Friday, August 3, 2012

Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats

Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.
Attributed to Philo

In Roger Rosenblatt's first memoir, Making Toast (2010), following the death of his daughter at age 38, he is busy with the mundane tasks of day to day living  He and his wife, Ginny, have moved into Amy's home in Bethesda, Maryland to help their son-in-law care for their three grandchildren--all under seven years of age.  In the summer, he will take the extended family to their summer home in Quogue, New York. He has done this since his own children were toddlers.

Kayak Morning, written two and a half years after the publication of Making Toast, is a meditation on loss.  In it, we find Rosenblatt gliding aimlessly in his kayak over the course of seven and a half hours. The kayak becomes a metaphor for Rosenblatt's current life, contained within "parentheses." It is not a stable boat, and righting it should it begin to capsize requires moving toward the water, much as turning into a skid when driving on ice. 

...A kayak would not be a kayak if it had an anchor because the kayak wants you to be responsible for its security, its stability.  An anchor can hold a ketch to a stop.  A kayak can never stop, unless you employ a technique with your paddle, and even then it's up to you.  Everything about a kayak is up to you.  The point of the craft is that there is nothing beneath it but water.  The creek is the anchor.  You are the anchor.  Unreliable creek.  Unreliable you. (p. 32)

Any death of a loved one, especially a child, underscores one's lack of control and tests one's faith.  Rosenblatt talks about his rage against God, his depression, his irritability, his submission  to Grave's Disease (possibly caused by stress).  But he also talks about Annie Dillard and her love of creeks.  He quotes great poets and philosophers as his kayak meanders through the water.  He speaks of Emerson, who also lost a child, but who dealt with it very differently.  "Grief makes us more of what we already are," Rosenblatt writes.  And Emerson was, above all, a Transcendentalist, devoted to the life of the mind and not the emotions.

Rosenblatt is very in touch with his emotions and attributes human qualities to the wildlife around him.  He compares the fearless and nocturnal great horned owl to the one he has seen caged in the Quogue Wildlife Refuge.  The one in in the cage, to whom white mice are delivered like room service--does he still feel like a killer?  Or is his life so changed that he no longer thinks of himself as he once was--no matter how many people, not to mention the sign on his cage, assure him that he is indeed the great horned owl. (p. 52)  Like the owl, the author has been irrevocably injured, and knows he is not the same person he was prior to Amy's death. Is the owl, too, aware of its mortality and diminished position?

Yet, despite his grief, Roger Rosenblatt has written a life affirming book. We know he deeply cherishes his wife of fifty years and the rich life the two have shared since his graduate studies in Ireland.  He also talks about his earlier journalism, when he covered stories in worn-torn areas around the world.  I remember the beautiful photo-essays he did for The Newshour on PBS--meaningful stories that captured the humanity in his subjects while underscoring his own empathy and gift for words.

Kayak Morning is a testament to life, to nature, and to the healing powers of writing.

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