The Marginalian
The Marginalian

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Life, Death, and What Fills the Interlude with Meaning: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Stirring Diary Reflections on His Dying Mother and His Five-Year-Old Daughter

“I saw my little Una… so full of spirit and life that she was life itself. And then I looked at my poor dying mother, and seemed to see the whole of human existence at once, standing in the dusty midst of it.”

It is said that Orlando, inspired by the passionate real-life love Virginia Woolf shared with Vita Sackville-West, is “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — said by Vita’s own son. But the most charming love letter in literature might be quite shorter and older and inspired by a very different kind of love — the purest, tenderest love of a parent for their young child.

Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1841

Fatherless since the age of four, achingly introverted, a man of “great, genial, comprehending silences” considered “handsomer than Lord Byron,” known to duck behind trees and rocks to avoid speaking with townspeople, Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804–May 19, 1864) was an old bachelor of thirty-eight when he married Sophia Peabody — an intellectually voracious and artistically gifted old maid of thirty-three, a linchpin figure in Figuring, and sister to the titanic visionary Elizabeth Peabody, who had coined the term Transcendentalism.

When their first child — a daughter — was born in 1844, Hawthorne was a struggling writer about to turn forty. Seven years earlier, his first book — Twice-Told Tales, a retelling of classic anonymous stories — had hardly gotten into the hands of readers when the Panic of 1837 smote the young country as its first Great Depression. And so the young author had hardly made his name even among the most literary of his contemporaries — what Longfellow lauded as a “sweet, sweet book” had left the highly informed and discerning Margaret Fuller impressed, but with the impression that it was written by “somebody in Salem” assumed to be a woman.

Una and the Lion by Walter Bell Scott, 1860. (National Galleries Scotland.)

Baby Una, named for the beautiful and fierce young daughter of the dragon-imprisoned king and queen in the 1590 English epic poem The Faerie Queene, instantly filled Hawthorne with “a very sober and serious kind of happiness that springs from the birth of a child.” Una would later become the model for the heroine’s daughter in The Scarlet Letter — the 1850 novel that lifted Hawthorne out of poverty, abruptly ending his “many good years” as “the obscurest man of letters in America,” per his own recollection, to render him one of his country’s most celebrated artists.

Four years before that overnight success a lifetime in the making, when Una turned two and a second child was about to join the family, Hawthorne took a day-job as surveyor for the Customs House in Salem. There he toiled for three years, at the near-total expense of his writing. During that creatively deadening period, his love for his children sustained him, fed his famished artistic soul, reawakened him to life. He recorded these tender, vitalizing observations of the children’s daily doings and unfurling beings in a family notebook he shared with Sophia, posthumously included in the affectionate biography Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife (public library) by their second child, Una’s brother Julian.

Una Hawthorne

In the bleak midwinter of 1849, five weeks before Una’s fifth birthday, Hawthorne writes in the notebook:

Her beauty is the most flitting, transitory, most uncertain and unaccountable affair, that ever had a real existence; it beams out when nobody expects it; it has mysteriously passed away when you think yourself sure of it. If you glance sideways at her, you perhaps think it is illuminating her face, but, turning full round to enjoy it, it is gone again. When really visible, it is rare and precious as the vision of an angel. It is a transfiguration, — a grace, delicacy, or ethereal fineness, — which at once, in my secret soul, makes me give up all severe opinions that I may have begun to form about her. It is but fair to conclude that on these occasions we see her real soul. When she seems less lovely, we merely see something external. But, in truth, one manifestation belongs to her as much as another; for, before the establishment of principles, what is character but the series and succession of moods?

This latter insight, far predating the dawn of psychology as we know it, touches the eternal depths of human nature — as adults, we are always at our most childish when we allow the ceaselessly shifting weather systems of our moods to override our moral precepts, thrusting us back in time to those primal impulses of reflexive reaction, cutting us off from the capacity for reflective response that is the mark of maturity.

Una’s “real soul,” her father observes, is one of uncommon complementarity, in which all the polar potentialities of human nature coexist and are harmonized:

The sentiment of a picture, tale, or poem is seldom lost upon her; and when her feelings are thus interested, she will not hear to have them interfered with by any ludicrous remark or other discordance. Yet she has, often, a rhinoceros-armor against sentiment or tenderness; you would think she were marble or adamant. It seems to me that, like many sensitive people, her sensibilities are more readily awakened by fiction than realities.

