A Year of Books (about grief)

An annual habit of mine since I’ve been blogging has been to compile an end-of-year reading recap. Each year I’ve done it differently: some years I got really involved with my reading recap blog post. Other times, like last year (2016), I simply “dialed it in” because I wasn’t really feeling much enthusiasm for that writing “assignment.” My reading recap in 2014 still stands as “the bomb” in terms of detail, depth, and length.

Keeping a reading list is another lesson I learned from Mark Baumer. He thought it was important to keep track of the books he read and he encouraged his parents to do the same. Like him, I had a website, so I incorporated my annual reading compendium into my blog/website. Like son—like father. Mary kept her list in a journal/notebook, as well as noting it on the Goodreads site.

When Mark was killed in January, I couldn’t read for most of the next month following his death. Grief affects you in a host of ways, and I experienced a sort of cognitive dulling that made following a narrative difficult, if not impossible. This concerned me, especially if it meant that something essential in my life like reading would get snatched away from me, just like Mark had.

I was grasping (and gasping) for understanding without much success in the days and weeks following Mark’s death. This was when I picked up a book written by a friend and someone I had worked with (as had Mark) in helping her publish that book. Linda Andrews wrote a beautifully-honest book about coping with the death of her husband, Jim. Her own experiences with many people’s inability to cope with what you are going through was oddly comforting. Coming back to Please Bring Soup To Comfort Me While I Grieve offered me a much richer appreciation for what she accomplished in writing that book. It also offered me the ability to make my way back to an important practice of reading.

Grief and an existential sadness have become daily companions during 2017, the year I’d soon like to forget (Mark was killed on January 21), or perhaps be offered some kind of do-over. I spent the final 11 months looking for other books that might offer solace and support. My experience became one where books offering insight and understanding of my new landscape of grief and loss and a world turned upside-down weren’t as readily available as I would have thought they would be. Maybe a better way of articulating that is to say that the kinds of books that spoke to me, personally, weren’t something I could just look up online or pick off the bookshelf at the local library. Finding them necessitated work and investigation. I’m still not sure why. Maybe it’s that the books that dot the self-help section dealing with grief and loss simply aren’t addressing the kinds of things I’m living through. Also, as much as we try to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to “healing” the grieving, everyone grieves differently. I’m not looking to simply compartmentalize my feelings, or to make others more comfortable in my presence, which is often how it seems like we’re expected to process death in America. At times, feeling like I had to measure up to this unrealistic expectation made me angry.

For instance, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s popular book (written with Adam Grant), Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. Sandberg lost her husband, suddenly. It was obvious she was deeply affected by his death. Yet, her book did little or nothing for me. I think because it played into the American manner of pushing through grief and loss like it’s just another roadblock along the road to success. It’s not (at least it’s not for me), and I’m not looking to “build resilience” or any of the other skills so important to high-powered corporate “thought leaders” like Sandberg and Grant. For me, moving through grief requires more than a return to “normalcy,” whatever that means.

That’s not to say that my persistence in seeking these kinds of “deeper” reads haven’t delivered a handful of especially rewarding books—the kind that address grief, doing it in a way that captures something much deeper and profound. Not settling for something reductive to “fix me,” or “move on” from an emotionally-wrenching experience has taught me a lot. I hope these efforts might allow me to help others going through something similar. Maybe the most profound learning from this has been recognizing that unlike the need to compartmentalize everything in order to get on with the task of being a good little worker bee in an exploitative system, grief isn’t linear, and there aren’t five neat little “stages” to pass through, sooner, rather than later. No disrespect intended to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her work.

At the core of what I’m looking for in books and writing by others is their ability to offer up an experience and process that touches on the intensity of my own emotions, as well as the other physical and psychological aspects of losing the son who I loved more than life itself. I don’t think you can “fix” that, no matter how often others think that’s what you need to be whole again.

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was recommended by someone who had begun following Mark. His recommendation was perfect. Even though I’d read Didion’s well-known book before, it spoke to me in an entirely different and unique way this time.

Didion is an amazing writer, someone I’ve been influenced by. The way she approached the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne—like she was reporting out on death and grief—worked for me.

But I wasn’t interested only in reading self-help books, or works focused on death, either. The world marches on and at some point, my curiosity of living in that world—even one altered forever by Mark’s death—returned.

By summer, my thinking was coming back to well-worn places where it had travelled before. My interest in history, theology, the need to find a sociological explanation for how people act, piqued my curiosity yet again. This began a stretch where I wanted to learn more about Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker co-founder and activist who had a profound influence on future activists and warriors for social justice (like Mark). Being born into a Catholic family with a significantly different way of practicing their faith also played into my Day fixation during the summer months.

Rebecca Solnit offered me some of my most compelling reading of the year. I always thought she was an amazing writer when I ran across her essays or magazine work (she writes regularly for Harper’s). However, I’d never actually read one of her books until this past summer. How had that happened?

