How to End an Era

runyanWe’re supposed to shake our heads when Daisy Buchanan, considering a summer solstice celebration on her East Egg porch, turns to Nick Carraway, and asks, “‘What’ll we plan? What do people plan?’” But I get her helpless bewilderment all too well.

I grew up in a family that doesn’t mark life’s transitions with much ceremony. My mother visited a courthouse for all three marriages, no pictures to show for it. When her parents died, she and an uncle or two I’d never met threw ashes in the ocean. Funerals were silly when a person’s spirit no longer resided in the body.

As if funerals are for the dead.

Even my move to college was completed without fanfare. I packed my car, drove to campus by myself, and set up my bed and shelves in less than an hour. When I watched the other students emerge from the dorm lot flanked with camera-toting parents and siblings, I smirked. You can’t even move into a small room without your parents’ help? I thought. This is college!

It wasn’t until I talked with a therapist ten years later that I understood I was the odd one. “It’s not that they couldn’t move into a room themselves,” she explained. “The parents came to mark the event.” I stared at her. Moving into the dorm was supposed to be an event? That had never occurred to me. [Read more...]

Songs Dead Men Sing

Guest Post Scott Warner headshotby Cathy Warner

In the backseat of our minivan I swig an individual serving of white zinfandel to numb myself from the terror that is I-5: long sweeping curves, cement barricades, and massive trucks pulling two and three trailers that sway and rattle.

When I’m in the passenger seat, my husband can’t help but react to my cringing, so we agree a sleeping pill and $1.49 bottle of wine are reasonable for the five-hour trip from Eugene, Oregon where our daughter attends college, home to Puget Sound.

Ten years ago, living in San Francisco’s Bay area, I tried therapy. “You’re afraid of death,” the counselor said as if I thought being plowed into by tons of steel would result in a chipped tooth. I wanted driving—and life—to be predictable and safe.

Tonight, when I awake after two drugged hours, my husband’s brother serenades us from the grave. Scott died eleven years ago yesterday of liver failure at age forty-five, the slow suicide of an alcoholic. [Read more...]

All Unhappy Families Are Alike

Russian-family-portraitIn commenting on my latest essay for “Good Letters,” a man “disabled from an odd condition” confided that, when his health crashed, he found himself abandoned by those he depended upon: “My family avoided me thinking that I repre­sented their destiny.” Years later “they still do,” he added.

Not everyone who lives with advancing death or a maladroit disability must live without his family’s succor and society. But I know exactly what this man is talking about, because my family too has avoided me since I was diagnosed with terminal cancer nearly seven years ago.

For five years my younger sister said nothing at all to me about the disease. My other sister will give a “like” to cancer updates on Facebook, but she never gets in touch with me. She doesn’t even leave a short encouraging comment. She clicks the “like” toggle and moves on. And, oh, oh, let me tell you about—but please stop me from tabulating grievances. Already I’m starting to remind myself of John McEnroe after a linesman’s bad call.

I also refuse to quote the first sentence of Anna Karenina, which is usually trotted out in these circumstances, principally because I think it is false. The truth is that unhappy families are more alike than happy families. Unhap­piness takes the universal forms of bitterness, resentment, and the symptom to which Kafka dedicated an entire novel—psychological arrest at an early stage, preventing emotional growth and development.

[Read more...]

We Who Are Left Behind

thumbnail“Why’d you let go?” Conrad Jarrett shouts at the ceiling, in a climactic scene in Ordinary People. Conrad’s family has unraveled after a boating accident took his older brother, and after his own attempted suicide. In flashbacks we see the Jarrett boys gripping a rope slung across their storm-tossed, capsized sailboat. Conrad’s brother loses hold, is swallowed by the water.

Conrad’s psychiatrist elicits from him the truth beneath his survivor’s guilt, which is that he is angry. Angry his brother didn’t head for shelter sooner. Angry he couldn’t hang on. “Did it ever occur to you,” asks his psychiatrist, “that you might have been stronger?”

Seventeen years after Ordinary People garnered four Oscars, Robin Williams received an Oscar for his role in Good Will Hunting, as a psychiatrist much like the one played by Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People. In a similarly dramatic counseling scene, Williams helps the film’s protagonist find the beginning of peace.

[Read more...]

Rules for Celebrating: An Observation from the Way of Saint James, Part 2

altarContinued from last week.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage across Spain that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year 200,000 pilgrims walk a route to Santiago de Compostela, a city where, according to tradition, the apostle James the Greater is interred.

Last September my husband and I were among the pilgrims. We hiked 200 miles from Léon in stages, many with Fr. Lukasz, a sprightly, thirty-something priest, and a group of young adults from the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Washington.

Fr. Lukasz set pattern of our days right at the outset of the journey. We rose before dawn and departed Rabanal del Camino, a stone village with a tiny central square. As we walked beneath the moon and stars, guided by a few pilgrim headlamps, I could feel the grade increasing, straining the backs of my legs. We were ascending the pass of Irago. Soon the sun rose lemon-yellow, revealing iridescent mountains, releasing the scents of heather and gorse.

By midmorning we reached the Cruz de Ferro, a simple iron cross atop a weathered pole that marks the Camino’s highest point. There we stopped for morning prayers before descending the pass through several villages: Manjarín, Acebo, and Riego de Ambros, where we walked through a grove of giant chestnuts and a green, wild-flowered vale. After crossing a Roman stone bridge over the Río Meruelo, we stopped at Molinaseca, a medieval town where we would spend the night. [Read more...]


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