A Meditation by Michael Crummey
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I have always written with music on in the background. I was listening to Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind a lot when I wrote my first novel. There's a line in “Trying to Get to Heaven” that goes something like, “When you think that you've lost everything, you find out you can always lose a little more,” and I lifted it for one of the novel's characters. It perfectly encapsulated her experience of the world, particularly her realization that withdrawing from life to escape more pain is futile. That loss finds us wherever we are. That loss is bottomless.
I was in my early thirties at the time. And like most everything I'd written about to that point in my life, my understanding of loss was something I'd come to more or less vicariously.
I was born and raised in a mining town that was riding the tail end of a long decline through my childhood. It was like watching someone suffering through a terminal illness. More and more people being laid off as the company shut down operations, families packing up and leaving, buildings being boarded up or torn down.
I also had a growing awareness that most of the adults around me, including both my parents, were originally from outports on the coast and that the culture that existed in those places—what I used to think of as “the real Newfoundland” —was being irrevocably altered by the ongoing collapse of the cod fishery and the “modernization” of Newfoundland that followed confederation with Canada. All I knew of that world, and all I would ever know of it, was what I gleaned from Mom and Dad's stories, from reminiscence. They could still make it out from the shore they stood on, but they would never live there again.
And to top it all off, my hometown is about five minutes from Red Indian Lake, the last safe haven for the remnants of the Beothuk, the indigenous inhabitants of Newfoundland, before they disappeared from the world in the first decades of the 19th century. We had a cabin on the lake where we spent much of the summer. We passed Mary March Brook and Beothuk Motors on every trip to Grand Falls. There was the Shanadithit Snack Bar at the Food Centre, complete with a mural of a Hollywood-style Indian maiden on the wall behind the counter. It wasn't spoken of often, and most of what I heard was half-truth or myth, but that absence surrounded me when I was growing up.
All of those losses were suffered by others, of course. And I think of my childhood as mostly happy. But it would be hard to design a more immersive bath of irreparable cultural collapse and loss for a kid to grow up in. It wasn't until I'd published a book about the gone world of outport Newfoundland and a book of stories set in a dying mining town and a novel about the looming extinction of the Beothuk that I saw how I'd been shaped by my proximity to those things. Almost everything I'd ever written was inspired or informed or haunted by loss of some kind. It was a bit of a shock to recognize that, after the fact. Although the roots of my obsession are so obvious I'm a little embarrassed not to have seen it earlier.
In her poem “Poppies,” Mary Oliver writes that “Of course loss is the great lesson.” And I started learning that lesson early.
Last November, my wife and I were staying at a hotel in Kitchener as guests of the Wild Writer's Festival. We stayed a couple of days after the festival to attend an event called “Appetite for Reading.” The Baltimore Ravens were playing the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football that week and both Holly and I were texting with our son in St. John's during the game. Ben was a longtime Ravens fan and the unlikely beatdown they were giving the Patriots dynasty was almost too good to be true. He had a midterm exam the next day but was having trouble focusing. “I have to study at the same time,” he told me, “it's hard to multi-task.”
Those were the last words I would ever hear from him directly. He pulled an all-nighter after the game and when he finished his exam the next day he texted his girlfriend to say he was going for a nap. The coroner's best guess is he suffered a cardiac event during an epileptic seizure while he slept. We wouldn't know it for hours still, but by the time we took our seats at “Appetite for Reading” on Tuesday evening, he was gone.
We are a year into life without him now and I still don't know how to describe the experience. Except to say that, as I've always suspected, loss is bottomless.
I think most of us are experiencing a kind of free-fall at the moment, almost a year into the world's current plague. A lot of what we took for granted in our lives has been yanked from beneath our feet. Those of us in the west were lucky enough to have been born into the golden age of antibiotics and vaccines, with a political and social structure that, if you didn't look too closely, gave off a vague impression of stability, of permanence. A lot of us took it as a birthright to feel more or less secure.
The erosion of those certainties is as much a part of the pandemic as the virus itself. That awareness of how unpredictable and contingent our lives are is very familiar to me. It reminds me of the bizarre nexus of loss that cradled me as a youngster. I don't want to sit here saying, “I told you so.” But I've always thought the modern western world gave people a false sense of safety, of how much we have control over. Looking back from our current vantage point, that sense seems almost quaint now.
After she makes the stark declarative statement that “loss is the great lesson,” Oliver follows up with these lines:
But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
and that happiness,
when it’s done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
I hope I'm not being too pedantic when I say I have an issue with the “But” that begins this passage. It's placed there literally as a buttress, a stay, a rebuttal of the black, curved blade at the gates. It's a small point, I guess, and it's possible I'm misreading to serve my own purposes. But if my experience of loss has taught me anything, it's that there is no gate, there is no buttress. Where loss is concerned, there is no inside and outside, there is no either/or option. It's a both/and situation we're dealing with.
Not “But I also say this” then. Rather, And I say this. That life is capricious and dark and magnificent, that it is senseless and cruel and almost unbearably beautiful. That it is heartbreaking and absurd and precious, all in the same terrifying, glorious, crushing moment. That it's all we have in the end, for better and worse.
MICHAEL CRUMMEY has published eleven books of poetry and fiction, including the novels River Thieves, The Wreckage and Sweetland, and Little Dogs: New and Selected Poems. His third novel, Galore, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (Canada and Caribbean). His latest, The Innocents, won the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor-General’s Award, and the Roger’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. He lives in St. John’s.
Photos Courtesy of Michael Crummey.