Losing the Thing Unimaginable

“This was never supposed to happen to her.”
Joan Didion

We take for granted that certain things are weighted in granite, anchored in epoxy, and will always just be. How to exist otherwise? What does it mean to lose the thing unimaginable?

It’s presumptive to define “the thing” so I won’t. Pain is incomparable, yet connective. This is a look at pain and the fear of pain. Pain that drips upon the heart, has us fumbling in abstraction, and forever reshapes our existence.

"The Sick Child" by Edvard Munch, in post "Losing the Thing Unimaginable"
“The Sick Child” by Edvard Munch, 1885. The first of six canvasses Munch painted over forty years. Each depicts his sister who died from tuberculosis when she was fourteen. Munch fell ill as well but survived. Photo: Børre Høstland – Nasjonalmuseet.

Lydia Davis’s short short story “The Child” captures a true moment of routine in the fog of unspeakable grief.1

She is bending over her child. She can’t leave her. The child is laid out in state on a table. She wants to take one more photograph of the child, probably the last. In life, the child would never sit still for a photograph. She says to herself, ‘I’m going to get the camera,’ as if saying to the child, ‘Don’t move.’

The mother rolls forward on tracks that no longer exist. The movement of emotional gravity.

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children,” writes Joan Didion in her stunning memoir about the death of her daughter at the age of thirty-nine.2

I imagine she means that the loss of a child is as close as we come to experience our own death. “Once she was born,” writes Didion, “I was never not afraid.” My own daughter’s possible death affects me so deeply if I look at it too closely that I cannot breathe. The loss of this thing unimaginable is real before it exists.

Because we’re not meant to live in an emotional coma, we diminish the object in an attempt to care less. Didion regrets she never gave her daughter appropriate personhood: “She was already a person. I could never afford to see that.”

Didion wrote Blue Nights to make sense of the completely nonsensical.

[T]he way in which you wake one summer morning less resilient than you were and by Christmas find your ability to mobilize gone, atrophied, no longer extant? […] The way in which your awareness of this passing time—this permanent slowing, this vanishing resilience—multiplies, metastasizes, becomes your very life?

"The Sick Child," etching, by Edvard Munch, in post "Losing the Thing Unimaginable"
“The Sick Child” etching by Edvard Munch in 1894. Munch’s guilt of survival while his sister died inspired his reworking of the piece many times. Each capturing that moment before death. Photo: Børre Høstland – Nasjonalmuseet.

There is a bespoke intimacy in losing a child, but losing the thing unimaginable need not be so personal. The loss of anything infinite—how does that affect us? How does the fear of it affect us?

Last Chance to See is an emotionally insightful odyssey between Douglas Adams—the inquisitive, creative, and often playful mind behind The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — and Mark Carwardine—a dedicated zoologist and conservationist. They travel to specific and remote spots like Komodo Island and the Zaire mountains to introduce us to critically endangered species.3

Adams’s account is superb, yet tragedy vibrates beneath. Losing one of our brilliant species, one that you “know” from childhood (from the zoo, books, stuffed animals) and love and imagine, fills me with shimmering pain. Adams asks why we care. Empathy, certainly. (Like Emerson, I believe man is not apart from nature, when we care for it we care for ourselves.) And because, Adams argues, “the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them.”

In the home of my heart, New Zealand, my husband and I visited a bird sanctuary where they protect, track, and nurture deeply vulnerable kiwis. With the help of an expert, we tracked Kami, unearthed her from her grassy daybed, and checked her weight and other vitals as she burrowed into our sweaters for darkness. I was overcome with visceral pain at the vulnerability of her species, emotion broken only when Kami relieved herself in my husband’s lap, and we laughed.

Once again, the immediate real superseded the immediate imagined.

Empathy is limited by a focus on the immediate. When we look to the bigger reality of things, especially an eternal to which we are all part and must return, it is overwhelming. So, we hunker down and laugh, take photos.

I worry about the loss of humanity. Yours. Mine even more. Under the right conditions, what prevents me from becoming inhuman? It’s happened to others. Perhaps that’s why I have this site: atonement.

I think of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who wrote during WWI and chose to see murder not as morale-boosting but as horror. From his “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo”:4

I, too, saw God through the mud,–
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

Merry it was to laugh there–
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

I think of Elie Wiesel, who wrote one of the most important books of the 20th century, Night, an unblinking look into what happens when a body is reduced by hunger and deprivation. Wiesel becomes—in a small and insignificant way— numb. Uncaring.5

I stood petrified. What had happened to me? My father had just been struck, in front of me, and I had not even blinked. I had watched and kept silent. Only yesterday I would have dug my nails into this criminal’s flesh. Had I changed that much? So fast?

