Update: The last two posts (on dying while alive and on processing emotion) reverberated within me together all day, and then I ran across this post, from last August, and it seemed to want to come into view again . . .
Randy Newman’s song echoes through my mind and heart this morning. Once again, magic electrifies the air.
After Jeff’s sudden demise from a heart attack, I underwent a process of what I called at the time, “conscious grieving,” since I had been gifted with the luxury and privilege of surrendering to this sacred process for a full year, in solitude. (We had just moved to a new town, Bloomington, Indiana, from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where I knew no one.) In 2007, I decided to publish my writings during that mysterious, refulgent, awe-filled year, in what became an award-winning book, This Vast Being: A Voyage through Grief and Exaltation.
A few years ago, I picked up Joan Didion’s famous memoir, A Year of Magical Thinking, and was struck by its elegance and precision, both Joan Didion trademarks as a writer. And yet, in terms of her grieving process, it felt to me that this widow did not appear to allow her body to vent its profound loss through explosive or other ways that are decidedly not “normal” and yet, I also sense, necessary, if we are to heal and grow from the experience of loss.
I wondered: is this because, unlike me, she did not have the luxury of solitude? Or, was she too embarrassed to confess what she really went through? Or, was her grief undergone on a more refined level than ordinary mortals? Or, did she have such a strong identity framework as an elegant and precise writer that its scrim prevented her from even knowing the meltdown she experienced on an unconscious level? Or did she not fully grieve, and if so, did her body then rigidify, calcify, get stuck at the point of stopping itself from full, explosive, keening expression?
Questions. Questions. My interest in grief continues beyond Jeff’s death. I documented my primary grief process on this exopermaculture blog, after my little dog Emma died a few months ago (search for “Emma;” here’s one, and there are five or six other posts).
Why would I focus on such a “morbid” subject? Because I feel our terror and denial of the profound riches of the grieving process holds the key to our culture’s inability to descend beneath the scrim of addictive patterns that keep us locked in combat within ourselves and with each other.
A week ago, I picked up Joyce Carol Oates memoir, A Widow’s Story, and was again struck. Or I should say, am again struck, because I’m not quite finished reading it. This time I’m astonished by, as usual, her extraordinary capacity to articulate the extended chaotic, surreal, messy emotional entanglements that the mind encounters after the loss of one’s primary love. On and on and on. Dumb. Numb. Medicated, Insomniac. Non-medicated. Manic, Depressed. Suicidal. Terrified. Phantasmagoric. A seemingly endless process of dark, drastic, even satanic states. I greatly admire her unflinching courage at documenting her process, especially given its extremity, and yet I wonder how she did that, since she constantly told the reader during her process that, unlike her usual prolific self, she was unable to write. . .
Meanwhile, now that I’ve read both these well-known widows’ memoirs, I want to say also that I feel that what separates my process from theirs is that, from its beginning, I was held within a much more expansive world-view. For both Didion and Oates, death, apparently, is “the end.” Both apparently identify their selves and their husband’s selves, with their personalities, and so when that goes, nothing remains.
I contrast this to the wonderful memoir, Iris, by John Bayley about his wife, the famous British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, her seeming disappearance into dementia. And yet, as Bayley said, despite the loss of her mind and memories, “Iris is not gone, she’s still here” (my paraphrase, and BTW: check out this wonderful interview with him after she died in The Guardian).
Bayley clearly holds a larger view of the self and soul than is usual in our culture. And its odd, because I sense from the complex, profound way Oates writes about her fictional characters, that she holds a larger view, too. Then why could she not access it after her husband died? Why was grief, for her, unremittingly horrific? Does the locked down materialistic framework that refuses to grant life to souls after “death” — or at least, pretends that the veil between the worlds is not permeable — do these deeply rooted unconscious assumptions of our “scientific” society prevent her from accessing his being — and hers — now that he’s “gone” from his body?
Yesterday, I was talking with a sister and brother-in-law about the hour they had just spent with our Mom, who, like Iris Murdoch, suffers from dementia. They told me that they found it “exhausting” to be with her. I responded that, on the contrary, I enjoy being with her at this time in her life, since she has now lost her “personality” (which, after all, is kept intact and even constituted by memories), and has descended into her original being or self. I know Mom feels relief to see me come in the door, since she doesn’t have to try to pretend that she’s there in any of the old ways. I find it refreshing to hang out with her there, in her original being. Like gazing into the eyes of a week-old infant, new to this world, still innocent, without guile or masks. No words needed. No mind or “identity” needed. Simply, the flow of being and becoming.
Joyce Carol Oates spends a lot of time in her memoir on this whole question of masks, and identity, and how, with the impossible fact of her husband now dead, her stage self as “Joyce Carol Oates” feels like a joke. Her identity as Joyce Smith, wife, had been co-created with his, and now it was gone, caput! And, at least in this book, she does not seem to be capable of descending into her original being that lies there, always, underneath masks, underneath this life, this body, that aspect called the “I am,” what just is, the conscious omniverse, the universal awareness that transcends our teensy tiny framework of 3D space and time.
So Jeff came to me last night, in a dream. A quite ordinary dream. We were doing something together and separately, as was our way as a married couple. (We took took to heart Rilke’s notion of “protecting each other’s solitude.”) He came to me, and it woke me up. Not because of the content of the dream, but because it seemed weird that he would come to me now, after a number of years of not dreaming of him, and that the dream should feel so ordinary when it did arrive.
This morning I woke up at 6:30 am and went into my usual routine of taking my muffins and coffee to the screened-in front porch, carefully placing them on a little table, and proceeding to lie back with legs up on the wonderful deck lounge there, my new puppy Shadow at my feet, and take up the local newspaper. Then, right away, for some reason I noticed the date, August 22. The date joggled memory in some way. What? What’s August 22nd?
Ah! Jeff’s birthday! I had the dream in the early morning of the day of Jeff’s birthday over eight years after he died.
The timing of this dream is but one of the marvels that continue to attend his death. Jeff has appeared in numerous ways and on numerous occasions, both to me and others; he has moved objects around more than a few times, each occasion stranger and more uncanny than the next; he has nudged me from within to do or think or say things I would not normally do think or say.
Above all, Jeff’s “death” introduced me to the frequency field of Love that fuels the universe and that has held me in its in its thick, strong, sweet gentle embrace ever since.
In short, his death released me from fear.
As prophet and icon John Lennon sang, its sing-song refrain hiding great truth in plain sight: “Love love love, love love love, love is all there is, all there is is love.”