The company of tears – and thanks to all of you.

My father feeding pheasants in his back yard.

My father and my father-in-law were unusual, in that after their wives died, they each lived another nine or more years. Many men die soon after their wives, and people speculate about why. It seems that women in general do better when they lose their spouses; I have read theories about why this is… probably a lot of things contribute. Here are my ideas, largely gleaned from other people. Please forgive the over-simplification and generalities – we are all probably exceptions at least sometimes:

1) Women are used to taking care of things and people, so they know how to take care of themselves. They at least get the necessary things done for survival during the period while they are learning to live without their husbands. But if men have been used to the women cooking for them and in various ways making the house a home, they would be at risk for becoming less healthy very fast when their wives are gone, to some degree reverting to the risky behavior characteristic of unmarried men.

2) If women are, in the words of author John Gray, like “waves” whose emotions periodically roll over people around them, perhaps they know instinctively to let that tide of grief flow as long as it must. Men, on the other hand, don’t know how to deal with things they can’t control, and they want to fix problems such as emotions. If we know that we will get through this, and that there is no going around it, we are able to survive.

3) Women often have support networks with other women, and these friends help them to not feel alone. They have someone to talk to, and/or go shopping with, etc. They have a pattern of activity with other people that they can continue in some fashion as widows so they don’t start from nothing when creating their new lives. Men are notorious (at least, among most of my women friends) for not having friends in the same way. They are more likely to become depressed.

About thceltic heartsis last point, I know that you readers of my blog have been a important part of that network for me. I have never been in the habit of going out to lunch or taking walks with friends on a regular basis, being part of a knitting group, etc. I don’t even get helped by talking about my grief, but I am without a doubt helped by writing about it, especially if at least one person is reading-listening and affirming. So I thank all of you very much  – you are extending my life span!

What sparked my thinking on these things recently was finding a quote by
Donald Hall, the poet who was married to poet Jane Kenyon when she died in her 40’s. He wrote:Donald Hall_si-303x335

Poetry gives the griever not release from grief but companionship in grief. Poetry embodies the complexities of feeling at their most intense and entangled, and therefore offers (over centuries, or over no time at all) the company of tears.

Many years ago I enjoyed in The New Yorker an article that Hall wrote about his late wife. It was the first I knew of him, but several times over the years I’ve read more of his prose. He is still alive, though she died 20+ years ago, and he was almost 20 years older than she. Now he writes only prose, but I thought that if I were going to share that quote I ought to read some of the poetry he wrote after she died. So I borrowed the collection Without from the library.

kenyon and hall

I found most of the fresh-grief poems to be too fresh and overwrought, and I don’t know if that is only because I’m past that stage myself, or because of something to do with him being a man. Perhaps he was too distracted by mourning to be able to do his best work. I never did find one I loved; I like his prose so much better. But this later one serves well:

Letter After a Year

Here’s a story I never told you.
Living in a rented house
on South University in Ann Arbor
long before we met, I found
bundled letters in the attic room
where I took myself to work.
A young woman tenant of the attic
wrote these letters to her lover,
who had died in a plane crash.
In my thirtieth year, with tenure
and a new book coming out,
I read the letters in puzzlement.
“She’s writing to somebody dead?”

There’s one good thing
about April. Every day Gus and I
take a walk in the graveyard.
I’m the one who doesn’t
piss on your stone. All winter
when ice and snow kept me away
I worried that you missed me.
“Perkins! Where the hell
are you?”

————-In hell. Every day
I play in repertory the same
script without you, without love,
without audience except for Gus,
who waits attentive
for cues: a walk, a biscuit,
bedtime. The year of days
without you and your body swept by
as quick as an afternoon;
but each afternoon took a year.
……

The poem goes on for many more stanzas – this first part was my favorite, especially the last four lines. (The poet intended for the phrase “In hell” to be indented with only white space in the gap, but I haven’t been able to teach WordPress about this aspect of poetry — hence the filler line.)

Image result for jane kenyon and donald hall
I have not read this.

