The interlinked processes of reading and writing grief: Thoughts on Book of Mutter by Kate Zambreno

To read Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, is akin to making your way through a strangely familiar space that resembles a gallery, a diary, and a hall of mirrors all at once. It is, in its shifting fragmented form, unlike any conventional grief memoir. But then, as anyone who has lost a close family member—parent, child, partner—knows, there is nothing conventional about grief. The dynamics of shared histories, hopes and fears are complex. This colours, troubles and blurs the edges of the mourning process. Grieving is as much about our own lives, past and present, as it about honouring or making peace with our relationship with the person who is gone. We are the ones who need to be able integrate a complex of emotions and continue living.

Spanning thirteen years, from 2003 to 2016, Book of Mutter is Zambreno’s thoughtful, pained, uncertain attempt to come to terms with her mother’s death. Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary and Camera Lucida, works that attempt to articulate—initially in the immediate moment and later in the context of the photograph—the deep sense of grief he felt after the loss of his beloved mother, form a sort of natural undercurrent that arises regularly throughout the text. They are the only two books on grief that I read in the months following my own parents’ closely timed deaths in July 2016. I had already read, and thought often of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams which also appears here, but as for this book which came out in early 2017, I was not ready, at the time, to approach it. My own losses were too fresh.

As it happens, waiting was wise. Not only have I been open to reading grief in recent months, I am actively working to write about the loss of my own mother and how that is bound to the grief, anger and guilt that haunts my own sense of self. Although the circumstances, stories, and intentions guiding my own project could not be more different, Kate Zambreno’s book is filled with kindling—thoughts, ideas and reflections that sparked some sharp insights into my own achingly conflicted emotions and I have pages of scribbled notes to show for it. But that’s for another writing project yet to come. The point is, that reading and writing about grief, is not about finding exact images of yourself and resolving loss on anyone else’s terms, it is about being open to inspiration to guide your own mourning process, whatever that may ultimately look like.

Zambreno’s relationship with her mother is rife with contradictions, frequent tensions and conflicts. Her mother’s independent existence apart from her, prior to her own existence and as she grows up, is an enigma that death calls her to try to give sense to. The only access is through memory—a “house of memories”—and it is the fear of facing what this may unearth that holds her back:

My mother is the text. I cannot enter her.

Your mother was not herself in those last few months…
But who was she?

This resonates with me as someone whose own memory project was interrupted by my mother’s death, closing the door to a house of memories I was suddenly afraid to open. And yet writing is, for many people, the only access to understanding and release. Barthes and Handke both embarked on early missions to write grief, private or public, and both, I would suggest, found release elusive in these immediate efforts.

But thirteen years?

The process takes the time it demands, and then some. But the desire for closure, as impossible as that may be, is a natural instinct—one that holds a curious allure for writers who work toward that line, sentence, thought where a poem, story or essay naturally ends. But, of course, the strongest endings are those that hang in the air unaltered. Allowing for that in the act of literary creation is one thing—living it is quite another. The desire to be able to gather up all the loose ends of a life so as to let them go looms large. Zambreno describes her own intention clearly as an attempt:

To put these memories in a book, so as to be released from it. These thirteen years of it. Like a sacrificial offering. To bury it in the ground. Writing as a way not to remember but to forget. Or if not to forget, to attempt to leave it behind.

All the offerings for the dead
so they remain buried.

Book of Mutter can be read as a daughter’s incantation, an attempt to grant meaning to her mother’s life, illness, and the curious spaces she leaves behind. It resembles a literary scrapbook or a passage in and out of the rooms in a large house where mnemonic images drawn from life, literature, art, and history provoke reflections. It is a fitful journey. Zambreno’s guides are idiosyncratic, their very strangeness allowing for the unique tone of this remarkable work. Key among them are Henry Darger and Louise Bourgeois. Darger is the famous “outsider artist” who was orphaned at an early age and spent his childhood institutionalized. As an adult he maintained a solitary existence, attending Mass daily and supporting himself as a hospital custodian. It was not until he was forced to leave his Chicago apartment at the end of his life that a trove of illustrations and extensive typed manuscripts was uncovered. His stories and drawings depict detailed, elaborate fantasies—alternately whimsical and horrific—featuring children. Bourgeois was a French-American sculptor and installation artist. Works from her Cells projects, each a series of large scale installations featuring scenes and vignettes created with found objects and enclosed in wire mesh cages, provide recurring counterpoints for Zambreno as she assembles her own memory project. Disturbing insights into the creation of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film, The Passion of Saint Joan, reflections on post-mortem photography, and the fate of Mary Todd Lincoln are also woven into the text along with input from a variety of literary voices.

