“When suffering, when mourning, goes into its cruising speed . . .”
—Barthes, Mourning Diary (03/22/78)
It’s 548 miles from my house in Portland, OR to the apartment building in Missoula, Montana where I was living this spring. I was a visiting professor at the University of Montana MFA program and, since I’m writing this in April I technically still am, though we have switched to “remote delivery” for the rest of the semester. There has been talk of staying remote through the summer and even next fall, but that won’t be my problem because my contract is up in May. By the time you read this, me and Montana will be well in each other’s rearview mirrors, so to speak.
I drove from Portland to Missoula to pack up my apartment before the shelter-in-place orders started hitting the Northwest. We all knew they were coming. Whenever I’m on a long drive I like to listen to some Robert Earl Keen, so it’s his version of “Amarillo Highway” I know best, but lately I’ve been getting back into the original. And if you don’t know Terry Allen’s 1978 double LP Lubbock (on everything), I recommend the very finely done vinyl reissue that Paradise of Bachelors put out a few years ago. At the moment in question I wasn’t listening to it on vinyl; I was streaming it on my phone and piping it through the speakers of my rental car: “An close as I’ll ever get to Heaven / Is makin’ speed up ol’ 87,” Allen sings. I’m pretty sure the scenery on I-90 circa Fourth of July Pass isn’t much like what you’d see on ol’ 87,” which by the way is a state road. The Texas Panhandle isn’t much like the Idaho Panhandle, but driving music is driving music.
On March 9 I’d flown from Missoula to Boston Logan and taken a car service to the artist residency in New Hampshire. (Didn’t I just say that I was in the middle of a semester? It was spring break—but OK, you caught me; I’d also canceled a week of classes, which I’d been planning to make up at the end of the term . . .) A few days after I got to the residency they announced that no new artists would be coming, but those of us already there were welcome to stay. A few days after that they closed the dining room, started serving dinner in takeaway baskets, and instructed us to practice social distancing at all times. They offered us financial support to change our arrangements and depart as soon as possible.
To stave off despair—and because after hours nobody was around to stop us—two composers threw a “live karaoke” night with a saxophone and the residency library’s grand piano. “If you can find the sheet music online,” they said, “we can play it.” I sang off-pitch, imperfectly socially distanced duets with new friends: “Life on Mars,” “Angel from Montgomery.” I left two days after that. John Prine died of Covid-19 less than a month later.
My new flight departed on March 18. I wore gloves through security, planned to wipe down my seats on the plane with the hospital grade wipes they gave me at the residency as part of my departure preparedness package. Logan was a ghost town, and the flights were so empty that I got upgraded to first class on both legs. Free scotch and a dinner service. I watched Lady Bird, which somehow I’d never seen (pretty good, I thought) and listened to Neutral Milk Hotel’s On Avery Island from start to finish for the first time in probably fifteen years. Quiet weeping. Thinking to myself how for the foreseeable future whenever people ask each other about the last time you flew on a plane this will be my story. I’ll probably leave out Lady Bird, as well as the hour I spent listening to the Jerry Garcia Band.
The Montana semester had already gone remote, so I flew home to Portland. But two days later I decided to drive to Missoula to get my stuff. I didn’t know when the lockdown order would come, but I figured (rightly, as it turned out) that it might last longer than my lease on the apartment. If I didn’t go now I might not ever go. What stuff did I have there? A video game system, about half my wardrobe, one of those keyless entry car fobs that are expensive as hell to replace, a couple of stacks of books. Whatever else I’d thought I’d need to get through four months in Montana.
I had Barthes’s Mourning Diary with me. I’d brought it to the residency and had been reading from it every day, not knowing why I felt inclined to do this, but trusting the instinct. Barthes kept this diary during the years after his mother died, imagining it as notes toward an eventual book, though he died before he could begin to work on it. The diary documents his personal grief even as it attempts to develop an epistemology of grieving:
Like love, mourning affects the world—and the worldly—with unreality, with importunity. I resist the world, I suffer from what it demands of me, from its demands. The world increases my sadness, my dryness, my confusion, my irritation, etc. The world depresses me.
