He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.
– Thomas Cromwell speaking in Bring Up the Bodies: A Novel by Hilary Mantel
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I often hear this myth advertised on the radio, swaddled in a cloying song by Kelly Clarkson. The strong base beat is seductive, as are the swelling interludes and the traditional A-B-A compositional structure. The moment I start singing along is my sign to turn off the radio and drive in silence. I attempt to meditate. This effort is usually unsuccessful. And so I often find myself crying while driving, which does make me feel better, even if it prompts confused and sometimes concerned looks at traffic lights and in busy parking lots. I’m learning not to care.
People often say to me: This experience with Ronan will make you more resilient. It will make you stronger. You’re strong now. Later you’ll be like titanium. The fact that my child is dying (people rarely phrase it this way, it’s always a watered-down description) will apparently transform me into a metal that also appears in another pop song. Shoot me down, but I won’t fall. I am tie-tane-ee-um. I am tired of being part of a metaphor, or part of someone else’s idea of what my grief is about, or for.
According to the widely accepted theory that adversity builds character (a close cousin of the American bootstrap myth promising that you can “achieve anything if you try hard enough,” a very obvious lie that nobody believes in but pretends to) it is brute emotional strength that helps you survive grief. You must be a person of steel heart, mind, body. Knighted by sadness. A muscle of pure intention. Masked for the world, like Batman. Like Catwoman and her perky little ears and fancy glasses and martial arts savvy and class consciousness. Someone who wears other people’s masks, like Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel’s novel Bring Up the Bodies, who loses his children to the Plague and sacrifices everything to try and maintain his station as a rags-to-riches urchin boy who made good in the royal court of King Henry VIII, that demanding and mercurial master. You can learn a lot about how people expect you to manage or manifest grief by listening to pop music and watching summer blockbusters and reading bestselling historical novels. I know all about masks. If I catch someone’s gaze at a traffic light and I’ve been crying, I wipe my eyes and arrange my face.
What are some other recommended grief management techniques? A yoga teacher might instruct you to soften your heart, ground into the earth, accept the moment as it is. (And this is sometimes accompanied by the very odd instruction to “straighten your armpit waist,” which I’ve never quite figured out how to do. In fact, I have never successfully located that part of my yogic anatomy). I thought of these two approaches – muscle through grief or just get out of the way and let grief muscle through you (or “ride the wave,” as my yoga teacher gently encourages the class as we collectively grunt into a difficult pose) – while alone in the movie theater watching Batman. I thought about the people who were watching people shoot other people with machine guns on a huge celluloid screen and then found themselves at the end of a gun. Bodies falling on the screen and in the seats. Fantasy leaking into reality, and with fatal consequences. No catchy saying for that, I guess, except what? Wrong place, wrong time? That sounds crass, and it is. But so are the tragedy-hungry news stations and those borderline prurient profiles of the victims designed to make you weep, to make you fearful. Can you believe it? I can’t believe it! People exclaimed. I believed it. Tragedy doesn’t surprise me. This reaction was as sickening to me as shock, as sickening to me as imagining the people mourning their dead loved ones, as sickening as all of the gutting and beheading that goes on in Mantel’s 16th century England. Moments before entering the theater I had just highlighted this line in Mantel’s novel: Death is your prince, you are not his patron; when you think he is engaged elsewhere, he will batter down your door, walk in and wipe his boots on you. So there are ghosts in the Batman movie then, and not just of Bruce Wayne’s fictional dead parents, this primal loss that, yes, seemed to make him stronger, better, more ethical. The pain that chiseled him into the Batman, Savior (and then the Scapegoat) of Gotham City who gets his own light in the shape of his imagined self to shine out over the skyscrapers, giving hope (He’s still here! He has not abandoned us!) to a people worn down by violence and mayhem. There were other ghosts. Marveling at Anne Hathaway’s skintight leather suit and her outrageously shiny hair, I felt weighted by these shadows and “shades,” as C.S. Lewis might say. I found myself tromping through a deep forest of memories.
Weeping into my popcorn has become an ordinary experience for me while watching summer comic book movies, most of which are made with a budget that could feed the entire world. This strange and terrible world full of unexpected disappointments and deaths and struggles. Is it truly making us stronger? I’m not sure. While a student at Harvard I had two jobs, a full course load and lived an hour-long bus ride away from Cambridge. I hardly had time to study I was so busy trying to afford living in Boston. So many mornings as I waited for the bus in the bone-cold air in front of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, scribbling in a notebook, I imagined how much easier it would be to become an artist or a writer or anything at all if someone else was footing the bill. (This snapshot is itself a privileged example of my point, because I didn’t get to Harvard by myself.) Does struggle breed character or just resentment? Again, I’m not sure. Why do we have the expectation that it should? Would it make us all feel equal to one another when we know that class is the great divider?
