Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Anaya. Old Men. Death, Dying, Sorrow.

Michael Sedano

After my wife's diagnosis of dementia of the Alzheimer's type I sent myself into a spiral of shock, sorrow, suffering, endurance and all-around general aporia. It didn't help I was disabled from both shoulders and I was totally unreliable in event she fell. And she fell a lot.

She went to live in a locked door memory care unit, then had surgery for an infected leg. Five weeks in a superb skilled nursing facility and Barbara regained alertness and energy. She walked steadily and confidently. I healed and have strength in my arms again. I brought her home.

Nothing's going to change. Alzheimer's is a "progressive" disease. Aporia is worse than mere depression. It's helplessness mixed with keen awareness of why, aporia blends sorrow suffering irresolution into one nauseating bundle. It is what it is.

Enduring this mishmash of peccant humors wears you down, aguantando doesn't help, don't just stand there and take it, find places to keep growing.

 Aguantar doesn't work. I remind myself I know that, after painful experience. I remind myself also that pain and misfortune are universal. Reading how others passed into and through profound loss creates time you didn't know you had, when a reader gets lost in contemplating her or his own experience like those reflected through words, realizing "it's not just me."

For myself, early in our diagnosis, I read stuff to fit the mood and our progression, poets like Donne and Hopkins, poems like "Invictus," and "Do not go gentle". Caregivers I know delved deeply into nonfiction, medical and neurological books and resources.

One book I recommend to all, now in the hour of our suffering, or out of interest in literary fulfillment--but you'll need it one day--is Rudolfo Anaya's The Old Man's Love Story. Own your own copy and read it regularly. It's important.

Here's a link to the publisher's direct-sales website. 

Back in 2016, Jesus Treviño and I took a roadtrip to Alburquerque to interview Rudolfo Anaya on his most recent books at the time, including this important contribution to United States letters. We had fun. Anaya had read my review and affirmed my view of it. I had to restrain myself from a Sally Field "he likes it!" moment, but that added to the fun. I excerpt the interview addressing The Old Man's Love Story to conclude today's colum. Here's a link to a Latinopia video from that interview.

To begin today, I resurrect my review from 2015 of the story. La Bloga's first review is Manuel Ramos' review of The Old Man's Love Story in the May 17, 2013 La Bloga-Friday (link)

From La Bloga-Tuesday, February 10, 2015 (link)
Rudolfo Anaya. The Old Man's Love Story. Norman: U Oklahoma Press, 2013.
ISBN: 0806146486
Michael Sedano

Everyone dies. My grandmother died. My mother died. I died. In Rudolfo Anaya’s The Old Man’s Love Story, the old man’s wife has died. How do you go on after death? What of your own? Where do dead souls go?

The widower struggles with grief, memory, and life after death. This is Anaya’s own story--he pulls no punches--but elects to tell this deeply personal story from the safe distance enabled by a third person narrator.

The third person voice allows the mourning man to step outside himself to address an audience, organize the events and relate what happened to a character called “the old man” as he goes about resolving the consequences of life and death.

In this voice, Anaya crafts a barely-controlled narrative of his own roiling emotions, enriches the text with literary flourishes, allusions, motifs, and keen detail, ultimately presenting a meaningful look at death, grief, and living. Beyond its profundity, The Old Man’s Love Story is a scream of pain you need to hear.

It’s not a fun read. Some readers won’t be ready for The Old Man’s Love Story, especially younger people who see themselves invincible. Nor will those with a low tolerance for cultura “get” it. The book deals with issues those people haven’t dealt with, they have no skin in the game. So it goes.

Near death experience patients like me, readers in serious infirmity, and generally, gente aware of cucui and other spirits are ready for The Old Man’s Love Story. It won’t haunt you but starts a conversation that’s probably overdue. Carpe diem. The old man is not afraid of dying but frustrated at everything he’s going to miss.

The old man has spirits in his life and many moments of communion. New Mexico cultura informs the old man’s spiritual and metaphoric view with cloud formations, water, land, soul, various people’s gods. He views his own memory as thrusts from a hellenistic muse whom the old man names Memoria.

The old man's wife speaks to him, offers comfort, and urges him to go on living. He cannot summon her but with a sense of normalcy accepts her presence whenever she appears. “Magic realism” outsiders might term such moments in the narrative. For the old man, and Anaya, conversations with the wife are the most normal things a grieving man does.

