My life, my Lyn, and the power of undead mentors

Lyn Hejinian with translator Abigail Lang in Paris. Photo by Mia You.

The first thought I had when I heard that Lyn Hejinian had died was, She’s going to think that’s so weird! And then my brain seized up, and broke into three parts: one part was scientific and self-castigating, thinking, She died, that’s a fact, and she’s not going to think anything is anything anymore. A second part of me, a more aesthetic part, focused on what I feel in my emotions and my body, doubled down on this felt knowledge that Lyn would think her own death was weird, since, obviously, she wasn’t really dead. A third part of me, let’s call her the evaluative part, watched the other two parts strive against each other, tried to decide which side to line up with, and couldn’t. And then that part decided: good, it’s better this way. I’ll let both realities exist in my mind. 

There is something particular about having a mentor die — especially, I think, when that mentor was a writer. 

It’s a different kind of grief, and a different kind of privation from losing a parent. Different from losing a friend. Different from when someone famous, whom you really admired, dies. When you lose a parent, you feel it in your whole body. It’s hard to deny that they’re gone, because you are used to speaking to them with some frequency, and now, suddenly, you don’t. So the grief is big, cold, mean, and has a lot of suction. I think of that grief as Charybdis, who drank the sea: it pulls you in and eats you whole. When a friend dies, the grief depends on how close you were. The closer you were, the more cold suction there is. The more distant you were, the less suction. When some famous person that you admired dies, there’s kind of a glitch in your grief, because you didn’t know the person well enough to miss them in the way that you feel in your body—the cold suction way. But the world feels different, a little emptier, maybe a little scarier. But you know that the person died, just as you know that a parent or a friend died. 

When a writer-mentor dies, there’s a kind of uncanny valley you fall into. I knew Lyn and loved Lyn plenty well enough to feel deep and disorienting grief at her death. But I didn’t see her or talk to her enough that her absence from my life is palpable in my everyday existence — as it is when you lose a parent. Even so, she did have a kind of emotional centrality to my life, an immediacy and consistent presence in my mind. The valley you fall into is the one I fell into when I heard she died: I understand that she’s dead, but I don’t feel it. And, therefore, I don’t entirely have to believe it. There’s not going to be anything in my life soon that will force me to accept that she is gone. 

Quite the contrary, what I have in my life is much of what I’ve had of her for decades now: her writings. I teach My Life about every other year. I teach Slowly and Tribunal. I read Happily when I am sad. When I teach them or read them, I feel like I am talking with Lyn. And I feel like she, through the poems, talks back. That is not going to change with her death. People talk about feeling betrayed when someone dies. I do not feel betrayed; I suppose it’s because I do not feel left behind. I do not feel like Lyn abandoned me. Instead, I feel like she did what she always did: what was right, inevitable, and true. 

When I think this way, the scientific part of my brain tries to scare me, saying, I’ll never get to talk with her again. But that aesthetic part shakes her head, Yes I will. I talk with her every time I teach her. The scientific part comes back, Ok, but she’ll never really answer you back. You’ll never talk about anything new. It’ll be the same books, forever, and that’s it. 

Aesthetic part: First off, I think you’re an asshole, and Lyn agrees with me. She says that time doesn’t work that way. She says that the past isn’t gone, it’s just part of the compound plenum the fullness — of the present. You know that. 

Scientific part: Lyn did not think I was an asshole. And don’t you forget, she also said, I do not suppose I really am a consolation. Don’t try to make her into your consolation; she wouldn’t want that. Accept your grief. Don’t hide from it. Be brave.

Aesthetic part:  I’m not hiding. I am being brave. I just don’t believe in my grief in the way you do. Or, more specifically, I don’t believe in death the way you do. Plus, what she says is, I do not suppose I really am a consolation — very complete, when each link is directly abob. Consolation is when you want something to be complete. I don’t want her to be complete. I want her links to keep bobbing of their own agency on the surface of the sea. So I am going to keep talking to her. Because to me, she is not gone.

Evaluator: Aesthetic discoveries are socially different from scientific discoveries, and the difference is political eulogical. 

I had known about Lyn’s diagnosis for about a year; we had corresponded about how she was feeling. She struck me, in her emails, as extraordinarily brave. When I reread them now, I cry. But it’s not a sad cry. A strong cry. A war-cry cry. A cry like, We’re in this together, Lyn — you and me — this perilous project of being a human female who makes words and asks others to read them. You taught me to write my goddamn name in every one of his books. You’re bigger and braver and stronger than me, kinder and more beautiful in every way, but you also love me, and you see me, and that makes me a little bit big, and a little brave; a little bit strong, kind and beautiful. The words she wrote me made me cry even before she died, because they so perfectly encapsulated who she was. And who she was and still is to me

But at the same time as I feel that she is still with me, I do feel the grief. Paradoxically, the grief feels connected to my feeling that she’s not gone. Feeling the grief makes me think that she would be proud of me — happy for me, even. Because Lyn was not afraid of grief. She was also not afraid of joy, or rage, or boredom. Happiness is another feeling Lyn was/is not afraid of. In fact, in her wisdom, Lyn understood/stands that happiness is a kind of superpower. Every single emotion had a place at her table. Except maybe shame. Although, no: she wouldn’t exile anyone. Probably, she would encourage shame to transform itself into compassion or acceptance. Maybe she would dress him up fancy, his mane trimmed with colored ribbons. Shame at her table looks like the cowardly lion after his makeover in the Emerald City. Happy as a damn lark! 

But I think even more important to my evolving relationship with Lyn — I’m not going to say “grieving process,” because I despise the idea that grief is supposed to be neat and linear, and to get you to a particular end product, and Lyn hates it too — than her way of making space for all emotions is her way of accepting and even reveling in uncertainty. What is the meaning hung from that depend is a line from My Life that I love, and have never been quite certain how to teach. So I teach it as being about uncertainty. I try to teach my students about the depth of power that comes from truly accepting uncertainty, accepting that we are both aesthetic and scientific beings, that our lives are both lyrical and prosaic, and that we are making a mistake to try to choose between them, because what matters most depends, in an intransitive sense. It just depends. 

So I am going to keep teaching Lyn’s work as if she’s still alive. Because she is. And I will also hold my grief close, a “gripping” thought, because, with her death, there is no “sameness” of the sky.