Thursday, April 9, 2015

"With No Divided Heart" (For Ivan Doig)

Let me admit to something: It has always silently bothered me when celebrities are publicly mourned. I don't want to sound harsh, but that kind of grief -- the grief felt by fans for an actor or a singer or an activist they loved -- has always felt somehow...affected. Inauthentic. Tinged with self-interest. If you didn't know her, I want to ask, why do you think you care so much? I see the sadness at the loss of art, or philanthropy; I certainly see the sadness in the loss of a single human soul. Yet I still wonder: where does this public grief really belong? And is it true?

Ivan Doig died today. His death has made me confront my own irritation at this kind of grief -- that stranger grief, it might be called. I didn't know Ivan Doig. I haven't even read all of his books. As a matter of course, there are more deeply devoted fans who deserve a moment, or longer, to really share their sadness. The west, the world, lost a good artist today. A writer of certain grace. And I am struck by my own hypocrisy, and a shadow of self-interest, when I say: his loss has deeply saddened me.

My mother, an avid Doig fan, first introduced me to Doig's novel Dancing at the Rascal Fair when I was eighteen years old. You know those books (I know you know) that you remember almost viscerally? Like, you can close your eyes (or even keep them open you remember it that well) and remember the feeling of reading that book? The way the kitchen was silent around you as you stood at the counter eating with one hand and holding the book with the other because you just, couldn't, stop, reading. The way your legs went numb beneath you on the bed because you'd read so long they'd fallen asleep. The quickly diminishing pages until the end, and the harrowing truth of finishing, of no longer inhabiting that world you'd welcomed as your own. You were a part of that book. You were very nearly one of its characters (or you daydreamed you were, as you went about your real-life days. You daydream it still, when something calls the story back to mind. The sheered sheep in the fields along your running route; the old farmer who you know has lived beneath steep mountains all his life).

Dancing at the Rascal Fair was that kind of book for me. Even today, after years of reading other books, it remains on a short list of life-changers. There have been a select few writers who made me see how I really wanted to write, and Doig is one of them.  So it stands to reason, I see, that I should feel a sense of shock and sorrow at his passing. I didn't know him, but still, he changed me.

I suppose this is an apology of sorts, to all those who I once judged for their public grief. You deserved that moment. I understand you now. Here, too, is an attempt at an answer to my own question: The grief we feel for strangers is undoubtedly true. For at the end of the day, in the still rooms of our hearts, the places even our dearest loves do not visit, we are not grieving strangers -- we are grieving faithful friends. The artist, the writer, the activist, they created for us what we could not create for ourselves. They said what we could not say. They don't know it, but often they are the only other people we let into those still rooms.

Strange as it might sound, I will think about Ivan Doig on my wedding day. I will think about him in the months leading up to the day, as I prepare myself for a new country of life, as I've thought of him in the crossing over to so many new countries, new seasons, of life. I will think about this passage from the early pages of Dancing at the Rascal Fair:

"Do not emigrate in a fever, but consider the question in each and every aspect. The mother country must be left behind, the family ties, all old associations, broken. Be sure that you look at the dark side of the picture: the broad Atlantic, the dusty ride to the great West of America, the scorching sun, the cold winter, and the hard work of the homestead. But if you finally, with your eyes open, decide to emigrate, do it nobly. Do it with no divided heart."

It strikes me that I have been trying to live according to these words for the past twelve years of my life. They have taken up residence within me, and I hear them ringing when I am called to make choices, to forgive, to let go. They are not easy words to live by, but they are clear, and they are steadfast within me. 

Let me admit to something: I am saddened at the loss of Ivan Doig. I did not know him, but he knew me. He knew something of the silent corners of my heart.

Thanks for reading.


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