Two book recommends, and comments about my own

Facebook friend Richard, whose reading taste I trust, said he loved This is Happiness by Irish writer Niall Williams, and then local friend Elsie said the same thing, and now I’ve read it and completely agree with them. It’s funny and sad and contains wonderful language and metaphors that aren’t just illuminating in a descriptive way but often carry wisdom too.

51DyA72JX3L._SY264_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_ML2_This is Happiness tells the story of a man looking back on a time when he was young, having left the priesthood after a year of study and gone to stay with his grandparents in Faha, which is about as far away and obscure in Ireland as it’s possible to be. And, it’s stopped raining. “It had stopped raining” is the entire Chapter One! During the unusual sunshine, electricity is being installed in Faha, and Christy comes to work on the installation and boards at the old people’s house. He’s also come to make things right with someone. Williams treats his characters and this small out-of-the-way community with such generous insight, it’s inspiring.

It was my brother Al, I believe, who recommended The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid some years ago. On that account, and also because of Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with him at Writers and Company. I was drawn to Hamid’s new book, The Last White Man. It’s a short book that felt like a parable.

4E0C9C92-37DD-48CF-A6F3-C6B3B9409F3FThe first sentence: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” Ah, shades of Kafka’s opening to Metamorphosis then. The shock of this to Anders’ sense of identity is huge: is he the same person, or how is he changed? Or is he changed by how others see him? If the story feels ominous at first, there’s comfort and tenderness too, as others begin to change. The prose style has a rhythmic repetitiveness within the sentences that serves to take the reader deeper into the under-the-skin psychology of the story. As suggested by the word parable above, it has one thinking afterwards about what it all means. 

I’m not implying a triad with these two authors, but since my theme today is books, please allow a few comments about my own. It’s some five months now since Return Stroke: essays & memoir launched, and I still find myself in the surprise this particular coming-together was, and deeply grateful to CMU Press, headed by Sue Sorensen, for doing the book. And I’m grateful for readers, as always, and for some lovely reviews so far (please see the Return Stroke page on the weblog).

I was especially touched by Kerry Clare saying: “What I love so much about Dueck’s writing and her thinking is that nothing is fixed, and she is eternally curious, taking notes and learning, about the past and the present, much of her work concerned with memory and history, but in such a vital, living way, not as an affirmation but a process of discovery.” What touched me here was not the compliment as much as her articulating exactly what I’ve felt my personal writing is, or, I should say, what I’ve wanted it to be — a process of discovery. Without that as aim, there would be no point, for my history doesn’t lend itself to the autobiographical endeavour of some great achievement. So, thanks be for such encouragement!

For those who may be interested to buy this book or any of my other titles (pictured on the right on the weblog page; a click on the title will take you there), for yourself or a gift, the two Turnstone titles are available through Amazon. CMU Press is so far resisting the use of that mega-corporation, and I respect that decision. Their two, though, indeed all, are in the distribution system and can be ordered from your local bookstore, or directly from the publisher. I also realize that buying books isn’t an option for everyone, so may I suggest asking your library to purchase the one you might want to read? — Okay, enough of this. I don’t do this often, but I did want to remind about it, and now I’ve done so! Thanks for your interest and support!

A small astonishment

“Hello house!” I said, stepping into the apartment after two weeks away. (It’s an apartment, not a house, but I pretend.) “Hello Helmut!” I continued. (An old habit.) No answer from either, except the answer that is the quiet familiarity and Geborgenheit (security/shelter/comfort) I feel in my home. The place was warm, but all seemed well. I opened some windows and stepped on to the balcony.

I’d not asked anyone to water, in my absence, the two plants I have out there — some kind of vining plant with bell shaped flowers whose name I’ve forgotten and a pot of geraniums — for I considered them both summer specific and summer would soon be over anyway. Before I left I had tucked the geraniums out of sight of my L-shaped balcony so their demise would not be witnessed by anyone who might happen to look up.

The vine whose name I’ve forgotten now looked pale and rather worse for the drought I’d imposed on it but was still alive. Then I rounded the corner and was greeted — to my great surprise — by a display of red such as I’ve not seen all season. And this in spite of two weeks of no water.

It seems a human tendency — at least it is for me — to attempt to enlarge such surprises or sightings into bigger truths, lessons as it were, like persistence in this case or blooming in spite of etc. etc., but this time I checked these thoughts. I realized this could be simply itself, could be what it was: a delight of red geraniums, a small astonishment, an unexpected welcome back.  77B212A3-8B36-49B4-809D-A6AD605A2FCD

The progression of grief

Walking this morning, I was thinking about grief, how it progresses through time and changes.

When my husband Helmut died in February 2021, I kept a kind of visual journal of grief, for even though I generally traffic in words, that activity helped me represent what I was feeling. For example, on a day in which I’d been busy with a variety of activities and then, afterwards, found myself overwhelmed with aloneness, though not crying, I expressed it as my upper body full of tears. IMG_1087

Eventually, however, the 98-page sketchbook was full, and by then it was November and less was “new” in the experience of grief. The first Christmas passed, and more crucially for me, New Year’s, which I approached with dread because the year in which he had still been alive would then be finished. The first anniversary of his death came and passed as well, which also signalled changes.

For an entire year I had found myself unable to move his keys from the ledge where they had always waited when not in use, but now, finally, I hung them on a hook under my jacket, as a spare set in case of need. Also — and I’m not sure why — I began after a year to sleep on “his” side of the bed. (Of course, alone in a queen bed one can push into the middle or all over as much as one wants, with no one pushing back, but I’m talking about the side of getting in and out.)

People with experience of grief told me the second year could be harder than the first. I don’t know if harder is the word for me, but certainly there are new challenges and questions. There’s a brutal finality that still confronts me, which no “magical thinking” of keys or leaving his side of the bed open could dissuade, nor moving keys or switching sides accomplish either, a finality that seems the more brutal because of how persistent is the disbelief around the truth that this is how it is. The challenges are the questions involved in shaping a new existence in the face of it: Is there anyone who truly needs me now? Who is witness to my life? Since I’m still here, what should I be doing with this time? 

If I were to sum up the first year visually, it might be thick vertical lines — lines of grief, say in purple, alternating with thick lines, say in green, of going on, as in coping and adapting. This, then this, then this. To sum the place that time has taken me now, I would use horizontal lines. Layers. Simultaneous. The most obvious layer perhaps what my sister, also a widow, meant when she said “you get used to it.” Doing the things of each day. There’s a solid layer of joy as well. As in my walk today, following a trail in a ditch and comprehending the subtle but rich colours of autumn grasses — cream, yellow, white, brown. As in fears overcome, and some upcoming travel to anticipate. As in my children, grandchildren, friends. As in the youngest grandchild, who, as babies do, delights me with his visible curiosity and cheerfulness. Another layer I call quest, short for the questions mentioned above. And always a layer of memories and missing, solidly in the mix though not dominating or excluding the rest of life as much as earlier.