Una’s almost otherworldly syncopation of reason and emotion, of sympathy and stoicism, comes alive most vividly in a midsummer notebook entry Hawthorne penned while his mother was fast approaching “the drift called the infinite.”

Art by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved — Danish illustrated meditation on love and loss.

Finding himself the strange fulcrum of the seesaw between life and death, Hawthorne observes his small daughter take a lively, compassionate interest in his dying mother’s suffering, begging to be let into the bedchamber to be at her grandmother’s side, role-playing convalescent and caretaker with her little brother. Hawthorne writes:

I know not what she supposes to be the final result to which grandmamma is approaching… There is something that almost frightens me about the child, — I know not whether elfish or angelic, but, at all events, supernatural. She steps so boldly into the midst of everything, shrinks from nothing, has such a comprehension of everything, seems at times to have but little delicacy, and anon shows that she possesses the finest essence of it, — now so hard, now so tender; now so perfectly unreasonable, soon again so wise. In short, I now and then catch an aspect of her in which I cannot believe her to be my own human child, but a spirit strangely mingled with good and evil, haunting the house where I dwell.

The next day — forty-five years and twenty-seven days after she had given birth to him — his mother died, with Hawthorne and his sisters at her side. The loss savaged him with grief. Sophia recounted that she saw him, this quiet monolith of composure, come “near a brain fever.” But Hawthorne was his daughter’s father, his own seemingly unfeeling exterior armoring a tender and sensitive soul — perhaps that is why this duality so frightened him in Una. (Children, after all — like anyone we love — are mirrors for understanding ourselves, disquieting us most when they reflect what we most fear or struggle to comprehend in ourselves.)

Art by Walter Crane for Hawthorne’s Wonder-Book for Girls & Boys. (Available as a print.)

As soon as everyone else left the room, the armor came undone:

I found the tears slowly gathering in my eyes. I tried to keep them down, but it would not be; I kept filling up, till, for a few moments, I shook with sobs… Surely it is the darkest hour I ever lived.

Ten days after his mother’s death, Hawthorne was bluntly fired from his job at the Customs House when the new Whig administration took office. He began writing The Scarlet Letter that day, completing it with the same astonishing rapidity — six months — that John Steinbeck, who also worked a series of soul-hollowing jobs, would complete The Grapes of Wrath a century later.

Published the year of Darwin’s bittersweet reckoning with his own daughter’s mortality and sold by private subscription a century and a half before Patreon, The Scarlet Letter raised $500 for Hawthorne and his family, which helped them leave the sadnesses of Salem, sadnesses that had haunted him long before his season of losses — so much so that he had added the “w” in his surname to sever the association with his ancestor John Hathorne, the leading judge in the Salem witch trial.

With the income from The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne moved the family to a small red house in the Berkshires. It was there that Herman Melville fell in love with him, dedicating Moby-Dick to Hawthorne.

Nathaniel Hawthorne in his final years. (Library of Congress.)

Years after her father’s death, Una recovered his final manuscript — the unfinished novel Septimius Felton; or, the Elixir of Life — and, with the help of her friend Robert Browning, had it published in serial form in The Atlantic Monthly. She died five years later, at the age her mother had married her father, returning far too young to the supra-human mystery her father had always perceived in her — the mystery the sole possible meaning and redemption of which he had contoured long ago, when he and Una were both alive and his mother was no more. In the notebook entry recounting that darkest hour of his life at his mother’s deathbed in the high summer of 1849, he had written:

For a long time I knelt there, holding her hand… Afterwards I stood by the open window and looked through the crevice of the curtain. The shouts, laughter, and cries of the two children had come up into the chamber from the open air, making a strange contrast with the death-bed scene. And now, through the crevice of the curtain, I saw my little Una of the golden locks, looking very beautiful, and so full of spirit and life that she was life itself. And then I looked at my poor dying mother, and seemed to see the whole of human existence at once, standing in the dusty midst of it. Oh, what a mockery, if what I saw were all, — let the interval between extreme youth and dying age be filled up with what happiness it might!

