Monday, April 26, 2010

Grief & Relief

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some of my favorite Anne Lamott quotations here and on my Book Blog. Another one of her anecdotes that has always stayed with me is the conversation she has with a priest in Traveling Mercies when she is first pregnant with Sam and can't decide what to do.

This passage is tied in with her difficult decision about whether or not to let young Sam go paragliding for his seventh birthday. I like the way that "grief" and "relief" are woven together in Lamott's thought process and in the priest's advice. He says that when it's a question of feeling "a deep and secret sense of relief, pay attention to that. But if you feel deeply grieved at the thought, listen to that" (Traveling Mercies 86).

Of course, sometimes (this is my observation, not Lamott's), the decision that brings deep relief is also deeply grieving. Maybe in those cases you just have to focus on the relief and give it precedence over the grief. Otherwise, you end up trying to fix one mistake by making another mistake, and that never works.

Additional thoughts on grief and relief:

"The truth about our childhood is stored up in our bodies, and although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, our perceptions confused, and our bodies tricked with medication. But someday the body will present its bill."

Alice Duer Miller (1874 - 1942)
American writer, mathematician, suffragist


I came across this passage a few years ago in The Old Farmer's Almanac Millennium Primer. This turn of the (recent) century handbook features a lot of silly old rhymes and folklore, but occasionally a thought or two will strike me as meaningful. I was wavering on this passage -- smart or stupid? love it, hate it? I kept going back to it, even though I had moved beyond that page. It seems a rather modern idea if you assume that what she means by "body" is what we post-Freudians might call "psyche" and if we assume that "childhood," as Miller uses the term, can be equated with "grief." Thus: "The truth about our childhood [GRIEF] is stored up in our bodies [PSYCHES]."

Rereading Anne Lamott, I came across a comment that increased my understanding of Miller's perspective:

"But what I've discovered . . . is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it" (Traveling Mercies 68)

Anne Lamott (b 1954)
American writer and progressive political activist


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And yet another way in which the bill is paid:

"Time engraves our faces with all the tears we have not shed."
Natalie Clifford Barney (1876-1972)

American writer, lesbian activist, and salon hostess
expatriate living in Paris and writing predominantly in French

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You can cover grief [or childhood] up and refuse to experience it, but it's still there, under layer upon layer of life, making you sad at the very core of your being -- that "barren, isolated place." Maybe experiencing all that buried pain as a path to self - acceptance is our 21st Century understanding of Miller's earlier metaphor of the body presenting a bill. The psyche will present its bill. Or the disasters of your life will be your bill. We either experience and accept that grief (i.e., pay the bill), or we live out our adult lives sick at heart, sick in body, soul, and spirit.

But not to sound too hopelessly hopeless! In fact, Lamott says that sometimes something amazing can happen. She says, "I would call it grace, but then, I'm easy. It was that deeper breath, or pause or briefly cleaner glasses, that gives us a bit of freedom and relief, " (Grace (Eventually) Thoughts on Faith 232, my emphasis).

Here's to briefly cleaner glasses! That's a good start!


FOR MORE ON ANNE LAMOTT'S NON-FICTION

OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS:
A JOURNAL OF MY SON'S FIRST YEAR (1993)

BIRD BY BIRD:
SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE (1994)

TRAVELING MERCIES: SOME THOUGHTS ON FAITH (1999)
PLAN B: THOUGHTS ON FAITH (2005)
GRACE (EVENTUALLY): THOUGHTS ON FAITH (2007)

READ THE LATEST POST ON MY BOOK BLOG:
"CATCHING UP ON ANNE LAMOTT"
KITTI'S BOOK LIST

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