The resulting oddly eclectic assemblage reflects, perhaps, the extended passage of time that marks the realization of this book. Zambreno is writing in fits and starts, as she seeks to articulate so many unresolved emotions and observations. By placing her not uncommon experiences against a backdrop that is unusual (as in, not the standard grief and loss tapestry), the surreal strangeness and absolute uniqueness of the grieving experience is captured. This is a book that is at once measured and raw. In her account she moves back and forth between memories of her own often difficult relationship with her mother and the profound absence and guilt she feels, her widowed father’s attempts to fill the vacated space in his life, and an often brutal portrayal of her mother’s illness, decline and madness.

The fractured quality of the text echoes the way loss refuses to conform, refuses to work itself out neatly. How can it? Although my own relationship with my mother was quite different than the one Zambreno describes, it was not and is not free of tangled sentiments that I have often wished we could have talked about. We were close. We spoke on the phone every week and she died in her eighties, weary yet peacefully ready to leave, however there are many moments in Book of Mutter, especially in the first half, that have illuminated, by contrast, questions I’ve been struggling with. Turned them around. And that is why we read grief. And why many of us feel a need to attempt to write it. Not to find answers. But to be moved to ask questions and follow where they lead. In recent months I have read some very good books about grief and loss, accounts that blend personal experience with time-honoured, accepted understanding of the grieving process. Which is fine, but this book with its uneven, awkward genesis across more than a decade is one that I skirted so widely when it appeared (and to be honest every time I saw it staring at me from the bookstore shelf with its peculiar cover that I now know to be one of Louise Bourgeois’ Cells), has unintentionally offered a clue I needed to move forward in my own writing at exactly the right time.

And yet it remains an unfinished text. I am now reading the newly released Appendix Project, a collection of essays and talks that Zambreno wrote in the year following the release of Book of Mutter—coincidentally the first year of her own daughter’s life. It is a rich and valuable continuation of her meditation on writing grief and living with the ghosts and reverberations of an evolving and ongoing process that does not end with a final edit and the publication of a book.  What she once hoped to box up and bury is anything but.

Book of Mutter and Appendix Project by Kate Zambreno are published by Semiotext(e).

Ever a son and a father: To Grieve by Will Daddario

“What is loss,” asks Matthew Goulish in his introduction to Will Daddario’s chapbook To Grieve, “but an instance of the extreme ephemeral, for which one finds oneself unprepared, for which could never prepare? Is it accurate to say that loss makes its day extraordinary? It’s the ordinary we lose, as it transforms it into a treasure.” Writing grief is one way of tracing out a pathway back to some semblance of, if not the old “ordinary,” a new normal. For oneself, firstly and, in the sharing of the experience, for others who may, in time, require a trail of signs and symbols as they chart their own paths.

In this short, emotionally measured essay, part of the Dossier Series from Ugly Duckling Presse, Daddario unspools the knotted threads of grief that followed the fifteen-month period that began with the sudden death of his father, counted a number of significant losses—his grandmother, a close friend and a beloved pet—and ended with the stillbirth of his son, Finlay, his first child. As he navigated a course through the flood of emotions, he turned, as a writer and a scholar, not just to the writing of others, but to the very structure of language itself. If grief, as he tells us, “does not reside within you but, rather, exists outside” and works its way into your system no matter how you might endeavour to hold it at a distance, the cliché expressions that are offered to describe the process often fall hollow, yet the feelings seem to be bound these same cliches, so the articulation of the experience of grieving, invites the search for a new vocabulary. Turning to a range of literary, spiritual, and poetic resources, Daddario seeks guidance to “re-write the script of depression” that settled in on him in the months after his series of losses. The resulting journey is one that is both idiosyncratic and universal.

In their individual and shared efforts (“together alone” and “alone together”) to make sense of their son’s death, Daddario and his wife Joanne take a cue from Barthes’ Mourning Diary and record reflections on scraps of paper and gather them in a jar. On Finlay’s first birthday, they read through them. A selection of these collected thoughts, lends a loose frame to this broader exploration of grief. The weight of the emptiness that has descended into their lives is resonant in these fragments of immediate, unmediated grief, forming a counterpoint to Daddario’s more carefully and logically paced analysis of this early period of mourning observed and recounted from a place of some greater distance along. The true beauty of this short book lies not so much in any radical revisioning of grief, but in the poetic voice the grieving son and father gives to a process that can linger, seemingly suspended, at the edges of our lives in the aftermath of loss, leaving us to wonder: How long does this take?