BP

Shifting the Silence to Find the Meaning: 95-Year-Old Artist, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on How to Live and How to Die

“The universe makes a sound — is a sound. In the core of this sound there’s a silence, a silence that creates that sound, which is not its opposite, but its inseparable soul… Silence is a flower, it opens up, dilates, extends its texture, can grow, mutate… It can watch other flowers grow and become what they are.”

Shifting the Silence to Find the Meaning: 95-Year-Old Artist, Poet, and Philosopher Etel Adnan on How to Live and How to Die

“When you realize you are mortal you also realize the tremendousness of the future. You fall in love with a Time you will never perceive,” the polymathic poet, painter, novelist, and philosopher Etel Adnan (February 24, 1925–November 14, 2021) wrote at the foot of a mountain she saw as a lens on the meaning of life.

Half a century later and a landmass over, as dawn was silvering the clouds of the Parisian night, she slipped out of the mortal and into the timeless, less than 1000 days shy of having lived 100 years. (No amount of life is enough life, and any amount of life is enough life — as with love.)

Adnan’s uncommon reckoning with mortality and meaning lives on in her final book, Shifting the Silence (public library) — a lucid and luminous stream-of-consciousness outpouring of insight into the nature of existence, an inquiry into what gives meaning to our mortal lives, partway between poetry and philosophy, between requiem and redemption, between Gertrude Stein’s meditation on belonging in a love letter to Paris and Patti Smith’s meditation on dreams in a love letter to time. What emerges is the wakeful work, a life’s work, of naming what is — the ultimate Is beyond the explanations that masquerade as meaning yet containing the ultimate meaning.

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Adnan writes:

When we name things simply, with words preceding their meaning, a cosmic narration takes place. Does the discovery of origins remove the dust? The horizon’s shimmering slows down all other perceptions. It reminds me of a childhood of emptiness which seems to have taken me near the beginnings of space and time.

[…]

Word-languages are a trap… They created chaos and made us sink in incoherence… Our words don’t suit prophecies anymore. That power is left to other species: to oak trees, for example, to the tides, which through their restlessness carry a phosphorescence we’re not equipped to hear.

From the fortunate, ramshackle dock of her nine decades — having lived through the splitting of the atom and the Moon landing, through the rise and fall of the Iron Curtain, through a civil war that savaged her homeland and a world war that savaged our civilization, through the heyday Picasso and particle physics and Plath — she observes:

My favorite time is in time’s other side, its other identity, the kind that collapses and sometimes reappears, and sometimes doesn’t. The one that looks like marshmallows, pomegranates, and stranger things, before returning to its kind of abstraction… Today I see eternity everywhere. I had yesterday an empty glass of champagne on the table, and it looked both infinite and eternal.

Visitor to the Guggenheim Museum’s Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Writing in the final season of her life, while around her a record heatwave is swarming Paris and wildfires are ravaging the Californian landscapes of her prime and her paintings, Adnan wonders whether this might be the final season of civilization, of the world itself as we know it, wonders whether we can “keep that strange sense of sacredness that we knew, as if by inheritance, in our old days.” She paces the periphery of Paris one timeless step at a time, watches the fog turn the Eiffel Tower into “a faint mark on pure space,” marvels at the magnolia in her garden “thriving in this non-tropical country,” marvels at the first image of an enormous frozen lake newly discovered on Mars and its “pinkish land covered with ice,” savors “the night’s different shades, its infinite richness,” reads a book of poems written by an artificial intelligence and ponders the meaning of reality, the meaning of intelligence. Her mind wanders to the physics of tides, to the Trojan War, to the epoch-making spacecraft that has just landed on the dark side of the Moon, to Picasso’s late erotic etchings of women, to the burning mountain she once lived in and loved with the fire of life. Her wandering mind observes itself:

I am in the midst of whatever I am thinking of. There are fires in California, they have returned. I am burning. Am one of the trees that’s disappearing in the fires. My body black and grey becoming ashes.

And yet there is something else beyond the cinder of the thinking-mind, some vaster consciousness in which the crests and troughs of being and not-being merge into the continuous sine wave of what is, ruffling the oceanic surface of timelessness:

I need to simplify my thinking: to come to the roots of the olive trees I have planted on my island, sit close to them, look at every leaf. Start early in the morning. Then close my eyes and let the morning sun touch my face. Go to the Mediterranean at the street corner, go into its water, its salt, its acid colors, its heat… stop thinking… just be, and for many hours in a row, merge with this vegetal and metallic kind of consciousness which is so overpowering.

