Archives for January 2014

From Surface to Depth, November 2013 Weekend, Part 1

Kerry.JPGThe November 2013 New Directions weekend entitled “Surface to Depth” was organized by Catherine Anderson and Kerry Malawista.  Our guest faculty — writers Howard Norman and Daniel Menaker and analysts Jane Hall and Elizabeth Fritsch* — focused on the use of memories, fantasies, stories, associations and dreams to reach deeper understandings of ourselves and thereby forge deeper connections with others. In her introduction to the weekend, Kerry suggested that both writers and therapists are required to engage in “a deep imagining of the world …through words, a shared language to create new meanings, to make sense of our lives, and to express or translate what we have learned along the way.”

Menaker 1.JPGDaniel Menaker had much to tell us about lessons he has learned along the way. Menaker is a former editor-in-chief of Random House Publishers and fiction editor at the New Yorker. He has published five books including two collections of short stories and has twice won the O. Henry prize. Menaker’s novel The Treatment was made into a film (available on Netflix). He teaches graduate courses on narrative non-fiction at Stony Brook. This is Menaker’s second appearance at New Directions.  His previous presentation was during a weekend organized by Michaele Weissman in 2010, “Imagining a Life.” (Michaele is also organizing the February 2014 weekend “Love and Hate in the Kitchen“.) That weekend was one of my favorites and I was eager to hear Menaker talk again. I was not disappointed.

My Mistake.gifMenaker read to us from his 2013 book, My Mistake. While this memoir includes topics as wide ranging as childhood, his work in the New York publishing world, marriage and parenting, and the loss of loved ones, in his talk with us he focused on parts of the book dealing with the diagnosis and treatment of his lung cancer. 

Today I watched the film I had shot of Menaker’s talk several times. My usual approach to writing these blogs is to go back to the film some weeks later and take copious notes. The problem I had today is that time and again, I would realize that somewhere along the way I had stopped typing. I kept losing myself in Menaker’s words and even more, his affect – the fear and relief, humor and gratitude, exhaustion and iron will — which came through so movingly in his descriptions of interactions with doctors and nurses, technicians, treatments, family and friends.


(Click image to play video)

Part of the charm of Menaker’s talk was that he took obvious pleasure in his writing. But even more, to watch the film was to be swept up by that strange coupling of sadness and hope. It is a poignancy that I recognize as that which makes life wonderful and infuriating and indescribably strange.  It reminded me of Maurice Sendak, in his incredible Fresh Air interview, weeping and laughing as he told Terry Gross,

I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. …There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.

(Click image to play video)

(Click image to play video)

Menaker laughed at himself as he described a wine-fueled YouTube search for songs to be played at his funeral. He moved so quickly from the outrageous image of regaling mourners with the Muppet’s rendition of Danny Boy to his reflections on “the tears of things, the tears of all things”, that it would have been easy to miss the catch in his voice as he considered the world moving on after he is gone, the mourners drawn out of their grief and back into life by “the world with its impossible variegation, the basic miracle of its existence”:

The young Irish dancers in Killarney dance, their arms as rigid as shovel handles.  Secret deals are done involving weapons or office space or crude oil or used cars or drugs.  New lovers, believing they will never have to get up, lie down together. The large Hadron Collider smashes….

“I don’t know why I’m so upset about the Higgs-Boson,” he laughed, as he collected himself to continue.  We laughed with him.

.. smashes the Higgs-Boson into view. Snow drapes its white stoles on the bare limbs of winter.  How can you resist?  The loss is only to the dying, and even they won’t feel it when the dying is done.

Menaker2.JPGWatching the film of Menaker’s talk alongside my husband, who likewise has a life-threatening illness, I understood the loneliness of that statement. My husband’s illness and its possible outcome feels like a thousand deaths to me, but it is impossible to escape the truth that we each die alone. At the same time, Menaker’s ability to move between the distance and relief provided by humor and the vulnerability of fear and grief, mean that he cannot help but evoke strong feelings of connection from his audience.

Charles Bukowski wrote, “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” I do not look forward to the many life-changing challenges of the coming years as my husband’s health becomes an ever more dominating part of our lives, but I take heart from Daniel Menaker’s testimony that laughter and love, gratitude and grief, can go hand-in-hand.


*Look for more blogs about this weekend’s guest faculty presentations in coming months.

Skip to toolbar