Grief neither takes nor gives. It rushes in from the outside and inaugurates a new temporal existence that will be unique to each person or group who grieves. Another lesson of grief arises here: grief makes time, in the sense that you must now make a calendar for yourself that honours the nature of your existence. Rather than asking “how long will it take,” you can try this: what time will grief make, and what will you make within grief’s duration?

To Grieve is a thoughtful and intelligent meditation. It is also a heartrending tribute, as both a son and a father, to a father, an infant son and, before the final draft was complete, a stepfather as well. As love expands, so does grief. As I’ve mentioned before, in 2016 I lost both of my parents within eleven days of one another, followed a little over a month later by the suicide of one of my dearest friends. These deaths sit within the context of other ungrieved losses I’ve carried. Thus, it is impossible to read about grief as someone still in the midst of grieving a complex network of cicumstances, without taking one’s own pulse along the way. I did, and many of my responses are personal, sketched into my notebook. Proof, if any is needed, that this gentle chapbook is a worthy addition to the literature of, in Daddario’s own terms, grieving and “re-membering.”

To Grieve by Will Daddario is available from Ugly Duckling Presse.

The poetry of grief: Loss Sings by James E. Montgomery

Grief and loss has its own language, one that cannot be forced, one that is found waiting when the mourner ready. That is the experience recounted in the 32nd addition to The Cahier Series, a collection of short meditations published by the Center for Writers & Translators at the American University of Paris in association with Sylph Editions. Each volume pairs an author and an illustrator or artist, and examines some aspect of the intersection of writing and translation, allowing a broad scope within which such ideas can be understood and explored. As such, each cahier opens a door to a different way of engaging the world.

James E. Montgomery’s Loss Sings is a deeply personal essay that owes its genesis to tragedy. On 24 August 2014, the distinguished Professor of Arabic’s seventeen-year-old son was struck by a car when walking with some friends in the city of Cambridge. He suffered what were described as “life-altering injuries.” The driver was uninsured. Suddenly his family’s world was forever altered as an entirely new set of realities, concerns, and anxieties came into play. The young man with a promising future now faced a life of serious physical disability, marked by increasing pain, decreased mobility, and the need for ongoing care. As surgery, rehabilitation, and the detailed record keeping required for legal purposes began to shape Montgomery’s life, he discovered an unexpected appreciation for a cycle of Arabic laments that had long left him unmoved and indifferent. In the early months after his son’s accident, a personal translation project involving these poems emerged. Three years later he recorded his reflections on his son’s injury and his thoughts on memory and the articulation of loss in a series of dated diary entries. Presented together with a selection of his newly translated verses, the present cahier was born.

The poems at the centre of this fascinating account, are the threnodies of the seventh-century Arabic poet Tumāḍir bint ‘Amr, known to posterity as al-Khansā, a woman who composed and sang hymns to the loss of her two brothers in battle—more than a hundred wailing odes that were memorized and passed on for two centuries before they were committed to writing. Although Montgomery had taught these well-known elegies for three decades, through significant losses and traumas of his own including a close proximity to the surreal horror of the attack on the World Trade Towers, he had found them repetitive and cliched. It took his son’s injury to unlock their power. As a parent with a seriously injured child, the rules of order were suddenly rewritten. He realized that his son’s need for assistance would increase as his own physical abilities declined, and when an unexpected potential health problem of his own arose, his concerns for the future intensified.

Memory is a strange place. It is unreliable, pliant, liable – mercifully so. It makes so many mistakes, gets so much wrong. An event like the one I am describing rips to shreds the veil of the commonplace and the mundane, and memory is charged with the task of remembering the future, of recalling the unusual; for such events reveal to us that the future is little more than a memory.

What unfolds over the course of less than forty pages is a multi-stranded meditation on grief, loss, and the relationship between trauma and memory. As Montgomery notes, the confusion that commonly strikes in the aftermath of trauma is a response to the confrontation of previously trusted memory with a “new reality, an unalterable experience.” He recognizes a close analogy in literary translation. In order for a translator to recreate a literary work in another language, decisions must be made about what can be left out as much as what one wishes to retain. With poetry in particular, he says, it may be the only means of transmitting what is irreducibly poetic, and as such, literary translation is “more akin to trauma than it is to memory.” As trauma leaves one at odds to make sense of the world, often bound to a silence that swallows up attempts to give voice to grief, the mourner is forced to navigate a “no-man’s land” between one remembered reality and a new one. Literary translation echoes this process, and through the act of translating al-Khansā’s poetry in particular, Montgomery is able to articulate his own experience of grief and loss through an understanding and appreciation of the very elements that once irked him in these classical Arabic laments.

