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Artist Anne Truitt on Love, Loss, Regret, What Makes Marriage Work, and the Syncopation of Grief and Gladness

In praise of “the lovely entire confidence that comes only from innumerable mutual confidences entrusted and examined… woven by four hands, now trembling, now intent, over and under into a pattern.”

Artist Anne Truitt on Love, Loss, Regret, What Makes Marriage Work, and the Syncopation of Grief and Gladness

Perhaps because she was trained as a psychologist, artist Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) had a special attentiveness to the inner life of the creative spirit and a great gift for articulating that aliveness with lyrical nuance in her prolific diaries. She wrote especially beautifully about the parallels between being an artist and being a parent — an insight forced upon her partly by circumstances as the demands of the latter role swelled in intensity after she divorced her husband, the journalist James Truitt, in 1969. She became the primary parent of their three children — Alexandra (age 14), Mary (age 11), and Sam (age 9) — and then a single parent after James’s death in 1981. All the while, Truitt remained an artist of remarkable discipline and integrity, continuing to create work that would render her one of the most significant, visionary, and influential sculptors of the twentieth century.

Emanating from her distinctive sculptures, where vibrant colors possess and are possessed by muted minimalist shapes, is a certain subtle dialogue between gain and loss, between what is and what isn’t, or perhaps what never was and never could be.

Anne Truitt
Anne Truitt

Nowhere is this syncopation of grief and gladness more resonant than in one particular entry from the altogether magnificent Turn: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — the same volume that gave us Truitt’s timeless wisdom on vulnerability, the price of artistic integrity, and what sustains the creative spirit.

Truitt writes in August of 1983, when her son was twenty:

I was in the kitchen the other day when Sam read me a line of Borges: “You can only lose what you have never had,” and I have been thinking it over ever since. The truth is instantly recognizable; it might almost be a platitude. But it came at me at an angle around a corner from his lair of books in Sam’s reflective voice, and touched a sore spot in my memory of his father.

For when I mourn, I do mourn what he and I never had: the lovely entire confidence that comes only from innumerable mutual confidences entrusted and examined. And woven by four hands, now trembling, now intent, over and under into a pattern that can surprise both husband and wife. I miss the rich doubling of experience that comes only from such confidence, the nuances of refraction and reflection, nourished and enhanced and underwritten by the sweet union of familiar bodies — touch and smell, tidal.

Masaccio, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
Masaccio, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

But the most piercing point of mourning, Truitt observes, is that of regret — the irremediable regret of having held back, of having let the fearsome vulnerability of being hurt preclude the grand reward of being truly understood. She writes:

I mourn my failures to confide. I should have had more courage, dared, risked rejection, even ejection — naked, awkward, crouched as Eve in Masaccio’s Expulsion from Paradise. “Should” is a dreadful auxiliary word, and worst when linked with “have,” rendering an act one never thought of at a certain time, or thought of and decided not to do, as effective and inexorably irrevocable as a deed done.

I mourn what I did not know when I was married: the necessity for honesty between people if mutuality is to bud out of a status quo into air it can then fill with a new form. When I saw how one of the Australian gum trees, the angophora, thrust out new branches, I saw how a marriage could work: a nub pushes out from a fork and as it grows into a branch (there are wide-branched trees) the bark of the tree’s trunk spreads smoothly over this rough, crude juncture so that it joins the other branches seamlessly, enhances the whole tree’s amplitude. The bark is purple, tan-pink-violet. There is warmth in its seal.

This poetic image of growth through sealing and healing together reminded me of Jane Hirshfield’s beautiful poem “For What Binds Us,” included in her altogether sublime 1988 collection Of Gravity & Angels (public library):

FOR WHAT BINDS US

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down —
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest —

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

But as she continues her diaristic meditation, Truitt suggests that perhaps regret — the regret of not having conjoined each other’s woundedness boldly enough in order to mend and grow together — is the one thing that can tear a relationship, or the memory of a relationship. She reflects on her gum tree epiphany:

I am saddened that I learned this truth so late, but the ironic fact is that I only came to realize it because of what my children taught me while I was bringing them up alone. The staunchness of their affection and the openness of their hearts slowly brought me to an emotional courage for which I had simply never before had the security.

Anne Truitt with two of her three children and two of her eight grandchildren. (Photograph: Mariana Cook, 1997)
Anne Truitt with two of her three children and two of her eight grandchildren. (Photograph: Mariana Cook, 1997)

Turn is a revelatory and profoundly pleasurable read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Kathryn Schulz on the psychology of regret and Rilke on how great losses bring us closer to ourselves, then revisit Truitt on compassion and humility, the ideal daily routine, and the vital difference between doing art and being an artist.

BP

Einstein on Grief, Time, Eternity, and the Privilege of Old Age: His Beautiful Letter to the Bereaved Queen of Belgium

“…and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be.”

Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) is celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius.” But surely there is something more expansive than his undeniable scientific brilliance to warrant such high reverence — something that transcends the practical value of his intellectual contributions and opens into a larger enrichment of the human experience.

