The recent and unexpected death of a good friend sent me reeling. I sought escape, comfort, release in rapid succession, and found myself cycling through each fraught desire again and again. I was angry, sad, numb; then angry again, then sad. I’ve been reading a lot of Elizabeth Strout, preparing for the release of Olive, Again but I wasn’t finding in the simple, bare prose favored by Strout what I needed to feel better or find comfort or realize some sort of understanding of how to go on in the aftermath of such a terrible loss.
Strout provides good stories (like good gossip) and harsh insights, and sometimes even perfect encapsulations of what it means to be alive. She writes about wonder and joy, pain and loss — but offers little in the way of prescription or guidance. Although I love so many of her books, and have been both enthralled and inspired by them, it is not in her books that I find expression of what we, the survivors, can do to keep strong our will to live, after someone we love dies. When I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing her, it became clear that she has no wish to prescribe, advise, or guide: she observes life, and reports back to us from her vivid, insightful, and very rich imagination. That imagination is in full, wonderful force in Olive, Again, and I recommend Strout’s latest novel to all readers, of all ages.
But there are times when we need straight-out guidance in how to live, and how to live well. Olive may provide a role model for some — after all, she does stay vividly alive — but her often bleak assessment of people, life, and the future of the planet is not perfectly suited for maintaining the will to survive.
I am well-versed in the literature of the will to stay alive. I spent a year looking for those kinds of books after my sister died too young and too suddenly. The most important element of such a kind of book is how it acknowledges the overwhelming power of loss, and the buffering role that memory plays in maintaining our connections not only to those who have died but to the very act of living. “We live in inches, and only sometimes see the full dimension” councils Adrienne Rich in her stunning and vital poem, Stepping Backward. It is in our memories that we understand the full dimension of our experiences — and in such understanding, comes our desire to keep on going. Strout’s books are built on memories as recounted by her characters, the framework around which her episodic narratives weave. But rarely, if ever, do her characters acknowledge for themselves the importance of memory in pursuing life.
The first book I read during my year of reading for answers on how to keep on living after my sister died was The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery — and in that first book, I found the perfect guidepost for going on: by holding onto beauty felt in a moment for our entire lifetime, we can not only keep on going, but we can flourish. As Renee says in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, “I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never. Yes, that’s it, an always within never.”
Just by chance — following up on a recommendation made at a meeting of one of my book groups — last week I began reading The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje. How is it that so often when I have needed a certain book, it found me? The Cat’s Table presents a profound understanding of loss in telling the story of a childhood journey aboard a ship bound from Sri Lanka to England, and the lifelong repercussions of the friendships made and alliances altered during that voyage.
Ondaatje quotes Proust — “We think we no longer love our dead, but … suddenly we catch sight again of an old glove and burst into tears.” A boy grown into a man with a cold heart suddenly finds his heart warmed by memories of the past, and tears spill. His tears remind me of why we so treasure life: because in living, we build up a store of moments — wonderful or strange or searing moments — that serve to sustain us long into an unknown future. Moments when we knew love or friendship, peace or joy, offer some measure of assurance that we will experience such events again — and even if we do not, we will never lose the past in which we did. What has happened cannot be taken away from us; we own our memories, even if just as barely perceptible shadows deep in our brains, hard to retrieve but part of our core nonetheless.
There are no answers when a friend dies, no easy words of comfort or simple analgesic solutions for the pain. But as Julian Barnes writes in Levels of Life: “the fact that someone is dead may mean that they are not alive but doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
My lost friend will always exist, in my heart, my mind, my memories — and her friendship will continue to sustain me. Books have taught me to covet my memories and to hold close the past as I bravely — bravely I say, because I don’t know what the future holds — continue on, day after day, living in this world, hoping for the best and not quitting, to paraphrase Annie LaMott, before the miracle.