Friday, April 10, 2009

When the world steps in

I visit a number of blogs that I like. The ones I enjoy most have something to say about books and writing. They are wide-ranging, generous, refreshed regularly and possess something of the character of the person writing them. Dropping by is like reading a terrific newspaper column or having a conversation with a very interesting person.

There are usually hints at the real life that surrounds these blogs - mention of a husband, a knitting project, trees being cut down across the road, strawberries in the garden. A photo of a dog and a stick. A well-fed cat on a cushion. A view from the window. Where the eye falls. But only a hint.

Generally, I don't want the life stories of these people I visit (although there are some who captivate me - always exceptions -- here's one.) The thing is, I have family and friends and lives enough jostling mine. But for those bloggers who don't confide, there can be a moment when that changes. It's usually a crisis of some sort which forces the change and it can be a shock to the blog-reader like me who comes for the usual take-out to find something altogether different. It takes a moment sometimes to realise what's happened, to realise the person I have come to rely on has been derailed and is talking about it with me.

Children's/Young Adult writer Neil Gaiman broke from writing about his books and his wide-ranging life as a writer [with asides about the lovely white dog above, and a daughter who visits] to talk one day about the sudden and devastating death of his father. I read it and some of the follow-up posts and was hooked by the story of this man and his family, and moved and devastated for Gaiman whose blog I usually go to for stuff about books [and my dog has a crush on his dog.]

Justine Picardie - an author in the UK - has a regular post she does entitled 'Bibliotherapy: What to read ...' and she offers up a review of a book to cover a particular circumstance eg. 'What to read in an English January...' '...when you're trying to stop drinking...' '...when you're not going to the party...' They are clever, well-written, amusing reviews. The suddenly one day she writes a post entitled: 'What to read when your husband has left you for another woman' and underneath she has no review just this: 'Any suggestions? All help gratefully received, on this rainy black night in february...'

Some people commenting after the post seemed to know what had happened, but others flicked up some fun reading suggestions by such as Fay Weldon and Sylvia Plath. And then the penny dropped. Picardie's husband really had left her for another woman, suddenly and unexpectedly, and her grief was profound, and all her blog readers (me included) felt just terrible for her. Food and books were sent by those who knew where to send them including one anonymous donor whose gift of Nora Ephron's Heartburn led to the post being written at last: 'What to read (and what to eat) when you husband has left you for another woman.' And there it was : a terrific review of Heartburn (must read the book now) and a cake recipe. Justine Picardie was back.

There have been other examples of this in my blog roll - Gondal Girl 's heartfelt post about trying to come to terms with a trio of deaths in her family especially one perplexing one, The Paradoxical Cat 's few but incredibly moving lines about the death of her mother, and then there was the time I wrote about my daughter being unwell and put up a photo of her swinging in the air when life was good. I'd given glimpses of my family until then but the focus of the blog was books and writers so I didn't intend to give more. Then there she was.

Why does this happen? Having done it myself, I'm still not really sure. It's as if the blogger believes it would be intellectually dishonest somehow not to declare an emotional derailment. And perhaps it's also that for many of us a blog is, amongst other things, a kind of journal, and when we can't do it justice we feel some sort of responsibility to say why.

Or perhaps the enormity of what's happened cries out to be recorded by one who always records. Or perhaps it's simply that as writers we turn to words to contain this thing, and understand it, and make sense of it, and it's only a small step to then press 'publish post' and create a public container for the grief. 'There it is,' we say, 'only that paragraph, that photo - it's not so awful, so ungraspable after all - and everyone can see.' As if that anchors it somehow.

Or perhaps it's a bit of all those things.

Oh, and my daughter's a lot better now, but I still flick back to that post now and then as a way of confirming that fact, and of recalling another day six years ago when she swung in the air, the camera catching a glorious split-second of joy and sunlight and flung hair.


Anonymous said...

lovely post Mary - I agree with all your thoughts on blogging and emotional derailment. Sometimes words are the only way through, especially if there is an elephant sitting in the corner of the room, it is only going to get more oppressive by ignoring it. Words clarify the emotions, define them, give them shape when they would be as a cloud.

I am glad to hear your daughter is doing much better too.

Rachael King said...

Wonderful post, Mary, that says so much about this thing we do. The five year anniversary of my father's death came and went a couple of weeks ago. It would have been the time to post a memorial post of some kind, but I really didn't want to open that side of myself up on my blog. It just wasn't the place for it. I know for a fact people would have been very interested in that kind of post, but I just wasn't prepared to deliver. I wrote and said so much about him at the time that it has made shy away from that kind of public grief ever again. It's not my father I want to forget - it's that period of my life I want to forget.

Paradoxical Cat said...

Beautiful post...

We share if we feel like it, and we withhold if we feel like it, leading to something we can tell is real, even in the gaps between.


Mary McCallum said...

Thanks GG, Rachael and PC for your comments. The elephant analogy is great, so is the concept of making a new reality with words (and gaps). Your experience, Rachael, of public grief about a public figure (your father) is different from a blog-aired grief about a private figure - there are complications there not least a sense of public ownership of the man and his life to some degree ...and its understandable you would shy away from doing it again. Thinking of you...

I have just finished Anne Michaels wonderful new novel The Winter Vault (review coming up in Your Weekend so I can't pre-empt it) but she talks about how grief is like a cake and it bakes until you can put a knife in a pull it out clean. A wonderful metaphor and so true.

Anonymous said...

That is a great metaphor about the knife coming out clean. I don't know alot about Rachael's father being a public figure, if I blogged under my own name, I too would be hesitant, as the grief is shared. Hence here in the Land of Gondal, a non de plume gives a type of freedom said...

No, no, and no. No knife ever comes out clean, no matter how long you bake the cake. The smallest crumb can contain the most interesting taste and evoke the most important ingredient memory - how sad if the knife ever came out clean... always, a crumb is required, or we lose what it is to remember.