Ten years after his wife’s death Hall published The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon. I was surprised that the majority of the book is about their life after her diagnosis of leukemia. It does include the essay The Third Thing, in which he writes about their years as a whole and how the writing life figured into it. The story of how he brought Jane, not yet 30, to New Hampshire from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to his grandmother’s house where from a child he had always wanted to live, is very touching.

She fell in love with the place at Eagle Pond, but their joint realization of the strong desire to move there came in stages. It seemed preposterous for him to quit his reliable teaching job to do it.

“It was late October when Jane made the definitive announcement: She would chain herself to the walls of the rootcellar rather than leave New Hampshire. I was terrified; I was joyous.”

I wonder at my interest in a couple whose poetry I’ve barely read, with whom I might seem to share very little in common, unless you count, as I do heavily, their love for a secluded life at home by a lake, in the garden, reading and writing much of the day. They were part of a warm church community of which Donald’s relatives were also members. Donald loves baseball, and has been a lifelong smoker (Well, no, I don’t share that with him). They lived a life that perhaps the majority of the population would not be able to endure. In fact, some people asked, “What do you do?”

From “The Third Thing”:
“What we did: we got up early in the morning. I brought Jane coffee in bed. She walked the dog as I started writing, then climbed the stairs to work at her own desk on her own poems. We had lunch. We lay down together. We rose and worked at secondary things. I read aloud to Jane; we played scoreless ping-pong; we read the mail; we worked again. We ate supper, talked, read books sitting across from each other in the living room, and went to sleep. If we were lucky the phone didn’t ring all day.”

I would probably find it easy to read about other couples also if they knew how to write as well about their everyday satisfactions – and sufferings. But I will have to move on, when I have finished this article, without learning everything that might be known about Donald and Jane, their life and their loves.

Though I might yet read more of their poetry. I have the fat Collected Poems of Jane Kenyon in the house right now, and will share with you this:

In the Grove: The Poet at Ten

She lay on her back in the timothy
JaneKenyon_NewBioImage and gazed past the doddering
 auburn heads of sumac.

A cloud — huge, calm,
and dignified — covered the sun
but did not, could not, put it out.

The light surged back again.

Nothing could rouse her then
from that joy so violent
it was hard to distinguish from pain.

-Jane Kenyon

Donald Hall is 87 now. In a review of Essays After Eighty we read, “Jane Kenyon’s presence is everywhere in Essays After Eighty. The couple were married for 23 years, until her 1995 death from leukemia. Kenyon was 47 years old. Hall endured a period of intense pain, captured in two poetry collections and a memoir. Twenty years later, raw agony has become constant, aching loss: ‘I will mourn her forever.’”

Perhaps his writing is the support that has kept him going, even though he had cancer before Jane ever got sick, and last we heard, he was still smoking a pack a day.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth

17 thoughts on “The company of tears – and thanks to all of you.

  1. I’m listening. And learning, mysteriously, across the miles.

    Donald Hall was a kind of hero for me years ago, but not for his poems themselves as much as for his attitude towards poetry. I still read from Jane Kenyon’s book, “Otherwise.” She seems like a friend. You do too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve read more of Donald Hall’s prose (including his books about Jane Kenyon) than his poetry, but I’ve read all of Jane Kenyon’s poetry. Their life together was an amazing thing and an inspiration to any writer.

    xofrances

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a lovely post Gretchen. I don’t know if I would read Mrs. Kenyon’s poetry myself. I would always read you though. Your thoughts I find to be the kind that shore me up, rather than wallow in grief. Poetry I am afraid, makes me think too deeply and while grief I think is very important for a healthy mind, I don’t know if I am comfortable living there.

    I find that interesting that both your father and father-in-law lived about nine years. Maybe it was the age but when my Mom passed away, my Dad was only 33 so I think he started dating the next Friday after her funeral. He was remarried six months later. I don’t think I will outlive Ron so I have made him promise if he remarries he will never forget our children.

    I on the other hand if I do outlive him will never remarry. Like you said in your post, I agree with that. I think it would be easier on a woman to be single. But of course, speaking from the top of my hat because that is a gift I do not want.

    I love your insights and your thoughts. I think I would read your book on grief if you wrote one as I think it would be filled with thoughts that would keep me sane. I think your words are like poetry and I think you write as powerfully as the writer you share with us.

