than when my daughter was dying.  It was unutterably sad, but I also remember those last weeks of Claire’s short life as a kind of bubble in which I felt the closest I have ever felt to other human beings.  It was a high price to pay for social cohesion, though, and I would like to believe that there are less expensive options than catastrophe for bringing us together and giving us a purpose.  But maybe there aren’t.

About three-quarters of the way into Tribe, I began a reading another book, one that I’ve wanted to read for some time: Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.  The two of them together on the desk in front of me are bit like Jack Sprat and his wife: Tribe is a (deceivingly) slim volume, more of a long-form essay; The Noonday Demon is at least ten times its length, clocking in at an impressive 676 pages.


Actually, this tells the story a little bit better (14 pt font, meet 10 pt font):


Yet they are oddly compatible partners.

I’m only about a hundred pages in to the Solomon, but it’s already clear that where Junger is all war journalist tough-exterior-disguising-a-beating-heart macho (check out the author photo if you want confirmation of that characterization:

junger-photo) Solomon is just the heart laid bare.  Check out the first two sentences of the book:

“Depression is the flaw in love.  To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.”


But what I really want to quote is the last paragraph of that same first chapter.  It’s what Junger is saying–in a way, it’s his entire argument–but rendered in the voice of a poet, a poet who knows both suffering and the tragic mutation of suffering that is depression:

“It is possible (though for the time being unlikely) that, through chemical manipulation, we might locate, control, and eliminate the brain’s circuitry of suffering.  I hope we will never do it.  To take it away would be to flatten out experience, to impinge on a complexity more valuable than any of its component parts are agonizing.  If I could see the world in nine dimensions, I’d pay a high price to do it.  I would live forever in the haze of sorrow rather than give up the capacity for pain.  But pain is not acute depression; one loves and is loved in great pain, and one is alive in the experience of it.  It is the walking-death quality of depression that I have tried to eliminate from my life; it is as artillery against that extinction that this book is written.”

I’m going to end there.  There will be more to say about the Solomon, but first there’s more to read.  Thank goodness.