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

A philosopher-friend comes to visit, one of those visits that “lift the sky,” and they talk about “the necessity of an urgent shift of destiny away from the cycle of the eternal return of the same, beyond whatever already is.” A poet-friend dies. “Dear San Francisco, cry for him.” Invoking another friend’s long-ago death that she still carries, and folding into it the incomprehensible awareness of her own mortality — as we invariably do in apprehending another’s — she reflects:

Being, or not being, cannot be dealt with with thinking, but are matters of experience, experienced often in murky waters… Their intensity creates waves that invade us, that leave us stunned. There’s no resolution to somebody’s final absence.

Another friend vanishes into the fog of mental illness, leaving Adnan to contemplate the discomposing dialogue between neurochemistry and identity:

To witness a mind go wild, like the California fires right now, is the hardest thing one can experience. And still, we do. The mind gets so fluid that you can’t stop it with your will, you watch the will’s annihilation. The question arises: are we just a series of chemical reactions? If we were courageous enough we would say yes, we are. But there is something in those chemical reactions that make us reject the acknowledgment of their own nature. We’re body and soul, we say, let’s accept this myth. Plato did it.

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Even our ordinary minds, she observes, are too often befuddled by their own mindless activity, the thoughts of which we presume to be the authors — but as any neuroscientist and any longtime meditator can attest, this too is part of the dream of selfhood, the dream by which we flee from the reality that we are each a passing flicker in the consciousness of time and matter.

With an eye to her own experience of “double thinking” — something all of us have experienced in one form or another — she writes:

One thought sliding on another, was startled, didn’t know which one to follow, lost sight of both… Are thoughts bouncing balls? Do we really own them?

She talks to herself, talks to the universe, talks to no one in particular — and then — in a handful of arresting cascades in this stream of consciousness, she talks to you, talks to me, with ravishing intimacy. “I am talking to you because I need you, and to need means to love.” She is talking to us, too, because she has something to impart, the way an oracle does. (Living a century with unrelenting wakefulness to life renders anyone an oracle.)

You know, sunsets are violently beautiful, I would say that they are so by definition, but there are lights, not even colorful in the habitual sense, lights elemental, mercurial, silvery, sulfurous, copper-made, that make us stop, then lose balance, make us open our arms not knowing what else to do, arrest us as if struck by lightning, a soft lightning, a welcome one. I wait for those lights, I know some of you do too, wherever you are, I mean when you are standing by an ocean, alone, within the calmness of your spirit. Be planetary.

To be planetary, she intimates, is to recognize that we are completely together and completely alone all at once, a murmuration of solitudes hurtling through space, out of time:

We’re on a planet sustained by nothing, carried through pure space by a willful star made of fire and in constant ebullition. We’re travelers covering traveling grounds. Going, always going.

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

The undertone of the book, of Adnan’s farewell message to the living, is the intimation that only in the stillness of silence can we begin to discern where we are going and why:

The universe makes a sound — is a sound. In the core of this sound there’s a silence, a silence that creates that sound, which is not its opposite, but its inseparable soul. And this silence can also be heard.

This silence is the preparation of things to come, but is not free standing. It’s rather the shadow of whatever is, which precedes or follows at will any element that presents itself to this world. Its favorite time is the night.

Half a lifetime after she explored the relationship between dreaming and creativity, Adnan returns to the strange kingdom of sleep and those untrammeled territories of the nocturnal mind beyond thought:

In silence, in the dark, the tides shine, get slippery, their fluidity turns them into a mirage. There’s a persistent hum to the ocean that translates into a back-and-forth movement of our body. Walls disappear and new visual formations invade the imagination. One is not in usual dimensions. Sleep belongs to the past, and the hours too. Luminosity enmeshed with darkness makes us cross over new territories. You move into galaxies in a few seconds, space-time becomes just a game.

Thinking is dimmed when familiar forms of reality disappear. This is not a loss. Long periods of inner silence favor clearings, they let the light in, the flooding, the blinding, the bedazzlement. We need spaces for the reshuffling of new cards, need to be nowhere. Thinking doesn’t always come from preceding thoughts: I suspect it’s always being born, even when it seems related to the past.

