A Happy Birthday to a Most Wonderful Grandfather

Today would have been my grandfather’s 84th birthday. I wrote about him last year, right around this time, and today as I sit here thinking of him, it is his intrinsic goodness and gentleness of spirit that shine the brightest among my memories of him. Through his passion for living, boundless generosity, sincere joyfulness, intense loyalty, and never-ending capacity to love he became the shining example of what it meant to be a good human being, and more than anyone, he taught me the immense power of kindness and joy.

Happy birthday, granddad!

Happy birthday, granddad!

Recently, I had the incredible pleasure of reconnecting with my ex step-mother; a woman who, for nearly a dozen years, played a very big role in my life. Soon after, she told me that her mother had recently passed away, and although I had not seen either one of them in nearly twenty years, my heart was filled with incredible sadness at the news. I realized as the tears welled up in my eyes, that she had been one of those rare people who left an indelible mark on who I am, despite the relatively brief time that I knew her. She was, perhaps, one of the most tender-hearted people who I have had the joy of knowing, always happily willing to go out of her way to make everyone feel welcomed and at home. She had an easy and unassuming way of making me feel, even as an awkward and difficult teenager, well, important. I realized, as I mourned her passing, that she had taught me, like my grandfather, the quiet strength that can lie in gentleness and goodness.

I also recall a Saturday night several moths ago when I sat across from Greg at dinner and listened intently as he spoke about his mother-in-law, grandmother, and grandfather. The change in his voice when he spoke of them, the look in his eyes when he told me of his memories, spoke to the powerful impact and influence that they had on his life. He was lucky to have them, and the common thread between all of them, was, again, their innate kindness and goodness, and the impact that they have had on him is undeniable, as he is undoubtedly one of the kindest, warmest, and most loving men that I have ever known, both as a father to his children and as a partner to me.

We live in a culture that seems to embrace the loud and aggressive kind of strength, the kind that shouts, pushes, and beats its chest. Whether it’s on television, film, or music, those that win are those that push and manipulate their way ahead… or those with the biggest guns. In either case, kindness and joyfulness are seldom depicted as a true virtues, and never as real sources of strength. But the truth is, as I look back on my forty years, it’s not the loud and aggressive that have left a positive mark on my life, but the gentle and kind. It’s them, people like my grandfather, my ex-step-grandmother, and others like them that have given me the keys to living a fundamentally rich and rewarding life.

My daughter is now four years old. In such a blurred rush of time, she’s gone from an infant in my arms to an independent child with a big personality of her own. Last night, as I tucked her in for the night, I wondered who would she encounter in her life, that later she would recall as having helped shape and guide her. My grandfather is no longer here to be that stellar example for her, but I can only hope, despite my many faults, that I can through my actions, show her the lessons that he and others like him taught me.

Happy birthday, Granddad, and thank you for teaching me to find me strength in kindness and compassion, and in gentleness and generosity. I love and miss you terribly.


Day 4: A Book That’s Made Me Cry

Before I begin, I am bending the rules a little bit with this one. I am picking two books for today’s challenge. Both have very much in common, both in terms of their theme of unfulfilled love, and in regards to how they relate to me. Both are connected to pretty powerful moments and memories, and because of that, I think the power of them to move me is that much stronger.

Perhaps because I read it so recently, or maybe because its theme of unfulfilled love hit so close to home when I did read it, my first selection came quite easily. In fact, it was the first thought that sprang to mind when I saw the list of challenges on the first day. My first pick for day four of this challenge is Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Did it really have to be like this? — that the source of Man’s containment becomes the source of his misery?

That line succinctly expresses the overarching theme of this novel. It is a relatively short and straightforward narrative about a man, Werther, and his inability to come to terms with the fact that the woman he loves can never be his, as she, Lotte, is betrothed, and later married, to Albert. His love for her is passionate and deeply moving, and all-consuming to the point of self-destruction.

I have so much, and my feelings for her absorb it all; I have so much, and without her it is all nothing.

What makes this book so tragic lies in both the way that Werther attempts, and fails, at coming to terms with a love that simply can never be his, and in the beauty and power of the words that Goethe uses to describe Werther’s suffering. I couldn’t help but be completely consumed by the story once I started reading, and watching Werther grappling with the futility of his every action to sway Lotte’s heart in his direction moved me to tears more than once.

