This is Part Two of a short series of posts on grief and reading. Here, I highlight two out of the six books that helped me work through the initial shock of my brother’s death. I’m writing about them in the order I finished reading them. You can read Part One here.
The High Priestess Never Marries
by Sharanya Manivannan
“We can forecast nothing. It arrives when it arrives. It disappears when it disappears.” (from ‘Take the Weather With You’)
The stories in this collection by Sharanya Manivannan (Harper Collins India, 2016) moves like a sea of women and their memories, hearts, bodies. Earthbound, the characters in this book rise up from the pages like wind – arriving and departing, breath-giving, season-changing. We see them rise to face their deepest selves. We see them give space to their rawness, to their desires.
“It’s like someone aimed a rubber band at my heart and didn’t miss. I have waited my whole fucking life for someone to call me kannamma.” (from ‘The High Priestess Never Marries’)
The woman who wonders, the woman who wants more, the woman who turns loneliness into a lover, the woman who chooses love then chooses love again. The woman who lifts storm-ridden dirt with her palms, earth pulled towards her mouth like that would fill her up as she grieved. These are women who find ways to belong to themselves while navigating their longings and unbelongings. The characters seem to me to own the missing spaces inside them, and I love them for it.
“Here in this house I built, here in this life I salvaged, here I am. And nowhere in my dominion will I be spoken to that way. And there is nowhere – listen close, for this is the great secret that evades them all, all who submit to the logic of others, and all who entrap another in their own – there is nowhere that is not within my dominion.” (from ‘Cyclone Crossing’)
I finished reading this book just a few days before my brother’s death. I had been planning to write about it, about the movements I felt stirring deep within me that allowed me to let go – finally let go, or at least, face up to – an old map that held my own desires hostage for a long time, had me obsess over memories of those who can only offer mutually turbulent expectations. Reading this book was like hosting tidal waves in my guts and I had to let them move through me to find solid ground again. The pain or warmth my heart felt over a too-relatable scene or dialogue or sentence was that of growth and I enjoyed every flower-scented moment of it. I had been planning to write about all this. I had all the words and some of the notes brewing and brewing – and then everything, like time, stopped.
Some books stay with you even as grief pushes you into a subliminal molting, taking place inside, making place inside. Like the quietest natural disasters of the world – if a tree falls here, if an apartment catches on fire there, why does my body feel like it’s on the moon? No air, can’t breathe, must breathe, what air. Some books guide you through it, the next stages of terraforming or terra-surviving or terra-being.
In the major arcana of a tarot deck, the High Priestess is a master sitting between the domains of light and dark, life and death, the waking and dreaming. She looks like a woman in repose but really, she knows her shit and won’t be challenged for it. She arrives, sometimes, as a reminder for us to acknowledge the shadows – these hidden places where iterations of selves get pushed into, where some of us make homes out of, where we don’t forget to learn how to love.
“Something is always burning. You will tell me I am hallucinating but I can only know the world through my own senses.” (from Salomé)
All About Love
by bell hooks
All About Love: New Visions (William Morrow, 2000) opens with what I felt was misleading simplicity. The book comprises of eleven concise chapters where bell hooks deconstructs cultural notions of love. I started reading this… last year, maybe? On my first read, I reached the chapter, Community: Loving Communion and had to stop reading. On my second attempt, I restarted from the beginning then stopped after finishing the Community chapter. Why I say the writing’s simplicity is misleading is because it doesn’t do justice to how difficult it is to come to terms with the pain of choosing the path of love (the book mention this briefly, that pain).
Most times it felt like the simplicity of the writing made it a lot harder to grasp the relatability of what was being said. Sometimes this happens. Sometimes the heart resists its own healing because it has learnt, but doesn’t know yet. Sometimes we are better at building language about lacking rather than loving.
Creating a new map to follow – one based on “care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication” – in a world that wants you to race yourself to death, can feel impossible.
“But it was love’s absence that let me know how much love mattered.”
I finally finished reading this book after my brother’s birthday came and went. He would’ve turned 25 if he was alive. According to the lunar calendar, he would’ve turned 25 today. A friend lent this book to me and I switched to her copy to continue reading from where I left off. Somehow reading the borrowed book, a gesture given out of love and kindness, broke some of the barriers I was facing when reading the text.
The chapter, Loss: Loving into Life and Death, is one I still re-read from time to time as a reminder to not let grief destroy me. I’ve been struggling with an unfamiliar rage since losing my brother, and all the years we could’ve had to grow more adult and more able to talk to each other better – reconcile the now-permanently unspoken shared memories with each other. I call it grief-rage. I don’t know what else to call it but I’m learning to live with it and to not fear it.
“Our mourning, our letting ourselves grieve over the loss of loved ones is an expression of our commitment, a form of communication and communion. Knowing this and possessing the courage to claim our grief as an expression of love’s passion does not make the process simple in a culture that would deny us the emotional alchemy of grief. Much of our cultural suspicion of intense grief is rooted in the fear that the unleashing of such passion will overtake us and keep us from life. However, this fear is usually misguided. In its deepest sense, grief is a burning of the heart, an intense heat that gives us solace and release.”
At times, this book felt too didactic for me but I was soothed by the essential lessons embedded in it – that love isn’t as clear-cut as we have been taught. It isn’t something that just happens when you find the right things, ‘the one,’ the right time, whatever. It doesn’t just exist in one realm of life but exists – or can exist – as the undercurrent of all of life’s experiences. Cultivating love takes a lot of awareness, resilience, and openness. It takes work, intention, and the courage to step into the unknown believing that you still have the strength to grow with love.