This I Know: Notes on Unraveling the Heart by Susannah Conway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I picked this up at Chapters on Robson while I was birthday present shopping. It was the last copy. It was that kind of day.
I read about this earlier this year when she was doing a blog book tour (I posted the quote that caught my attention here) and I started following her blog. The book interested me because it’s about navigating grief through a creative process.
[W]hen something bad happens that’s big enough to make you question your entire life, all the other hurts that are hanging around, all the wounds you’ve collected in your lifetime, will come out of the shadows and ask to be healed too.
This I Know (xiii)
In 2005, Susannah Conway’s boyfriend of two years died suddenly/unexpectedly from a heart attack. But there’s a parallel story of loss: when she was a child, her father left his family (Susannah, her sister and her mom) and moved to Australia. He wasn’t dead, but he was gone.
As I read This I Know, and the ways she worked through her grief, I couldn’t help thinking about what a difference how you lose someone makes in the grieving process. There’s a purity in grieving someone who has died vs. someone who has left. When someone dies, you get to keep your memories. You can reread the letters. You can look at the photographs. You can remember all the things you did together. These things are yours and no one can take them away.
When someone leaves, you not only lose them, you lose your memories—or rather, your memories are taken from you. All the mementos you thought were the most important inanimate things in your life (the stuff you’d rescue if your house were burning down) are now just reminders that what you once thought was true, you now know was false.
There’s also a difference in how people react to different kinds of grief. You’re not likely to hear someone say “you’re better off without him/her” to someone grieving a death (there are exceptions, I know). Everyone sympathizes/empathizes with the death of a loved one. But when a loved one leaves voluntarily, people just see someone who hurt their friend/family member. But for the person grieving it’s more complicated than that.
I don’t know if this book will resonate with everyone. I think those who share similar characteristics (read: introverted interdisciplinary creatives) will find it inspiring. For example, she writes of the exhaustion of needing to be ‘on’ all the time and writes of the luxury of solitude, the gift of time to herself. For her, being alone was a necessary part of healing. This is something I understand implicitly. (Though I’m not sure others do.)
When I have to my work—myself—out there, I do it with as little fanfare as possible.
This I Know (72)
Which is not to say I agree completely with everything. She does a lot of talking through her grief, whereas that’s something I hesitate to do. A long time ago, I read something about not talking too much about the things you want to write about because if you do, your need to write about them will dissipate and I think that’s true (at least for me). But she is, I think, a photographer first and a writer second. So maybe putting things into words doesn’t carry the same weight as it does for someone who’s primarily a writer. (Further to this point, I will be reading Emily Rapp’s forthcoming memoir The Still Point of the Turning World in 2013. She’s been writing through her grief at Little Seal.)
Susannah channels her grief into a journey of self-discovery that leads her to create her own perfect job for herself (she runs online photography-focused classes). This of course ties in perfectly with my theory that hitting bottom frees you to take risks that you otherwise never would have. This I Know is set up kind of like a workbook. At the end of each chapter there’s a ‘reflection’ with a suggested activity (writing + photography) related to the chapter topic.
One final quote I have to share (because of this and also this):
I once met [an artist] at a party whose words have always stuck with me: “Boyfriends come and go, ” she said, refilling my wine glass, “but my work is always there for me. It’s this rock I have in my life I can always rely on.”
This I Know (156)