Tuesday, March 21, 2017

How Death Animates Us

Perhaps this blog will become: life as animated by literature.

I couldn't fall asleep last night, as happens when I'm newly off alcohol and back to the gym, so I read this graphic novel that's been sitting on my coffee table for about a year: Unknown by author Mark Waid and illustrator Minck Oosterveer.

It's about death. Since Molly's it's become clear that every piece of art and literature is about death. I knew this at fifteen and twenty-one. Just forgot.

The main character, Cat Allingham, is a detective with a brain tumor whose last mysteries involve learning if there is or is not an afterlife. It was only the first in a series, so the jury's still out.

On Sunday, Sonia and I had lunch with my parents and they acted like themselves for the first time in her presence, teasing one another relentlessly, engaging with us and actually showing some joy. It felt good.

We met at the Cheesecake Factory in the suburbs. My parents bravely tried the thai lettuce wraps and loved them. We shared two pieces of cheesecake (all chocolate) at the end and moaned about the indulgence. We walked around the mall together afterward and went shoe shopping, where Sonia impressively saved me $30 on a pair of $105 shoes at DSW.

Who knows why people do what they do? Given time or traumatic events, my parents seem to have turned a corner. They seem more open, more accepting, lighter. I have two theories and they both have to do with death.

A few weeks ago on the phone, my dad told me about a 26-year-old boy who had gone missing from the bar a few miles from their home. It was the same bar my brother and I frequented in our twenties, the closest one to our childhood home. The boy had suffered from mental health problems and substance abuse. He'd joined my mom's church to get help with the drinking and the drugs.

Then one evening, he left the bar, threw his phone and his keys in his car and walked into the woods. It took them a few weeks to find his body, but everyone knew what had happened. My dad told me that path led to an overlook where it would be easy to jump into the river. He didn't tell me that the boy was gay.

The boy who killed himself was or was not gay. In any case, he was in working class Pennsylvania where some combination of lack of opportunity, lack of options and lack of mental health services led to him finding this way out. His options were religion or alcohol. If he was gay, a religion that despised him wouldn't cut it.

Another thing happened this winter. Driving home from the high school where he's been substitute teaching since he got laid off 12+ years ago, my dad did a 360 on an icy two-lane road and narrowly missed an 18-wheeler. Says his life flashed before his eyes. He is increasingly the kind of man who will say things like that, although it's a new look for him.

My mom texted me about the incident the night it happened. She expressed thankfulness for Sonia and my brother's girlfriend. In their shock after that near-miss, they knew what mattered. They knew that Sonia and my brother's girlfriend were the people that their children would come home to if something similar happened.

In The Unknown, death is a chalky-faced stranger with the build of Herman Munster. In my life these days, it seems to be animating a little empathy among my family from a still-safe distance. The empathy is motivating -- it feels like all I've ever wanted -- and makes me want to spend as much time with them as possible. Help them keep their monsters at bay.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

An Ocean of Knowledge

The pond in the back of the Hempstock's house in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is also the ocean that carries Lettie's body away, merits more unpacking.

The metaphor of the ocean in this book is so rich it feels Biblical. It is both a placid pond and a ferocious ocean. It's also a bucket of water that transports the seven-year-old narrator to another dimension.
I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.  
Everything whispered inside me. Everything spoke to everything, and I knew it all. 
The ocean is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis. Makes perfect sense that the writers of the Bible would want us to avoid it, too. Seems to me that the keepers of the keys of knowledge too seldom wish to share, as though disseminating knowledge decreases its value.

Or, what if the tree/ocean of knowledge was cast as "original sin" because spending too much time thinking about it -- how souls are made, where we go when we die -- prevents us from being present here on earth, which is the whole point?

