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2 Book recs
The espresso and warm froth quicken the senses, which I need for what I’m about to hear. I’m sitting at the E-Bar on a Tuesday with my mother. I like it here and she does too, the backdrop of scarves and hats by the entrance, purses and jewelry in the back, the shoe salon beyond the bar. We sit at the center of the department store, just us at a table, the baristas steaming milk, punching out charges.
“He died, Linh. I saw him,” she says. “I saw him and I don’t have his address.” Her frail shoulders shook up and down. This would be hard in my twenties, to hear what my mother is telling me about a man, a young male friend, who is NOT my father. But for her, what’s left to hide? My father is long gone, every brother and sister of hers is gone. She is alone with her memories. I record her story on my phone.
“Two mornings ago, I dream of my father. It is vivid. Last night, I see my friend, a teenager who loved me and followed me everywhere. His father rented a house in Hue so he could go out and see me and stay there. Go to [the same] school for one year. Every night, the road to Auntie’s house [she lives with her older sister] is muddy. He used his father’s car and drove there.” She saw the ruts in the road and the mud on his car at school.
“Now he dies.” I ask why she needs his address and she’s too shaken, but answers. To send a sympathy card.
“Mom?” I say. She hasn’t seen him since school days, maybe 60 to 70 years ago. They both had families, and she found out he passed away from a mutual friend. He’s been tracking her all these years, asking of her, checking in with others. He called her five or six times over her life. He mailed back a photo that he had of her. And, he had married twice.
It dawned on me then. She was alone in the world now, or felt so. She had us, her children, of course. But she had many suitors and this man who loved her, or the idea of her, who never let go completely. Now that he had died, the person who–in her mind–loved my mother unconditionally, he was gone. Perhaps she loved him but she didn’t say so. It was a lifetime ago.
In her new book, Bittersweet, How Sorrow and Longing Make us Whole, Susan Cain talks about this idea of the perfect soulmate, the idea of a perfect love, like heaven might be for the Christian, or enlightenment for the Buddhist. Canh, my mother’s young beau, was perhaps that. The idea of this book started in college for Cain, when a friend asked why she listened to sad music, funeral songs he had called them, elegies. She writes of her years of wondering why she was drawn to sadness and shares research about the melancholy temperament, the feeling she feels when listening to the recording of a cellist of Sarajevo who sat down amid the rubble to play when the town is under seige. There’s that intersection of beauty and pain, of bitter and sweet.
This is the idea of a perfect love and longing. And it’s a ruse. Impossible. But, it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s possible. It’s ok to know sadness and pain, that the tyranny of positivity is the undoing of a generation, of a society so consumed with sunshine and happiness, that it does not know what to do when rain and sorrow come.
My daughter is home from knee surgery and the pain is excruciating. Her tears are my tears. Blessed with good health, spoiled with a life of relatively robust living, she is a stranger to this kind of pain. Yet pain will help measure the strength she regains. In Madeline Miller’s Circe, the Olympians and Titans are like children, forever at play for power and attention. Immortality does it to them. Poor humans suffer but death gives them grace, fallibility, joy. Miller develops this idea in the book, one of the best aspects of the retelling of Circe, the witch who turns Odysseus’s men into pigs, who helps him on his journey, who loves him, and has his child.
Sorrow, this bittersweet side of life, is natural and I feel alive in such moments, at the crossroads of joy and sadness, as in the sound of a Chopin nocturne, with the notes lingering in the room when I play in the evening. The composer suffered from ill health most of his life, his extraordinary gifts live on in his music, the soul of such a work in my own fingers. It moves me to tears and my heart swells, to think of the suitor who loved my mother so, to move near her, to go to her school, to follow her throughout her life. The sadness when such a love, such a longing is no longer.
FOOTNOTES AS QUOTES
On the positive side of the ledger of human emotions: “Critics have charged that it’s biased toward an American sensiiblity that, as the psychologist Nancy McWilliams puts it, “subscribe[s] to …. the comic rather than the tragic version of human life, the pursuit of happiness rather than the coming to terms with inevitable pain.” (Bittersweet by Cain, p 19)
“Hindu legend says that Valmiki, the world’s first poet, was moved to verse after watching a bird weeping for her mate, who’d been making love to her when he was killed by a hunter. “Longing itself is divine,” writes the Hindu spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. “Longing for worldly things makes you inert. Longing for Infinity fills you with life. The skill is to bear the pain of longing and move on. True longing brings up spurts of bliss.” (Cain, p 39)
“C.S. Lewis, who heard the call of bittersweetness all his life and became a committed Christian in his thrities, eventually concluded that we have hunger because we need to eat, we have thirst because we need to drink; so if we have an “inconsolable longing” that can’t be satisfied in this world, it must be because we belong in another, godly one.” (Cain p. 54)
“I could not stop smiling. The fragility of mortals bred kindness and good grace. They knew how to value friendship and an open hand.” (Circe by Miller, p 185)