Exhibition fragment from the Guggenheim Museum’s Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

With an eye to Plato’s immortal allegory of the cave, she writes:

Now it’s time to open the cave’s window and leave it open. Let reality fill the space.

Echoing Walt Whitman, who contemplated what makes life worth living after a stroke left him paralyzed, and echoing Mary Shelley, who contemplated what makes life worth living as she envisioned a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic, Adnan adds:

What’s left? This season of heat and wind, this dinner tonight, and these large bands of trembling waves of various shades of green that split my heart with their incredible beauty.

This is Adnan’s parting gift to this world, to us: the life-tested assurance that even when there is too much past and too little future, life is only ever lived day to day, for the living day is all we have — or what Muriel Rukeyser, another visionary of uncommon poetic insight into the nature of being, reverenced as “the living moment… this moment in which we touch life and all the energy of the past and future.”

One such living day, finding herself “at the door of Time’s immensity,” Adnan writes:

The day is blustery, one more day following an infinity of days. And this one on its way out, according to its fate. If everything is alive, this day is too, a life independent from mine, and still interdependent.


Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

On another living day, after rejoicing in having lived to see a human space-probe reach the unseen side the Moon — “I felt the grounds open up under my feet, I felt I reached a landmark of cosmic proportion. I drank beer differently than usual.” — she echoes the civilizational sense that Bach might be our prophet-laureate of aliveness, echoes San Francisco poet Ronald Johnson’s lovely formulation of the elemental poetic truth that “matter delights in music, and became Bach,” echoes philosopher Josef Pieper’s insistence that “music opens a path into the realm of silence” and Aldous Huxley’s insistence that the only thing better able to express the inexpressible than music is silence, and writes:

My hands are getting cold, a musician is playing Bach on a lute on television, and it fits: Bach’s music is the needle of the cosmic balance.

This has taken me into the core of a silence that underlines the universe: underneath the mesh of sounds that never cease there’s a strange phenomena, a counter-reality, the rolling of silent matter. Silence is a flower, it opens up, dilates, extends its texture, can grow, mutate, return on its steps. It can watch other flowers grow and become what they are… Silence is the creation of space… Silence demands the nature of night, even in full day, it demands shadows.

But in all my wanderings I never forgot the light.

Radiating from these pages is at once a welcome and a parting — an invitation to the banquet of life at the deathbed of one particular human who will never again recur as that particular ripple in the consciousness of time but who once lived a long, wide, deep life fully awake to the ephemeral ecstasy of aliveness:

I have invited to my banquet you and your neighbor, and animals too, and stones and mountains, rivers will bring their floods. I will tell you history is made of wars, of ideas, of misery, of glory preceding misery. History is made of everything that has ever happened, the whole trajectory of humans, of dirt and galaxies. You are History, the squirrel is History, the Universe is History. It includes God too.

Painting by Etel Adnan from Etel Adnan: Light’s New Measure, Guggenheim Museum, 2021. (Photograph: Maria Popova)

Complement the portable universe that is Adnan’s Shifting the Silence with poet Lisel Mueller, who lived to the same age as Adnan, on what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives, then revisit Adnan’s stunning painted poem about life, death, and our cosmic redemption, created half a century before she returned her borrowed stardust to the silence of spacetime.

BP

Women in Trees: Sweet and Subversive Vintage Photographs of Defiant Delight

The chance-anthropology of a secret tribe.

Women in Trees: Sweet and Subversive Vintage Photographs of Defiant Delight

It was always a rapture, a rebellion, a gauntlet against gravity and girlhood — skulking past the teachers, pushing through the boys, and racing across the schoolyard to climb the colossal walnut tree, whose feisty fractal vivacity mocked the bleak Brutalist architecture of my elementary school in Bulgaria.

Then there was my rural-grandmother’s cherry tree, into whose balding crown I would disappear to sulk when my parents discarded me to the country for yet another endless summer. And the copse of horse-chestnut across the street from my city-grandmother’s lightless apartment, whose friendly open-palmed leaves beckoned me to find the first of the spiky green fruit, before they released their shiny brown pebbles of seed onto the cracked sidewalk.