We are all likely well aware of the kind of cliché, stock phrases, and time-worm comforts that are offered as a solace in times of loss. When faced with profound grief ourselves, there is often a sense that common statements fall short of the magnitude of our emotions. Yet we reach for them—in condolences, eulogies, obituaries. Or worse, for fear of sounding banal we say nothing. It takes the near loss of his son for Montgomery to finally feel the power of these clichés, in the personal and the poetic:

Experience, memory, artifice and art are confronted by the absence of comfort, and earlier versions of a poet’s selves are rehearsed and re-inscribed in memory – but the brute truth of the mundanity of death is the age-old cliché about clichés, namely that, like death, they are too true.

The seventh-century warrior society to which al-Khansā belonged was bound by intense devotion to the cult of the ancestor. Death in battle demanded both vengeance and epic memorial. The latter was the responsibility of women, and her sequence of Arabic keenings—songs of loss— are the most extensive, powerful and poetically inventive to have survived to the present. Her poems are defiant. She will allow no accommodation of her loss over time, her grief stands still, “(h)er doleful, disembodied voice, entombed forever in the inanimate sarcophagus of metre, rhyme, and language.”

Night is long, denies sleep.
.    I am crippled
by the news—
.    Ibn ‘Amr is dead.

I will cry my shock.
.    Why shouldn’t I?
Time is fickle,
.    Disaster shock.

Eyes, weep
.     for my dear brother!
Today, the world
.     feels my pain.

Montgomery’s reflections on his own experiences with loss and the parallels he sees in translation speak clearly to lived grief and trauma. The yearning, aching threnodies of al-Khansā woven throughout, call from the distant past with a pain and longing that is recognizable, real, especially for anyone who is, as I am, still caught in the lingering aftermath of a series of significant losses. But throughout my engagement with this book there was one thought that I could not shake, a possible understanding that the author himself is perhaps not fully aware of. He admits that he is not entirely certain why these ancient Arabic laments finally reached into him when they did.

I worked for years with the survivors of acquired brain injury and their families. I recall one family in particular whose son was injured in a single vehicle rollover in his late teens. His parents admitted at the intake, to a double sense of grief—for their son’s ever-altered future, and for their loss of an image of their own anticipated freedom on the cusp of their youngest child’s pending adult independence. Two futures and their attendant memories altered in an instant. Yet this kind of grief—the grief of survival—is not easily mediated. When the parents attempted to attend a grief support group in their community they were pushed away. “What do you have to grieve?” they were asked, “You still have your son.” There is no accepted ritual or memorial for this kind of loss. With each step through rehabilitation, fighting for funding, worrying about an undefined but infinitely more precarious future, a song of loss sung anew every day. It does not surprise me in the least that a sequence of laments that hold so fast to grief, repeating, reinforcing and seeking voice in the comfort of cliché would break through at this time in Montgomery’s life.

How fortunate that he was able to hear them and feel inclined to guide these verses across the distances of language and time to share with us. Paired with abstract illustrations in black and shades of grey by artist Alison Watt, this small volume speaks to the universality of loss and the longing to find expression through the stories, myths and poems we turn to in times of trauma.

A new year, a new optimism, in spite of it all

As 2019 opens, my world is so much brighter than it has been for a long time—a strange sentiment given all the obvious and ominous shadows hanging over this sorry planet—but when you have been carrying darkness deep within and even the smallest moments of hope seem impossible, the lifting of that weight is near miraculous. The difficulties and challenges do not evaporate, but a renewed sense that they can be faced moving forward is the most wonderful feeling. On the Solstice I wrote about my recent medication adjustment and the subsequent easing of a depression that I had failed to recognize, being so tightly wound in its grasp that I was struggling to even find the will to continue living. Consumed by bitterness, anger, and grief I’d become a morbid, unpleasant soul by the end of November, unloading my misanthropic  self-hatred on a few trusted close friends, near and far. Now, with the unrepentant zeal of the born-again, I cannot stop marvelling at the sheer joy of not feeling miserable—it is not a delirious happiness, but damn, it does feel good. Or as a friend who nearly lost himself to a bout of  depression described the transition: I went from cowering in a corner wanting to die to crying at a stoplight overcome by the sheer beauty, intensity, and brilliance of the green light.

This past holiday season—the third since the loss of both of my parents and the suicide of a dear friend, and the fourth since my own very close encounter with death—feels like a turning of sorts. Or a recognition that we are ever turning and looking back over our lives, applying narrative arcs, seeking meaning and closure. However, this time, I refuse to be swayed by the temptation to believe this is even possible, let alone helpful. I’ve long doubted the narrative imperative, in fiction and memoir alike, and yet in our own lives we long for tidy, complete stories with meaning and message, and are continually upended every time life pulls the carpet from beneath our feet and we are forced to rewrite the script.

