Imitating Art: Between the Method and the Madness

“Why do you wear black all the time?” Medvedenko asks.

“I’m in mourning for my life, I’m unhappy,” replies Masha.

These familiar lines that open “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov may feel a little stiff and melodramatic out of context, but there is truth in them. This classic nineteenth century drama set on a Russian country estate explores universal themes that transcend time and place, such as love, fame and regret. So, the fact I resonate with Masha’s malaise is not surprising. I have always adored Chekhov. I remember recreating many iconic moments during my thespian days at Northwestern—cavorting through waist-high snow in the bitter sub-zero cold.

“This is just so Chekhovian!” we’d announce between the method and the madness.

It’s been decades since then, but the poignant words possess a different kind of relevance today. Mourning is draining. And most days, I am merely surviving. That said, I know that mere survival is not sustainable. It’s not living, but I think I’ve lived there most of my life. Gratefully, there have been countless glimmers of joy and grace along the way, but I think it’s time to recalibrate—to find new and durable meaning, since the worst of all nightmares has happened.

Is that what my grief is trying to tell me?

When I ask grief that question outright, the short answer is this: “Well, Elaine, this totally sucks, and you are completely screwed.” However, if I sit with it a bit and get curious, I discover some nuances and layers. Though the pain of losing my brilliant and complicated 26-year-old son Elliot Everett Wright far exceeds all other losses in my life combined,  I find it also acts as a kind of an accelerant, like a flammable substance CSI might detect in the ashes after a horrific fire. Grief is a ubiquitous, unstable chemical compound that can ignite seemingly innocuous psychological debris in a heartbeat. The spontaneous combustion of new griefs inflaming ancient wounds makes carrying the most unbearable of all losses even more painful.

And while we are pondering incendiary substances, I am reminded of the potent odor of turpentine spirits that would hang in the air and seep into every surface of our suburban house growing up. My mother, Ann Cushing Gantz, a passionate artist who was profoundly frustrated by the fickle art world, liked to repurpose B&M Baked Bean jars to soak her paint-caked brushes. The small, amber-brown containers covered every table, every shelf and ledge in her cluttered studio over the garage—messy and mesmerizing, like an overgrown garden of potted pigment. I can’t think of my mother without catching a whiff of that bittersweet aroma—stringent at times, but strangely appealing. Anything can trigger a grief pang, even years later. And every loss is its own.

Like putting out fire with gasoline, my efforts to quell grief’s urgency simply don’t work very well. And it’s hard to separate it from its grave context. At first, I thought Elliot’s loss had its own private room in my broken heart, but I think compartmentalizing it increases the internal friction. I wish I could find a way to disengage it from the rest of the root system. I don’t want to go under like someone hanging on to a bag of rocks in the middle of a pit of quicksand. 

My grief is shouting at me—but so is everything else. All the experts say I need to feel the ache of this unimaginable loss to find a way to carry it, along with the rest of the baggage I seem to have brought to this place of fresh awareness. I will never reverse the agony of losing my precious Elliot and the relationship we might have had, but one day, I may be able to soften the sharpness of his absence—if I create a space for forgiveness and empathy for myself and the other players in my drama.

“Forgive to live,” Grief says. “But never forget.”

 I guess I’m just not sure what to do next.  

“At this rate, it may combust into a blaze you  cannot extinguish,” Grief warns.

It’s an inside job, as I say so often—getting grounded in the now and establishing healthy techniques to soothe my fractured nervous system. I am no longer that frightened little girl who grew up in an atmosphere of confusion, resentment and secrets. So I need to stop trying so hard to fix things that aren’t mine to fix. It’s all bigger than I can ever imagine—a mystery beyond naming. That is where I need to live.

So now, I’m remembering a different Masha from another Chekhov play:

This Masha says, “I’ll go. . . . I’ve got the blues today, I’m feeling glum, so don’t you mind what I say [laughing through her tears]. We’ll talk some other time . . .

Perhaps, I’ll adopt the countenance of  this Masha—from Act I of “The Three Sisters.” Laughing through her tears. Acknowledging the hurt but finding a way to laugh. She might be on to something. Recently, I read an article recently in The Atlantic that said the expression of seemingly incongruent emotions can actually help moderate intense feelings—tears of joy, smiles of sadness, etc.

“Emotional homeostasis is important for people so they can be in control of their cognitive, social, and psychological functions,” asserts Yale University psychologist Oriana Aragón. “If you get into a very high or very low emotion that you’re almost to the point of being overwhelmed, you become incapacitated so you can’t function well,” 

Well, Masha, for now, I’m going with that . . . laughing through my tears, and we’ll talk some other time, my dear.