In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil (The Brazilian News) not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil. As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds incomparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”
What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.” As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.” It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.
More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less—I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with three novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe. Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”
Nonetheless, the urge to narrate persists. Along with Lispector, I am cursed with it–for better or worse. So, for a few lazy weeks of summer, I will, as I have for a few years now, try my hand at the form.
This much I know about love: scattering my Mother’s remains in the lonely Pacific at dawn, I knelt, felt the sand on the rocks by the shore grind into my knees, bent over close enough to let the water splash my face, and gently shook the bag to release her to the sea, tiny bits of bone, still solid, dropping and fine particles of ash sticking to my hands until I rinsed them, rubbing the last traces of her into the ocean.
My mother was disabled by polio at a young age not long after giving birth to my older brother. The story goes that she heard him calling when he was a small boy and could not get up. She fought as hard as she could, but her legs wouldn’t work.
Her body failed her, and she never forgave it. At base, there was always a part of her that refused to accept herself, forgive herself for her own limitations, forgive us for not being able to save her. We could never seem to make things right. She drove people away and then mourned their absence. This made for a hard love.
It was a love forever married to suffering, like all love in a way, but with its own peculiar taste of perpetual melancholy and regret. It was, in the end, unredeemable.
Despite all this, the most precious thing she gave me was an affinity for nature, a longing for the forest trails and stretches of beach that she couldn’t walk. She liked to look at pictures of places she’d never be able to see with her own eyes—the peak of a distant mountain, an arid desert valley, a bridge over a lonely river. And then she would tell me that all she wanted was to be able to walk again, run again, make her legs work, feel her body moving through the world. Thus, every joy shared was always joined with sadness, sometimes despair, and resentment.
Still, I would show her the pictures.
On that last day with her, as I helped her join the atomic soup of the sea, I thought not of despair but of the words of Clarice Lispector in Aqua Viva, “I am being joyful in this very instant because I refuse to be defeated: so I love. As an answer. Impersonal love, it love, is joy: even the love that doesn’t work out, even the love that ends. And my own death and that of those we love must be joyful, I don’t yet know how, but they must be. That is living: the joy of the it. And to settle for that not as one defeated but in an allegro con brio.”
And so my Mother joined the vast blue sea that she loved, at dawn on a glorious spring morning, moving freely with the current, never ceasing for a moment, always present, part of the glory of everything that is.