In addition to his groundbreaking discoveries in physics, which changed our understanding of time and fostered a common language of science, he was also a man of enormous wisdom, empathy, and emotional intelligence, which he channeled in his voluminous correspondence with family, friends, colleagues, and strangers — he wrote breathtaking love letters, counseled his young son on the secret to learning anything, assured a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared her gender would hold her back, shared the secret to his genius with an inquisitive colleague, and corresponded with Freud on violence, peace, and human nature.

einstein_queen3

But one of his most poignant and humane letters was addressed to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, with whom he had cultivated a warm friendship. After the sudden death of her husband, King Albert, followed closely by the death of her daughter-in-law, Einstein reached out to offer thoughtful and tender solace to his bereaved friend. Penned in 1934 and cited in Krista Tippett’s wonderful book Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library) — which also gave us cosmologist Janna Levin on mathematics, truth, and free will — the letter is at once a gift of warm consolation for the Queen’s grief and a timeless meditation on time, eternity, and the privilege of old age.

Shortly before his 55th birthday, Einstein writes:

Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you.

And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.

Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.

Einstein’s God, it bears repeating, is a magnificent read in its totality. Complement it with Einstein’s letter to a young woman who had lost faith in humanity and the childhood epiphany that shaped his life, then revisit Oliver Sacks on the gift of growing old.

BP

Anne Lamott on Grief, Grace, and Gratitude

On the grace of redefining ourselves and redefining okayness when life throws us its merciless curveballs.

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote in her magnificent meditation on the subject. But oftentimes, grief doesn’t exactly come — not with the single-mindedness and unity of action the word implies. Rather, it creeps up — through the backdoor of the psyche, slowly, in quiet baby steps, until it blindsides the heart with a giant’s stomp. And yet it is possible to find between the floorboards a soft light that awakens those parts of us that go half-asleep through the autopilot of life.

That’s precisely what Anne Lamott — one of the most intensely original writers of our time — explores in Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (public library | IndieBound), the same magnificent volume of reflections on grief, gratitude, and forgiveness that gave us Lamott on the uncomfortable art of letting yourself be seen.

From the very preface, titled “Victory Lap,” Lamott stops the stride:

The worst possible thing you can do when you’re down in the dumps, tweaking, vaporous with victimized self-righteousness, or bored, is to take a walk with dying friends. They will ruin everything for you.

First of all, friends like this may not even think of themselves as dying, although they clearly are, according to recent scans and gentle doctors’ reports. But no, they see themselves as fully alive. They are living and doing as much as they can, as well as they can, for as long as they can.

They ruin your multitasking high, the bath of agitation, rumination, and judgment you wallow in, without the decency to come out and just say anything. They bust you by being grateful for the day, while you are obsessed with how thin your lashes have become and how wide your bottom.

She recounts one spring-morning hike in the Muir Woods with her friend Barbara, who was being slowly snatched from life by Lou Gehrig’s disease — “you could see the shape of her animal, and bones and branches and humanity” — and Barbara’s girlfriend of thirty years, Susie. Lamott writes:

When you are on the knife’s edge — when nobody knows exactly what is going to happen next, only that it will be worse — you take in today. So here we were, at the trailhead, for a cold day’s walk.

Dead Huon pine, 10,500 years old, from Rachel Sussman’s ‘The Oldest Living Things in the World.’ Click image for more.

In the trees, “so huge that they shut you up” and with a way of silently speaking volumes about time and mortality, Lamott finds strange assurance:

The trees looked congregational. As we walked beneath the looming green world, pushing out its burls and sprouts, I felt a moment’s panic at the thought of Barbara’s impending death, and maybe also my own. We are all going to die! That’s just so awful. I didn’t agree to this. How do we live in the face of this? Left foot, right foot, push the walker forward.

Noting the groups of foreign tourists on the trail, she echoes Lucinda Williams — “you do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone” — and writes:

Who knows what tragedies these happy tourists left behind at home? Into every life crap will fall. Most of us do as well as possible, and some of it works okay, and we try to release that which doesn’t and which is never going to. … Making so much of it work is the grace of it; and not being able to make it work is double grace. Grace squared. Their somehow grounded buoyancy is infectious, so much better than detached martyrdom, which is disgusting.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s assertion that “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” Lamott considers how people like her friend Barbara — people on the precipice of death and yet very much alive — find the grace of making-it-work:

They are willing to redefine themselves, and life, and okayness. Redefinition is a nightmare — we think we’ve arrived, in our nice Pottery Barn boxes, and that this or that is true. Then something happens that totally sucks, and we are in a new box, and it is like changing into clothes that don’t fit, that we hate. Yet the essence remains. Essence is malleable, fluid. Everything we lose is Buddhist truth — one more thing that you don’t have to grab with your death grip, and protect from theft or decay. It’s gone. We can mourn it, but we don’t have to get down in the grave with it.