The major difference this year is that I have started to see my mother, in my dreams and my imagination. Always colourful and carefully coordinated, ageless and aged, believer and doubter, guardian angel and true friend. For long time, apart from a brief interlude when I was the desert of central Australia, my mother has remained a dull thickness in the core of my being. A mass of anger and guilt and self-pity. It’s easing. I feel sadness. I find myself crying. I know that I am finally beginning to grieve. It hurts so good. And I have a sense that this loosening, this opening up, is essential to releasing the blockages I’ve encountered in my own writing projects.

So with the new year ahead, I’ll begin with the resolution that marked every journal kept during decades of looking for a voice, an identity, and then, having found it, having to slip into a closet—This year I will write. Of course, I have advantages. I am no longer unpublished. I am part of an environment as a reader, writer and editor where I am fortunate to engage with inspiring and encouraging people. And I have formed some true, valuable, real friendships with people who accept the whole, weird me. These people, some of whom I have never met face to face, have sustained me through this darkness. A few with saintly patience and grace, I’m afraid. I hope that going forward I will become a calmer, more open listener, a better friend myself. And alert to the pain of others, like so many seemingly random twitter connections who heard me call out into cyberspace in my darker moments and responded with a good word or expression of concern.

My intended reading, moving into 2019, includes a few essay collections, a couple of photo essays, some long-deferred grief reading like Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, and lots more poetry. With a month in India now just over four weeks away, I’ve also got some work by Indian writers in my TBR pile, and some books I’m reading in advance of a really exciting event I’ll be taking part in in Kolkata (more about that to come).

As I mentioned before, I became seriously concerned about my well-being last November, when I found myself so physically drained and emotionally exhausted that I was wondering if I could manage to get through my trip to India at all. I had been planning a return all year and, at last, with the tickets booked, I was overwhelmed by the prospect of going. The day after I finally allowed myself to accept my psychiatrist’s suggestion that I was under something more than the seasonal blues, I dragged myself down to Mountain Equipment Co-op and bought a new lightweight travel bag. And I haven’t looked back since! My agenda for my stay is still taking shape, with room for impulse and adventure. I look forward to spending time with friends, some I have met, and some I feel like I’ve known forever even though we’ve yet to meet. I will be flying in and out of Bangalore with plans to go to Kochi and a desire to visit Mumbai, and beyond that, who knows? I am less of a tourist attraction hunter and more of a flaneur on the road. My attraction to India has grown more out of friendship and literary connections than anything else. Its neither romantic nor idealized, but as I said in my RIC photo essay:

 I’m drawn to travel in uneven places. In scarred and wounded spaces I recognize myself. Complex, interrupted histories mirror my own.

Returning to Calcutta for the third week of February will feel like coming home to a creative space I cherish, this time with the added lucky coincidence that my stay will overlap with the poetry residency of Franca Mancinelli, the Italian poet whose wonderful The Little Book of Passage made my end of year list, and she will be staying about a five minute walk from where I’m likely to be! I expect a busy week in the City of Joy because all year I’ve been mapping out places I want to revisit and those I have yet to explore. With a camera and notebook in hand.

The greatest thing I hope to bring into 2019 is an openness to experience without prescribed expectations. Some very exciting threads are coming into view—writers, reading, artistic opportunities that need to be followed to see where they lead.  There is also a lot of personal work to be done on my grief, loss, and identity issues, be it fodder or foundation for future writing… well, only time will tell.

Best wishes for all in the year ahead. Personal, national and global storms are inevitable. A good word, a good book, and, as I’m learning, a little light can go a long way. With luck we can all sustain at least a glimmer of that light through the months ahead.

A constant procession of ghosts: A reflection

August has passed, it seems, with little to show for itself. Smoky skies and an air quality rivalling that of some of the most polluted cities of the world curtailed much outdoor activity here. Further to the west, where the smoke originated and forests burned, it was worse. Now, as skies clear, temperatures are dropping and summer’s fading fast. Leaves are turning yellow. Autumn nears.

Two years ago today, September 1st 2016, a dear friend took her life. A second attempt after years of trying to fight off crushing bipolar depression. Unable to work and living on savings, treatment often meant driving to a public hospital, an hour each way. She lived in a small village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. We only met once. I spent a week with her in 2015, but from the moment we first met online, it was as if we had known each other forever. We could joke and riff off each other, falling into a regular routine as a dysfunctional divorced couple that often fooled others. In truth, we were bound by queerness, books, and bipolar disorder. Soul mates shipwrecked in our own lives.

But, of course, I couldn’t save her.

