The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, Nina Riggs (2017)

“We are breathless, but we love the days. They are promises. They are the only way to walk from one night to the other.”

 

brighthourMy best friend Dinah died of breast cancer in 2009. It amazes me every day that I have been able to live without her and that we will not be rocking-chair old ladies together. I had never been closely involved in someone’s cancer fight before and while the pain of this loss is deep, the humor and wit she was known for is also part of my memories.

After decades of a close friendship Dinah shared easily her thoughts on her prognosis and living for almost 5 years with stage four breast cancer, the 3 ½ rounds of chemo and when she finally called it quits, the hair loss/regrowth and loss again and how she playfully exploited her baldness to get to the front of any line and the best table in restaurants, and finally her belief that Jesus would heal her, even when it was obvious she was going to die.

Through the years after her death, I have often picked up memoirs of cancer survivors or in the case of The Bright Hour, those who died. I am not sure what I want from these books, but I am drawn to how people live, not knowing the outcome, and how like Dinah they put one foot in front of the other and just keep going, keep living and experiencing life as fully as they can.

In The Bright Hour, Nina Riggs is a 37 year-old wife and mother of two young boys when she learns she has breast cancer. At first it is just “one small spot,” but chemo and radiation do not do their job and by the time she tries the last treatment available she is at stage four.

Between treatments she tries to live as normally as possible for her boys. She and her husband John are always honest with the latest treatment outcome. Freddy and Ben learn to live in an atmosphere of uncertainty over their mother’s health.

As if Nina’s fight isn’t consuming enough, her mother has been fighting breast cancer for five years and provides some of the lighter moments in the book. A dedicated book club member, even at death’s door she wants to keep up with the book selection schedule. With poignant moments, the clubbers understand.

Nina’s optimism carries her a long way, the title being a clue. As the great, great, great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, she is trying to live in that bright hour and not “be a prisoner of this sickly body and to become as large as the World.”

This isn’t a depressing book, but because I knew she was going to die there was a bit of dread at each page turn wondering when and how that would occur. Her writing style is contemporary and conversational which adds to this feeling of immediacy, but also gives a measure of comfort as if I was peering into the heart of my own friend. Nina does not gloss over the effects the various treatments and procedures have on her physically and in that regard the book may not appeal to everyone. But this is the reality I experienced with Dinah and no matter how gross or painful, this is the reality of our friends and family.

In the afterword written by John, we learn Nina finished the manuscript for the book in late January 2017. And with the prospects grim, entered hospice in February. She died on the 26th.

Nina leaves us with a good outcome, even though hers was not so good–live life as best as you can, because…well, you just don’t know what’s up ahead. Books like this help us turn our sadness into marveling at the human spirit that just wants to live well, no matter the prognosis.

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My Edition
Title:The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying
Author: Nina Riggs
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Device: Hard cover
Year: 2017
Pages: 320
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love, Nonfiction Reading

Upstream: Selected Essays, Mary Oliver (2016)

upstream

 

I am one of those who has no trouble imagining the sentient lives of trees, of their leaves in some fashion communicating or of the massy trunks and heavy branches knowing it is I who have come, as I always come, each morning, to walk beneath them, glad to be alive and glad to be here.

 

I didn’t know Mary Oliver wrote essays. I know her as the writer of many of my favorite poems and a woman in love with and who embodies the natural world.

 

Childhood

In this collection, she shares her early experiences of wandering through the woods of her Ohio childhood and the writers and poets she discovered, whose works illumined her inner and outer worlds from a young age,

As a young person, I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door—a thousand opening doors!—past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.

and her relationships with the animal, bug, bird and plant worlds of the Provincetown of adulthood, and how she created her writing life.

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

 

Whitman

As a Young Adult

In high school, she counted Walt Whitman among her ‘friends’ with whom she would skip school for the woods “with a knapsack of books.” Warned she might not graduate, her parents let her ‘go her own way.’

Down by the creek, or in the wide pastures…I spent my time with my friend: my brother, my uncle, my best teacher…Whitman’s poems stood before me like a model of delivery when I began to write poems myself….The oracular tenderness with  which he viewed the world—its roughness, its differences, the stars, the spider—nothing was outside the range of his interest….But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. Only in a secondary way is it an intellectual thing….I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.

Her experiences in nature became part of her psyche, then translated into a visceral experience. It is fair to say, she is a ‘hands on writer’ as she describes an hour spent in the woods walking on all fours.

I had seen the world from the level of the grasses….I was some slow old fox, wandering, breathing, hitching along, lying down finally at the edge of the bog, under the swirling rickrack of the trees.

You must not ever stop being whimsical.

Besides Whitman, other sources of influence were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe and Percy Bysshe Shelley. She writes of their personal stories of sorrows and challenges and what fueled their creative impulse. I am always fascinated to read what one writer thinks about another and how or why they were of influence.

Of Emerson she writes. I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy. And there he is also, avuncular and sweet, but firm and corrective, when I am below the mark.

That we are spirits that have descended into our bodies, of this Emerson was sure. That each man was utterly important and limitless, an “infinitude,” of this he was also sure. And it was a faith that leads, as he shows us again and again, not to stasis but activity, to the creation of the moral person from the indecisive person.