My father died in 2017, after long concomitant struggles with Parkinson’s disease, depression, and poverty. He died believing his life to have been an abject failure, which by certain measures is true, or true enough. But what are the criteria for those measures and what are the limits of their utility? What other metrics might I, the survivor, make use of in attempting to judge his life, or the roles we played in each other’s lives?
I’m not as smart or as thoughtful as Roland Barthes, but we both wanted to write books about our deceased parents, and I lived long enough to finish mine. My book has a few pages on Kierkegaard in it, specifically on his exegesis Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Fear and Trembling. The parallel I drew was not between Abraham and Isaac and my father and me; rather, it was between Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the story and a rival interpretation by the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose work I was entirely unaware of during the years I obsessed over Kierkegaard, reading and re-reading him, writing a novel that attempted (however poorly) to engage his notion of the teleological suspension of the ethical and what it means to become the knight of faith.
In my memoir, the point of comparing Kierkegaard’s Abraham to Heschel’s is not that I now prefer Heschel’s version (though I do) but that my father used to call me a bad Jew, a self-hating Jew, and though his particular reasons were wrong, the older I get the more willing I am to admit that he was basically right.
Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Fragments is about eighty pages long. His Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments is about six hundred pages long. He thought this was pretty funny and so do I.
I spent the first week of lockdown reviewing a new Kierkegaard biography for Bookforum. They asked for 1,600 words, I wrote 6,000, and turned in 2,200 (which they graciously accepted). The other 4,000 or so words weren’t really about the book or the philosopher, they were just all this other stuff I had cluttering up my mind. Pages and pages of fragments, loose ends, stray quotes, fits and starts. Whatever clamored for attention, for release. Some of it seemed redeemable, worth recuperating for future use. Was it? Those gleanings, mashed up and triple-distilled like vodka, are what you’re reading now.
In Stages on Life’s Way, the character Quidam presents this parable of a pilgrim:
If a pilgrim who had wandered for ten years, taking two steps forward and one step backwards, if now he were to see the Holy City in the distance and he was [finally] told that this was not the Holy City—oh, well, he would walk farther—but if he was told, “This is the Holy City, but your way of progressing is entirely wrong, you must wean yourself from this way of walking if you would be well-pleasing to heaven!” He who for ten years had walked thus with the utmost exertion!
I’ve never read Stages on Life’s Way and I don’t suppose I will. I know this story from a little anthology I have, Parables of Kierkegaard, published by the Princeton University Press in 1978, the same year that Terry Allen put out Lubbock (on everything) and Barthes kept his mourning diary. I discovered this book on a back shelf in a small used bookstore in the Berkshires many years ago, when I was on a self-imposed writing retreat with a friend of mine whose family has a place out there. My friend and I both started novels on that retreat. Mine failed, but his will be out this summer, around the same time as my memoir of the death of my father, who was at that time still very much alive, though I was (I didn’t know it yet) already preparing for his death, indeed already grieving him. He had attempted suicide a year earlier, and despite surviving it had given himself to a grief—a melancholia, to use the term preferred by Kierkegaard and later by Freud—from which he would never truly return.
Freud rarely sounds more like Kierkegaard than in “Mourning and Melancholia.” He defines mourning as a reaction to loss. One mourns a loved one, typically, but one can also mourn, a place, or a status, such as one’s liberty. Freud notes that “although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude of life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition . . . We rely on its being overcome after a certain lapse of time, and we look upon any interference with it as useless or even harmful.”
Melancholia (what modern medicine calls depression, and attributes to chemical imbalance; what religion calls despair, and attributes to apartness from God) is similar in most ways to mourning, save that its origin is often obscured from view (to outside observers, certainly, but sometimes to the melancholic himself) and in that it does not end. Too, the melancholic suffers “a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings. . . . Feelings of shame in front of other people…are lacking in the melancholic, or at least they are not prominent in him. One might emphasize the presence in him of an almost opposite trait of insistent communicativeness which finds satisfaction in self-exposure.”