In the months before Ulla died I held a certain distance. I was reeling from the recent death of my mother, followed closely by that of my father. Knowing that she was fragile, and, after three years, still grieving her own mother, I was unable to reach out to her to seek or offer support. We were both drowning, but her sea was darker and more deadly. It had been for a long time.

With my parents’ sudden and tightly timed deaths, I had imagined the possibility of an exercise of writing immediate grief—echoing Barthes and Handke—but the burdens of being an executor distorted and distended the mourning experience and, for the most part, these losses remain unwritten. Then again, my parents were in their eighties with long lives, well-lived, behind them. My friend’s death, at forty-six, was more complex. I knew it had to be addressed, not simply for myself but for a community of followers who responded to her actions intently and personally. It took three months to salvage words and craft a 300-word piece which was published, with my own photographs, in late November of 2016. Each time I come back to this eulogy I realize how much of my immediate grief is contained there, perfected and concise.

Who, and what, in the end, do we write grief for? If we are looking for catharsis, a way to move beyond grief, we may be disappointed. Perhaps grief simply moves with us, evolving and softening over time.

If Ulla’s death sits especially heavily at this time of year, at the moment there is an extra weight. Earlier this month, my son’s best friend lost a difficult battle with opioid addiction. He had been at our house quite a bit in the last weeks, and although clean at the time, he was really struggling. My son is devastated. He’s been seeking refuge in alcohol and routinely breaks down in a flood of tears and despair. His sister and I feel a loss too; Dylan was a common presence in our lives over the past twelve years, but to be honest, in recent times I wasn’t always happy to see him on the doorstep. He and Thomas have both, at twenty-eight, been fighting their own mental health and addiction issues for a long time. And they were not always good for each other. They could be up all night arguing—usually about politics, but sometimes about really “important” matters like the difference between a canon and fugue. Things could get violent. One morning Thomas broke his hand on Dylan’s head (and glasses). But music was their real bond. They wrote and recorded songs together and spent hours busking on street corners over the years. They believed in each other when neither could believe in himself.

As a parent it is agonizing to watch my child in pain and know that his is a mourning song I cannot write.

*

As September begins, I am aware more than ever that we are surrounded by a constant procession of ghosts. I’ve bought a two-bed flat and, at the moment, I’m deeply engaged in the process of emptying out closets, cupboards and rooms of accumulated stuff so that, by October 1st, my house will be empty and I will be settling into a much smaller space. The sheer volume of junk that needs to be dumped, donated, or moved is overwhelming. And with it, reminders of the losses of the last few decades keep resurfacing when I least expect it.

Out in my unfinished garage where I have amassed a mound of old, damaged furniture and broken objects waiting for pick up, I found a windshield propped against the wall. I have no idea what it was for or why it is there, but I know it was something my father must have picked up and forgotten. I’m surprised how much of him I couldn’t part with after his death—his Russian literature, a bust of Beethoven, a grandfather clock—all tangible reminders of a man who was so elusive, so hard to know.

Of my mother, there are few objects I wanted to bring home but her presence permeates so much of my life. Especially the one I tried to live in her image. As a girl and woman. Packing up children’s clothing for donation I find the beautiful outfits she crafted for her precious granddaughter—lined coats, fancy dresses—her attentions to Ginny’s wardrobe becoming ever more feminine as I, her only daughter, transitioned to male. I also unearth all the outfits I myself made for both my children in their early years when I was still determined to play the part birth had granted me. A part that, ultimately, has nothing to do with gender at all. I truly enjoyed creating beautiful things for my children. It just didn’t alter the sense that I wasn’t female.

And so, this house is also haunted by ghosts of myself, the selves I wanted to be, the self I became while living here. The self I still don’t know what to do with. I haven’t even uncovered the boxes filled with all my childhood photographs or angst-ridden adolescent writing. But documents with my old names, once-treasured possessions, and even a wedding dress have been revealed. Some will be retained, others hastily stuffed in bags and carted off to Goodwill.

Then last night, another more recent, unresolved ghost emerged. In a closet I found a manual from a leadership workshop I took a number of years back. At that time I was confident, more secure in my sense of self than I would ever be. My transition, in my mind, was complete and a success. But within a few years, my brief, yet promising, career in not-for-profit management would be destroyed by circumstance and my own mental illness. A loss I still have not come to terms with and yet it seems like something that belonged to another person. As if my life has just been a series of reincarnations that seem to leave me no wiser or further ahead.

And no more certain who I am.

