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I am in the midst of a week’s study leave. As usual, I didn’t really clear my desk before this “break from usual responsibilities,” much less write the reflection and eulogy I will need for Sunday, so it is far from a week of pure study. But I am managing to spend most of my time immersed in two topics.
One is death and grief. My first book of the week was Irvin Yalom’s Staring Into the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death. By pure chance, the reading for my women’s group was an excerpt on different ways of incorporating past losses into our lives, from On Living, a memoir by hospice chaplain Kerry Egan. Tuesday, I was browsing the natural history section of a bookstore and stumbled upon H is for Hawk, which thanks to a review, I knew was not only natural history but very much about the author’s process of mourning her father’s death. It is now on the pile. The next day, I was browsing the DVD section on a rare trip to San Francisco’s Main Library, and remembered that I’ve been looking for the first season of Six Feet Under for a while. They have it! I’ve watched two episodes, and the people who told me it’s a really good look at death and grief are right.
The other area of immersion is African American history and fiction, a long-term remediation project to fill the gaps in my education and better equip myself to fight white supremacy. I’ve read Bud Not Buddy, a children’s chapter book by Christopher Paul Curtis. I’m also reading March by Geraldine Brooks, with the grain of salt I keep on hand for books about the black experience by white people, especially fiction, but so far, so good: it’s teaching me some things about the Civil War years that I didn’t know, and I’ve been nibbling at this book since December so I really want to finish it. Next up is Ida: A Sword Among Lions, an intimidatingly thick biography of Ida Wells by Paula Giddings–many thanks to Mariame Kaba for the recommendation.
Grief (with thanks to Denise Levertov), conte crayon on paper, 11 x 12 inches
Levertov’s poem “Talking to Grief” gave me this image that helps me to acknowledge and honor such sorrows; I’m so grateful. And grateful also to my spiritual director, the Rev. Sandee Yarlott, for the language of “acknowledging” and “honoring.”
While I was working on the drawing, I returned to the poem and decided to try to translate it into Spanish. Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation, and it’s probably more than I can do to get a literal translation right, much less evoke the poetry of the original. I have a lot of questions for my Spanish teachers when we meet next week, such as “what’s the nearest Spanish equivalent to ‘grief’?” and which of the various terms for “mat” evokes the kind you’d be likely to give to a stray dog, and whether the tone is at all like Levertov’s. But here’s my first pass at it. Friends who are fluent in Spanish, I’d love your input on the translation, if you’re so inclined. The English original is here.
Hablando a Luto
por Denise Levertov
Ah, Luto, yo no debería tratarte
como un perro sin hogar
que venga a la puerta trasera
por una corteza, por un hueso sin carne.
Yo debería confiar en ti.
Yo debería engatusarte
para entrar la casa y darte
tu propio rincón,
Una estera gastada para acostarte,
tu propio plato de agua.
Tú piensas que yo no sé que hayas estado viviendo
debajo de mi porche.
Tú añoras que tu verdadero lugar esté preparado
antes de que el invierno venga. Necesitas
tu collar y chapa. Necesitas
el derecho de ahuyentar intrusos,
mi casa la tuya
y yo tu persona
y tú mismo
mi proprio perro.
This summer’s soundtrack seems to be Bob Dylan’s “Everything is Broken”: “Seems like every time you stop and turn around, something else has just hit the ground.” I’d like to take a page from my soon-to-be-colleague Lauren Way and ask, “What’s good in your life? What’s bringing you joy? What are your victories, small or large?” As she says, we could sure use some good news right now. The comments form is at your disposal.
It’s the first day of Lent and I’ve decided that my practice this year will be to write daily on this blog. I have let it slip, and I miss the discipline of thought that it requires.
I made mental notes about Gravity back last fall when I found the one showing in San Francisco that fit between my drawing class and my time to take my daughter to music, at a small theater that only showed it in 2D. It being Monday afternoon, it was practically a private showing. If you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to skip this post, because here be spoilers.
I loved this movie. I know it drives people crazy who know and care what astronauts do. I’m sure I would froth at the mouth about all the mistakes in a movie about ministers, but since I am not particularly interested in astronauts or the proper procedures for maintenance of space telescopes or the International Space Station, I just enjoyed what the movie was really about, to this viewer. It isn’t supposed to be a documentary about space. To me, it’s about grief, and how difficult it is to return to daily life when all you want to do is float away and never feel anything again.
And before I even knew that, at the very first shot, I started to cry. There they were, little tiny people floating in this unimaginably large, indifferent expanse. As the introduction says, life in space is impossible. And then the moviemakers show us people in space. I thought, “That’s us! We’re all floating here in space for a tiny amount of time and then phut,” and I just stayed in that existential crisis for the following two hours. I thought that that was a different emotional issue than grief–me fussing about my own mortality instead of my never-absent dread that my daughter might precede me into death–but several months’ rumination on Gravity have made me realize that maybe they are really the same sorrow.
In the end, ironically enough, it is a very small movie, in the sense that it isn’t epic in scope but about a single person coping with a single event that is not newsworthy or noteworthy to anyone much except her. (I like small movies.) A woman’s young daughter has died. The woman, Ryan Stone, doesn’t know how to go on, or how to want to; she hasn’t touched the ground since. On earth, she achieves this by driving as much as possible, always moving. In space, maybe it’s easier to float, but maybe not; when we first see her, she is fighting nausea, and clearly her distress is not just physical. By the close of the movie, however, she wants to live. She digs her hands into the earth, grateful just to be here, and when she stands up on those shaky legs, the camera looks up at her as if at a colossus. With that shot, Cuarón is saying that Stone is heroic, and she is.
One critic couldn’t resist the pun, and wrote (safely after the winner was announced) about the Academy’s choice between “Gravity and gravitas,” the latter being represented by 12 Years a Slave. I can’t compare this movie to 12 Years a Slave or any of the other Best Picture nominees, because it’s the only one I’ve seen so far, but I cannot agree that Gravity lacks gravitas. The writers named it well. “Gravity” stands for one of the weightiest, most serious losses a person can endure. It is what tethers us to reality and all the pain it brings, rather than our floating in a half-existence. If you wanted to demonstrate gravity in the most prototypical way, you might drop a stone, the main character’s name. And, of course, “gravity” evokes the grave, in this movie about death and coping with loss. The daughter even died of gravity. The writers could have made the cause of her death drowning, or poisoning, or a car collision, but in one of their subtler details, they tell us: she fell. She fell to earth. It is a small movie, as I say, but a grave one, and a joyful one, too, because in the end Stone chooses life and is glad that she has.