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Lions Roar : March 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2008 77 cry with. We have brains to hold the memories and stories, and voices to tell them with. We have the capacity to love and heal. Now, a month after my mom’s death, I’m not crying in the grocery store so often anymore. Instead, when I think of my mom, I buy a sweet and offer it to her, and then I eat it (she hated wast- ing perfectly good food). I bring home flowers and admire them through her eyes. I take walks for her by the ocean and look at the sky. So that’s a little of what it’s been like. Thank you so much, Norman, for asking me to write this. It helps to have a place to put the feelings. With love, Ruth NEGOTIATING WITH THE DEAD If creativity is a way of offsetting or coping with loss, then per- haps writing—our written language—exists on account of, or to account for, our mortality. If we were not able to count our days and to foresee our termination, then why would we bother to write things down? If we could not envision the world without us, then why would we feel the need to leave bits of ourselves, these words, behind? And if we were not compelled to hold on to our dead, then why would we keep them alive in stories? Why would we feel the need to speak to them, or for them? Why would we grieve? Why would we need history at all? The act of telling a story is an act of negotiating with the dead, to use Margaret Atwood’s wonderful phrase from her book of the same title. You could argue, as she does, that all stories are about dying. Storytelling is about the ticking of the clock. It’s about “Once upon a time.” And stories, written down, have unique qualities that set them apart from other art forms. Unlike paint- ing, stories are time-based—they unfold through time. Unlike the performance of a play, they persist—they survive their enact- ment. Unlike music, they are literal. Stories literally re-enact time passing. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They are born, they live, and then they die, and every time you participate in the writing or reading of a story, you are participating in that same cycle. Pretending. Rehearsing, if you will. Stories are messages from the nether land, the land of the dead, and writers are the future dead, calling back to the living. In the publishing business, there’s a saying, “The only good author is a dead author.” For those of us still living, this statement is a bit problematic, but at least we can take some consolation in know- ing that the best may still lie ahead. And to be fair, you can see the publisher’s point. Authors are, hands down, the most unreliable link in the production chain. They are moody and capricious. They can be preening prima don- nas or stubbornly reclusive, puffed up or crippled by doubt. Often they have bad habits, like drinking or philandering or bad hygiene. Generally, these are not people you want in key roles in your produc- tion team. And when you think about it, the saying is quite true. The majority of the books and sto- ries that we read—the good ones, anyway, the ones that linger and continue to haunt us—were writ- ten by dead authors. Language, this medium of story, is an inheritance we receive from the dead, and when we practice the art of telling stories, we do so in the tongues of the dead, calling them back to life. Which brings us back to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art.” Bishop’s art is the art of losing, which, like any art, must be practiced and will be practiced whether we like it or not. But in the final stanza, she intrudes upon her very last line with a private, parenthetical imperative: ...It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. “Write it!” she commands herself. Write it! Write your loss, because for a poet this disaster that we call life—and it truly is a disaster, when you think about it—can only be transformed into magnificence through the practice of this one art. It is through poetry that Bishop practices the art of losing, and transforms each loss into a poem, which is a kind of liberation, a letting go. And through the poem she leaves behind, post-mortem, she shows us all how to make the journey and to effect this transformation, too. I spent ten years losing my mom, little by little, day by day, but during that time, I wrote books, letters, e-mails, blog post- ings, stories, journal entries, and poems. While I was writing this essay, it hit me that, by following a dead poet’s injunction, I’ve been turning loss into letting go. Now, almost three years since my mother died, I read what I wrote when the pain was stron- gest, and I feel the pain again, but less so. The suffering, too, has changed, and yet instead of relief, I feel a quick stab of grief at the diminishment—and then I have to laugh, realizing that even loss can be lost and grieved for. One last thing. I promised to tell you Mom’s instructions re- garding the disposal of her mother’s bones. What she told me was this: she said that when she died, after her cremation, she wanted me to take her bones, along with my grandmother’s, back to Hawaii and throw them all in the ocean. I confess, I haven’t done that yet. I’m not quite ready to let go. ♦ MAR 68-77.indd 77 MAR 68-77.indd 77 12/19/07 2:16:14 PM 12/19/07 2:16:14 PM