And then there is my own addiction: books. Spread through three rooms, with most shelves double stacked, I shudder to think how many boxes there will be. No mercy for old magazines and outdated textbooks. They are bound for the recycling bin. But every time I scan my bookcases to collect charity sale donations, my decisions about what to hold on to shift. My anthropology and ecology texts are now gone, but my philosophy, classics and ancient Near Eastern history volumes remain. I notice that so many of the books I bought during my years of bookstore employment in the early 80s are still valued, even if I didn’t appreciate some for decades after purchase, whereas the literary bestsellers I devoured in my thirties and forties have been, and are, regularly pruned and sent off to new homes. Some of the obsessive tangents reflected in my collection are held dear, others are an embarrassment.

The books we read, and perhaps even more tellingly, the books we buy with the intention to read them, reveal a lot about who we are, who we want to be, and who we want others to imagine we are. More ghosts in our own lives.

And I suppose moving is one more opportunity to encounter, reshape, and even resolve a few of those ghosts—our own and those of others whom time, distance, or death have taken away.

Maybe even grieve.

Unfinished conversations: Still unable to address my mother, two years later

In memory of Mary Jane Ellis
1934-2016

I have accepted an offer on my house and, if all goes well, I will be moving. Knowing that I’ll be looking to purchase a much smaller space, there is, after twenty-four years here, an urgent need to reduce the collected detritus and all the unwanted belongings that have accumulated over time. Two children, a dissolved marriage, and my own double-folded existence have left a mass—no, make that a mess—of stuff to sort through and clear out.

One evening I uncovered a shoebox of cards and letters tucked into the most unlikely cupboard in the basement. I brought it upstairs and sat down to sort through the contents. Anniversary cards celebrating a marriage that ended seventeen years ago; longer than that if you count the painful years of unravelling that preceded the formal separation. Birthday cards addressed To a Beautiful Daughter. And letters. From friends. From my mother. From another time and life. Some I kept, others I tossed into the recycling box. I opened none of them. It seems one cannot bury the self, but one can put it aside—until a later date.

My mother’s death, two years ago today, opened a raw vein, exposed a deep insecurity that I believed I had moved beyond. As a result, my faint efforts to articulate my loss have continued to come up against an impenetrable wall  of guilt and shame. That box of old cards and letters troubles old wounds. Likewise, yesterday’s the discovery of nearly two decades of prayer journals uncovered in  a container stored at my brother’s place compounds the pain. When I suggested that the journals be burnt, unopened, my other brother admitted he had read some and that her prayers had been focused on our father—no surprise there—and me. It seems I had been her pressing concern. Me. The daughter who failed her. The daughter who could not be a woman.

I have always insisted, to myself at least, that my mother was my one and only unconditional support through the years of my transition and beyond. That when she died, I lost the one person who really believed in me. But, in truth, we never got the chance to properly address the impact of the shift in our relationship. We always talked around the subject.

In the last month of her life, when I was finally beginning to try to confront the extent of the loneliness and grief my own tangled life journey has caused me—when I needed more than ever for her to assure me I was a good person and that she still loved me—she was already slipping away. As her lungs became constricted within her shrinking frame, her energy and cognitive abilities declined rapidly. We thought she needed rest, a break from our father. We didn’t know she was on her way out.

On July 6, 2016, one day after my dad was in a serious accident that would ultimately claim his life, my mother was rushed into the city with critically low oxygen levels. She ended up in ICU in one hospital while her husband lay unconscious on the stroke unit of another. I saw her the next day, and although disoriented, she was hungry and joking with the nurses. One day later she was barely responsive. The respirator was not helping as we’d hoped. On the third day, Saturday July 9, I received a call from the hospital. A family member was needed. Both of my brothers were out of town, so my daughter and I went down. Ginny was twenty-three at the time and had been very close to her grandmother. We spoke to the doctor and agreed that the respirator should be removed, but requested that we wait until my brothers could be there—one was a few hours away, the other six.

So Ginny and I kept vigil. Held her hands. Told her we loved her. My son was too distressed to come. When my brothers and their wives arrived, the respirator was removed and we kept her company through her final hours. Eleven days later, our father would follow her. Throughout those troubled weeks, I sat many hours by my parents’ bedsides. To my brothers though, whatever I do, whatever I have done, is never enough. I am the oldest and the odd one out. Always wrong. But as they’ve been supported by their wives and extended families, I’ve been alone with two adult children, the three of us shocked and bereft.

It has been a long two years now. My mother’s absence still sits heavy—an empty space inside me. I cannot address her yet. I have no words. I’d like to think she would be proud that I am writing, but she never wanted to read anything I wrote. It might have been too painful. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to write my grief now. We were, it seemed, so close. We spoke on the phone every week, shared our hopes and concerns. But what of what was left unsaid?

And what of the daughter she lost, the one in the cards and letters in the shoebox, did she mourn her? She saw me happy, for a while at least, in this new masculine form. If I could trust that she remembered that person, her unexpected son, in her last hours, could I move on and begin the grief process?