Most people don’t fret over their own humanity. It is always someone else who concerns us. Someone else we must stop, not us. But as Owen and Wiesel show us so brightly, that isn’t enough.

"The Sick Child" by Edvard Munch, in post "Losing the Thing Unimaginable"
“The Sick Child” by Edvard Munch, 1907. The painting was created from memory and have slight variations but depict eerily similar scenes. Of this 1907 version, Munch wrote ‘it was a breakthrough in my art.” and that all subsequent works were affected by what he created here. © Tate Collection

And then, of course, there is the most internal loss: our minds. Something exacerbated by an attentive focus on the immediate and something we often don’t realize is happening.

When the unexpurgated diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky were published for the first time in 1979, they showed extant psychosis. Nijinsky’s relevance to ballet, dance, and choreography, his unquestioned virtuosity, and his long life spent in a mental institution for schizophrenia are the stuff of dark legend. To read his words is to see soul without mind.6

I went out for a walk, once, toward evening. I was walking quickly uphill. I stopped on a mountain. It was not Sinai. I had gone far. I felt cold. I was suffering from cold. I felt that I had to kneel down. I knelt quickly. After that, I felt I had to put my hand on the snow. I was holding my hand down, and suddenly I felt pain. I screamed with pain and snatched away my hand. I gazed at a star that did not say ‘Hello’ to me.

He goes on and on and on. Rhythm without meaning. I am not psychotic, but I certainly have moments of distress and instability.

During a particularly difficult period in my life without purpose or direction, I spent hours drawing lines. Straight, long, short. Lines that folded back in on themselves, connected. Delineated a path I could not. Pen, paper, line—I contained myself in those items. They were all that existed.

When life whisked me out of the circumstance, I put down the pen and folded the paper into boxes an effort to keep the episode contained, apart. I existed elsewhere.

Humans are wonderfully adaptive. We manage pain. We manage joy.

What strikes me, as I read through these works and write these words and sink into my heart, is we are less adept at managing both simultaneously. Carrying both joy and sorrow in our hearts, to love fully our children and fear their death. Is that possible?

A Singular Focus on the Eternal

“Seek only light and freedom and do not immerse yourself too deeply in the worldly mire.”
Vincent van Gogh

We might think of existence as an indeterminate force bounded by body, entranced at birth, and exited at death. And that definition would certainly hold formidable value to tide us over until our own dear exit. (Especially with all the trails to walk and pets to love.)

Except, we want more. To exist outside of existence. All this talk of “mindfulness” and “presence”—I think what we really seek is the eternal.

“Eternal” is not my word. I borrowed it from Mary Oliver. “Keep a focus on the eternal,” she advised herself.1

It’s a concept I often see. It has many names. The most prescient cultures name it directly, while others dance around it.

Jungfrau range, Swiss Alps. ~65 million years old. Mountains keep a different time. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

In English, “eternal” connotes a faith-based concept of space unbounded by time, generally post-death and usually at the hands of God. There is perhaps a spiritual element to my usage of the word, but it’s less a space we enter than a spiritual reckoning we achieve.

An Australian aboriginal dialect names it beautifully.2

Dadirri implies a sense of wonder and humility, and [an] almost mystical awareness of one’s individual place in the great mystery of Creation. It focuses attention on both the vastness of the external worlds of time and space, and on the inner thoughts and emotions of the individual as a part of that greater whole.

Andes Mountains, Chile.  ~20 million years old. “Thirty years in the life of a mountain is nothing – the flicker of an eyelid.” wrote Nan Shepard in The Living Mountain. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Perhaps that is why I don’t want to call it just eternal but rather a focus on the eternal. In the Western cultural cannon, sight being our primary sense of orientation, we often give it a physical quality. Like Oliver’s stream.

Or Virginia Woolf’s pattern (which she thought lay under everything). Nabokov saw it without form but as a wall of darkness. Darkness enclosing our lives.

Atlas mountains, Morocco. ~15 million years old. Against this remarkable age, we can throw our pithy existence and it returns volumes of reimagined imminence. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

German poet and novelist, Hermann Hesse thought of it as music. In his poem “The Glass Bead Game,” a profound philosophical piece on achieving meaningful connection, Hesse writes:3

We are ready to receive in reverence
the music of the masters, the symphonies of the spheres,
and invoke in sacred celebrations
the ancient holy spirits of the blessed ages.

