Sunday, February 3, 2013

on Companion to an Untold Story by Marcia Aldrich

I buy books and don't always read them right away. Sometimes I know the book is likely to be important to me, to speak on the subjects I can never quite put down, the ones I carry with me always like worry stones, seeking to understand by touching them again and again. This was the case with Marcia Aldrich's Companion to an Untold Story, a book about the suicide of a friend of hers, a book that I bought partly because I knew some of the author's essays and partly because of a poignant book trailer that included her reading from this book and partly because suicide is one of those subjects for me. The book is a "companion" in an old sense, a sort of reference book, thoughts organized alphabetically, wide-ranging bits and pieces about this particular friend and about the author and about suicide and death and mourning and loss.

Last week, for reasons having to do with my own inner weather, I knew it was time to read this book, so I sat down on the couch between two of my dogs and opened it up.

And it's as terrific as I thought it would be, pulling me in various directions, as compelling and hard-to-put-down as a thriller, taking me out of ordinary life in the ways that speak most directly to whatever strange kind of spirituality I practice.

Here's a quote that puts difficult things so clearly I cannot stop thinking about it, wisdom and insight I must share:

"In the rituals of mourning, we substitute a final resting place, even one so unmarked as the sea, for the actual place of death. We do so to write over the terrible image of trauma. Substitution of place is our profound device in death and its aftermath. The image of final burial comforts us because we, the survivors, compose it. It is authored rather than thrust upon us, already engraved. Choice of the place and manner of burial gains us composure against the suddenness of tragedy. Those who were lost are no longer lost: they are laid to rest. Meanwhile, the rituals of cremation purify the image of autopsy. The work of mourning is incomplete without a final substitution ('So Lycidus, sunk low, but mounted high')." --Marcia Aldrich, from Companion to an Untold Story, "Disposition of the Body," pp. 69-70

I cannot say anything as smart as this, but I have been thinking lately about ritual, and how in my life, at least, I don't have enough ritual. I do not have a Christian faith, so the Christian rituals I grew up with aren't fully resonant for me--they resonate with memory and family, but not with that extra dimension of shared humanity and understanding and connection with the mystery. I semi-joke that I am a member of the Church of Poetry, because poetry helps me enter that extra dimension. But the Church of Poetry doesn't have enough rituals, not the kind that involve all the senses, the way ancient churches and organizations know work best to involve us: rituals with music, dance, incense, specific types of food, sacred objects with their complex textures. Words are bodied, but not as richly as High Mass.

I think we need to understand and respect the rituals we have, and Aldrich's words above help me do that. And I think we need to create our own rituals, to reinforce our connections to each other and to whatever mysteries we feel. I am open to suggestions.


  1. Hey, Katie, thanks for the reminder. I need to stop watching Downton Abbey and carve out time in the evening for the ritual of a good read.

  2. I'm glad you wrote about this. The author had a great interview on NPR awhile ago that made me want to read the book, but then life happened and I forgot all about it. Your post reminded me that I want to read it. And I'm glad it lived up to your expectations.

    1. Yeah. It's just so smart and unflinching. You'll love it.