In one of the book’s final essays, titled “Dear Old Friend,” Lamott revisits the subject — of redefinition, of okayness, of grace in the face of death:

We turn toward love like sunflowers, and then the human parts kick in. This seems to me the only real problem, the human parts — the body, for instance, and the mind. Also, the knowledge that every person you’ve ever loved will die, many badly, and too young, doesn’t really help things. My friend Marianne once said that Jesus has everything we have, but He doesn’t have all the other stuff, too. And the other stuff leaves you shaking your sunflower head, your whole life through.

She recalls bearing witness to her friend Sue’s experience — a friend younger than she but “already wise, cheeky, gentle, blonde, jaundiced, emaciated, full of life, and dying of cancer.” Shortly after Sue received her final fatal diagnosis, Lamott recounts the New Year’s Day phone call in which Sue gave her the news:

I just listened for a long time; she went from crushed to defiant.

“I have what everyone wants,” she said. “But no one would be willing to pay.”

“What do you have?”

“The two most important things. I got forced into loving myself. And I’m not afraid of dying anymore.”

With her signature blend of piercing wisdom administered via piercing wit, Lamott writes:

This business of having been issued a body is deeply confusing… Bodies are so messy and disappointing. Every time I see the bumper sticker that says “We think we’re humans having spiritual experiences, but we’re really spirits having human experiences,” I (a) think it’s true and (b) want to ram the car.

Small Victories is monumental in its entirety, a trove of gently whispered truths that jolt you into awakeness. Couple it with Lamott on why perfectionism kills creativity and how to stop keeping ourselves small by people-pleasing.

BP

Shakespeare, Sadness-Shaman: How Hamlet Can Help Us Through Our Grief and Despair

“Hamlet is about the precise kind of slippage the mourner experiences: the difference between being and seeming…”

Shakespeare, Sadness-Shaman: How Hamlet Can Help Us Through Our Grief and Despair

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote in her soul-stretching meditation on grief. Our coping strategies can be among the most disorienting defiances of expectation — it’s a given that nothing gives comfort per se, but the things that bring even marginal relief aren’t always the ones we imagine. From The Long Goodbye (public library) — poet, essayist, and editor Meghan O’Rourke’s stirring memoir of losing her mother — comes an exquisite case not only for finding a semblance of consolation in a timeless work of art, but for what Susan Sontag once termed the “self-transcendence” that reading affords us.

In the first few days following her mother’s death, O’Rourke had received such grief classics as C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed (1961) and On Death and Dying (1969) by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist who pioneered the famous theory of the five stages of grief. And yet the book that enchanted her the most was even older — centuries older: Hamlet.

Illustration by Kate Beaton from To Be or Not To Be, a choose-your-own-adventure reimagining of the Shakespeare classic

O’Rourke writes:

I returned over and over to key speeches as if they were prayers or clues. I’d always thought of Hamlet’s melancholy as existential. His sense that the world “is out of joint” came across as vague and philosophical, the dilemma of a depressive young man who can’t stop chewing at big metaphysical questions. But now it seemed to me that Hamlet was moody and irascible in no small part because he is grieving: his father has just died. He is radically dislocated, stumbling through the days while the rest of the world acts as if nothing important has changed.

For the trouble is not just that Hamlet is sad; it is that everyone around him is unnerved by his grief. When Hamlet comes onstage, his uncle greets him with the worst question you can ask a grieving person: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, tries to get him to see that his loss is “common.” No wonder Hamlet is angry and cagey; he is told that how he feels is “unmanly” and unseemly. This was a predicament familiar to me. No one was telling me that my sadness was unseemly, but I felt, all the time, that to descend to the deepest fathom of it was somehow taboo. (As my dad said, “You have this choice when you go out and people ask how you’re doing. You can tell the truth, which you know will make them really uncomfortable, or seem inappropriate. Or you can lie. But then you’re lying.”) I was struck, too, by how much of Hamlet is about the precise kind of slippage the mourner experiences: the difference between being and seeming, the uncertainty about how the inner translates into the outer, the sense that one is expected to perform grief palatably. (If you don’t seem sad, people worry; but if you are grief-stricken, people flinch away from your pain.)

Above all, Shakespeare’s hero holds up a mirror to O’Rourke’s own duality of emotion — emptiness and anger, despair and longing for relief — providing a kind of kindred comfort. It is no small gift.

Hamlet also captures an aspect of loss I found difficult to speak about — the profound ennui, the moments of angrily feeling it is not worth continuing to live. In A Grief Observed, Lewis captures the laziness of grief, how it made him not want to shave or answer letters. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy invokes that numb exhaustion:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter.
O God! God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

“Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable”: yes. I shared with Hamlet the pained wish that I might melt away.

Researchers have found that the bereaved are at a higher risk for suicidal thinking than the depressed. But Hamlet, I thought, is less searching actively for death than wishing futilely for the world to make sense again. And this, too, was how I felt.

The Long Goodbye is enormously poignant in its totality, a must-read for anyone who has ever lost a loved one or ever will — which encompasses just about all of us, to the extent that we’re capable of love. Dive deeper into it here.

BP

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