Recently, I came across a book by Finnish author, Johanna Sinisalo, The Core of the Sun. The story is a present-day dystopian feminist-ish social critique, and it is not for the prim or easily embarrassed. But, she writes a beautiful, penetrating description of grief, at once metaphor and exact. And, while grief is not the chief subject of her narrative she recognizes its seduction each time she feels threatened or uneasy. The narrator describes her grief as the “Cellar,” hewn at the loss of her sister, in this way:
“The Cellar was created by an explosion.
A blazing hot, violent nuclear charge that instantaneously melted a chamber in the gray matter of my head. It left a smooth-walled hollow, a ghostly, echoing cave with a darkness deeper than the space between the stars.
The darkness of the Cellar lives because it gets its strength from death. The Cellar is where my sister’s negation lives, wrapped in a swirl of ink and pitch and coal and soot and the stifling scent of earth.”
I share this for a couple of reasons. First, when grief-stricken or in a state of deep depression, it is all too easy to be consumed by the experience, unable to summon the energy or mental power to speak about it. Somehow, when words and concepts are put to an experience, one is empowered to face it. This is the “without judgment” aspect of mindfulness practice, and “holy indifference” in the way of Ignatius. Put into words, named, the experience is now separate, if even just a hair’s breadth. Then it might be seen for what it is; can be experienced as it ought; and, put aside—for a time . . . a deep breath, maybe? Nadia Boltz-Weber does this powerfully when she names her depression, “Francis.”
The second reason I am compelled to share Sinisalo’s portrayal is that it is often very difficult for those who have not suffered a significant loss or do not know—understand—the reality of dwelling in that darkest place. Putting to words, making more concrete an experience impossible to share makes walking (sitting) alongside someone who is there that much easier.
I am so concerned by the data that suggests authentic intimacy is growing increasingly rare. We are more “connected” than would otherwise be possible without today’s technology, but when it so often an edited, altered reflection of the self, we are more vulnerable to even greater despair—because, if she is so happily connect with her children, why do mine seem so distant? if he has so much confidence in his work, why am I such a loser? how is her skin so clear? or why does he have such an awesome bike?
No wonder we cannot distinguish the anguish someone else currently confronts. Even the events that ought to be celebrated often go unnoticed because everything looks like a celebration on social media!
But, what is missed is another aspect of grief: there are degrees and nuances to each experience. Sinisalo’s description is apt:
“The door to the Cellar is in the back of my head.
Sometimes the door to the Cellar is made of solid steel with clunking metal bolts and rusty, creaking hinges—heavy. Sometimes it’s made of rotten wood, sometimes gauze that flutters in the wind. Sometimes there’s no door at all, and the ice-cold wind blows out of it.
That wind brings with it a fist, wet with black fog, a crushing grip that clenches around my mind like the hand of a sadistic child, a cruel child who wants to hear the tortured squeak of a rubber toy when it’s squeezed again and again.
At the bottom of the Cellar, dark, ominous water splashes. It seeps out of openings the size of molecules through walls sealed with nuclear fire. I can bear the black wind, the merciless mist, but when the deep water starts to lap at the threshold of the Cellar and threatens to flood the rooms in my head, I know how close I am to drowning. The water’s pitch-black surface shining like molten metal rises, and soon a thin, horrible snake of liquid will trickle over the threshold.”
The way the narrator drives away the lapping murk is by consuming the addictive substance found in chili peppers. It is not difficult to recognize the correlative numbing capsaicin to the many other ways we try to numb our pain—to say nothing of the addictive hold mobile devices have on us. At any rate, here is just another reason to pull away from the overabundant lit screens: it takes time to discover the metaphor. Whether for your own sake or the sake of another – take time to notice – take time to find the words.