After seeing the Dutch film The Vanishing a few years ago, I have become aware of an intense fear of being buried alive. I suppose the fear has always been there, but the film’s final scenes gave my fear specificity and detail. I tell this to a friend one morning as we ride the train to New York. I tell her that for reasons that I cannot quite articulate, I find that knowing this is among the most common phobias oddly comforting. As if to suggest it is not unreasonable for me to feel panic when I think of it (which is perhaps, more often than I’d care to admit).
This morning, I wake from a dream where I am witness to a woman being tied to the side of a train car. I don’t know why, or what I have to do with it. There’s a cartoonish sense to the scene and I wake just as in the dream I am walking away.
I have always said I am afraid of heights and I believe this to be true, although I have not had occasion to test this out in some time. Aside from the fear of being buried alive (specifically in a coffin or box), I don’t think of myself as particularly afraid of small spaces. I have, a few times, caught myself in behaviors that might suggest compulsivity. I often find myself doing things and not knowing exactly why.
I remember an essay I read years ago about a woman who moves to New York and experiences profound loneliness. She goes on to detail the harmful effects that sustained loneliness can have on the body and on the mind. She suggests, as I recall, that pain — psychic pain — can be a call to action. In her case, she moved back to England.
This is not the point of her essay, but it seems to me that there are some kinds of psychic pain that simply must be endured. I am thinking about grief. The loss of a loved one. I don’t know that there is much to be done in response, save perhaps the typical platitudes — take a walk, write in a journal, etc. I would like there to be actions to take. To change the situation. To (metaphorically at least) move back to England.
When my mother died, I found the rituals around death — the funeral, the burial, the luncheon, the notes that needed to be written in response to the kind words of sympathy that came from friends and acquaintances — to be a comfort. Tasks to be completed, decisions to be made. I find myself reaching for rituals of one sort or another, but I don’t know what to do. A friend of mine told me that her family acknowledges the anniversary of her father’s death. That they make his favorite foods and tell stories about him. I think of this as such a lovely idea, but the person I am grieving most acutely (if grief can be described in degrees?) is someone I know nothing about. There are no stories to be told, no memories to share. No favorite foods to reproduce.
I wonder, can I, occasional writer of fictions, simply make it up? An adopted friend of mine who is also a painter went through a period of painting self-portraits as an attempt to imagine his own father. I have myself envisioned recreating a traditional Korean home and courtyard, imagining the home, the artifacts I might have had. I suppose in a way this is some of what we do as writers, as artists — create spaces to accommodate our grief.