I am culling books…
When I come upon a collection of essays by J.M. Coetzee titled Stranger Shores, that I haven’t looked at in quite some time and so had forgotten that it was given to me by my late husband, Arnie, on my birthday, March 15 2005. It contains a piece on Rainer Maria Rilke that sent me gratefully back to the poet, in the way that good essays always invite you somewhere beyond themselves.
The sight of Arnie’s handwriting initially startles, then its power to evoke the man takes over and I’m again lost in that peculiar presence of absence I’ve become familiar with since his death eighteen months ago, in which his absence has an energy vivid as any presence, and more vivid than some presences can ever be.
I’m reminded here of a conversation between myself and a woman in which she confided, in distress and anger, that her husband of some decades didn’t know her. I thought I’d seldom heard anything so sad about a partnership, and how lonely it must be to live a life in which one is not known, a life in which interest and curiosity in a partner is supplanted by assumptions and projections, and the familiarity that breeds contempt.
Not that it’s possible to conclusively know anyone: it’s the desire to engage in the project of discovery that speaks to me of enduring love. I’ve written more about the difference between familiarity and knowing here.
On the first page of Stranger Shores, Arnie has written of his love and affection in Hebrew. At least I’m assuming it’s love and affection as I know little of that language, and there’s what I’m taking to be a translation below the Hebrew that speaks in English of “my beloved wife.”
On the other hand, knowing him, the Hebrew could say anything.
The next thing I think of as I gaze at his spidery handwriting, held in place in my chair by the strength of the presence of his absence, is the haunting image of the empty shoes in Paris.
The empty shoes represent an event that could not be held because of fear of terrorist attacks. They represent the dead and injured victims of those attacks. They symbolise the death of species, and the dying of our planet. They represent loss, and absence of all kinds. They symbolise the grounding of humans on this earth, a major point of contact with the planet, and they are empty.
And they remind me of how the sight of my husband’s empty shoes brought me to my knees, when I finally understood that I would never again see him in them.
I don’t know why shoes apparently carry so much more poignancy than say shirts, or jackets, or trousers. Yet, I remember also when my sons were small and at school how I would pick up their scattered clothing and smell it, to evoke their presence in their absence, a kind of preparation for the time when they would leave for their own lives and loves, and that intense period of mothering, about which I was frequently ambivalent, would be over.
There are other books “For my beloved wife.” One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty. Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Which book I remember him lugging to the hospital on Christmas Day where I lay recovering from drastic cancer surgery, too weakened to even hold the heavy tome, so he showed it to me instead, and read bits that fed my morphine-induced hallucinations and after he left I saw Jesus by the window in shining light, telling me everything would be fine, no worries.
I’m beginning to understand that the people I love never leave me, if I can only learn to allow them to stay. There’s a psychological theory that when we know we can’t be with someone anymore, for whatever reason, we cut off from them and deny their significance, as a way of managing in the long-term the complicated and initially crushing pain of loss.
It’s a sweet sorrow to be sure, to feel the presence of absence, whether that’s the absence of the dead, or the equally irretrievable loss of the little boy who is now a man, and quite rightly does not have need of you in the same ways any longer. They live, those vanished ones, in the memory and the imagination, they live in the body and the heart and the mind. They live in me, though I can’t touch them anymore, and their shoes stand so very empty.
The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you. Rainer Maria Rilke