Of Poe: For are we not all, at times, exactly like Poe’s narrators—beating upon the confining walls of circumstance, the limits of the universe? In spiritual work, with good luck (or grace) we come to accept life’s brevity for ourselves. But the lover that is in each of us—the part of us that adores another person—ah! That is another matter….In the wide circles of timelessness, everything material and temporal will fail, including the manifestation of the beloved… This is Poe’s real story. As it is ours. And this is why we honor him, why we are fascinated far past the simple narratives. He writes about our own inescapable destiny.

 

Close Encounters

In several essays she describes encounters with nonhuman inhabitants of the spideynatural world around her: the mating and mothering habits of a female spider whose web Oliver finds in a stairwell and whose 6 egg sacs she watches as “the uncountable number of progeny have spilled” out of them; a rescued injured seagull she brought back to her house whose rehabilitation became part of the routine and pattern of her life during the several months it lived; the observation of a female snapping turtle as it struggled to lay its eggs on land against its natural predators, including Oliver, who will come back to this spot where the cache is and dig up half the eggs to scramble for breakfast. “I ate them all, with attention, whimsy, devotion, and respect.”

Poet and Literary Critic

As a writer, her word choices and phrases in these essays are as lyrical and expressive, wild and intense as the poetry she writes. I found myself reading many passages out loud envisioning the world she is describing. Her attention to the details of the flora and fauna she writes about in her poems make these essays powerful, visual and captivating to read. Here are two:

hornedowlBut the great horned [owl]…if one of those should touch me, it would touch to the center of my life, and I must fall. They are the pure wild hunters of our world….I know this bird. If it could, it would eat the whole world….When I hear it resounding through the woods,…I know I am standing at the edge of the mystery, in which terror is naturally and abundantly part of life, part of even the most becalmed, intelligent, sunny life—as, for example my own. The world where the owl is endlessly hungry.

She found an injured seagull on the sea shore and took it home to care for and named it, Bird:

He was, of course, a piece of the sky. His eyes said so. This is not fact: this is the other part of knowing something, when there is no proof, but neither is there any way toward disbelief. Imagine lifting the lid from a jar and finding it filled not with darkness but with light. Bird was like that. Startling, elegant, alive. 

Finally, in a wonderful passage connecting her spirituality and the bond she has with the nonhuman beings around her, she calls them a company of spirits, as well as bodies:

I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves—we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.

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My Edition:
Title: Upstream: Selected Essays
Author: Mary Oliver
Publisher: Penguin Press
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2016
Pages: 178
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

Louisa May Alcott Challenge

LMAchallenge

 

I am participating in In the Bookcase’s Louisa May Alcott Challenge. Basically, just read some LMA during the month of June! I thought I would do this to help me with my Alcott Year through the Women’s Classic Literature Event at the Classics Club, where I have decided to get to know LMA through her works…especially because I never read Little Women. Yeah. I know….

During this month I plan to read:

Finish Little Women
Read:~the Madeleine Stern bio of LMA
~Transcendental Wild Oats
~Psyche’s Art
~Behind a Mask; or A Woman‘s Power
~selections from her Journals, including Fruitlands, Emerson’s Death

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July 1, 2016

Wrap-up of the Louisa May Alcott Challenge, June 2016

I am very happy with what I accomplished this month even though, as usual for these kinds of challenges, I bit off more than I could chew…er read. Still, I feel this was a great success because it helped push me forward in my Classics Club Women’s Literature Event with my choice to do an ‘Alcott Year.’ So thank you Tarissa for organizing this and to all the other participants!

I read:

  1. I finished Little Women and reviewed it here.
    As a first read I enjoyed it immensely and believe it will be one of those books to reread from time to time.
  2. “Transcendental Wild Oats” This is a short story based on the Alcott family’s experience in communal living. While it is very humorously written, according to her journal entries of the time, it was an extremely difficult period in her family’s life. Still, parts made me laugh out loud and it is a good illustration of the perils of life in ‘utopia.’
  3. From her journal I read “Fruitlands,” which is the real life account of her father’s experiment in living and working the land as a reflection of his spiritual, philosophical and educational beliefs. What a challenging time for his wife and daughters!
  4. “Emerson’s Death” Another journal entry. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a long and close friend of the Alcotts. As a young girl, Louisa spent time in his library guided by his reading choices and they remained close throughout his life. At his death she said, “Our best and greatest American gone.” She named the essays Self-Reliance, Compensation and Friendship as writings that “helped me to understand myself and life, and God and Nature.”
  5. American Masters-Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women (2009) While perusing Amazon Prime this past week I came across a fine dramatized life of Louisa May Alcott. Elizabeth Marvel plays LMA and all her words are taken from Louisa’s journals and letters. Jane Alexander plays Ednah Cheney, who published a collection of letters, journal entries and a biographical commentary a year after Louisa’s death. Playing themselves are John Matteson, a well-known contemporary LMA biographer and interviews with Madeleine Stern, whose 1950 biography of Louisa May Alcott is still a standard work (which I haven’t quite finished) with fellow researcher and friend Leona Rostenberg.
  6. Louisa May Alcott, a biography by Madeleine B. Stern. Only half way through, but will keep reading. Stern spent her long life (she died in 2007 at 95) as a rare book dealer, researcher, writer and Alcott expert.

While I didn’t get to everything I listed, I am very happy with what I did accomplish. The only problem with this whole Louisa May Alcott project is the more I read, the more I find there IS to read! What an incredibly prolific writer.