One of the most powerful moments in the book, and one in which I could scarcely hold back my tears, was towards the end, in a scene that would the last time that Werther and Lotte would be together. By this point, Werther has already decided to end his life, and Lotte, during the course of the meeting, grows to suspect as much. Instead of confronting the issue, they spend their last moments together with Werther reading to Lotte, a story mirroring their own tragedy, both aware of the power of the words they speak, yet unable to bring themselves to act upon it. They both break down as Werther reads, barely making it through the story.

A flood of tears poured from Lotte’s eyes, easing her beset heart and interrupting Werther’s song. He threw the manuscript aside, took hold of her hand and shed the bitterest of tears. Lotte leaned on her other hand, her handkerchief to her eyes. Both of them were fearfully agitated. They could sense their own wretchedness in the fates of the noble heroes; they sensed it together, and shed tears in harmony. Werther rested his feverish lips on Lotte’s arm; she trembled; she wanted to go, yet pain and sympathy lay numbingly upon her like lead. She took deep breaths to revive herself, and, sobbing, asking him to go on, imploring him in very heaven’s voice! Werther was shaking, his heart was fit to burst, but he took up the manuscript and read, in a voice half broken…

He reads another short passage from the manuscript, once again speaking to the impossibility of their situation, and once again he breaks down,

The whole force of those words overwhelmed the unhappy Werther. He flung himself down before Lotte in deep despair and seized her hands, pressing them to his eyes and forehead, and a premonition of his terrible intention flickered in her soul. Her senses were bewildered; she squeezed his hands and pressed him to her breast, bent towards him with feelings of deeply moved melancholy, and their warm cheeks touched. They were oblivious to the world about them. He clasped her in his arms, held her to his breast and covered her with trembling, murmuring lips with fiery kisses….

The book ends with a narrator stepping in and telling of the finding of Werther after he had shot himself. He was still alive, but soon to die. The narrator did not speak to what happened to Lotte and Albert. The story ended as abruptly as Werther’s short life.

The story cannot help but move us because it reminds us that in this life, we will all too often be refused that which we long for the most, that which we feel will make us whole. Werther could not come to accept it, and the result was tragic. And although thankfully we are not all Werther in the sense that we do come to accept our own refusals and rejections, at least to some extent, his suffering is expressed in such a way that it speaks to those feelings in us. The story tugs at us and forces us to face our own suffering and sadness in a way that, if only briefly, makes us wonder if we are capable of bearing their weight. Werther is deeply flawed, but also very human, and in that sense, Sorrows becomes a book about all of us.

On a personal note, and perhaps one of the reasons that this book sprung so quickly into my mind when I saw today’s category, is that I read this book shortly after my own heartbreak. It expressed my sadness better than I could have every thought to do, and it made feel sadness much more keenly than if I had been reading this book at a time when all was “right with the world.” Werther’s situation was too closely similar to my own, and the tears I shed for Werther, were in reality, also tears that I shed for myself. And now that this book has been linked to that moment in my life, I suspect that the any rereading of this book will always bring back a flood of memories and feelings of my own.

As I said at the beginning, I have two picks for today’s challenge, and my second choice is Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I do, however,realize that I’ve already written too much, so I’ll make this short.

I read this book almost exactly one year ago, and I remember that aside from the intellectual satisfaction that I got from reading such a richly multi-layered text, feeling deeply saddened and moved by the story. Atonement shares much in common with Werther, at least insofar as it’s a book about unfulfilled and impossible love, and the narrative is so powerful and so expertly written that we cannot help but feel completely invested in the narrative and in the characters lives. Where Werther is simple and straightforward, however, McEwan’s novel is rich and complex, leading the reader through a narrative within a narrative that tells the story of mistakes with far-reaching consequences, love that is never fulfilled, and the terrible burden of guilt.

The end of this book is where the true tragedy lies, and it reminds me of what we feel when watching the last two minutes of the opera Tosca. The sigh of relief that we had just breathed towards the end of Part III of the novel, when we thought that ending would be a happy one, we quickly learn was merely a fabrication of the narrator, a way for her to come to terms with and atone for the role she played in rendering the love story central to the novel impossible. There was no happy ending, the lovers never had their reunion, and there was never any hope for a fulfillment of their love.

