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Good Grieving in the Rothko Chapel

October 13, 2010

Yesterday, in our first of three sessions on Annie Lamott’s Traveling Mercies (as part of our Tuesday Lunch Hour Book Study series), we focused on Lamott’s descriptions of grief, particularly her grief over the death of her father when she was 25 years old–grief she never fully experienced until she was nearly 45 years old, while sitting with her boyfriend at the time in the Houston’s stark Rothko Chapel.

Below is a picture of the interior of that chapel followed by excerpts of Lamott’s account of how she managed to finally feel the loss of her father while sitting there, twenty years after his death.

Next Tuesday at noon, we’ll focus on Lamott’s confessional accounts of all her various indiscretions (or, if you like, her sins)–her drinking, her sexual relationships with married men, her parenting mistakes, her difficulty loving those different from her, etc.

It was raining [in Houston], and I began to feel even more subdued and anxious. I can do one or the other with a certain aplomb, but the mixed grill effect is always disconcerting. And I suddenly felt like I was dodging something, something that had a pulse and was gaining. Somehow it was tied to my romance being in trouble, with having failed once again to get my father’s dog suit to fit this man…

Now, there were at least three major areas in which this man and I were totally incompatible. But this was not the point: the point was that the thing inside me seemed to be hurtling itself against the walls of its terrarium, and I was throwing everything I had at it to get it to lie back down…

But just when I was feeling my most wild and unbalanced in Houston, we ended up at the Rothko Chapel. A small ecumenical sanctuary designed by the great abstract painter, Mark Rothko, it is a deeply sacred space. It is preternaturally quiet, like being inside the mind of someone whose eyes are closed while he or she is praying. There are huge Rothko canvases on the walls, purple and wine red so dark as to seem almost black, and what at first seems to be flat dark color soon appears to have images pushing through, like the shroud of Turin. The silence was pristine.

I felt like the thing inside was conspiring to get me to stop—to make me stay in the extreme discomfort. I’ve heard it said that the Holy Spirit very rarely respects one’s comfort zones. My boyfriend sat beside me. I could feel him growing antsy… But this thing was pushing against me, and I almost couldn’t move or breathe. I didn’t break the silence.

It was as if something was going on that somehow had to do with why I was with this man to begin with… I understood that it was going to have to do once again with having tried to get a man to fill the hole that began in childhood and that my dad’s death widened… I closed my eyes. I saw my dad sitting here beside me. He loved silence; he had begun to meditate in his mid-forties…

The man I was with, however, loved music and talking and audible energy of any kind… Silence is tough at first, like an infant is tough. I think it springs from the same place in the universe where space is made, and breath, and appreciation. I felt that the magic in the chapel lulled me into resting in a kind of hammock in that place where silence comes from. I let down my guard, and that turned out to be a mistake, because the thing was very close now and about to catch up with me there in all that stillness.

Right before it did, right before it pounced, I recalled the stillness of my father’s office when I’d first step in every afternoon [after school]… He’d almost always be happy to see me. He could make me feel great. It’s so different having a living father who loves you, even someone complex and imperfect. After your father dies, defeat becomes pretty defeating. When he’s still alive, there are setbacks and heartbreak, but you’re still the apple of someone’s eye.

My boyfriend finally got up. “Are you ready to go?” he whispered, not wanting to break the surface of that silence, and I shook my head. “I’ll meet you in the museum,” he said, and that was the wrong answer. The right answer was “I will sit here at your side forever, I will never leave you.” I nearly screamed, “No! Don’t go!” My chest was filling up with pain like water, and I called out in my head, “Come back, don’t go!” as if he were leaving on a freighter for Greenland or crossing over from coma to death. Come back. Come back. I could hardly breathe as I watched him walk away.

And the thing inside me was upon me finally, a silent and muscular jungle cat. I was almost gasping with dread, and then the thing started pushing out through me, like the images pushing through the Rothko panels. And right then, as brightly as electricity lights up the night sky, I understood that the man I was calling for could never ever come back. Because I understood that the man I was calling for was dead.

It was terrible. Just terrible. It was so stark that I felt as if the woman at the front desk had handed me a phone with one of my brothers on the other end telling me that out of the blue our father had just died. I almost began to keen with grief. How could you even begin to live with this desolation, with no longer having the love of your father?

I started to cry then, and I cried for a long time without making much noise. I cried and cried like a little kid. Then the chapel door opened and I thought it was my lover having intuitively felt my huge need for comfort. But it was a much younger man, who smiled gently and sat down at the far end of the room on a meditation pillow. I wanted to cry out that my father had just died. But I was too stunned. And I worried that he would think I was nuts, because my dad had died in 1979. Twenty years ago…

There in the chapel it felt like a drawstring was finally pulled, drawing together those twenty years of yearning into this one moment. I’d always known that one day it would happen, and I had even wanted it to, in an abstract way… But I was not ready for it to happen when I felt so profoundly alone; two thousand miles from home… I could not have felt less ready to release my father’s body bag to the mortician. But I did do that, in the chapel’s silence.

I handed over my hope and belief that I did not have to have a dead father… But I have to say, I also felt a rivulet of hope inside me… Right now I didn’t feel that I’d ever have that stamina again, but this was because I was grieving: my father had just died. The wind had been all but knocked out of me. Even so, I heard something Sam said once when I fell down hard on roller skates, so hard that tears had sprung to my eyes. He said, “You can’t give up, Mama. You just gotta get right back up on your hind legs and try again.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Michael Adams permalink
    October 13, 2010 6:58 pm

    What a wonderful space! I think the adjacent memorial gardens should have a space like this.

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