When I think of Virginia Woolf, the picture that springs to mind is a woman in a large dress, wading slowly into a river, her pockets laden with stones so that she will be sure never to surface again. The image is always romantic and never fraught with the realities of drowning, gasping for breath, thrashing as your body struggles to reverse the process.
Of course, that does a kind of disservice: Woolf is one of my favorite writers and it seems unfair to think first of the way she killed herself and then of her work—but it also seems so fitting. Water represents cleansing and the cycle of life—ponds and oceans and rivers evaporated into the atmosphere, rained down once again—and the absence of breath. In her work she always ruminates on death and time passing. The first time I read To the Lighthouse I watched all of World War I—a tragic event marked with the loss of thousands of lives—pass in ten pages. And then my understanding of historical events and their effects on us changed irreversibly. Death is rarely about the one dying—especially in narratives. Death is so often just the beginning of the story and the rest of the story belongs to those left in death’s wake.
The pieces collected within this issue celebrate the minute details of life as it happens, and the way in which the large historical moments—like war and death and separation—are often not as potent as those little everyday instances. And they acknowledge that because Death is trapped within this “everyday,” when it is removed from the greater romantic notion and let linger in reality, it is—just like much of our lives—inconvenient. We become selfish in death’s midst. Someone dies and then, we are mourning, we are grieving, our hearts are breaking; and on top of that, there are all the logistical nightmares.
The stories and poems here are not just ruminations on the death and loss of people, but on ways of life, the ebb and flow of coexistence. Many of these pieces are tucked on the edge of seaside communities, where the tide pulls at the earth, eating away at it, changing it, and also returning it to a pristine blank slate over and over again. Nothing new, these pieces tell us, can come into existence without extinguishing something that has been. It’s both obvious and something we seem to forget every time we want something new.
There are birds and fish everywhere in these pages—and even as those images and symbols call to mind Jesus and baptism, there is for the most part a rejection of religion as “something to believe.” These symbols are undeniably carved into our Jungian subconscious; they creep in, haunt us, as we think about death. Which is maybe why that picture of tortured and brilliant Virginia Woolf loading her pockets with stones, is so comforting despite the horror.
As I was writing this note, my ninety-year-old grandmother was dying. She was admitted to hospice and the news didn’t strike me, particularly, as being sad—considering she’d lived a long life and we were expecting it. But when I called her for the first time after the diagnosis, and I asked, habitually, “How are you?” it struck me that she was sitting on the other end of the line, knowing she was going to die in no more than a couple of weeks. I have had my own death scare (cancer) and I know there is a kind of peace that comes with believing you are going to die, but I know too of the fighting spirit that hits you, sometime in the middle of the night after you’ve accepted the peace of the situation. I thought of that, and for the first time I felt sad for her, for the prescience that comes with seeing the tide rise.