I can write forever about this book, and on so many different levels, but I promised to keep it brief. The entire narrative is one which reminds us, like Werther, that despite how much we long for someone, that desire and love, now matter how deep and seemingly perfect, may not be enough to overcome all the obstacles that life, and others, can put in our way. In this book, like Werther, love does not conquer all. And there, is where the sadness lies, with the realization that in real life, as in these stories, fairy tale endings exist only in fairy tales, and that unfulfilled love is a universal reality.

Happy Valentine’s Day

This beautiful cake is from Hello Naomi.

Although I was initially approaching today with something akin to dread, something happened this morning to change my feelings. My daughter had snuck into my bed at some point in the middle of the night, and woke me up this morning with an enormous hug and many kisses wishing me a happy Valentine’s Day. In an instant she made me realize that although I don’t, right now, have “romantic” love in my life, that I do an abundance of love within my little family of my daughter, me, and our cat. She made us wear matching outfits today, which I was more than happy to oblige as long as she kept smiling, and out the door we went, making up Valentine’s Day songs dressed in our white jeans and pink sweaters. As soon as I get out of work, we are rolling up our sleeves and baking something special, and having our very own Valentine’s Day party.

I wish all of you a beautiful day filled with love, whatever kind of love you have in your lives, and more happiness than you know what to do with!

Happy Valentine’s Day

On Love and Forgetting: A personal note

Georges Seurat, Seated Woman (1883)

I’m breaking my rule about no personal posts, but what good are rules if we don’t break them every now and again?

I was recently left by someone who I was really and truly prepared to love for the long haul. It was sudden, painful, and awful in ways that we’ve all experienced but still don’t have the words to describe. Someone really should come up with a break-up specific vocabulary… don’t Eskimos have about a million words for snow?

Of course, I wanted to lock myself in my room and not emerge for days or weeks, allowing myself the time to mourn the loss of something I wasn’t ready to let go of, but being a single mom, that was not an option. I had to go on as if nothing had changed, at least in front of my daughter (she’s only three). Which got me to thinking about forgetting. If I could forget the emotions that tied me to him, if I could stop replaying the hundreds of conversations that seemed only possible between the two of us,  then maybe I could really go on as if nothing had happened. It would be as if Mr. Peabody pushed a button on his WABAC machine, and all was reset. Byron captured it best, at the end of his poem “To Caroline,”

And yet, my girl, we weep in vain,
In vain our fate in sighs deplore;
Remembrance only can remain,
But that, will make us weep the more.

Again, thou best belov’d, adieu!
Ah! if thou canst, o’ercome regret,
Nor let thy mind past joys review,
Our only hope is, to forget!

A while back I wrote that his words in this poem elicit, at least in me, powerfully contrasting emotions. On the one hand it stirs a yearning for such a deep love, while at the same time it evokes a palpable sense of fear of experiencing such a profound loss. I suppose I knew then, when I wrote about Byron and love, that experiencing that kind of loss was a real possibility. Perhaps that’s why it was so hard then to type out those last two stanzas.

I’m currently reading a book titled Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting, by Harald Weinrich. It had been sitting on my shelf for a while, and now it simply seemed like a good time to read it. The book traces “forgetting” through Western cultural history, from Homer, Vergil and Ovid, and Dante, to Kant, Freud, Proust, and Sartre (among others). This book actually reminds me quite a bit of Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight. Attlee searched for moonlight, Weinrich seeks forgetting. Although I’m only about halfway through the book, its been an interesting exercise to look at how others have sought forgetfulness; the countless poets, writers, and heroes that have chosen to exchange the weight of their memories for the lightness of a blank slate. If nothing else, its good to know that I’m in good company in wanting to forget.

Salvation and healing are sought in forgetting above all when a mortal is throated by pain and suffering. Forgetting one’s misfortune is already half of happiness.

