Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Language and Loss: Some More Thoughts

A couple of weeks ago I posted a blog about language and loss. It was inspired by a conversation I have been having with Christina Sanantonio, a writer and blogger living in Central Illinois. She wrote about how difficult it was to talk about loss. Many of the things she said hit home with me, but one of the things was especially important. She said, "We ache for a language that doesn't exist."



Just a few days ago, I received an email from Wanda with her thoughts on memory, language, writing, and loss. Her letter continues the discussion Christina and I and the people who have written comments on my earlier post have been having. Wanda has an insight and clarity that has me thinking again about language and loss.

Here's her letter:

I remember something I read in Out of the Silent Planet by C.S Lewis when I was about 16. It was about how events remain incomplete until we remember them. It is our memory which draws the essential truth from an event, and the telling of it closes a circle. Other circles may be born from the event as we recall different aspects of it, as we grow older and gain more perspective, but as soon as we tell it -- whether speaking, writing, or merely naming it in our own minds -- it closes a circle. It becomes complete. And separate unto itself. Another loss.

Feeling the pain of loss is a silver thread which continues to unite us with the loved one who has died, so there's often a subconscious, or even conscious, reluctance to actively do things which would alleviate the pain. Even though we know it might "be better" to talk about the loss, to write about it, paint it, whatever, I think we also know deep down that once we do so and let some of the pain move out from us, borne by the flow of expression and received in witness by another, that something in us will be subtly and irreparably different. Even if we come out "better" for it, we still mourn the way we were mourning because in that way we had a certain connection with our loved one. Now, that connection is different. Stepping into the "now," we have to step off the shore of the "then." It's a bittersweet thing.

As my aunt and my father were dying between November and March this year, I - like you - kept note of everything I could. I even got my dad to draw or write something in a small sketchbook every day that he could. He’d draw his house in Poland, the storks, faces, chickens, and flowers. Day by day they changed a bit, and when the drawings deteriorated along with his presence, they became such mournful treasures. My aunt shared her dreams with me until one day, about three days before she died, she just said "There is so much I have that I'd like to share with you, but I'm not going to because if I do, I won't have it anymore." With both my aunt and my father, our manner of communication changed -- somehow more intimate while the space between our worlds grew ever larger.

One of the things which kept me going was knowing that I would write and paint about their dying. I've often wanted to share the poems and the painting, but I find it strange that I don't seem to be able to. Not even my siblings have read them. Still, I know that certain lines and poems of yours have resonated to the core with me...painful, but helpful. And some of Martin Stepek's are the same...I cry each time I read them, but it's good to read them. So it's by some kind of grace that our pain can move out from within us on waves of words, ripple out to spark healing in others. And the old wisdom of ancient healers has always said that what you put out into the world shall return sevenfold to you.

Is the healing in movement? in sharing? in knowing? Holding only helps for a while...the universe is movement, and as we are part of that I would have to say that movement is important for life and healing and yes for the dying too.

The poems about your mom's dying will come when it's time. But even when you write about not being able to write them, it means a lot to those of us who read that.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Language and Loss

My friend the writer Christina Sanantonio and I have been having a conversation about writing about loss. It’s a conversation fueled in part by the recent suicide of the novelist David Foster Wallace. She wrote me a long letter about how we use or don’t use language to talk about loss, and about how hard it is to write about loss.

One of the things in her letter that really resonated with me was something she said about Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and writer who, like Wallace, apparently took his own life. Primo Levi talked about the frustration of trying to write about loss and suffering, especially the loss and suffering so many experienced in the Nazi camps. He felt we needed a new kind of language to talk about what happened there. Christina wrote that we ache for a language that doesn’t exist.


I’ve spent the last 30 years trying to find words to describe what happened to my parents in the concentration and slave labor camps and what those experiences made me feel. I write about this event or that image; and no matter how powerful the original event described by my mother or father I can’t really describe it, explain it, bring it out of the past. I can’t bring it out of memory into this life. I’m left pushing around some words, trying to make myself feel what I felt the first time I heard that story when I was a child. Sometimes I think I almost succeed; most of the time I know I’m not even close.

For me the poems that work best are the ones with my parents’ actual words. Those words are the real thing. My mother says to me, “If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run”; or my dad tells me what he said to the German guards who beat him and tormented him, “Please, sirs, don’t ever tell your children what you’ve done to me today.” There are bits and pieces of their words scattered through my poems, and when I read those words out loud my parents are there with me. My parents’ words are a kind of magic for me.

But how does one convey this magic to other people?

I think sometimes that all I can do is read my poems out loud and show people how the poems effect me. I guess what happens then is that my words become like my parents’ words. I become my father and mother for that moment in the poem.

Sometimes this touches people, conveys the magic to them.

I’ve seen this happen at some of the poetry readings I’ve given. A person stands up at the end of the reading when I invite questions, and he doesn’t say anything. He just stands there. I don’t know if the person even has a question. Maybe he just wants to show how much he feels my parents’ lives; or maybe the loss I talk about somehow reminds him of a loss he experienced and couldn’t talk about and still can’t talk about.

For me one of the central images of the Bible is the image of the Tower of Babel. It represents in my eyes the moment when humanity became trapped in language that would not communicate what we needed to communicate. It was a second fall from grace. Our lives became chained to a language that doesn’t convey what we feel or what we mean. Although we have this deep need to say what we feel, we often can’t explain it to ourselves or to other people. Sometimes our words fail us and some times other people fail us. They can’t bring themselves to listen to our stories of loss. It’s hard to take on that burden.

My father used to tell a story about a friend of his in the camps who made love to a woman and contracted VD. He came to my father and asked him what should he do. My father said, “Go to the river and drown yourself.” His friend thought he was joking, and he went to another friend who told him, “Tell the Germans what you did.” He did and they killed the woman; and then they beat him and castrated him and killed him.

Fifty years later, when my father was telling me this story, he still didn’t know what he could have said to his friend to save him from what happened.

No matter how hard it is to tell someone something, no matter how hard it is to get beyond the Babel we’re caught up in, I think we need to try.

Will it change the world? Make anything different? Better?

We can only hope.