Back in graduate school, when I thought I would like to get my doctorate in English Lit. and go on to teach Medieval literature and drama, I took a class in Anglo Saxon literature. Somehow, learning pieces of this long-dead language taught me quite a lot about myself. One of our first assignments was to take the Anglo Saxon runes for the letters of our names and write our own rune poems. Mine ended up being about love of home.
The final paper I wrote for the class applied Freud’s paper on mourning and melancholia, and Julia Kristeva’s book, Black Sun to The Wife’s Lament, an Anglo Saxon elegy poem, told in the voice of a woman separated from her love, exiled and living in an eorðscræfe, usually translated “earth cave” or “grave.” There has been a lot of scholarly debate and speculation over what the wife’s eorðscræfe might really have been – was it a cave, a barrow, a dwelling made of sod? – but for me, what resonates is that it was a place close to, and probably inside of, the earth. Reminiscent of the grave, but also close to the primal nurturing force that is the earth.
I don’t remember the conclusions I came to in that paper, but I remember being happy with it, thinking that the ideas in it were worthwhile and well-supported. I remember being fascinated by Freud’s delineation of mourning, a healthy process, and melancholia, not nearly so healthy and not so easily recognized as a process. You get stuck in melancholia, you lose yourself as well as your lost loved one. I remember thinking of the earth-cave, this eorðscræfe, as a fitting place for one in the throws of mourning or melancholia. So close to the grave herself, and also close to the growing and changing earth, she could disolve into hopelessness or she could heal. Her words could release despair and help her hold on to herself, or not.
Now, knowing more about mourning that I ever thought I would when I wrote that paper, I think that mourning and melancholia aren’t purely separate things. I’ve lost parts of myself, parts that I wouldn’t have willingly given up, parts that were good. Trust, faith, innocence. I may get some of this back, or not. And I wonder if the kind of melancholia that Freud describes is more likely to occur when the loss is unnatural, violent, or unexpected. I mourn my grandmother, who died in December, but, months later, her death doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out and scream.
There are days when I so long for my own earth-cave, a place to hide, to sorrow without being inhibited by worry and love for those around me. To plant my mourning self, like a seed, and see what grows. Part of what comes with playing at normalcy, at work or elsewhere, is that I have to keep doing so many other things besides grieving. Life goes on, and sometimes the fast pace of it keeps mourning at bay.
I worry about budget cuts at my workplace, and this takes up emotional space and strength. I worry about moving house, about my professional writing (or lack thereof), and about tenure. I worry about baby Kaitlyn, who is having her heart surgery today, and I worry that my worry and sadness make N sad. The fact that I can think and worry and work at these things means, I think, that I’m healing. It also means that I don’t get, well, quality time with my grief.
Maybe I only had earth-cave days in early grief. Maybe those early days, those days of gasping for air, of crying as snot leaked from my nose, tears gushed from my eyes, and milk leaked from my breasts, the days when I was frantic, broken, lost to my grief – maybe those were my eorðscræfe days. Maybe those were the days I buried myself in the earth and now, whether I like it or not, I’m growing.