We let ourselves be exalted
by magic, sacred secrets
that capture life’s wild, stormy vigor,
to transform it into revealing symbols.

I cannot give this feeling a name. But I’m consoled when I remember that even Thoreau, a man of incumbent writing, fell short. The “Something” he called it in one of his earliest writings. That great Something.4

The Appalachian Mountains, Maine. ~480 million years old.  To see, to touch something as old as this is to brush with that eternal. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

This Something we seek sub-consciously, consciously, and at times over-consciously.

“The need is for nothing less than the infinite and the miraculous,” Vincent van Gogh writes in a letter to his beloved brother (his brother was van Gogh’s constant companion and support through the artist’s short but infinitely worthy life). The need is for nothing less, van Gogh insists, and “a man does well to be satisfied with nothing less […].”5

This need, which penetrated van Gogh thoroughly and perforated his often difficult life with bright meaning, is the same need mentioned a century later by Mary Oliver in her last book, Upstream.

Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into a packet of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. Something is wrong, I know it if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. […] May I stay forever in the stream.

Getting into the stream, stepping into the eternal, is simply the act of existing beyond our bounded self. In terms of not just our body but also our consciousness.

To reach the eternal, even briefly, travel writer and wondrous thinker Pico Iyer admitted:6

I discovered, almost instantly, [that] as soon as I was in one place, undistracted, the world lit up and I was as happy as when I forgot about myself. Heaven is the place where you think of nowhere else.

Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand. ~.2 million years old.  Mountains are my nearest form of eternal, I seek them like a home. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

It’s fascinating that achieving this eternal is both a form of withdrawal (like Iyer and van Gogh propose) and an entering (Oliver went into the stream).

There is yet another form of reaching that eternal that defies both.

A writer of rare beauty, Italo Calvino found the concept of eternity in a grain of sand and a collector of sand as someone seeking that eternity.7

Perhaps this was her precise aim, to remove from herself the distorting, aggressive sensations, the confused wind of being, and to have at last for herself the sandy substance of all things, to touch the flinty structure of existence.

I collect sand. Sand and rocks. I keep them nearby and inculcate them with meaning by returning to them every day. Even now, they gather. I skim their sides and hold their weight.

I imagine eternity in mountains. Rock and ice on a cadence of exhaustive time.

I imagine eternity as a presence felt when we connect to flinty structures, to each other, to the continuations of humanity. Love, humor, hope, the concept of landscapes, family, a feeling of “home.” All the things that make us deeply, deeply human, all that we share with those who have come before and will follow. Mortal and infinite.

Or maybe eternity is simply sitting in loving contemplation of the things that are heavier than Earth, wider than the sky, and brighter than the Sun.

However you find your eternal, may you feel forever welcome.

Nighttime Activities Done in Solitude

“I awoke in the center of night. ‘In movement is blessing’ […] I felt about for my journal and laid there holding it, waiting for the moon to reappear.”
Patti Smith

Darkness is physical. It can be an enclosure—an enclosure of our self, of everything else. It’s sight without meaning, like snow.

We know things are there, but we’re unsure what they are. The scariest thing might be swimming with endless black fathoms beneath, although I am no more likely to do that than I am to reach my hand into the black crevice of an opened basement door. Darkness held a particular fear for me as a child. It still does.

And yet, there is something about nighttime. It is the time of darkness. And more. My mother always said she liked to stay up late because nighttime was when she could be alone. I understand her fully.

Whatever is in the darkness is mine and mine alone. Perhaps that’s why it’s so overwhelming. And inviting.

Conservationist and nature photographer, Joshua Burch, takes exceptional photos of common nighttime wildlife in his local Surrey. A garden snail at night. Photograph by Joshua Burch.

In his scattered but subtly beautiful 1933 essay on Japanese aesthetics, novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki finds nighttime solace in the most unlikely place:1

The Japanese toilet is, I must admit, a bit inconvenient to get to in the middle of the night, set apart from the main building as it is; and in winter there is always a danger that one might catch cold. But as the poet Saito Ryoku has said, ‘elegance is frigid.’ […] Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfection. […] No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light.

There is wondrous freedom during nighttime. Freedom for a rich self-discovery by way of letting go and being pulled by something greater, larger, and more powerful than us or our daily routine. Deeper than a break or a pause, it’s a setting down of burdens.