Grief comes with memory. Random events and artifacts trigger memories of courtship, travels, life together, her personality, having sex. Each memory fills the old man with pain at her absence magnified by his understanding of the finality of this emptiness. Because grief and memory intertwine but are not the same, the widower finds himself unable to unravel the tangle. He cannot control memory and his grief is inconsolable.

As the old man’s suffering persists unabated, a reader begins to sense thoughts of suicide in the old man’s struggle, notes of surrender that would leave writer and reader deadened with depression. No one wants to read that. Yet, a fleeting thought, a word here, a conclusion there, Anaya sets the reader on edge, the outcome for the old man in no way assured.

As the book begins, with the old man’s bereavement finding its first expression, it comes with a sense of excitement for the dead wife’s next self:

Her journey into the world of spirits was a new adventure, but damn! He knew nothing of that world! He could only imagine it! Like imagining heaven. He worried. Was she okay? What if she lost the way? But she loved adventure. It was part of her nature. Now she had entered a country of spirits, from which no one returned.

Her spirit had lingered a while. Shortly after she died he had seen her walking down the hollyhock path. Dressed in a flowing Mexican skirt, the bright colors she loved, and a white blouse, stepping as lightly as an angel. She had turned and looked at him. 43

But the old man struggles with being separated. His wife’s disappearance from his garden, the hollyhock path, their time, has made his life chaotic, him irrational. At one manic point he surrounds himself with photographs, lies on the floor a shaman willing her back from death, Mictlán, the other side, wherever, just come back. Therapy doesn’t help.

He seeks refuge in reasoning and science. The old man learns about brain chemistry and the brain’s engrams, the loci of memory. He is not consoled that surgery or time will erase memories. Once the memories are gone, she is gone. The old man desperately needs the life memory sparks in him, memories don’t hurt all the time. He persists until he can answer ill-understood questions.

He questioned his own concept of the spirit world.
“It’s not out there,” he whispered. “It’s in me. The world of spirits is my memory—I am the world of spirits!”
Why was he surprised? He had searched for the meaning of life and death, the knowledge that was the bedrock of so many cultures, the truths written in esoteric gospels, a faith held in the human heart since the beginning of time.
He had known this all along. One of his characters, an old woman on her deathbed, had told a child, “I will live as long as you remember me. I live in your memory.” 130

Anaya arrives at this consolation for the old man via a stream-of-consciousness narrative that spills freely out of the writer. The loose style that flows from idea to idea looking for a logical connection can pose a challenge to inattentive readers. This is the way the man’s mind works, how a writer thinks. It’s best to pay attention.

The constrained rambling style of The Old Man’s Love Story stands in tribute to Anaya’s late wife, who was the writer’s editor. The writer is allowed free rein on this manuscript. Anaya seems to be telling his readers, this style is appropriate to this occasion so she’s letting me slide on some of my excesses and more abstract ruminations.

Students of Chicana Chicano Literature will find The Old Man’s Love Story illuminating for its insights into elements of the writer’s life and career. Readers curious about Sonny Baca’s heightened spirituality across the four novels of that series see its origins in the author’s lifelong relationship with spirits and spiritual practice. Anaya accepts that La Llorona frightened him as a boy, perhaps in the guise of grasping ramas in the bosque, but that was La Llorona pulling his hair in the darkness.

Writers will note Anaya’s sense that his characters spring sui generis from their own dimension. Just as spirits are, characters are.

And it’s true, that was his background but the more he wrote the more he felt the pull of the spirit world. The voice of the story was not completely his. He was moved to write the tragedies and comedies of those characters who came to visit him. 54

It’s that sense of spirits and literary characters that lets the grief-stricken mind lose itself in beauties of a garden path before a moment later seeing his dead wife pulling weeds. He’s comforted by their conversations, her advice about getting a girlfriend, helping him close doors and open others in efforts to define the old man’s loneliness and depression, and find a way onward.

Which he does. That is not a spoiler but a final reason to read The Old Man’s Love Story. The last handful of pages, when the issues have reached what resolution exists for one man, sparkle with vision. The old man finds his respite not in a particular spirit but the spirit of life itself, and with that final rainbow along the hollyhock path the old man understands.

His ancestors had come and stayed to raise crops in the land of the pueblos. We worked hard, the old ones said. Our backs broke and our hands were stained with blood. But one afternoon lived beneath this sky provides enough beauty to fill our souls for another day’s toil. The earth provided, the sky rewarded. 168

Order The Old Man’s Love Story from your independent bookseller or via the publisher's website.

