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“God damn you, God! Damn you, God! I can’t do this anymore! Do you hear me? It’s over! No more!”

It was January 1986, 2:25 A.M. I couldn’t believe the Nor’easter swamping my old sense of God—No footholds left.

I was three weeks post-op from the revision of my total knee replacement, complicated by massive blood loss and dizzying pain. Discharged from the hospital strapped in a whole-leg splint, I had jolted up in bed, snot and tears dribbling down my chin—it felt like alligators were gnawing upon my new joint. The more I yelled, the better I felt until swallowed by sleep.

Later, a Jesuit laughed when I shared this story, assuring me of my deep relationship with God: lovers behave that way, he had added. Ever since, I’ve been intrigued by Job’s story. He came close to cursing God but did not die. I did, but did not.

Recently, I came across another poetic translation of Job (1987), this time, from Hebrew, by the translator, poet, and scholar Stephen Mitchell. An accompanying Introduction reveals his method of approaching this ancient text, developed within oral and scribal traditions from the seventh to the fifth centuries before the Common Era. One of Mitchell’s commentators placed this parable within “crucial post-Holocaust” literature, a timely study for today’s global suffering, unabated by the return to “normalcy.”

In view of my present circumstances, I’ve paid close attention to Job’s concluding words:

I had heard of you with my ears;

   But now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I will be quiet,

Comforted that I am dust.

Job remains a trustworthy witness to the whirlwind in his psyche, its daunting passage, and resulting experience of ultimate life: A strange friend, during my waiting…

Coils of barbed wire leaf out and produce a nine-petaled orange flower: such is the poignant design on the cover of the memoir The Choice – Embrace the Possible (2017) by Dr. Edith Eva Eger, an Hungarian-American survivor of Auschwitz.

Sustaining this teenager through ever-present death threats for eighteen months was her mother’s counsel, “You’re responsible for whatever you put in your mind. No one can take it from you.” Another factor was her life-plan with soul mate Eric enlivening her imagination, filling it with song and dance.

Yet, after the author’s 1945 liberation from the death camp, narrated within the first sixty-nine pages of this memoir, impenetrable evil continues weighting the balance. No matter what, Eger would be the free woman she was destined to become, without Eric, without her parents and grandparents, without her language, without her country.

But how return to life? What about the residual psychic wound, stalking beneath her ghostly shudders, dreams—this wound repelled by language’s efforts to make sense of it? How live with her senses having been saturated by the gruesome? Even others assault her Jewishness in other countries. Yet, decades of harrowing psychic cleansing empowers Dr. Eger to say to us: “…I would love to help you discover how to escape the concentration camp of your own mind and become the person you were meant to be.”

In my perception, Dr. Edith Eva Eger achieved a depth of psychic freedom few experience in this life. How privileged we are to have her memoir The Choice – Embrace the Possible that shows us how to change.

Imagining and then composing sequels to award-winning books is a stiff challenge for any writer, but Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (2019) pulled it off. Her readers first met the disconcertingly honest Olive Kitteridge (2008) that created a firestorm of interest: Here‘s a woman creeping over the edge of middle age whose honesty dances atop the knife-edges of sarcasm and humor. She’s either loved or hated in her coastal town of Maine, and thrives on the resulting tension. The first Olive Kitteridge (2008) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and numerous accolades; in 2014 HBO put out a four-part miniseries.

Strout’s format for each novel merits comment: thirteen stand-alone segments, each containing short story components of setting, characters, plot and structure, conflict, climax, and resolution. Within each segment, the author weaves a significant piece of the plot from another character and thus carries the whole novel forward. Because this format necessitates the readers’ attending for these pieces, the emotional wallop is deep. 

Olive, Again picks up our protagonist in her seventies and eighties, still carrying her “big black handbag.” She has much to learn as she rear-ends the sensibilities of others, her barnacle-encrusted perceptions spewing anger, her shrinking world no longer working for her. Yet, she skates through on old age’s thin ice that sustains her and lands her ashore, with one true friend.

My experience with loss speaks of the authenticity of Olive’s: if accepted with grace, new life emerges from the old. We do change.

Available on Amazon

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