Even as my wrist-bones turned from twigs to branches and adulthood carried me across the Atlantic to lay down my sovereign roots, the impulse never left me, perhaps because the child never leaves us. I climbed — not with the skills and scientific motive force of an arbornaut but with the sylvan transcendence of Blake — oaks in Brooklyn and coastal redwood in Bolinas and Douglas Fir in Olympia and the Tree of Life in New Orleans.

Oak-hopping in New Orleans, September 2020. (Photograph: Milène Lichtwarck.)

Along the way, I came to cherish trees not only as aerial playgrounds, but as wonders of immense poetic, philosophical, and ecological import.

Imagine, then, my delight when a friend handed me a copy of More Women in Trees (public library) by the German photography editor, collector, and curator Jochen Raiss, a follow-up to his improbable hit Women in Trees (public library) — an entry in the ledger of lovely things created by the confluence of chance and choice (which, as Simone de Beauvoir observed with her keen existentialist eye, actually includes our very lives and what makes us who we are.)

It began with a single photograph Raiss found while rummaging through the bin of hodgepodge vintage ephemera at a Frankfurt flea market — a woman, in a tree, happy and carefree.

It delighted him enough to take home and use as a bookmark.

But then, by the marvelous pattern-recognition virtuosity of the human brain, he started finding others during his flea market excursions. He started collecting them. He started carefully cataloguing them in antique wooden crates.

Over the course of a quarter century, he amassed some 140 specimens of the genre, the anthropology of a secret tribe — strange, sweet, subversive photographs of anonymous women engaged in acts of arboreal daring, taken before color film became a commonplace and feminism a conscience.

Some of the photographs were taken when Germany was the roiling epicenter of World War II. Some of the women in them probably hailed Hitler. Some probably died in concentration camps. But for those moments suspended in the branches above the current of their epoch, islanded in space and time, they shared something singular and lovely, united in a sisterhood of sylvan joy.

Their mute, defiant delight seems to be saying, “My grandmother was jailed for wearing trousers but I can win the Nobel Prize in Physics”; seem to be saying, “My mother could not vote but my daughter can be chancellor”; seem to be saying, “I can go as high as I please, damned be gravity and grace, so I can peer at broader horizons.”

Complement the mischievous and marvelous Women in Trees and More Women in Trees with Dylan Thomas’s “Being But Men” — his love poem to trees and the wonder of being human, composed in the same era, an era when “man” included “woman” while erasing women — then revisit artist Art Young’s century-old meditation on human nature in tree silhouettes and Italian visual philosopher Bruno Munari’s existential lesson in how to draw a tree to see yourself.

BP

When Your Parents Are Dying: Some of the Simplest, Most Difficult and Redemptive Life-Advice You’ll Ever Receive

“Death makes human beings seem like very small containers that are packed so densely we can only be aware of a fraction of what’s inside us from moment to moment.”

When Your Parents Are Dying: Some of the Simplest, Most Difficult and Redemptive Life-Advice You’ll Ever Receive

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself,” Kahlil Gibran wrote in his poignant verse on parenting. And yet we are, each of us, someone’s child — physiologically or psychologically or both — and they sing themselves through us as we sing ourselves into our longing for life, whether we like the melody or not.

Like a Zen koan, this fact becomes utterly discomposing when you begin thinking deeply about the fundamental, layered realities beneath the mundane, even banal factuality of the fact. Parents — the very notion of them. The notion that you — this immensely complex totality of sinew and selfhood, this portable universe shimmering with a million ideas and passions and little ways of being-in-the-world that make you you — began as a glimmer in someone else’s eye, a set of chemical reactions that became molecules that became cells in someone else’s body before they constellated into you. The notion that so many dimensions of your personhood, so many of the givens you take for granted in making sense of the world, were forged by someone other than yourself (and possibly other than the body that begot the cells that became you) — someone who occupies, in the cosmogony of you, this strange and staggering position of arbiter between the existence and nonexistence of the particular you that you are.

Kinship by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

The doubly discomposing experience of what happens when that arbiter crosses the threshold of their own nonexistence is what Mary Gaitskill addresses in her thoughtful, tender contribution to Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two (public library) — the wondrous 2002 anthology by artist and writer James L. Harmon, inspired by one of his own spiritual parents: Rilke and his timeless Letters to a Young Poet.

