Saturday, November 30, 2013

Time Management for the Bereaved Computer Programmer

After a summer writing mostly letters to Jean, I started a grief writing group in October.  As the name suggests, it combines a writing workshop with group counseling, with differences from each. Unlike writing workshops, this group values writing as it facilitates the grieving process; the point is to explore emotions, not to prepare for publication.  And unlike other counseling groups, this one has a strangely anonymous feel; some of the questions you typically have about people are impolite to ask.  For example, based on the quality of the writing -- can't help but notice -- I suspect not all of us are amateurs. But profession would be an awkward topic to raise, it crosses the boundary of knowing each other chiefly as people coming to terms with loss(es).  I'm not objecting; there is a stimulating, leveling something about being forced to relate to fellow humans on the basis of a terrible, not-quite-inevitable commonality.

Every week we get writing suggestions, such as "describe or imagine your beloved's final hours," along with examples of poems showing how much can be done with that approach.  Notable among these examples are excerpts from Without by Donald Hall, a collection of poems clustered around Hall's experience of losing his wife Jane Kenyon to leukemia.  Without consists of twenty-one short-line free-verse poems, twenty of which tell the story in chronological order.  The exception, Her Long Illness, winds around the first seven poems until arriving at the end of that illness, and the poem that lends its title to the book.  In addition to being much longer than any of the others, Her Long Illness looks different on the page because the lines are grouped into couplets of a short line of about three stresses, then a long line of around five. Hall has a preference for end-stop lines, and at times I suspect an iambic intent.

Hall's tone is conversational, direct, unaffected; like it, reminds me of Jean.  It's possible to read distractedly past one of his beautiful images, then wonder about the power of simple language after something tugs at your eye and says backup.  As in the last stanza of Letter in Autumn, about visiting Jane's grave:

  Looking south
    from your stone, I gaze at the file
    of eight enormous sugar maples
    that rage and flare in dark noon,
    the air grainy with mist
    like the rain of Seattle's winter.
    The trees go on burning 
    without ravage of loss or disorder.
    I wish you were that birch
    rising from the clump behind you,
    and I the grey oak alongside.

    -- from Without by Donald Hall

But in my opinion, the most powerful lines belong to Her Long Illness.  In this excerpt, after Jane's hematologist told them "I have terrible news," they're working together on selecting poems for a collection, and on writing an obituary:

    ...he saw how weak she felt
and said maybe not now; tomorrow?
    Jane shook her head: "Now," she said.
"We have to finish it now."
    Later, as she slid exhausted into sleep,
she said "Wasn't that fun?
    to work together?  Wasn't that fun?"

    -- from Without by Donald Hall

Another Jean reminder.  Some of the sweetest marital moments of the technical editor and the computer programmer were when they worked together on their writing, and it was indeed fun, and they kept at it even after Jean entered Zen Hospice. Kept going until nearing the end of the sequence described in this stanza a few pages later:

One by one they came,
    the oldest and dearest, to say goodbye
to this friend of the heart.
    At first she said their names, wept and touched;
then she smiled; then
    turned one mouth-corner up.  On the last day
she stared silent goodbyes
    with her hands curled and her eyes stuck open.

    -- from Without by Donald Hall

This could sound unbearably familiar, if you've ever been inducted into the hospice club.  And if you questioned our group's use of writing as therapy, imagine you were Hall, and somebody in your writing group compliment you on how the quiet images in these lines built to a wrenching crescendo.  Which of course they do, and you’d revised and revised to make it so.  But she's still gone, and part of you died with her; you might not be in the mood for praise.

As for me, most weeks I've struggled to tell what it was like to be married to Jean, and to avoid talking about what it's like now.  Part II of that formula gets no prize for emotional authenticity; perhaps writing poems in the manner of _Her Long Illness_ would help me look in both directions?  Worst case, the format is possible to imitate/fake within a week; and if the writing doesn't work either as poetry or therapy, the plot is simple, so the reader can quickly move.

There's only poem remotely blog-ready at Thanksgiving time 2013, but more could come, and Time Management for the Bereaved Computer Programmer seems a clever working title for a series. Too clever? But grief does focus you on time: wishing it could run backwards; wondering if it really heals wounds and whether, in all truth, you want to be healed.  If you look at the Without table of contents with the male penchant for keeping score, you can count three titles that name seasons, three others that name holidays, one that names a specific date, and two an indeterminate time span (Last Days and Her Long Illness). Do nine time-related titles out of twenty-one constitute a significant trend?  If not, and mixing poetry with time management is just silly, at least daydreams of a poetry collection provides an opportunity to promote Hall's book.


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