Grief is a Curious Thing

Spring has been a bit of a doozy this year. My mother, who had been in decline for over a decade, passed away right before Mother’s Day. The timing was unexpected but her death was something the whole family had been on alert for. Her final decline was something I learned of at the end of March and I was able to visit her then. The suddenness made the grief pour out of me. Then April came and went with other daily challenges and contributed to the numbing effect which is currently in full force. Without being sure how to grieve I have returned to Anais Nin’s unexpurgated diaries from 1939-1947. This post is a bit of a hybrid between an update post and an exploration of a writer I love to read and find myself constantly frustrated by.

If you are unfamiliar with Anais and you decide to search for a brief summary of who she was you will find references to her writing, her famous friends and lovers and the troubling nature of some of her romantic relationships. Although, for a time, she was emulated by women who saw her as a bit of a feminist icon she would not stand as one for long in our modern era for reasons which are at once apparent. But, as a diarist she remains someone to look to for the ways in which she recorded her desires, thoughts, dreams and secrets. There is a constant tension in her writing between her true self and the version she believed others could love. Modern readers often note her apparent narcissism but if you read the diaries from start to finish (keeping in mind that her final years are not yet in an unexpurgated volume) what is visible is a fairly naked inner life of a person. It is deeply uncomfortable because she is so painfully flawed.

I first started reading Anais seriously when I had finally stopped trying to get pregnant for the second time in my life. I suffered a miscarriage in the second trimester at nineteen and descended into a state of regretful acceptance for years until my ex and I decided to try again.  It didn’t happen and once again I descended into that peculiar limbo of acceptance that is a cousin of depression. I began focusing again on acts of creation that occur in art and found my way to Anais. There was solace to be found in her work. Although she became a mythical legend in later life and following her death, she was all too human in her writing.

My mother and I had a troubled relationship. She needed something from me as a child that I would not develop until my 30s and I needed something from her that she was never able to develop because her health took an extreme turn into dementia/Alzheimer’s (the cause is unclear because she was so young when signs of disease began). My mother’s friends talk about her having a hippie soul and being an Earth mother–both are apt and in these ways she was such a beautiful woman. But she wasn’t a great mother because her self esteem was so damaged that she struggled to be herself for the entire time she was in my life. My father wasn’t much help in this department and that’s an entirely separate story.

When I began reading Anais’ diaries I could see how her diaries might have been read by my mother. I could see how her expression of her creative and sensual life was something that would have resonated with my mother and I think it drew me to her. By the time I was reading the diaries my mother was already nonverbal and even more inaccessible to me. During my mother’s life I witnessed her flaws underscored by people I trusted and acted out in ways that effected my own life choices. What I am trying to say is that my mother was a flawed woman who I had plenty of reasons to be angry at, condemn and distance myself from but she was also the woman who made up stories for me as a child.

Art is the only safe dreaming space in the world in which one can explore all the contradictions that make the waking world such an ordeal to navigate. This is what Anais does in her dairies. She is a difficult woman to love because she shows her flaws in such starkness and such nakedness that it feels impossible to accept her, to embrace her and to love her. But, of course, if you read the whole series of diaries you will discover a girl of thirteen writing letters to her father hoping desperately to be loved. The ordeal of reading the diaries taught me a lot about how to love difficult people–sometimes it is necessary to keep them at a distance because they hurt too much.

When I found out that my mom had passed away I felt relieved for her. She had been a difficult woman, passionate, needy and desperate to find her place in the world. The way her life declined was exactly counter to everything she had ever wanted. Instead of grief I have a lot of anger–which is of course a part of that experience. The worst part is the way it makes it hard to want to create. When people talk about writer’s block this is one version of what it is–I want to write, I want to be myself freed of the heavy feelings that are like rocks on the surface of my mind. There’s a numbness and a desire to keep numbing the rushing thoughts that feel so enormous and under whose weight I feel powerless. So, I self medicate with Anais’ diaries.

Within the unexpurgated diaries there is no narrative apart from the day to day ups and downs in Anais’ life. Often the threads drag on as she pines for a man who makes her feel loved intellectually, physically and mystically. Being caught in her moment in time she says things which strike a modern reader as ignorant, arrogant or both. I read a couple pages at a time because sometimes I just want to yell at her. She’s not Instagram beautiful in her neuroses. The ugliness of her nature is not something she denies but it is something she tries constantly to reframe for herself. Anais doesn’t want to see her ugliness but she does want to understand herself, improve herself and achieve her goal of love and understanding. She’s sharing herself before the whole world began sharing themselves and as a result there is so much to learn about being human from her. About the ways in which we struggle against ourselves. We are our own burdens and our constant efforts to shoulder and remake our burdens are the products of our lives.

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