The Gravity of Grief

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In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (more precisely, in Life, the Universe, and Everything), the great science fiction humorist Douglas Adams had a bit about flying that I love for many, many reasons. In my experience, it speaks to the process of writing, and, quite frankly, to just about everything important in life. I paraphrase here, so forgive me if I don’t get it exactly right, but in essence it is this:

“There is an art to flying,” he says, “or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”

(If you Google around, or, better yet, take the time to read these spectacular novels, you’ll find the longer explanation of this, which is both hilarious and poignant.) Here is a link to the author reading it live.

What helps you to miss, he says, is to be distracted at the crucial second so thoroughly that you completely forget to hit the ground, and gravity, in turn, forgets about you. Adams’ protagonist, Arthur Dent, discovers the knack of it when, as he is being chased across the hellscape of a desolate planet by a vengeful creature he has karmically wronged, he suddenly, impossibly, catches sight of the tote bag he lost a decade earlier at the Athens airport, back on an Earth which no longer exists.

Today, for me, that glorious bit about flying applies to grief, and the avoidance thereof. Just when I was supposed to hit the ground, bottom out on loss after my dad died and my husband and I split, something came along that was so surprising, so compelling, that instead of smashing face-first into the dirt as was right and proper, I swooped up to dizzying heights, “bobbing and floating,” as Adams put it, “floating and bobbing.” I forgot the ground entirely.

It was amazing. I felt like I could soar forever, dizzyingly happy. I felt I’d got hold of something so giddy I could just spin with the air currents, and laze about on clouds, and laugh at earthbound mortals.

I tried really, really hard to ignore that this was, patently, impossible. Because the problem is, the minute you start to believe in gravity again, gravity believes in you. And you plummet back to earth.

Yeah, that happened.

So now I’ve finally taken the splat I should have taken two months ago. There’s dirt in my teeth, my elbows and knees are raw, rashy scabs, and the wind’s all knocked out of me. I have landed in an unfamiliar country and I don’t know the landmarks. I’m still feeling my limbs to make sure nothing’s broken, and I’m not 100% sure nothing is.

I’m angry at myself for taking this detour when what I needed was to slog through the grief like any sane human. Had I done so, by now I might be in a headspace to write the rest of my novel, or go on cautious, careful little coffee dates, laugh and pull rueful faces and enjoy twilight barbeques with friends on a long summer night.

Or maybe that’s not the way grief works. Maybe the mind, all mischief, deposits that bag you lost on holiday in Greece ten years ago – the bag filled with cracked sunglasses, and crusty swimsuits, and that tin of good olive oil you bought at the airport – onto the ruined wastelands of a planet on the opposite arm of the galaxy (and quite possibly in a parallel universe) from the place where you actually lost it, just at the moment when you’re about to crash-land astoundingly hard on the surface. Maybe it knows you can’t cope with the gravity of grief all in one go, and it gives you the gift of distraction so you’ll have a little respite, some hope, a glimmer of happy things to come.

For Arthur Dent, once he learned the knack of flying, he got better and better at it, until at will he could take to the skies. He learned to come down gently. He even taught his girlfriend Fenchurch the trick of it, and they had many pleasant adventures.

For me, right now in this winded moment, I fear I may never savor that sweet dizzying pleasure again. I may never achieve such another extraordinary uplift. I fear I’ll be this heavy-shod, earth-shackled creature forever.

But maybe, just maybe, when the time is at hand, I might step off exactly the right ledge, in just the right frame of mind, and find myself bobbing gently, tenderly, a few inches above the ground.

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