After his ocean experience, the narrator has a conversation with Lettie that illustrates this beautifully.
"Do you still know everything, all the time?"  
She shook her head. She didn't smile. She said, "Be boring, knowing everything. You have to give all that stuff up if you're going to muck about here." 
"So you used to know everything?" 
She wrinkled her nose. "Everybody did. I told you. It's nothing special, knowing how things work. And you really do have to give it all up if you want to play."  
"To play what?" 
"This," she said. She waved at the house and the sky and the impossible full moon and the skeins and shawls and clusters of bright stars.
It's nice to believe that when she died, Molly entered this ocean, that she's been granted understanding and wisdom and comfort of a kind I hope not to see for several decades. It's an image of afterlife I can get behind, and provides me comfort comparable to what my mother probably feels when she visualizes heaven.

Long ago, literature became my Bible. I return to the books that have shaped me -- Virginia Woolf's The Waves, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, Stephen Dunn's poetry, and many more -- in the way Christians return to the Bible.

Literature does the Bible one better, I think. It's not a closed system; writers are constantly adding new ideas and metaphors to the conversation, interpreting the world as we find it for a new generation. Thus a book written in 2013, when I was cooking dinners and partying with Molly, offers me comfort when she's gone, just a few years later.

Shine on, bright star. Swim in knowledge.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Ocean Has Taken Her

What a book to read in the weeks I've been staring down death for the first time. Molly's casket was open, my first experience of one. It was bizarre.

I kept looking around, afraid of offending someone, and wanting to whisper, "It doesn't look anything like her." I didn't dare. Did I think the mortician was hanging around, might be insulted?

The body didn't look anything like the human I remembered seeing just over a year ago. Yes, the disease had ravaged her: made her thin, allowed sores to pop up around her mouth. But I'd known Molly on acne-plagued, hungover days without makeup. I'd known her to fluctuate between skinny and a little bit chunky. The changes were more than cosmetic. Molly simply wasn't there.

Which begs the question: where did Molly go?

I struggled with questions like this as a young person -- middle school, high school. I had the Catholics' answers to wrestle with then. By the end of college, I'd adopted a wholistic spirituality inspired by books like The Celestine Prophecy and The Secret, with a little Kerouac thrown in. I trusted my own subjectivity and the power of my mind and my life force to drive compassion, integrity and decision-making. They haven't let me down.

My questioning today feels less like a struggle and more like a point of curiosity, something I wouldn't hesitate to bring up at a dinner party. You know, the nature of mortality. Let's talk about it.

Enter The Ocean at the End of the Lane. In this lovely, scary tale reminiscent of A Wrinkle in Time, a seven-year-old boy discovers truths that remain hidden to the adults around him. He also befriends a girl named Lettie Hempstock.

Lettie looks like she's eleven, but she and her mother and grandmother are older than the world. They get our main character twisted up in other dimensions. A window to another world becomes embedded in his heart, quite literally and quite dangerously.

Lettie ultimately has to sacrifice herself to save the little boy, but the exact nature of that sacrifice remains blurry. Lettie's mother wades with her limp body into the backyard pond. The body floats. We hear about what happens next from the seven-year-old boy.
The great wave came, and the world rumbled, and I looked up as it reached us: it was taller than trees, than houses, than mind or eyes could hold, or heart could follow.  
Only when it reached Lettie Hempstock's floating body did the enormous wave crash down. I expected to be soaked, or worse, to be swept away by the angry ocean water, and I raised my arm to cover my face.  
There was no splash of breakers, no deafening crash, and when I lowered my arm I could see nothing but the still black water of a pond in the night, and there was nothing on the surface of the pond but a smattering of lily pads and the thoughtful, incomplete reflection of the moon.
If only all sendoffs from this world came complete with erratic, otherworldly weather. In fact, as Molly's brother spoke at her "celebration of life" last Saturday, it started to downpour. As he was wrapping up, a clap of thunder shook the Irish center.

"That's Molly telling me, 'that's enough sad talk,'" her brother said.

She's in the weather. She's in the ether. But where is Molly really?

Lettie's mother has an explantation for what happens in the end, to a girl whose spirit is as old as time itself.

"Lettie's hurt. Very badly hurt. The ocean has taken her. Honestly, I don't know if it will ever give her back. But we can hope, can't we?"