When you pack all your own food and only stop for gas and the weather is good, and when there’s no traffic whatsoever on the highways, you can make it from Portland to Missoula in just under eight hours without even speeding too much. I ate a cold dinner in my apartment, packed until midnight, slept until 6, loaded the car and made garbage runs all morning. One of my grad students came over with his fiance to help me move some furniture. We did the best we could with the social distancing, but then again we were moving fucking furniture. I gave them the TV I’d bought for the apartment a few months back, called it an early wedding gift. Thanked them profusely. Told them to be safe. By 1 o’clock—or, roughly, sixteen hours after I got there—I was back on the road out of Missoula, heading home.
I listened to music and podcasts. I called my sister; I called my friend Anika. My wife called me every hour or so to check in. I missed my dad. He was always the guy to call on a long drive—time was the one thing he had heaps of, sitting home depressed all day, and he loved to give it away to whoever wanted it. He was perhaps the greatest talker—but also listener—I have ever known.
When I first met Anika she was an undergrad, a freshman in my creative writing workshop. One of her classmates, this kid Eli who was a couple of years ahead of her, overdosed and died shortly after he finished school, and my grieving for him got kind of tangled up with my grieving for my dad.
When Eli died, back in 2016, there were all these Facebook tributes to him. One that I saw was from a high school kid; he’d been her counselor at summer camp or something. She made a video of herself singing “Angel from Montgomery” for him, and at the time I’d thought she just picked it because it was a sweet sad song she knew how to play. Kind of like how shortly after my Dad died, my friend (the one who finished his novel) recorded a video of himself and his wife playing “Ramble on Rose” for me. It was just this sweet, true thing they did.
But something about that girl’s version of the Prine song hit me hard and I started listening to every version of the song I could find after that, and then other John Prine songs, too. I finally joined Spotify just to dig around in his back catalogue.
Anyway when Prine died Anika sent me a recording she had of Eli singing “Angel from Montgomery.” It hadn’t occurred to me that he’d have known that song, or cared about it, much less that the kid in the Facebook video had chosen it because he’d taught it to her, if in fact that’s what happened, which is what I believe, though I have no way of knowing for sure.
When I started writing this I’d intended to say more about Terry Allen. But I can tell you that after I got home I mapped out the route that he’d have taken to go to the towns he mentions in that first verse of “Amarillo Highway.” I figured out that Plainview, Idalou, and New Deal are all within about 50 miles of each other, and none of them are even within an hour of Amarillo. They’re all suburbs of Lubbock, more or less.
Last fall, before the virus, before Montana, I observed the Jewish high holiday services for the first time in probably twenty years. I found a synagogue where you didn’t need to be a member. I wore a jacket but not a suit, took a talis and prayerbook from their respective piles (I’d brought my own yarmulke, at least) and found a seat near the back of the vast ballroom the synagogue was using as a temporary sanctuary. I’d come to the service for a lot of reasons, some of which I knew and others I didn’t, but I knew I wanted to say Kaddish for my father, which I had not done since he’d died. My Hebrew was phonetic, halting, hardly worthy of the catharsis I gained from the gesture, the tears I shed. But at least I did it. There was that.
I thought about all this in my rental car, at the cruising speed of mourning through Eastern Washington, where the reception is so bad I’d have lost Dad even if I’d had him on the line. I thought of my wife waiting at home for me; of the upcoming, soon-to-be-canceled trip to Florida for my grandfather’s 95th birthday; of the hundreds of Jews, strangers to me and me to them, who had welcomed me into their presence, into their community, so that I could have a place to lay my sorrow down, forge a peace with my past and mourn a man who none of them ever knew.
To say Kaddish for my father was something only I could do, but which could not be done alone.
I wondered when I would next be able to be part of such a gathering like the high holiday services. All those bodies in fellowship, finding comfort from proximity, so far then from the fear with which we all now live. The sun dipped behind a hill. I crossed into Oregon. Mere hours after I made it home, the governor issued the order to shelter in place.