The Solace Of Ousia (And Of Reading)
Every morning I spend a little time reading before I begin the real work of the day, which is writing. I choose the books I read in this time slot for inspirational value, either spiritual or psychological or artistic. This morning I finished The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, by Madeleine L’Engle, which is the second of the “Crosswicks Journal” series, was chosen for a mixture of the three, and it does not disappoint.
L’Engle is best known for her marvelous children’s books (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, etc.), but these memoirs are beautifully written and thought-provoking. Here, she writes about the summer during which her mother did the hard work (for all concerned) of dying, at the family vacation home of Crosswicks, a Connecticut farmhouse.
Because my own mother, 92 years old at the time of this writing, is involved in her own such struggle and has been for the past two years, I read this with much interest, looking for guidance on how to cope with my own conflicted feelings. While I perhaps did not exactly find guidance in a practical sense – my mother is in a nursing home in another country, while L’Engle was able to provide round-the-clock care for her mother in a family setting – I did find I was not alone in the feelings I have, of (to name a few) despair, shame, frustration, grief, resentment and pity.
One of the great gifts of readings is to find one is not alone during difficult times.
And because L’Engle always found, as I do, that her work as a writer was inextricably linked to her life, there is much wisdom about writing. For example, she talks (p. 140-141) about early stories she wrote which revealed more about the truth of her parents’ lives together than she intended:
All I knew was that I thought they were good stories, and I showed them to Mother for appreciation.
I was appalled when she cried. My reserved mother seldom permitted herself the indulgence of showing emotion, and I had made her cry. I had no idea how close the stories had hit home. I did not know that in the stories I knew more than I knew.
She knew more than she knew. If find this wonderful and so true. Often, I discover what’s going on in my mind, and in my perception of the world, only through reading over what I have earlier written.
And perhaps I should be grateful my mother refused to read anything I’ve written. Snort.
But beyond the identification, both as the daughter of a disappearing-mother and as a writer, I was also fascinated, and found solace in, her discussions of ousia – the essence of being, the true substance of a person or thing. When her mother, in the throes of dementia, behaves hurtfully and out of character she says:
Last night she started to throw a fork at Bion; fortunately her hand picked up her napkin instead. She makes wild accusations. “How can anybody be so cruel to anybody? My own daughter, how can anybody be so cruel?”
I am foolish enough to be hurt, even though I know that the ousia of my mother could never say such a thing, that she has always loved me and always will. . . she is no longer able to govern what is happening in her brain. There are only the rarest, briefest flashes of a person in this huddled, frightened, frightening, ancient woman.
My mother has suffered from mental illness her whole life (and has come at me more than once with a variety of cutlery), and now suffers even more from vascular dementia. The idea of ousia, an irreducible essence of innocence and love that exists untouched by either disease, is a great comfort and allows me to see the hand of The Ineffable (which is what I choose to call whatever the force in the universe greater than little old me) where from time to time I see only cruelty and a terrible grasping selfishness – in myself as well as my mother.
So, here’s to early morning reading and the comfort of friends we find between the pages of good books.
Lauren, a beautifully written and moving essay. It’s so interesting that you say at times you get insight about what you knew but hand’t realized it by reading over what you had earlier written. Fascinating and thought-provoking for all of us. Keep reading and certainly, please keep writing!
Thanks, Jennifer. I appreciate the comment!
Dealing with family members who are in the last stages of their lives brings out many emotions, for them and us! I think you’ve touched on some themes that certainly strike a chord for me. As always, I appreciate your own remarkably clear and impactful way with words.
Thanks so much, Angela. It’s a rough one, isn’t it? We hope for gentleness and grace.
Lauren, I recall you writing about how you and other writer’s mine your day-to-day lives and experieinces in what you put on the page. So as you say above for both L’Engle and yourself, this must be what you mean as both of your work as writers seem to be inextricably linked to your lives. I and other readers appreciate your ability to capture these raw emotions so effecively.
While the end product is powerful, don’t you feel it difficult to peel back the onion when dealing with such personal issues?
Thanks for you comment, Lucky. Sometimes it is a bit uncomfortable to peel back the onion, as you put it, and sometimes the process is downright painful, but it is far more painful not to. Writing is what relieves the pain, while the process itself can be, ahem, difficult. This is the great artistic paradox. Suffice it to say I’m much healthier emotionally when writing than not (a fact my Best Beloved will readily attest).
Hello Lauren. It has been a while since I have been able to catch up with your blog, and once again, I am astounded by the depth of your perception and your honesty. My mother too, refuses to read my writing. We have so many parallels in our lives, it is amazing. I agree that writing keeps us sane. It has always been my refuge and my salvation.
I read your other message on Goodreads. I wlll miss your posts there as I keep a running list of your recommendations and plan to read them! However, I will look for you on the other sites you recommended.
Take care and all the best.
Hi Lise — well, if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother, yes? Snort. Thanks for commenting. It’s good to see you here again. And I do hope I’ll see you on some of the other book sites. I’ll miss Goodreads, too, but I have to do what I think is right.
Keep writing! L.