In the past few years, when I’ve found myself feeling as if I’m living in a vacuum separated from everything I value, I turn to reading Jim Harrison’s essays. This past month I’ve been dipping into his collection Just Before Dark (1991).
I bought this collection a few years ago when I was first introduced to Harrison’s writing by a former colleague. My interest then was in Harrison’s Zen Buddhism; he describes his practice of Zen not as a religion but as an attitude toward life.
And it’s Harrison’s attitude toward life that compels me to read his essays and fiction. Almost every time I dip into his writing, I find my own life. A recent read, for instance, I discovered Harrison writing about living in Boston, and a moment of extended unemployment:
I had been unemployed and generally at the end of my tether for a year. My daily life had become a round of employment offices, interviews with personnel people who seemed to sense instantly that I was unsuitable, flatly unemployable. My jacket pocket was filled with application blanks for all manner of work — I seemed unable to get past my name and social security number.
I don’t know Harrison’s circumstances, how he became unemployed. I know mine —a bad choice to overreact to a passive-aggressive nitwit. Still these sentences hit me hard: more than a year unemployed now, I understand the whole sense of untethered freefall that Harrison conveys. I feel untethered, paralyzed.
To some extent, it’s a feeling comparable to grief, though grief tendrils itself deeper into the nervous system. Grief is the subject matter of Harrison’s novel Returning to Earth.
The novel concerns Donald, afflicted with a particularly aggressive form of Lou Gehrig’s disease, who is convinced by his wife Cynthia to tell his life story. The narrative begins in Donald’s voice as he dictates his family’s story to Cynthia. It then follows the voice of a step nephew K, of brother-in-law David and finally Cynthia as they narrate Donald’s final days and the aftermath, the moments of mourning felt by his family. Donald ends his life with dignity.
The novel is a compelling look at death, grief and its aftereffects. In particular it seems to capture the sense of bewilderment grief injects us with. I think that bewilderment is best expressed by David some months after Donald’s death:
I stop under a streetlight and think about Donald, and how the death of a man who was so loved seems to exhaust everyone as if they’re struggling in a vacuum and not quite enough air is being pumped in for survival.
Exhausted and struggling in a vacuum is a perfect expression of loss. Even now, five years after my father’s death, and four years after my mother’s death, I understand this sensation. Nothing is quite the same as it was, and it’s a difficult sensation to explain to those who haven’t experienced a similar loss, without getting maudlin.
That sensation also appears in Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, as well as Carolyn See’s There Will Never Be Another You. It’s a feeling that never quite goes away, even after you accept someone is gone.