Last week I reviewed essayist and environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore's new book, Wild Comfort, the Solace of Nature for Story Circle Book Reviews and excerpted the review on this blog. Kathy had graciously agreed to an email interview, so I sent her some questions about the book and her work. She responded promptly–and with such beauty and insight about the process of exploring difficult and painful stuff like grief, and the power of that writing on our lives–that I'm including a few of her replies here. (Read the full interview on Story Circle Book Reviews.)
SJT: Wild Comfort opens with these lines: "This is a book about the comfort and reassurance of wet, wild places. … I am trying to understand this, the power of water, air, earth, and time to bring gladness gradually from grief and to restore meaning to lives that seem empty or unmoored." This sounds like writing as thinking. Did you set out to write the book as a way to work through the grief of that autumn of losses when three friends and your father-in-law died?
KDM: I had set out to write a book about happiness. I planned a sort of research project, to keep careful notes about those moments when I was fully happy and then to study the collected moments to see what I could learn. But part way through that year, events overtook me–death after death of people I really cared about. What had begun as a study of happiness became a study in sorrow and courage.
SJT: The book is divided into three sections, "Gladness," "Solace," and "Courage." Did the essays come to you in that order, or did you write them and then sort through to see where they belonged?
KDM: I wrote the gladness essays first, but the solace and courage essays came willy-nilly as I cast about for some way–any way–to tap into the reassurance and the steadfastness of the natural world. I thought a lot about how to arrange the essays then. I thought I had found a progression of ideas, almost like a different view of the five stages of grief. So the book moves from gladness to sorrow, as life often does, and climbs through what might be prayer or a kind of stillness, to restored meaning and hope, to peace, maybe even to celebration and the courage to be glad again. But life isn’t as neat and clean as all that, as everyone knows, and I didn’t want to pretend it is. So I decided on just those three sections, coming at last to courage, which is where we must live.
SJT: In the essay, "Suddenly There Was With the Angel," you write, "I'm thinking it's a paltry sense of wonder that requires something new every day." You continue, "To be worthy of the astonishing world, a sense of wonder will be a way of life, in every place and time, no matter how familiar: to listen in the dark of every night, to praise the mystery of every returning day, to be astonished again and again, to be grateful with an intensity that cannot be distinguished from joy." In your admittedly complicated life, how do you maintain that daily sense of wonder, that ability to praise the mystery of every returning day?
KDM: This is very, very hard. You have raised the question that haunts me and sometimes wakes me, crying. I know you feel this too. Everyone must. But do you remember the line from the Mary Oliver poem that begins, “My work is loving the world”? Later in the poem, she describes her work as “. . . mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” What strikes me as deeply important is how closely learning to be astonished follows on the heels of standing still. Rivers teach us this too. When rivers are rushing around a rock, they lose all color and become as pale as dead fish. It’s only when rivers stop in an eddy or behind a rock that they fill with their blue and green and their rainbows. I don’t want to be a dead fish; I think I know what that feels like for a writer. So I am trying to stand still: at the door when I pick up the newspaper, when I enter my office, while my computer charges up (this is pitiful), when I walk to campus. But it’s true that whenever I stop and stand still, then the mystery and beauty of the world can find me in that quiet space.
SJT: What are your hopes for Wild Comfort?
KDM: I hope that my book helps people. I hope it's a book that people bring to their friends who are struggling for some reason, the way they might bring a casserole. I hope the book passes from father to friend, from sister to mother, maybe between strangers in an airport, or pauses for a week on a bedside table or a boulder by a stream, shows up on a doorstep with a pile of wildflowers, goes camping in the rain and desert, until–sooty from the campfire, brittle from the sun, underlined into a map–the pages all fall out. That's a good life for a book.
News from the wild and not comfortable land of brain cancer: Richard's blood platelet levels were "a beat" too low last Tuesday for his scheduled start on his fourth course of Temodar, his brain cancer chemo drug. That's an indication that his bone marrow–and his immune system–hadn't yet recovered from the last dose. So he's on orders to wait a week, then give another four vials of blood for testing. If his platelet levels are back up, he'll start his Temodar next week.
What does that mean for us? Since we plan our months around his five days of chemo and the four or so days it takes him to recover from the dose, it means we've put off some things we had planned to do, including a trip to Arkansas to visit his 93-year-old mom and the rest of his family. The delay is also a reminder that right now our lives revolve around his brain cancer treatment, and "planning" is a fiction we participate in to retain the illusion of control. The truth is, life is never in our control. Learning patience–and grace–in the face of whatever life brings is just one of the lessons of this journey Richard and I never imagined we'd be on.
The good news is that he's feeling good, and has been working on sculpture again. It is a balm to my spirit to look outside and see him using his tripod to lift the huge chunk of native Lyons sandstone in the photo above, a re-purposed historic building stone that he's incorporating into the sculpture that will someday hold our mailbox. That sculpture is my birthday present–well, okay, it's my present from last year's birthday. But who's counting? Not me. How lucky I can possibly be to have landed alongside this man who sees meaning and connection–terraphilia–in the rocks he loves and works with.
It would seem I am very lucky, indeed.