Friday, June 19, 2009
The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick was one of our required books for the last session of Natalie's intensive. It's a fantastic book, essays of an intellectual nature about how to distinguish between memoir and personal narrative. Very educational, lots of examples, and an introduction which, as Nat said and I agree, is "pure dharma." I won't even quote it here, that's how good the whole thing is. Read it - check it out from the library, buy it from your indy local bookstore. Yessiree.
In the process of tracking down that title, I also ran into her memoir Fierce Attachments at St. Vinnies for a buck. I bought it, as it promised me to be about a mother-daughter relationship after the father dies when the daughter is in her teens and mom in post-menopausal world. Sigh. Sound familiar? With a title like Fierce Attachments and a name like Gornick's attached, I couldn't pass it up.
Now I can barely pass it through my system. It's a stormy night/day and I feel like the weather, though of course this is more atmospheric and symbolic than true, is reflecting my immersion into this book. My god. Some of the passages strike more closely to home than anything ever has. There are plenty of books out there about grief - the loss of the living - but it takes a special mind to be able to depict the loss of *life*, a parent or partner who totally subsumes under death's will, not theirs, but that of a loved one's. Here's a passage I read to Dylan last night which made him wince, and I said "Don't you see? This is exactly what it was like in my mom's house after my dad died and it was just her and me." Gornick tells it too well, I guess better than I ever have, which is a strange relief:
"It was the year after my father's death, the year in which I began to sit on the fire escape late at night making up stories in my head. The atmosphere in our house had become morgue-like. My mother's grief was primitive and all-encompassing: it sucked the oxygen out of the air. A heavy drugged sensation filled my head and my body whenever I came back into the apartment. We, none of us -- not my brother, not I, certainly not my mother -- found comfort in one another. We were only exiled together, trapped in a common affliction. Loneliness of the spirit seized conscious hold of me for the first time, and as I turned my face to the street, to the dreamy melancholy inner suggestiveness that had become the only relief from what I quickly perceived as a condition of loss, and of defeat."
(Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments, page 55)
Shit. So I did this outside my own window, in a room separate from my mother. So it was just my mother and I. But otherwise the story is the same. The story of unmitigated but also fiercely attached-to grief. Her mom couldn't let it go and it dragged her down, which dragged everyone down. Hopefully you've read other passages by now of my blog, so you know I am not just blaming the mom. I know that grief is ongoing, all too well. That's all the more reason to let it go when you can. And her mom didn't. Ever. Hurt her worse than anyone and made collateral damage on her daughter. Sounds very familiar to me.
Then, because she is blessed, and rich and full, Gornick depicts openness, mindfulness, awareness, with the same ease, the same pedestrian everyone-can-understand way, just a dozen or so pages later:
"That space. It begins in the middle of my forehead and ends in the middle of my groin. It is, variously, as wide as my body, as narrow as the slit in a fortress wall. On days when thought flows freely or better yet clarifies with effort, it expands gloriously. On days when anxiety and self-pity crowd in, it shrinks, how fast it shrinks! When the space is wide and I occupy it fully, I taste the air, feel the light. I breathe evenly and slowly. I am peaceful and excited, beyond influence or threat. Nothing can touch me. I'm safe. I'm free. I'm thinking. When I lose the battle to think, the boundaries narrow, the air is polluted, the light clouds over. All is vapor and fog, and I have trouble breathing."
-Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments, p.103
Not only does she depict singular suffering (the situation of her father's death and mother's grief) but also the larger picture of enlightenment and suffering (what a story we attach to!). Amazing stuff, and not just for another orphan, or 1/2 orphan, as she points out, since she had "only lost Father."
The fierce attachments that Gornick depicts for herself most in this book are that spaciousness on one end and the horrid grief that calls her home on the other. Where's the middle ground? I'll let you read yourself to find out.