At the time, I was trying to find some small glimmer of hope. Living during a time like nothing I’ve ever seen, with a president like Trump, and those in power happy to keep us all paralyzed by hopelessness necessitated something profound. Solnit delivered that for me, helping me feel like maybe, just maybe, I could push back against the despair and an ideology built upon individualism and hate, contrasted with Solnit’s (and Mark’s) worldview offering up love, and the belief that we’re all in this together, every boy, girl, woman, and a man

Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities was an antidote of sorts to falling down into the abyss of despair. After reading it, I began recommending that others I knew who knew Mark (and were feeling lost, too) seek it out and commit to reading it.

Two things about Solnit’s book really stayed with me. One is that in the biblical Song of Solomon, the writer offers up that there is “nothing new under the sun.” I think that we have to remember history. There have always been times in the past when things seemed dark, dire, and beyond repair. Yet, movements formed, people stepped up, and things changed.

Solnit’s other gift proferred was pointing me back to events and movements. Maybe because she is a movement activist herself, she understands why this is essential.

Her reminding me of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, working as an anarchist collective, “culture-jamming,” often using words (especially poetry) and theater to subvert, provided a needed tonic, and reminded me of Mark in a rich, beautiful way.

Mark was a hopeful person. He’d rarely allow me to sink too low without offering something to consider, or simply acknowledge how I felt and then suggest an activity designed to restore some hopefulness. Solnit helped me draw on his own legacy, while I was working my way through her book.

Finding Melanie Brooks’ book, Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma at Barnes & Noble in Augusta while passing through, drumming up some Medicare insurance business in October, was fortuitous. I say “fortuitous” because it was during the summer when I began writing intensely about Mark, his death, and how it’s affected me deeply as his father. This “writing into grief” is much deeper (and draining) than anything I’ve written here on the blog.

Writing Hard Stories

I recognize that Mark’s story is unique. It’s also not the norm that his father just happens to be a writer. Those two things didn’t necessarily fill me with optimism or offer up a ready-made book concept. I might still be inadequate for this “assignment.” I was also feeling terrified, thinking that my writing would all be for naught in the end.

Brooks’ book beautifully captures a writer facing her own concerns about writing that kind of “big story” when she doubts her ability and capacity to make it happen. Somehow, she finds the guile and courage to track down (and actually get them to agree to be interviewed) some of the biggest names in the memoir market—writers like Edwidge Danticat, Andres Dubus III, and others who’ve written tough stories—many of them touching on grief and loss.

What her interviews did for me is to show that even big-name writers who’ve written best-selling books about their experiences doubted their ability to “step-up and deliver” on something so deeply personal. It helped to understand that much of the reticence I was feeling was probably normal.

Reading about Brooks working through her own doubts and facing demons provided me with validation and kept me going into the fall. She is currently in-process on her own memoir about father—a prominent general and thoracic surgeon who was infected by HIV from contaminated blood during open-heart surgery. He died of a heart attack at age 42.

I’m eagerly awaiting her book when it comes out.

Mark was a poet. I am not one. Poetry has always eluded me.

Undeterred, I set out for the space where Mark was writing in. I know I’ll never approximate it, but I felt like I had to come nearer to where he was as a writer in attempting to write and tell my own story about him.

The two years he was at Brown completing his MFA program is the period that I know the least about in his life. He kept that time at an arm’s-length from his parents for own personal reasons. Yet, over the past year or so prior to his death, he was opening up more about this and we’d have some of our most interesting and personal conversations about this time and writing in general, especially in terms of craft.

Coming across Steph Burt’s book about poetry, The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary Poems and How to Read Them was an important find. The book really aided me in locating a “space” where Mark’s writing was living after completing his MFA program and getting out into the world as a writer. Burt also just “happened” to write about C.D. Wright, a prominent poet and a key figure for Mark during his time in Brown’s MFA program. Both John Cayley and Joanna Howard (professors in Brown’s literary arts department) had mentioned to us that C.D. was “fond of Mark” as a student. Others told me that C.D. saw Mark’s potential as a poet and considered his writing “impressive.”

Wright died slightly more than a year prior to Mark being killed. Her death devastated the Brown community. Burt wrote a beautiful elegy about her and what a “giant” she was in the world of poetry that Burt considered important (and Mark did, too). This really opened up an avenue of understanding for me and I’ve continued reading poetry at the end of the year.

The book I’ve been looking for all year though, is The Long Goodbye, by Meghan O’Rourke. Not a new book (it came out in 2011), O’Rourke is equal parts Didion, memoirist in the best sense of writing deeply personal stories (about grief), and refreshingly honest about how fucked up losing someone you love makes you. Oh—and she doesn’t tell us we need to move on, or find some deep well of resilience, either.

Avoiding the cookie-cutter in writing about grief.

O’Rourke lost her mother to cancer when her mom was only 55 years old. I’ll be 56 in January.

O’Rourke’s remarkable work offers validation about the personal things I’ve been experiencing since January. She also doesn’t offer platitudes or prescriptions for “fixing” you. By pulling back the curtain on her own psychic pain (and physical affectations), you locate a fellow traveler and guide to accompany you in continuing the difficult journey through grief.

Sixty books read in 2017. I blasted way past my goal of 36 that I set for my baseline.

Maybe I need to up that number for 2018.

I wish I could share and compare it with Mark. Not being able to hurts and is just one more thing I’ll have to get used to living without.