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Friday, February 10, 2023

“No, how are you, really?”

Recently I wrote, in two consecutive posts, about feeling “crabby” one morning -- the same day, written about twice, because the hours had divided themselves into a morning of outdoor adventure and afternoon of indoor reading. Now, in light of a book I devoured in two days of intense reading, I want to revisit that day briefly before getting into the book. 

Saying I’d been “crabby” when I first got up wasn’t a falsehood, but the word was not as accurate as another I could have used. Initially the word that came to mind that morning, without my having to search for it at all, was abandoned. I felt abandoned. 

But when I wrote about the day, I didn’t want to name my feeling so bluntly-- didn’t want to sound pathetic or self-pitying and discourage people from reading any further – the risk I’m taking today. After all, abandonment was, and is, hardly an objective fact of my life: I have family, friends, neighbors, dog; I see people and receive phone calls and text and e-mails and even postcards and letters in my physical mailbox down the road. To feel abandoned, then, was not a logical, rational thought. The feeling, however, was real and deep. Abandoned. Bereft. Because absence is a constant presence in my life now and can demand to be recognized when I least expect it.

Days before, I had started a very different post, a brutally honest one, thinking it the beginning of a draft for next month. “The Cruelest Month,” I titled those paragraphs, writing that the cruelest month wasn’t April for me, as the poet would have it, but March: Since my husband died last year in March (nine days after his February birthday), last year’s “cascade” of medical issues, beginning in January and ending in death, now repeats itself as a cascade of unavoidable memories, with the anniversary of the end looming ever closer.

Thus the feeling of being abandoned -- although I need to explain further that feeling abandoned does not necessarily correlate to being alone. Sometimes I am perfectly happy alone (as when reading that paper by Georges Poulet), while other times (not always!) with other people I can feel like a sad little island, abandoned in a sea of grief. Because widowhood is not all one color. Every day is not grey and rainy and dismal. 

And speaking of weather, I have always found my moods affected by weather (and used to tell the Artist, “I’m a very shallow person” for that very reason), but grief can make warm sunshine seem pointless, whereas a rainy day can give the perfect excuse to curl up alone, contentedly, and read a book. People, weather – sometimes they encourage certain feelings, and other times the feelings are completely at odds with what’s going on in the “outside” world – that is, outside one’s own head, heart, and skin.

In her new book, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, Susan Cain (author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) explores the tendency of some of us to what Aristotle called ‘melancholy,’ those feelings of 

…longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. The bittersweet is also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and death –bitter and sweet – are forever paired.

From sadness, creativity, seeking unconditional human love or divine love, and the American gospel of positive thinking to grief and loss, “getting over it,” immortality, and intergenerational pain, this book goes broad and deep. There is the story, perhaps apocryphal (and maybe you’ve read it before, as I have), of Franz Kafka giving, to a little girl heartbroken after losing her favorite doll, a new doll with a letter he wrote as if the old doll had written it: “My travels have changed me.” For everyone who has ever lived, change and loss are inevitable, and when they come, life will never again be what it was. 

(Typing that last sentence, the one just above, I first typed “For anyone who has ever loved….” Has anyone ever lived without loving? Such a life would not keep one safe from change and loss. It would not be much of a life at all.)

It's too early in the year to know if Bittersweet will be the most important book I’ll read in 2023, but I know it is one I will be recommending to others and will re-read again and again myself. It is much, much more personal than Cain’s earlier work, and the pieces of memoir, which come along unexpectedly in various chapters, enrich the author’s themes. 

A couple of pages very meaningful to me personally had to do with writing when we are sad. She cites the work of Texas social psychologist James Pennebaker, who stumbled on something when he was suffering from depression and began writing down “the contents of his heart,” as Cain puts it. 

…And he noticed that the more he wrote, the better he felt. He opened up to his wife again [he had been drinking; they had been fighting], and to his work. His depression lifted.

The psychologist went on to make the phenomenon he experienced the basis for decades of study. He asked groups of people to write about their personal troubles, directing others to write about mundane facts in their lives.

Pennebaker found that the people who wrote about their troubles were markedly calmer and happier than those who described their sneakers. Even months later, they were physically healthier, with lower blood pressure and fewer doctor’s visits. They had better relationships and more success at work. 

Those who did the exercise of “expressive writing,” Cain reports from Pennebaker’s work, were not wallowing in their troubles but deriving insight from confronting and facing their pain.

P.S. 2/16/2023: Oprah picked this book! It's her 99th Book Club pick!

A couple weeks ago, before I’d even seen this book, I sat down to write a long letter. (I write letters, as well as blog posts, but letters I write by hand, on paper, with pen.) I began writing in a rather “pitiful” state of mind, going on and on about my reasons for feeling blue, somewhat as I admitted in my post the other day to feeling “crabby” but with a lot more honesty. By the last page of my letter, though, as I noted before the closing line, I had written myself into a cheerful frame of mind! I’ve noticed before, more than once when drafting blog posts, that I often sit down feeling sad and then somehow write myself into gratitude.

Writing isn’t a silver bullet or a magic potion and doesn’t always banish the blues. And they do come back. But that’s life: sometimes it’s an emotional rainy day, and then the sun shines again, and predicting how we’ll feel on any given future day is never foolproof. But if, as another friend says of me, I am a graphomaniac, I guess that’s one more thing to be thankful for in my life, because now and again writing gets me out of some dark places and back into the light.

1 comment:

Karen Casebeer said...

A beautiful blog post, Pamela. I had wondered about your "crabbiness," knowing you were in the midst of difficult remembrances and anniversaries. I'm glad the writing helps. Benefits your readers too. Can't wait to read Cain's book. Thank you.