What I do know is that so-called “character-building experiences” produce ghosts. In Hilary Mantel’s fictionalized account of Cromwell’s role in the fall of Anne Boleyn, our elusive hero is truly haunted. Cromwell, the working class rough neck who escapes an abusive father and a dismal fiscal future to travel the world before finally rising to the top of the royal court ladder, but not without whopping loss. Loss of virtue, loss of the sight of the boundary between cruelty and mercy, and finally, in a matter of days, minutes, in fact, his whole family save one son lost to the plague. The dead walk through the book, float at the top of staircases; they visit Cromwell at night, batting their angelic wings in his candlelit study, shrieking and asking questions, every bit as scary as an overhead parade of bats, appearing, as they do, when he least expects or can afford to be bothered. His living son, the lone survivor, asks Where do the dead live now? Nobody knows. But they do live, inside the grief experience and then beyond it. And in the end it is grief that makes us equal to one another, at least for a moment.
There are several scenes that struck me as exemplary in their treatment of emotional hardship/soul-rocking grief in Christopher Nolan’s much-hyped and now much-discussed film. First, this little gem from the villain, the other masked man, a Darth Vader-ish menace who was “raised in hell” and who kicks Batman’s ass and renders him more of a sniveling rat than a high-flying bat: “There can be no true despair without hope.” I found this missive barked out of a hulking man’s electronic mouth very interesting, and I mulled over it for the rest of the movie as a bloodied Bruce/Batman lands in “the Pit,” a deep prison where hollow-eyed men wearing filthy tunics slump against the stone walls, mumbling in a Moroccan Arabic dialect. Bruce is determined to get out, although only a child has ever succeeded, and even this is passed on ruefully, as a magical legend, a fantasy and nothing more. He despairs, but this compels him to act, to try to change his reality, which is a way of projecting hope. One starts to see the connection that his enemy made in the previous scene. Why else would Batman work so hard to get buffed up through a Rocky-like workout of sit-ups and pull-ups and push-ups? “I’m angry,” he admits (in English) to his prison mates. Yes, he despairs, but he is ardent and hopeful as he sweats in his cell. He imagines a beyond (and imagination is intrinsically hopeful) and he wants to get there. All the while he keeps grieving: for his parents, always; and for the woman he loved and failed to save. One cannot grieve, apparently, without hope. This made me feel hopeful, which surprised me – both that I would feel it while watching this film, and that I could feel it at all.
Second, the Pit made me think of the exquisite grounds of the Corporation of Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York where I have spent many weeks and months being fed and coddled as a writer (and by coddled I mean not having to do anything but eat, write, and sleep). The very opposite of hell. This colony for artists and writers was started by a rich family of the old New York guard. Heirs to staggering wealth. Privileged in every respect. They lived in a mansion overlooking the rose gardens, where writers and artists now stroll with sketchbooks and notepads. Yaddo has hosted Sylvia Plath and John Cheever and many other notables. People still drive upstate from the city and wear fancy hats to watch the ponies. Skidmore College, the local liberal arts institution, costs more per year than the average income of an average American family. My friend Kate, who graduated from Skidmore and lived with me in Boston, tells a story about the time she visited the campus with her father, who died of cancer before she was a freshman. They drove all around town, into the parts that bore no mark of privilege. As they drove he told her that he was proud of her for getting into such a good school, but he wanted her to remember that other people lived in this town as well. I love that story; I remember it each time I take the train from the city to the tiny local station.
Yaddo is hardly a prison, but it is enclosed the way a prison is. Visitors are allowed at specially appointed times and only with permission. Meals are served at exactly the same time every day. There are quiet hours (although no lights out in deference to those who work the writer’s night shift). The idea is that if you allow creators to create without the impediments of the “real world” (bills, dinner, jobs, other people, traffic), they will be reformed, and they are. The crucible works. These artists stop procrastinating and complaining about how hard it is to create and actually do it. They do what they’re supposed to do: offer gifts to ordinary people, the “other” people Kate’s dad beseeched her to remember, as well as the well-dressed people in the bandstands of the world.
Yaddo itself was born from grief, that great leveler. The colony became a playground for creative minds because Katrina Trask, the matriarch of the mansion and its well-maintained grounds, lost all of her children in infancy or childhood and she needed something to do with her hands, her mind, her heart. She created a place where you can sit in your room and write while listening to someone composing music in the next room. Where you can go for days without speaking to anyone but yourself and the characters that populate your imagination. Where people do your laundry and drive you into town in a little van. Where people bring you a heater if your hands are cold, or a fan if your room is too hot. Where they will adjust the condiments on your sandwich to your liking and where there is always a nice bottle of wine at dinner. A training in silence and concentration, Buddhist-like and private, but also communal in the sense that you never lose sight of all the other people beavering away at their beloved projects in all of the houses and outbuildings. Super-privileged prisoners of artistic ambition.
Grief – like social class, its sociological equivalent – is the greatest divider, but it is also a leveler. Not everyone is going to “raise their rank” or be born with one, but everyone will experience grief. Even billionaire Bruce Wayne is schooled in it; even Thomas Cromwell, drowning in riches near the end of his life, is visited by it. Katrina Trask knew it for most of her life and built a monument to it. Money and power will not protect you, but another part of the American bootstrap myth is that it will. You may not have to work three jobs to put yourself through school, you may be grandfathered in to a great job, you might be falling asleep in the deposit line at the bank, but someone will die on you. Count on it. Ronan is snuggled up against me as I write this, and this is itself a pre-haunting, a presence painted with the fear of his inevitable death – today, tonight, any day now, not right now, but soon, and the death of any loved one is always untimely.