Gaitskill writes:

My advice here is very specific and practicable. It is advice I wish someone had given me as forcefully as I’m about to give it now: When your parents are dying, you should go be with them. You should spend as much time as you can. This may seem obvious; you would be surprised how difficult it can be. It is less difficult if you have a good relationship with the parent or, even if you don’t, if you’re old enough to have lost friends and to have seriously considered your own death. Even so, it may be more difficult than you think.

With the sensitive caveat that there exist people “to whom this general directive does not apply” and her advice is not meant as a rebuke to those people, Gaitskill addresses those of us raised by fallible parents who, in one way or another, failed dreadfully at the deepest task of parenting — unconditional love:

If you’re a young person who has had a bad relationship with your parent, it’s a nightmare of anger, confusion, and guilt. Even if you hate them, you may still not want to believe it’s happening… Even if your parents have been abusive, physically or emotionally, they are part of you in a way that goes beyond personality or even character. Maybe “beyond” isn’t the right word. They are part of you in a way that runs beneath the daily self. They have passed an essence to you. This essence may not be recognizable; your parents may have made its raw matter into something so different than what you have made of it that it seems you are nothing alike. That they have given you this essence may be no virtue of theirs — they may not even have chosen to do so. (It may not be biological either; all I say here I would say about adoptive as well as birth parents.)

Art by Ekua Holmes from The Stuff of Stars by Marion Dane Bauer.

Being with a dying parent, Gaitskill notes, is a way of honoring the fact — so basic yet so incomprehensible a fact — that they will soon be gone, and with them will go your experience of being their child in the way you have known, a fundamental way in which you have known yourself. At the heart of this dual recognition is “the hard truth that we know nothing about who we are or what our lives mean.” She writes:

Nothing makes this plainer than being in the presence of a dying person for any length of time. Death makes human beings seem like very small containers that are packed so densely we can only be aware of a fraction of what’s inside us from moment to moment. Being in the presence of death can break you open, disgorging feelings that are deeper and more powerful than anything you thought you knew. If you have had a loving, clear relationship with your parent, this experience probably won’t be quite as wrenching. There may in fact be moments of pure tenderness, even exaltation. But you might still have to watch your parent appear to break, mentally and physically, disintegrating into something you can no longer recognize. In some ways this is terrible — many people find it absolutely so. There is another side to it, though: In witnessing this seeming breakage, we are glimpsing the part of our parents that doesn’t translate in human terms, that which we know nothing about, and which the human container is too small to give shape to.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print.)

Because any emotional experience we have when facing another is always an emotional experience we have within, and about, ourselves — especially if that other gave rise to this self — facing this supraknowable quality is facing the limits of our own self-knowledge. Gaitskill writes:

Knowing your feelings is hard too because there’s so much emotion, it’s hard to tell which is truest. Part of you might want to leave right away; part of you might want to stay forever. That’s why I advised that you stay “for as long as you can.” What that means will vary with each person, with the needs of the parent and the other relations. A day might be enough, or it might take a whole month. If it’s a prolonged situation, it might be good to leave for a few days and come back. Those decisions are so personal they are beyond the scope of my advice — except my advice to pay close attention to yourself. If you feel, To hell with this, I’m getting out, don’t worry — there’s room for that. Maybe in fact you should leave. But before you do, be sure that voice is not shouting down a truer one. When your parents die, you will never see them again. You might think you understand that, but until it happens, you don’t.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 English edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

In a sentiment on the surface contradictory but in fact consonant with the deeper meaning of what artist Louise Bourgeois inscribed into her lifelong diary in her old age — “You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love.” — Gaitskill concludes:

They say that you come into the world alone and that you leave alone too. But you aren’t born alone; your mother is with you, maybe your father too. Their presence may have been loving, it may have been demented, it may have been both. But they were with you. When they are dying, remember that. And go be with them.

Complement this fragment of Take My Advice — which also includes novelist Richard Powers on the most important attitude you can take toward your life and philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to honor your inner world — with Richard Dawkins on the luckiness of death, Marcus Aurelius on embracing mortality as the key to living fully, and Zen Hospice Project founder Frank Ostaseski on the five life-redeeming invitation to extend in facing death, then revisit this tender illustrated meditation on the cycle of life.

BP

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