Reading Lethe also brought to mind one Umberto Eco’s essay, “An Ars Oblivionaris, Forget it!” that I wrote about in the first days of this blog. In it Eco wrote about the impossibility of voluntary forgetfulness; that although we may employ several techniques to help us remember, there is, for better or worse, nothing we can do to help us forget. He suggests one way that we can if not quite forget, we can at least muddy the waters of memory,

“One forgets not by cancellation but by superimposition, not by producing absence but by multiplying presences.”

Needless to say, the application of that idea to this situation may have worked in my early twenties, but not now.  But if there was a method I could use to truly forget, would I use it? I’ve certainly fantasized about it this past month, but if seriously presented with the chance to “produce oblivion”, would I take it, even if it also meant forgetting all the good, too?

Then late last night I came across this post on the “Freshly Pressed” page. Needless to say, its title “On Eternal Sunshine, Erasing Memories, and Facebook Timeline” (okay, maybe not the Facebook part) immediately spoke to my current obsession with remembrance and forgetting. In the “Erasing Memories” segment of her post, she talked literally erasing her memories, or at least the evidence of them by deleting chat logs, Facebook messages, emails. (When I was in high school the equivalent would have been throwing away the letters, tearing apart the photographs and erasing the ubiquitous “mix tapes.) She refers to it as kind of “self-curating.” Its a great idea, in theory, but despite my desire to forget the love I felt and still feel, I’ve had no impulse whatsoever to delete anything. Although I’m nowhere near ready to go back and reread our exchanges, I imagine that one day looking back on them might provide a little clarity, some answers, or maybe just a chance to reminisce about something that was good.

She also mentioned the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’ve seen the movie a couple of times in the past, and I’ve always liked it, although I could never really connect with it. I’ve always been a firm believer in some permutation of “no regrets,” and by extension that means “no forgetting.” I could never understand why Joel and Clementine chose to erase their memories of each other. Now I get it. There’s that part in the film where Joel (Jim Carey’s character) goes into Lacuna (which interestingly enough means  a blank space, gap, or missing part), to have the memories of his relationship with Clementine erased. The doctor then explains,

There’s an emotional core to each of our memories, and when you eradicate that core it starts its degradation process. By the time you wake up in the morning, all the memories we’ve targeted will have withered and disappeared, as in a dream upon waking.

An emotional core indeed. All my memories seem intertwined with emotion at the moment, and the urge to erase and forget is now strong. I suspect that if there did exist an ars oblivionaris, a Lacuna, Inc., or a river named Lethe for that matter, that I would be seriously tempted to use it, but I’m sure that if I did, that there would come a time when I would regret it. Even Joel, at the end of Eternal Sunshine, choses to remember. Erasing my memories would be erasing what was an incredibly loving, honest, passionate, and, well, a fundamentally good part of my life.

I suppose I’m glad that there’s no way to erase our memories, or to go back in time and reset everything. At the end of the day, despite the heartache of loss, I know that eventually the memories will be good ones. Today remembrance brings with it a mixed bag of hope, loss, regret, and longing, but although remembering is painful, maybe one day it will all make sense. After all, it’s all of these experiences that shape who we are. That, and of course only by acknowledging the past can we hope to make peace with it.

Love and Byron

The question of love has been very much on my mind lately. It sometimes feels as if we’re wired to love, but not equipped to deal with the pains that seem to be a part of truly loving someone, and for the last month I’ve been quietly seeking my answers in the poetry of George Gordon, Lord Byron.

I think like most people, I first met Byron in my high school English Literature class.  It was taught by this supremely elegant woman who seemed to have such command of every word, every nuance, and every theme.  My love of literature and poetry were awakened with her.  I fell in love with Chaucer (and in college proceeded to learn Middle English as a result), breezed through Shakespeare, sat horrified and riveted by Robert Browning, was mystified by Blake, and quite literally wept with joy at what Coleridge could do with simple words, all while under her spell.  Then we got to Byron, and the spell was broken.  He seemed trite, almost dismissive.  How could he be placed among greats like Keats and Shelley, I asked?  The answer wouldn’t come until much later.

