Category Archives: grief

Oskar Schell: tiny existentialist and breaker of of my heart. Or, there is no freedom from feeling.


First, a note. I read and wrote about this book in 2007, claimed it as one of my favorites but haven’t read it since.  I’ve been thinking that I want to start rereading all the books I call my favorites this year. Also, as I mentioned in my last post, all of my recent reads are connected by the thread of freedom and I want to spend some time thinking that through.  So.

Nine year old Oskar Schell’s family line includes grandparents who grew up in the same town in Germany and survived the bombing of Dresden during World War Two, but didn’t get married until years later after running into each other in New York City.  Their stories are complex and sorrowful, and their marriage a union of two who completely understand loss, and yet the other’s presence is a constant reminder of their pain.   The grandfather by this time has given up speaking altogether and communicates only though writing.  In an attempt to not be swallowed by the weight of their grief, they literally made rules for how their apartment and their lives would function: “We made safe places in the apartment where you could go and not exist.” 

Interestingly, forty years later, Oskar made rules for his own life to manage his grief over losing his father on September 11th: he finds a key in his father’s things and creates a quest to find what it opens: …until I found it, I didn’t love Dad enough.”  He is seeking both a reason to exist and a closeness with his father.  I originally wrote about the idea of safety when I first read the book–which is ultimately what these characters are all looking for.  The more I thought about it, I realized how fleeting emotional safety actually is–and I think that Oskar somehow knew this .  Though Oskar shares the tendency toward an existential existence with his grandparents, the rules of his journey come with the hope that he will ultimately find catharsis–and that will free him from his current emotional paralysis and take him back to the safety he felt when he was with his father.  Oskar invents when he is upset, often of ways to keep people emotionally safe: 

“I loved having a dad who was smarter than the New York Times, and I loved how my cheek could feel the hairs on his chest through his T-shirt, and how he always smelled like shaving, even at the end of the day. Being with him made my brain quiet. I didn’t have to invent a thing.”

“We need enormous pockets, pockets big enough for our families and our friends, and even the people who aren’t on our lists, people we’ve never met but still want to protect. We need pockets for boroughs and for cities, a pocket that could hold the universe.” 

“In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York is in heavy boots.” 

“[S]o if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!” 


It is incredibly painful to read this happening to a nine year old boy.


 Emotional safety is fleeting–and that is a tragedy of human existence. The last scene of this book (which I won’t tell you because you should really just go read it yourself) pulls my heart in a way that few books can.  And yet, freedom comes from allowing ourselves to hurt–and by that allowance we are not completely swallowed.

Magical Thinking.

I mentioned a few posts ago that my reading life has been a bit full. A colleague of mine mentioned that she was reading and couldn’t put down Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I finished this book within 24 hours at 11:30 pm and proceeded to google Joan Didion, reading and thinking way too late well into the night. An account of her husband’s death and her story of grief and memory, it was the closest, most poignant description of loss I have ever come across. And though I cannot directly relate to her story, she tapped into the underlying inevitability of the human story: that though we are capable of extraordinary love, we must also live through love lost.

One of the most poignant aspects of this book for me was Didion’s intertextuality: “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to literature.” She breathes in all sorts of texts to process, and all I could think about was how frail life is and how we need art and story and memory to hold onto, however impossible it is to hold it in our hands no matter how hard we, I, try.

Life is frail;
feeling slips through my fingers
and pools in the depth of my chest.
I am left grasping for the pages and the images and answers
I cannot hold in my hands.

I have found that the biggest contradiction in my life (which I think I can also find beautiful?) is my belief in Truth next to my need to process through the lens of postmodernism. I connected with Didion not on the subject matter of her memoir, but in the way that through multiple texts and words I am able to attempt to make sense of the world around me: it is not a solitary painting or song or poem or story, but the compilation of each experience…and the fact that it seems near impossible to name any singular emotion with exacting clarity. Life will not ever be interpreted, for me, in one long, linear string of events; there are far too many strings in my web of an existence, each pouring into my understanding in its own way.

When researching for the Ars Poetica project I gave some of my students, I came across these lines by Czeslaw Milosz:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

Sigh.

The last aspect of The Year of Magical Thinking that I want to comment on is the title itself. Didion references throughout the memoir that she kept thinking that John, her husband, would be coming back. The phrase magical thinking is heartbreaking–because as children we truly can believe in it and as adults it seems that it only comes by way of self deception, and loses the hope that is attached. I suppose that this is where my understanding of Truth comes in, though this is not the post or the place in which to fully disclose my beliefs. But. I do believe that there is a place for magical thinking, though it is not directly connected to the reality of this world. And I sometimes think that we need the magic to survive, sometimes.

So maybe I don’t want to be cynical…

I have a confession. I couldn’t make it through the end of “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.” It’s true. The guilt I feel in not finishing a book is horrible. I tell my students that it’s ok if they need to abandon a book every once in a while, but I have a hard time following my own advice. Four of the five other people in my book club have abandoned it as well, which is ample justification. They are much smarter than me. But still. The past week has probably been the worst reading week I’ve had in quite a long time. I am 100 pages behind for our new book club choice, The Inheritance of Loss. Blah.

So my writing today is based on the things that have been going on in my head, not necessarily based on my reading of text, but more of my reading of the world. I promise to follow up with thoughts about the good that came out of “Mysterious Flame” because I do want to still think Umberto Eco a genius. But not right now.

Last Sunday I was distraught because of the apparent lack of love and caring that I saw in books and movies that seemed to realistically portray the heartaches and misunderstandings of life that leave us feeling incredibly alone in a big world. However, I spent that evening and the following two days with my family at the funeral of my mother’s aunt, and I saw a completely different heartache…one that I have tasted in the past that I cynically forgot about while watching and reading “The Last Kiss” and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Haunting my thoughts all week has been the aching that comes from loving much.

I’m struggling with words right now, trying to decide how to portray the deep ache that I witnessed in my family last weekend, trying to give their feelings the poetry that is due to their depth. I cannot. But the one thing that I can write about is that there is a difference between the brokenness that comes from a selfish pursuit of happiness which plagued me the week before and the brokenness that comes from the loss of love that was strong enough to shape who we have become and who we want to be.

Both sides of the brokenness show us pieces of truth. Coming from selfish decisions, we become convinced that there is something utterly wrong in the world. Things are not as they should be and our compass for what is good and true and noble becomes completely skewed. But the brokenness that stems from the loss of loving much…that shows us what is right in the world and how things are supposed to be. Here we are left knowing, though, that deep, real love does exist and does change us. And at the end of the day, it’s what we’ve been craving all along.

Last Monday I was sitting at my aunt and uncle’s house with my cousins, parents, brother and grandmother where old stories and laughter were the order of the moment. In the midst of the people who I adore most in the world, I felt a part of something so much bigger than myself—my grandmother who described meeting my grandfather to me in song, eating french fries from the drive in where they still know my dad’s name from working there 30 years ago, stories that make us cry in our laughing. A slight fear of losing any of the people in the room caught my heart for a moment. But it came out of an overflowing cup—the kind of love that has tightly been woven around my life since before I was even born. A moment where everything seemed right.

I want to live out of that cup. I want to be motivated to love by the purity of that moment, and even the sorrow of watching my aunts and mother and the funeral Tuesday morning, knowing that they were loved by a woman who thought them special.

“Where O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:55