My Wobbly Bicycle, 166

Posted by on Feb 26, 2019 | 8 comments

Gray and cold. Very cold, day after day. Reading a lot.


I read Katharine Smyth’s All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf,  based on a short review in The New Yorker. I didn’t realize she would include so much detail about the death of her father. Maybe not what I wanted to read right now. But maybe so. Smyth seamlessly weaves Woolf’s To the Lighthouse through her own story. (“Perhaps there is one book for every life,” she writes).


Both books are in their way about grief. Smyth’s father was a difficult man, an alcoholic, but funny, smart, and the center of her life. She takes us step-by-step through his slow decline, his death, and her long grief. Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsey, a beautiful, nurturing woman is the emotional center of the whole Ramsey entourage. After Mrs. Ramsey dies suddenly, the second half of the novel describes the dissolution of the world she’d built around her. Two unmoorings: Woolf’s (the book is strongly autobiographical) and Smyth’s.


Smyth says, “My father was dead. How completely strange.” I say, even though we claim we get it, doesn’t it still feel strange? We act as if we’re solid and somehow, against all the odds, permanent. When we see, firsthand, that we’re not, well, Smyth says, “Being a human being had suddenly become a more serious occupation than it once seemed.”


Smyth:  “To grieve is to be floored, again and again, by a series of epiphanies that, put to paper, sound painfully banal.”


Oh heavens, don’t you hate it when people try to tell you all about a book or movie? When all they really mean is that it touched something in them, triggered some emotion they can’t explain but somehow if they keep trying to tell you about it, they’ll get some clarity?


Smyth:  “’Dad’s dead.’ Oh I said and cried a bit not because I wanted or needed to, but because it seemed the thing to do.”  I don’t know that I’ve ever read any better account of how grief seems to work. You think you should display it for others, because they expect it, but that might not be the moment it hits you. Or it might not be tears, but a dullness you feel, a flatness. The death of a parent is so primal the grief comes from a source farther down in you than personality. Not his personality. Maybe that, too, but deeper, a quake in the core of what you’re made of.


So then I re-read To the Lighthouse. If you haven’t read it in years, or haven’t read it at all, be warned that, like all Virginia’s Woolf’s books, it’s like viewing life underwater. Slow. So deep inside the characters, emotions washing against each other and mixing so that they hardly know what they feel.


Books, if they’re good and true ones, give you life to look at, held apart from you enough that you can sometimes see better. They don’t give you answers, because that’s entirely beside the point. They give you lives.


All I have to say is, when there’s a major grief, it’s likely to puncture a hole in you that lets out all the others, the older ones that have been lying dormant, have not been fully expressed, or need a different language this time. Maybe, too, the massive sorrows of this planet.


All I have to say is, to echo Katharine Smyth, life is completely strange. Thank you for the cards. I’ve been glad to get them.



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  1. I have a photo of my mother on a small wall over a small kitchen sideboard and next to it a photo of my three girls taken about a month ago. I’m not between them, on the wall, but what comes to mind is your thought—“grief comes from a quake in the core of what you’re made of.” When my mother died I felt a tremor each time the phone rang days later. When I suddenly had a question. Days later. When something wonderful happened, or a tragedy I couldn’t make sense of. Later. Later. The quake wasnt apparent at first. It wasn’t for a while. I think that’s the way it had to be so that when it came I would be able to handle the break-up. The cracking up, those tremors. After all, I had been okay for awhile. I’m wondering now if this is what I hope for my children?

    • I don’t know, Ruth. I guess I would hope my children would have the same reaction, because I want them to be able to feel things deeply. I also would hope they have the internal strength so feel the cracking and churning and stay with it and become more human from it. But boy, it’s hard to think about that. Thanks for that exquisite reply.

  2. Yes, Fleda “life is completely strange.” so I rediscover every day and with it the fears and mysteries we live with and bear as best we can with the transient refuge Art can provide, moment by moment.

    • I would like what I write to somehow express that mystery. I guess if it’s honest work, it always will somehow. Thanks for writing, Norman.

  3. “When there is a major grief, it’s likely to puncture a hole in you that lets out all the others.” Never had the words for it until your gift of this. Have felt it many times. Now more of gratitude for their places in my life than the sadness of their absence . Thank you!

    • Thank you, Jacqui, for being out there, where it’s probably NOT snowing buckets and buckets, and doing the good work in the world that you do.

  4. Sorry, this is not apropos of today’s subject, but I want to tell you how much I enjoy your appreciations of poems in the Record Eagle. The last two really hit home for me. E. E. Cummings was (when I was a freshman in college) the first modern poet I read, and “somewhere I have never travelled…” still remains a favorite of mine. Then comes in the Record-Eagle’s edition of March 3 your appreciation of Rilke’s “The Archaic Bust of Apollo,” a poem that is as close to perfection as poems get. You chose my favorite translation, which–if I may be so bold–ends better than the original. Rilke’s last sentence–Du mußt dein Leben ändern–sounds singsongy to me. It starts with an iamb whose second syllable turns into the first syllable of three trochees: mußt dein Leben ändern.” It trots. But listen to Mitchell’s five emphatic monosyllables: “You must change your life.” I’m convinced.

    • Thanks for this comment, Ron. I think Mitchell is Rilke’s best translator, too. I am so glad to hear that my R-E columns reach an audience. I wouldn’t keep doing it, otherwise. And an intelligent audience at that.

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