    I think maybe because you are a gracious writer.

    I should never write a comment as the sun is coming up. 🙂 It’s too long and wordy.
    Have a wonderful day my friend, I am blessed to have found you too.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. At the risk of turning your post to talking about me, I wanted to share with you that I lost my first husband in 1997. We had been married 12 years, our son was only 6, and it was a sorrowful loss that my son is still coming to terms with. I have since remarried, seven years after my first husband’s death, but questions and grief remain in tender places. I, like you, found that writing about it, and reading about grief, is helpful. Although I’m not so good with poetry…

    Your blog, your life, your thoughts touch me in so many ways. Truly you are a special person.

    (And my father received your thank you note for his book which moved him to tears. Literally. It was a gracious gift to write such a note.)

    Like

    1. Bellezza, I am glad you did mention your own experience here! I consider it a kindness that you took the time; it is an example of the kind of support I receive from my blogging/reading friends. ❤

      Like

  5. Dear Gretchen, Glory be to God. I think that writing helps the memory. Perhaps your husband is among those who are reading the words, windows of your heart. Your sympathy for Bobbi and Petar must be an ocean deeper than most people who have not felt a great loss. Love to you, dear one.  Christie

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Serendipitous! I normally don’t connect with poetry, but this morning after a sleepless night for me and a dear friend who is ill, I am comforted by this poem:

    SUDDENLY, THERE WAS CALM

    Peace
    came as suddenly today
    as the storm came
    a day ago.
    My soul was drenched
    in wind and rain
    frozen in fear
    that fell like snow.
    Then all was still.
    Had someone prayed?
    I do not know.

    -Ruth Bell Graham

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You know from my blog writing that I am reading that book (best day worst day) right now; I have not read his latest book of essays that you mention. I love Jane Kenyon’s poetry (side note: this is why I was so excited about Donald Sheehan’s book, he knew them, he writes of Jane’s poetry). I heard Donald Hall speak in 1996 and met him briefly, he autographed 2 books of his for me, I still have them. I was 19 then and felt him a hero. His marriage with Jane I still find to be heroic and wonderful; I am learning to accept him now as human with many struggles and with well written honesty. Jane’s poetry is so wonderful. I like some of D. Hall’s poetry too, but I think I was trying to understand and access my own grief when I met him and did not realize then how much of the pull I found towards his writing was because I had then unresolved grief; I needed to have some way to honour those I had lost (which came about 10+ years later in church prayers for the departed) and saw what he was doing – grieving and honouring. Hall very much was caught up only in his own grief, for a very long time. I think it has tempered over time, though what he had was so unique that it is understandable that he still misses Jane and his life with her.

    I can understand about how it is easier for a woman to suffer this loss than a man, though it would still be very difficult. But I find that we find ways (online and otherwise) that support us and it is harder for men, in general, to figure out how to process grief and other emotions.

    I share my agreement also with other comments here, that your writing on your life and grief are really helpful.

    I was just telling my husband yesterday about the loss of that young man you wrote on, only 35. We care for you, and you (and your beloved +husband) are still in our prayers and on our prayer list that we share.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Like you, I’m a solitary person. I’ve never really desired to go out for coffee with the girls, and I’ve never been a “recreational shopper”. I enjoy sharing through writing. I really enjoyed reading about how Jane and Donald spent their days. Sounds great to me!

    One of the things that keeps me going and desiring to hang around on earth as long as possible is my children and grandchildren. As you said, women take care of people, and I think we feel pretty irreplaceable. We feel like we can still be of help to our children and grandchildren, and we don’t want to leave them until it’s absolutely necessary. Thanks for sharing these insights. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Like you, I’ve always found it easier to express my feelings in writing. I was 48 when my husband died and I started writing poetry and keeping a journal of sorts. I’m not familiar with the writings of Jane Kenyon, but she sounds like someone I would definitely like to know more about. Thank You!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I think two poets married to one another would be fascinating any day. A poet who writes about and dissects his grief is interesting also. I’m amazed at their leisurely day together. It sounds like vacation, so wonderful. If I could sell enough poetry to put food on the table and live that way … wow.

    Liked by 1 person

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