Monday, July 29, 2013

A Transitory Yes

At the Basilica de Santa Croce in Florence, I lit a candle for Balthazar. I hadn’t necessarily planned to make a thing of it, but Jasper liked the ritual and insisted on doing it everywhere we went. At first I was afraid he would burn himself, so I lit the candles, but he wanted to perform the ceremony all by himself: drop the coin into the slot, light the taper from an already-burning candle, light the new candle, blow out the taper.

We made our way across Italy lighting candles in churches: Cortona, Pienza, Montepulciano, Siena, Arezzo, Rome. I can’t even remember how many candles we lit in Rome. We lit tall thin white candles held in place by clamps and others that we pressed into sawdust. We lit short squat candles and inserted them into a row of others exactly the same. We spent way too many euros trying to get an electric candle to light up in Sant’Andrea della Valle, a church so opulent it was disconcerting to learn that it was designed and decorated by a now-obscure cadre of architects, sculptors and painters, a kind of Baroque B Team. At the top of the Spanish Steps we placed a candle sheathed in yellow into a tree of other candles in brightly-colored holders.

Sometimes we said a few words. Sometimes we were standing in front of a Baroque painting of the Crucifixion and sometimes we were standing in front of a 14th century Madonna and Child and sometimes we were standing in front of a sculpture of some martyr I’d never heard of. It didn’t matter. We asked Jesus or Mary or Saint Margaret of Cortona, patron saint of hobos, to take care of Balthazar.

I did not find God in Italy. Ironically, quite the reverse. But lighting candles was a way to include Balthazar on the trip, and asking for a blessing was a way to talk about him. There was someone missing, someone who would have been fifteen months old, sitting in my lap for ten hours from Portland to Amsterdam, bawling and kicking the seat in front of us. I didn’t cry about it, but it felt good not to pretend, at least in the safety of our three-person nuclear family. As a result I imagine no child of two atheists has ever had more candles lit for him in Catholic churches ever.


Before we left for Italy my father lent me The Swerve, a National Book Award-winning non-fiction work by Stephen Greenblatt. I didn’t know before I left how apropos a choice it would be, but if ever there were a book that would serve as an antidote to relentless Christianity, this was it.

The Swerve is about the Roman poet Lucretius’s book On the Nature of Things. Lost for centuries, it was rediscovered in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini, a papal secretary and a hunter and collector of ancient manuscripts. Lucretius was a follower of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, whose philosophy was so threatening to Christianity that it was suppressed and slandered for centuries. Yet Lucretius’s poetry was so beautiful that even a papal secretary felt compelled to copy and disseminate it. As a result Epicurus’s ideas were returned to Western civilization almost two thousand years after they were written.

I can only give the barest summary of Epicurean philosophy, but here is the gist: Epicurus believed that the universe is made of atoms, invisible particles that are eternal and infinite in number, with a hidden code to their arrangement. All of these particles are in motion in an infinite void. As such, it has no creator or designer. Everything comes into being because of small, unpredictable shifts in movement which Lucretius termed the swerve. The swerve is the source of our free will.
Further, Epicurus believed that the universe was not created for or about humans. The soul dies. There is no afterlife. Death is nothing because instead of proceeding to heaven or hell, like every other thing in the universe made of atoms, we return to our essential form and are reconstituted.

All organized religions are superstitious delusions, said Epicurus. The highest goal in human life, he felt, is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain. The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain, but delusion.

Like most people I always equated Epicureanism with gluttony. If the highest goal in human life is the enhancement of pleasure, wouldn’t you just lie in bed and eat sixteen Cronuts a day? In fact, Epicurus eschewed worldly striving, but lived abstemiously because his idea of pleasure was highly moral and austere.  

If everyone had followed Epicurus we would not have St. Peters or Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. But would quite so many people have been tortured and murdered in God’s name?

Understanding the true nature of things generates, according to Epicurus, not sadness or loss, but deep wonder. I’m with him on that. Isn’t the world beautiful enough, magical enough, just as it is?

Walking from church to church I couldn’t help but think of E.M. Forster:

“A young girl transfigured by Italy,” says the novelist Eleanor Lavish in A Room With a View. “And why should she not be transfigured? It happened to the Goths!”

Of course I’m not exactly a young girl, and it wasn’t the transfiguration one might have expected. That line is also from the movie, not the book, though in the text the sentiment is implied. Still funny, though. And resonant. Turns out I am an Epicurean. And I found out in Catholic Italy.

Christian Rome is a crust that has formed over an ancient pagan city. It was never completely obliterated or hidden. Unlike America, in which the animist traditions which predate European settlement have mostly vanished. That there could be another way, a non-Christian way, that once, thousands of years ago, some people lived without Jesus and were happy—what a relief.

I used to feel guilty and sad about the loss of my Christian faith, but reading about Epicurus in Italy made me feel as if I had left a stuffy, cluttered room and stepped into an open meadow.

Or, in the words of Morrissey, “There is a light and it never goes out.” You don’t have to be a Christian to believe that. You don’t have to be a Christian to light candles.

In Arezzo we lit two: one for Balthazar and one for the couple who were getting married in the cathedral while we were there. Jasper spoke of his hope that they would have a long and prosperous marriage. Then he asked me what prosperous meant. At the end of the marriage ceremony, as the organ began to play, he wrinkled his nose. “This sounds like divorce music,” he said.

In Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome, he took to saying “The brightest star is Balthazar,” as if he were practicing for a poetry slam.