That “later” came in college, where I took a course titled “Second Generation Romantic Literature.” I figured Byron would be the price to pay to get to fully immerse myself in Shelley and Keats for a semester. It turns out, however, that Byron was the prize. It was here that I began to see him in a different light.  I began to see beyond my high school perception of Byron as the handsome but superficial womanizer, and began to appreciate the subtle complexities of both his life and his work. His poetry, I realized expressed a heartbreaking innocence juxtaposed against a near knavish manner, an almost brooding darkness set against a childlike playfulness, his heroic actions contrasted against his physical deformity.  He was right when he said, “I am such a strange mélangé of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe me.” But what truly engaged me, what began my love affair with Byron was his passion, and not just in the obvious sense.  Yes, he clearly had a passion for women, but he had a passion for life, for words, and for feeling… for all that makes us human.  It was with this new perspective on Byron that I reread the first poem of his that I had so hated in high school, “She Walks in Beauty,”

She walks in Beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!

What had once seemed trite now seemed tender, seductive, rhythmic.  It made me long to be that woman described by someone so attentively and lovingly. The poem lost its “high school” simplicity and opened me up to what else Byron had to offer, such as this…

Think’st thou I saw thy beauteous eyes,
Suffus’d in tears, implore to stay;
And heard unmov’d thy plenteous sighs,
Which said far more than words can say?

Though keen the grief thy tears exprest,
When love and hope lay both o’erthrown;
Yet still, my girl, this bleeding breast
Throbb’d, with deep sorrow, as thine own.

But, when our cheeks with anguish glow’d,
When thy sweet lips were join’d to mine;
The tears that from my eyelids flow’d
Were lost in those which fell from thine.

Thou could’st not feel my burning cheek,
Thy gushing tears had quench’d its flame,
And, as thy tongue essay’d to speak,
In sighs alone it breath’d my name.

And yet, my girl, we weep in vain,
In vain our fate in sighs deplore;
Remembrance only can remain,
But that, will make us weep the more.

Again, thou best belov’d, adieu!
Ah! if thou canst, o’ercome regret,
Nor let thy mind past joys review,
Our only hope is, to forget!

I almost didn’t include the last two stanzas of this poem, “To Caroline,” because they invariably make me cry.  Such longing, sadness, love, passion… the desire to just lose themselves in each other is palpable, and one cannot help but feel it with them.  It makes one envious of that love shared, yet so afraid of enduring that kind of loss.  What beautiful contrast, and what beautiful emotion.

Byron’s way of describing such intimate feeling, elicits from us an equally powerful reaction, whether we are complicit or not. His understanding of human nature, of what moves us, of what we fear, and of what we desire, cause his poetry to seem to speak directly to our hearts and souls.  One of my favorite poems of his, “Solitude,” always seemed to highlight this understanding of who we are.

To sit on rocks, to muse o’er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,
Where things that own not man’s dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
Alone o’er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude, ’tis but to hold
Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.

But midst the crowd, the hurry, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam alone, the world’s tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less
Of all the flattered, followed, sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!

Last, before I go on too long, there is one poem that always shined like a ray of hope.  His “Stanzas to Augusta” (Augusta being his sister with whom he purportedly had an incestuous affair, this is Byron, after all), speaks to the power of love itself, to withstand adversity, to face all challenges, to give strength that seems impossible, and to pull the lovers through.

…Oh, blest be thine unbroken light!
That watched me as a seraph’s eye,
And stood between me and the night,
For ever shining sweetly nigh.

And when the cloud upon us came,
Which strove to blacken o’er thy ray –
Then purer spread its gentle flame,
And dashed the darkness all away.
The winds might rend, the skies might pour,
But there thou wert -and still wouldst be
Devoted in the stormiest hour
To shed thy weeping leaves o’er me.

…But thou and thine shall know no blight,
Whatever fate on me may fall;
For heaven in sunshine will requite
The kind -and thee the most of all.

Then let the ties of baffled love
Be broken -thine will never break;
Thy heart can feel -but will not move;
Thy soul, though soft, will never shake.

And these, when all was lost beside,
Were found, and still are fixed in thee;-
And bearing still a breast so tried,
Earth is no desert -e’en to me.

Still no answers to my questions about love, but one thing Byron does illuminate is the ability of love to transform us in ineffable ways.  Ineffable to us, maybe… it takes a poet like Byron to put into words that which exists only in our hearts.