Or am I still mourning a lost self too?

Ever tried. Ever failed. You know the drill. August 2017, the month that was.

As August draws to a close, and September opens, I have some thoughts about the pressures of prescribed reading and the complicated emotion of loss.

Joseph Schreiber 2017

At the outset of the month I pulled out a selection of potential books to choose from for Women in Translation month. I knew that with several review related reading projects underway I was unlikely to get to more than a few titles. I managed three: one of my must-reads (Carmen Boullosa’s Before), one that was somewhat disappointing (Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am), and one late addition (Isabelle Eberhardt’s The Oblivion Seekers). However, I found that many of the books I tried to pick up did not work at all for me— that is, they were not right for right now. Feeling that I ought to try to manage one more before the month was out I found myself frozen, almost unable to read anything… I had to stop and remind myself what such reading projects are all about.

Raising the awareness of the fact that fewer female writers are translated is important, as is celebrating the terrific authors who may not be well known. It never hurts to look at one’s reading habits and challenge one’s self. But it is another thing to get stressed and defensive. And that is what happens when I start to measure my reading by gender. I will admit, more male than female authors line my shelves. I have addressed this fact before in other posts. I also wrote about how for the better part of two decades I read almost exclusively female writers in an essay for Literary Hub last year. For a long time, I hoped that by filling my head with female voices I would find my own. And, of course, I never did. The sense of myself as male was unassailable. Seventeen years ago I set off on a course to realign my presented and internal gender. And here I am.

At this point, I like to think that the gender of the authors I read is secondary, although I will admit to a growing need to connect with gender-queered and gender non-conforming perspectives. Most specifically I am drawn to writing that is challenging, exploring style and form. In recent months, some of those writers have, in fact, been women in translation—Fleur Jaeggy, Can Xue, Marie Ndiaye. Before next August rolls around again I am certain there will be more. And I know for a fact I will be turning to some intriguing experimental female writers writing in English. But, as a person with a differently gendered history, gender is a complicated, messy space of being. Whenever I start to feel the burden of gender pressing on me from the outside, the existential anxiety (and anger) that haunts me is stirred.

So, let me read—as and how I need to read.

But my own self-imposed reading ambitions are not the only pressures that have weighed on me this past month. My brothers and I listed our parents’ house and it sold within one week. With the possession date looming we made several trips to clear the house out and, on the final visit, I found my mother’s nail file. She carried this file with its ivory coloured handle and tattered red plastic sheath for decades. Just looking at it I see her hands. It is perhaps the single most important keepsake I have. More than anything it reminds that she is well and truly gone.

When I first came out to my mother, back when transgender was just beginning to draw some serious public attention, she asked for some time to process what I had shared, but promised that she loved me unconditionally. And she never let me down. She was my advocate, my best friend, the one person I could call for comfort and reassurance, no matter what. I was otherwise alone. There were no local supports, I faced the challenges of being a single male parent of two children with learning disabilities, I experienced a breakdown, the loss of a career, and a life-threatening health crisis. Even though she was unable to travel far near the end, she phoned me every week without fail, and I spent as much time as I could with her and my father in their final months.

When my parents died last year, my mother’s death opened an intangible void.

My parents’ house. Our last day there.

I did, however, still have one faint, yet vital lifeline—a friend in South Africa, the closest queer friend I have ever had. Bookish and bipolar, like me, she was a sort of soul mate even though we only met in person once when I visited her in 2015. But as I was tumbling, she was falling further and farther. One year ago today, September 1, Ulla took her own life. Images of the rugged Indian Ocean shoreline near her home have been seeping into my dreams. As we spread our parents’ ashes before leaving their property for the last time, all I could think of was Ulla’s being spread on the beach. I couldn’t touch the urn. My son spread my share.

Eastern Cape, South Africa

Suddenly I am doubly aware of how alone I am. How alone I have been and how weary I am.

The intersection of Pride Week, rather than providing a distraction, exacerbates the sense of loss. I cannot imagine anything lonelier than a mass of shiny happy people. I did excuse myself from the volunteer commitments I had made and now I am free to avoid the parade as I usually do. I also happened to have a doctor’s appointment so I spoke to him about my recent depressive dips and my frustration with the reality of long-term trans loneliness that nobody talks about, that isn’t fashionable, that doesn’t fit the script.

Sometimes loss feels less like a temporary passage, than a layering, compounded, defining quality of life.

Welcome to my closed space reality:

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

And so on.

Note: I should have included a link to the requiem I wrote for my friend. This piece was published at Sultan’s Seal last November, is constructed of salvaged language, and features photographs from my visit to South Africa.