NDE Addendum. Anaya's speculation about whether, and what the other side is like are right on. The other side is there. I saw it last July during emergency surgery. I returned with the ancestor's message on my lips, struggling to share it. "Sage" they said without speaking. "Burn sage" I finally said when I found voice. The old man's conversations with his wife don't surprise me but I envy them. Souls cross back and forth for important reasons. In early January I was certain an upcoming surgery--a consequence of July's--would kill me again, this time for sure. In December I was saying good-bye to people, cooking last meals, doing uncharacteristic things, walking on eggshells. One morning I smelled my dad's smell in bed next to me, felt him holding my hand--my dad never held my hand tenderly or otherwise--and in the instant felt assured I would live because he told me, again without speaking. A few days later I went through the operation easily and near painlessly.

Excerpted from La Bloga-Tuesday August 9, 2016 (link)
Interview with Rudolfo Anaya: The Old Man’s Love Story and The Sorrows of Young Alfonso.
Michael Sedano, with Jesus Salvador Treviño

Jesús Treviño and I arrived at Rudolfo Anaya’s house mid-afternoon and spent several delightful hours videotaping (link) while we chatted about Rudy’s four most recent publications, Poems From the Rio Grande, Randy Lopez Goes Home, The Old Man’s Love Story, and The Sorrows of Young Alfonso. . . . 
This interview transcript picks up in mid-conversation. We had been discussing the connectedness between three novels, poetry, and how themes, images, and ideas recur and parallel one another in Anaya’s career and especially these most recent publications. As the Latinopia video illustrates, Anaya reflects on the soul, creativity, and his body of work.

•mvs: The themes are coming back, like you say, it’s a cycle. As a preamble, a couple questions on The Old Man’s Love Story. Some people say writing is a form of therapy. Was The Old Man’s Love Story a therapy for you?

•RA: Was The Old Man’s Love Story therapeutic for me? Absolutely. The Old Man’s Love Story is about grief, and my wife had just died, I was going through grief. A woman came here, you know they have grief counselors. She gave me pamphlets, that didn’t do it for me. Some people said get into a group that is talking about grief. I thought, no my grief is too personal. I don’t want to talk about it, to other people. And so I started writing, using the tool I have used all my life, writing. What I know best was the way to express my grief, was to write about it, was to write these passages that the old man goes through. Yeah, that’s therapy.

•mvs:The old man wondered before his wife died, what she saw. He’s in a part where he’s talking about soul and how imagination is pure, like the soul is pure. Have you found out what the old man’s wife was seeing before she died, was it soul?

•RA: We’ve been discussing the idea of soul, the idea of essence. And I have written many places, “The creative imagination is the soul.” My and yours and everybody’s imagination that creates is soul. Soul creates. And on a personal level, in The Old Man’s Love Story, I would say that my wife was a very creative person. She was very intelligent very loving. She was into reading esoteric stuff that was very interesting, building up her soul. That’s what we all do, we build soul. We build soul. Like a brick at a time. Absolutely, she was building, she still is.

•mvs: The soul is eternal. In the hollyhock garden the old man spoke with her soul in the hollyhock garden. He was looking for it. Can one produce that communion by looking for it, or does it simply appear because it appears?

•RA: For me the communion with my wife is always there. It’s not that I ask for it, it’s just there. The scene in the garden, the hollyhock garden, I can take you to the back yard where I have a little ramada with grape vines and a nice swing. And I’m sitting there, and my wife appeared. And she started walking down. In June I have beautiful hollyhocks out there, beautiful; the whole garden is full of color. And she started walking down the hollyhock path and that's when she turned and told me she was going. So she knew all along. We know all along. It’s not a secret. Some of us don’t pay attention to our soul, to our creative imagination.

What did Wordsworth say, “this world is too much with us, late and soon getting and spending, little we know that is ours.” Getting and spending, and not paying attention to that which is ours, the soul. And it’s always there. It’s like I am sharing something with you very personal. That my wife is always with me. She is in this room, she’s in the photographs, she’s in the chair that she loved to sit in to read. On and on, it doesn’t go away.

And it gets better when I’m gone and I go to her. Then we’re gonna take a trip. The first trip we’re gonna do is take us to Mazatlán. We loved the beach in Mazatlán. We loved the people. We had such good time. We already made a deal, the moment I’m gone like that, vamonos, we’re gonna fly to Mazatlán.

•mvs: It’ll be a good trip.
•RA: Oh man, la playa de Mazatlán, the gente. Beautiful.

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