As Batman swooped around Gotham with his bat gear, wearing the superhero version of a power suit, I remembered walking around those Yaddo lakes while I was pregnant with Ronan and thinking Geez, this is depressing. All of these still, quiet lakes named after dead kids! What a bummer! Even the name of the colony came from the mouth of a ghost: one of the Trask kids, long dead, who thought “shadow” was pronounced “yaddo.” The hulking mansions and dusty rooms are full of shadows, as are the surrounding woods. And Yaddo is beautiful, especially in the winter when ice traps the leaves underneath one another; they move beneath you and the ground feels unsteady. Each lake bears the mark of a missing child – the air is hushed, the shadows thick and deep. The trees are monumental and ancient-looking. The air is deceptively still. The low sky, the hum of traffic on the road, the sound of your feet on ice, then dirt, then frozen leaves, your heart walloping against your chest. You aren’t the first person here, you won’t be the last, the dead and the living are always switching places, like those court dancers in Cromwell’s time, taking hands and letting go, gliding across the room to the next partner. The place is haunted, if ever a place was, the air charged with loss, but it doesn’t feel like a prison. You don’t feel like clawing your way out of it; you feel like walking through it. In November 2009 I walked many hours in those woods and around those lakes, cradling my huge belly as if it were a basketball and I was about to make a bounce pass.
Shadows and ghosts. Oh, they’re everywhere. Just think about your grandparents’ wall of photos, about reunions, about your nightmares and your dreams. Next time I visit Yaddo I won’t be surprised if I have the urge to push my face into the dirt around those lakes. I get it. I understand. A broken heart doesn’t always make a stronger heart. Why should it? What doesn’t kill you will always have the power to destroy you. To manage grief requires careful calculation and deliberate strategy. You name something beautiful after the beloved when he or she is gone. You create a monument, but no matter how lovely or precious, it is not, as the saying goes, “set in stone.” And neither is your heart, for that matter, and this emotional flexibility does seem miraculous if incredibly unwieldy. Is it the same as resilience? I’m not sure.
Politicians, just months away from our next national election, are fond of enumerating the ways in which hardship and struggle make us stronger (read: better) Americans, citizens, humans. Part of what fuels Batman in his (spoiler alert!) escape from the prison is anger, and if yogis are right, the stiffening effect of this emotion makes us weaker, not more resilient. The prisoner who fixes Batman’s back encourages him to get in touch with another part of what makes him tick: fear, which is also part of love. In this case, fear of what has already happened: parents shot and killed, the city in ruins after all his tireless work, the love of his life dead in an explosion he couldn’t prevent. In the end he is able to jump to his freedom not because he has nothing more to lose, but because he’s afraid of losing what he has left, and this is a great indicator of hope. Our politicians love bootstrap stories, the kid with nothing who works 3,000 jobs during college and becomes a “success,” which is code for “wealthy,” but I would venture to say that the kids of these same politicians are probably not working at Burger King, unless it’s for dissertation research or some kind of “character-building” sociological experiment. And yet it is true that creativity can spring from disaster, and that tragedy can breed a kind of necessary expression. I understand that, I feel that, but I wonder what it costs us, truly. Our sanity? Our kindness? Our empathy? Is hope the only thing that can’t be fully kicked out of us without a full-on effort? And even then…if despair is the shadow side of hope then they both come together. Another tricky pairing.
The things you think are disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if only you can see it. Thomas Cromwell-cum-Buddhist in a novelist’s brilliant imagination. A path through the woods, a traversable route out of a dungeon. But don’t think that the path is easy to find, or easy to walk, or that it won’t change you in incalculable and often brutal ways. Notice that there is no promise of being stronger, just a promise that there will be new life (perhaps) after this part of life is over. And new doesn’t automatically imply happy. It will be, as the Buddhists say, what it is. At the end of the movie I raced out of the theater, channeling an iconic super hero, an award-winning novelist and a long dead philanthropist, anxious to prove that there was hope still left in me; that my despair, in fact, was a sign of it: like the bat wings burning in the sky; like a lake named after a dead child; like a character who can only see the living through the memories of the dead. I sat in my air-conditioned car and cried. I had the urge to feed Ronan mashed up yams from one of his special bottles, but he was asleep at home. And so I cried, thinking about the nights when he won’t be, and the great crashing guilt I feel for not strapping him to my body and carrying him everywhere. Weeping: the new meditation.
Are you grieving? Here’s what I learned from Batman and Mantel’s Cromwell and Katrina Trask of Yaddo. Don’t worry about how other people might perceive your process or what they think of you. Don’t worry about the quality and texture of your heart. Don’t worry about inspiring anyone, or how to be a model of someone else’s idea of resilience and survival. Show that you are broken. Let them see you sweat and scream. Own your disaster; make it into a lake, build for it a shrine — not to show your strength but to show your weakness, which is a way of showing that you are yet human, that you are not yet lost. Shine the sign of your struggle into the sky. And then light it up.