Literary Greats Always Cheat at Golf

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Grief Observed

In A Grief Observed C.S. Lewis published his diaries from the period after his wife died of bone cancer. In the edition I read years and years ago, he wrote that he did not expect any results, but that he had been in the habit of observing his own mind for his entire life and integrating his life experiences into his deeply intellectual, and philosophical Christianity.

I have spent my entire life integrating my life experience into narrative. I really am I consummate researcher. I don't seem to be that good at the production of information, but I find real pleasure in research and I have a need to understand the specific social, historical, theoretical, theological (and so on) context of my interests and my life experiences. I suppose then, that it's expected that I end up reading and trying to find a context to put my mother dying into.

From the age of ten until thirteen I was being treated for my own cancer and I had a very difficult time contextualizing this and crafting an understanding of the world and of religion that I can work with. I think it's hard for people who know me now and didn't then to imagine, but I did grow up in a really Catholic household. My dad continues to be a man of serious faith, and I was really interested in church things. (Because I was a dork.) So in those years I read, together, C.S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain which is just Lewis's take on the question, "If God is omnipotent and benevolent, then why does he allow pain?" and A Grief Observed which basically went over my head, except for his preface which said that although he didn't think it could be done, he had moved through grief by writing and observing himself.

We have not reached the same conclusion, obviously. We both start from the same place, an undeniable experience of the numinous combined with a freaked out fear of the bigness of the universe. Through a series of small leaps Lewis arrived at Christ while I've ended up somewhere a lot more confused and ecumenical. Also, unlike Lewis, I really can't abide the thought of an intervening God. I'm good with clockwinder, I'm good with odd gnostic emanations of knowledge God, but I am so not okay with intervening God. This was, in fact, the subject of a legendary disagreement with my mother, who has told me on a number of times that she thinks God (not jesus though, we're not really of the jesus believing in persuasion, my mom and I) has personally intervened to save her life and that she feels a very personal sense of connection with God. While I feel totally embarrassed and Bad Religion Scholar! about it, I am still a little shocked and pissed off that she believes God is handing out favors and decided to smack me around with cancer as a fucking child. I know my stance on this is problematic, but for me is not theoretical, it's personal.

Still, I would really like to some day really believe in something less fluid, but hopefully not something that makes me into an asshole. (As my friend Rose has deadpanned: "Yes, Natalie, it would be a real shame if you turned into an asshole.")

Anyway, today at the library I reread A Grief Observed and it was just such a nice articulation of some of the really ugly emotional parts of the experience. He writes that he desperately wants everyone around him and everyone to leave him alone at the same time. That it would be ideal if they could just talk around but not about him. This is something I want too. Just people around but not so active all the time.

"Why do I make room in my mind for such filth and nonsense? Do I hope that if feeling disguises itself as thought I shall feel less? Aren't all these notes the senseless writhings of a man who won't accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it? Who still thinks there is some device (if only he could find it) which will make pain not be pain. It doesn't really matter whether you grip the arms of the dentist's chair or let your hands lie in your lap. The drill drills on.

And grief still feels like fear. Perhaps more strictly, like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn't seem worth starting anything. I can't settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty sucessiveness." (45-46)

I wonder this too. Are my attempts to rationalize this, to fit it into something, to prophylactically fix this through the acquisition of knowledge and contexts all essentially useless? For whom am I building this body of research, what is it really doing for me? And time, that is the part that kills me. It is hard to talk about without sounding suicidal, which I am not, remotely, but until I was 23 I had a panicky sense that my life could never be long enough, that I would never get to read everything I wanted to, and learn enough languages to be satisfied when it ended. In the past few years I have mostly felt like... Are you serious? This is the way it's going to be for 50 more years? I have fifty more years of this to fill up? How will I find enough to pack that time up. Time has a definite shape, time has a definite end, and its inertia makes it meaningless and makes this meaningless, and ultimately makes me meaningless. There is a sense of reaction in the place of action that is just terrifyingly stripped of any sense of purpose. And I suppose there is no real reason that the tone of all of this needs to be suffering, but it doesn't seem likely to not be.

Lewis is writing a diary, so he doubts himself a lot and doubles back, the effect is not polished but it tends to ambush you. I'm not sure why I decided to read this at the library where reactions are better controlled.

"[She] was a splendid thing; a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God's patients, not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured. The sword will be made even brighter.

But oh God, tenderly, tenderly. Already, month by month and week by week you broke her body on the wheel whist she still wore it. Is it not yet enough?" (54-55)

Leaving aside the Christian guilt guilt guilt sin sin sin, which is not something I'm worried about, the second part just hit me so hard. It just make me remember being with my mom in the hospital lying in bed with her, like spoons. It's not a very appropriate way for adult daughters to lie down with their mothers, but the situation was so far from normal. It is very disturbing to see your mother fucked up on drugs for weeks, to see her just reacting in pain, constant constant pain to things. To see her nightgown pull up. Scars on her chest and her abdomen, the freakish sight of your mother without nipples. It was like, the most horrible thing I have seen. I still cannot believe how vulnerable, and fragile my mother looked and how hurt she is. It is so disgustingly barbaric to me that we still fucking cut things off of people. I mean, we can put tiny robots in people, shouldn't we be done with this by now?

It's just such an honest plain begging. Please stop this, please treat my mother gently, this has been enough, we are all done, we exhausted by this, we are so hurt, I can't see the point in hurting us more than this. Isn't it enough?

I don't expect any answers to come out of this. This may just be sophisticated wallowing or bargaining, but there is a comfort in remembering that this happens to everyone, and that it was always going to happen. Everyone's mother is going to die. I don't love that the process is in motion for my mother now, obviously it is horrible and painful and just so big. But it isn't new territory, and I don't have to start it from scratch, I think.

Two more things from the book that are mysteriously of note to me:

"I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can't give it: you are like the drowning man who can't be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear." (58-59)

"When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of 'No answer.' It is not like the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but wiving the question. Like, 'Peace , child; you don't understand.'" (81)

I'm hoping for, but not expecting, that.


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