We are stardust. Billion year old carbon. We are golden. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Good Day

I haven’t felt like writing for the past few weeks. It started with a good day.

On that day I finished the first draft of Balthazar’s memoir. Well, technically it’s the second draft; six weeks or so ago I showed Jonathan a version that was chronological and he suggested dividing it into thematic chapters instead: Marriage, Body, Symbols, Death. In doing that I had to cut a lot, but somehow the manuscript got longer. It’s just shy of 60,000 words. On the long journey the book will make from here to publication I suspect it will gain words here and lose words there and ultimately end up a bit longer than it is now.

I think it will stay on the short side, though. A book about a stillborn baby is more dark chocolate than Hershey’s kiss: intense and bitter and best consumed in small quantities.

I wasn’t sad when I finished, though I had considered the possibility that I might be. Another ending, another stage of grief complete. Instead, I felt as relieved and exhilarated as I would have if it were any other book. Finishing a first draft is like reaching base camp on Everest. It’s not the end, not by a long shot, but at least you’re on the mountain. Even if the clouds obscure the summit, you know it’s up there. Base camp is a good place to be. I don’t have to let go of anything yet. If everything goes well, in five years I could still be talking to book groups about this book.

After I finished my draft I joked on Facebook about wanting to go out drinking, but instead I went to Crossfit. Driving there, I wished I could announce my accomplishment like it were any other: “I turned in my thesis!” or “I’m engaged!” But the gym has been a place of refuge for me precisely because no one knows. No one feels sorry for me there. If I tell them, and they ask what the book’s about, and I tell them that, too, then the gym becomes something that’s a part of my life and not a hideout from it. I have mixed feelings about that. Also, my coach Ben’s wife is pregnant. I can’t tell him until at least January.

Earlier in the week Ben had given me a lecture about “stepping it up” and “taking it to the next level.” When I started Crossfit I told myself that I would not push too hard. I didn’t want to risk injury. I figured that training five days in a row or driving yourself until you threw up was OK for the youngsters I work out with, because you can get away with that at twenty-five or thirty. But what seemed sensible at the beginning has become a rationalization for holding back.

For the metabolic conditioning portion of the workout that day, we did a series of two different weightlifting moves: 21 sumo deadlift high pulls, 21 push presses. Then 18 of each, then 15, all the way down to 3. The idea is to do the series as fast as you can. I positioned myself in the front of the room so I couldn’t compare myself to anyone else and get psyched out. I tried to do my reps faster than usual. When I got tired, I tried not to put the weight down to rest. When I rested, I tried to rest for shorter periods of time.

When I was finished, my time had beaten everyone in the gym that day except my coach. I had beaten the twenty-four year old woman with six-pack abs. I had beaten the guy who climbs mountains on the weekends. I had beaten the guy who is so good his name has become shorthand for kicking ass. I was shocked, yes, but I won’t pretend that I wasn’t “pumped” or “psyched,” or one of the other meat-headed words that seem to be the only ones that work in this context.

I have spent years trying to quash my competitive nature, doing yoga and attempting to cultivate peace and self-acceptance. But I think now that all I did was stifle an essential part of myself. There is more than one path to the same place. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. I seem to thrive in the hot and sweaty room with a lot of heavy weights in it, with one eye on the clock and one eye on the chalkboard with the top time of the day written on it.

As I was driving home from the gym, thinking about the possibility of a book deal, I burst into tears. Because I realized that not only was I able to exist in my body, in a present that was more or less rewarding, I was also able, at least for a moment, to envision a future in which something went well. That had not happened since Balthazar died.

When I realized I was momentarily happy, I freaked out, and then, naturally, I tried to talk myself out of it. I started thinking that maybe I had screwed up and not done the whole workout, even though Ben was watching me and saw me do it. I started thinking that the other people thought I had gloated afterward in an unseemly way, or thought I was pathetic for being so excited. I started thinking that to push to be the best in the gym was ridiculous and putting myself forward was too much. I started thinking that instead of looking fit and trim in my new racerback top, I look fat and ugly. I started thinking that to spend so much time on exercise is frivolous and stupid, when I could be mentoring at-risk youth or boxing up relief supplies to send to Syria.

I felt guilty, because for the first time in fourteen months I was thinking about my own life and not Balthazar’s. Or about my life in relation to something other than Balthazar. For a moment, at least, I was something other than a dead child’s mother. When I sent my manuscript to someone to read, I forgot until she replied that condolences were appropriate. I had forgotten for a second that it was anything other than a book I had written, a book I was proud of. 

Write about myself, without the imprimatur of bereavement protecting me? I don't know how to do that. 


I haven’t read the memoir Wave yet. My brother refused to buy it for me for my birthday, because he thinks I’d be crazy to read it. It’s about a woman whose parents, husband and two young sons were killed by the tsunami on December 26, 2004.

This is what Cheryl Strayed had to say about it in The New York Times Book Review: “The most exceptional book about grief I’ve ever read . . . I didn’t feel as if I was going to cry while reading Wave. I felt as if my heart might stop . . . Deraniyagala has fearlessly delivered on memoir’s greatest promise: to tell it like it is, no matter the cost.”

When I do read it--and how could I not?--it will be to try to answer the essential question: how did she go on living? How does one live after a loss that is Biblical in its devastating totality? I don’t expect a redemptive ending—how could there be one?—but is there a lesson for me, some perspective from a place I hope I never have to go? 

Because there is a difference between a heart that continues to beat of its own accord, a body that takes up space, and being alive. I suspect Sonali Deraniyagala will have something to say about that.