“I was at my desk that evening, trying to work,” writes Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways, a book connecting places, people, and the paths we forge as we walk the earth.2

I kept stopping, standing, looking out of the window. The snow was sinking through the orange cone cast by a street light, the fat flakes showing like furnace sparks. Around eight o’clock the snow ceased. An hour later I went for a walk with a flask of whiskey to keep me warm. I walked for half a mile along dark back roads where the snow lay clean and unmarked. The houses began to thin out.

During his walk, beautifully etched into visual memory, Macfarlane takes time to read and follow the fresh snow, trampled with animal presence: “I picked a trail and set out along it, following those tracks to see where they might lead.”

To remove human presence and capture wildlife in its own routine, Burch sets up movement-activated cameras. This vixen was captured by a camera trap after much patience. Photograph by Joshua Burch.

The endless space of nighttime, the freedom, allows us to relinquish the hard-earned control we father during the day. Many people, like Macfarlane and Tanizaki, write about solitary activities done at night. There is a measure of vulnerability, wonder, and quiet acceptance.

This tone infuses the words of Patti Smith’s episodic reverie Woolgathering:3

I awoke in the center of night. Above my head, beyond the open skylight was the moon—a vibrant gold—like the shield of a frightened but determined young warrior. […] A cloud pulled across the moon. Black radiance. Newborn blind I felt about for my journal and laid there holding it, waiting for the moon to reappear.

Rainer Maria Rilke, a poet, and lover of solitude, urged us to “descend into self.” In the quiet of the night, Smith laid still and dove deep into herself. Swimming in the mind’s dark fathoms is scary but vital.

Perhaps this is what we do at night. Descend into our own deep fathoms. In the quiet night, in solitude, paring away people and needs, being free from interruption, this descent is most possible.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was often up at night, trapped in a body that didn’t let me sleep. I’d go out and water the garden, even in winter. I was so full, pregnant, I had an urge to give. I read somewhere that designer and gardener Nancy Lancaster watered at daybreak when she couldn’t sleep. Flowers are such bright companions, even in the dark.

Nighttime Activities Done in Solitude
Super wolf blood moon. Photograph by Joshua Burch.

Of course, the things we do in solitude aren’t always so comforting. Writer Dorothy Parker, a restless sort who was no stranger to mental agitation and overflowing energy, wrote a short story called “The Little Hours.” It features the darker side of being alone, awake:4

Now what’s this? What’s the object of all this darkness all over me? They haven’t gone and buried me alive while my back was turned, have they? […] Oh no, I know what it is. I’m awake. That’s it. I’ve waked up in the middle of the night. Well, isn’t that nice? Isn’t that simply ideal? Twenty minutes past four, sharp, and here’s Baby wide-eyed as a marigold. Look at this, will you? At the time when all decent people are just going to bed, I must wake up.

Night welcomes us to unpack and unload, but that doesn’t mean we will be prepared for what comes out. Like Parker, German author and philosopher Hermann Hesse captures this anxiety in his poem “Walking at Night” written in 1913:5

Bush and meadow, field and tree,
stand in their self-sufficient silence.
Each belonging wholly to itself.
Each deep in its own dream.

Clouds float by and stars stream light
as if appointed as higher sentinels
and the mountain with its steep ridges
towers above, dark, tall, and distant.

Everything remains and will continue.
Only I am alone with anguish and grief.
I drift far from the heart of God
without a purpose through the land.

I still water my plants and flowers at night, often. Feeling that I’m nurturing successfully. I play with the cats, too. They are easy companions, endless awakeness. My cousin, a former teacher, used to do her best work at night, lessons plans. My husband is the opposite—if left awake he merely paces until sleep overtakes him.

There is something about night itself. A dark tableau, an enclosure that holds us together. Emerson, who often walked at night, urged in his essay Nature: “[I]f a man would be alone, let him look to the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches.” The stars will always be more present at night.

For your wakeful nights, your calm plunge into fathomless depths—or even for eyes too bent to earth—I leave you with a bit of joy and marvelous wonder: Wordsworth’s “A Night-Piece”:6

The sky is overspread
With a close veil of one continuous cloud
All whitened by the moon, that just appears
A dim-seen orb, yet chequers not the ground with
With any shadow – plant, or tower, or tree
At last a pleasant instantaneous light
Startles the musing man whose eyes are bent
to earth. He looks around, the clouds are split
Asunder, and above his head he views
The clear moon and the glory of the heavens.