The Art of Change in the Personal Essay
For years I’ve been haunted in a rife and even stinging way by the last lines of W.S. Merwin’s poem “Grandmother Watching At Her Window” that read like this: “God loves you so dearly just as you are, that nothing you are can stay, but all the time you keep going away, away.”
The grandmother in this poem has watched everyone she loves pass through her life and leave her, and she’s been unable to stop or delay their passing, or do very much at all: all she can do, it seems, is watch them go, “for they slipped through my fingers like stitches.” Now, on the threshold of a great personal revelation, she must learn how to say goodbye, finally, even to herself because of the same divine love invoked in the poem that’s satisfied with nothing less than total abandon and perfection.
These shining and heartbreaking lines point to a dynamic truth present and germinating in all of us, the dynamism of change that can’t be stayed no matter what we do. The wise among us accept and even welcome such change with open arms, however painful or difficult it may sometimes be: they know that fighting change is futile, and denying it even worse, as it may lead only to greater suffering and folly. They also know that whatever change takes away it also bequeaths anew, even if we may not like or accept the new conditions of this gift, at least for a time. We need a period of adjustment to get used to change (which of course is sometimes denied us) and the blossoming it may betoken, even as it takes other blossoms away. Change is always with us, though its fruits may be so subtle only an instrument as delicate as an eyelash can detect them. Because aren’t we all like the grandmother somehow, sitting at our own windows watching the world go by even as we strive to participate in it and shape it according to our hopes, desires and fears while in the process of changing ourselves?
We’re like the grandmother in another way as well, for whatever talents we have been given are not entirely our own – and we must, to use a common American expression, use it or lose it, always under the auspices of a limitation imposed on us by the sifting grains of time and our own mortality. Some and perhaps many of us tend to deny or forget this omnipresent truth and prolong the denial in a kind of hazy, protracted dream we seek to stretch out to a virtual inward horizon where no such alterations occur and we control the conditions of change or banish them altogether, which, for all we know, may be a blessing in disguise: unless we’re greatly evolved in our spiritual lives or radically open to embrace everything that happens to us like a flower, such a constant and unnerving recognition of change can easily teeter over into a perverted off-shoot of neurosis that manifests itself in some fetish or obsession, rooted in a deep and unacknowledged subconscious fear.
At the same time we need a way to chronicle these changes and somehow honor them and pay them homage, even if, on the face of it, they’re so small and tremulous they barely register in the field of our awareness. We need a way to stop and look around in order to be our fullest and most wide-awake selves, even though, just like the grandmother at her window, we ourselves “keep going away, away.” Because at the deepest, most fundamental level we are change itself, both one of its countless agents and also its homespun quarry, which has to be one of our greatest gifts and burdens in the moveable feast we call a human life. But we live in a world – at least the one we devise ourselves out of culture and technology – dead-set against coming to honest grip with the powerful forces of change: we’d rather watch someone else do it on a TV or movie screen, or not do it all in the name of some entertainment or diversion or age-defying lotion, which seems to assuage the dictates of change, at least for awhile. We all do this from time to time, though the reality of change somehow keeps piercing through the skein of day-to-day life like so many thorns poking through the taut veneer of some brightly colored wrapping.
Today, just this morning, for instance, what has changed in your life from yesterday?
What has in mine?
The weather’s slightly different than it was on Thursday, cloudier with a more sharply defined chill in the air – or maybe you received an email from an old friend or a new one you weren’t expecting; maybe you feel refreshed after a rare good night’s sleep or a bit sluggish from the lack of one. Or you noticed a bird you haven’t seen before in some trees by your house, or the bird you have seen almost every day hasn’t appeared on its trusty branch for some reason, which gives you some slight pause of misgiving. A hundred, a thousand things have changed from twenty-four hours ago and are changing even now, some of them fairly insignificant compared to, say, a protest in the streets in the name of equality or justice, or a close relative or friend moving away or dying, but surely moving and morphing all the same. We know all too well how powerful and capricious change can be and shudder at the prospect of it and our own helplessness in the face of it, especially those changes we most want to prevent or see come to fruition.
I think the reality and pace of change, especially in our current age, is why so many people in the last few decades have turned to the personal essay as a way to somehow grapple and make sense of the changes in their lives, as the essay form seems uniquely suited for this important and thoughtful work. So many of us want to say, like Whitman, “I was the man [or woman]; I was there,” regardless of what has transpired or where we were when it happened: this being there is of paramount importance, because no one wants to live his or her life without a sense of witness, however it’s construed. No matter what happens to us, the fantastic or the ordinary, the momentous or the incidental and every gradation in between, we want to live a life of meaning, or at least recognize and attempt to create meaning out of the moments and encounters we are given.
This is why so many people regardless of age or background are trying to get their lives or the lives of others down on paper, as one of the keynote qualities of the personal essay is its abiding sense of intimate disclosure amid the pace of change, however slow or rapid that change may be. Pick up any essay and you’ll discover somewhere in it an acknowledgment of change and how it has impacted the writer through the lens of her perspective, which results in another kind of metamorphosis altogether.
The grandmother in Merwin’s poem doesn’t come out and announce herself as a witness, but that’s exactly what she is: she’s telling us, from the depths of her own lived and heartbreaking experience, what her life has been like and how she has tried to bargain and mollify change by being a good wife and devout believer, which haven’t been nearly enough to stave off the lashing effects of the changes she has experienced: in fact, they haven’t influenced them at all. Earlier in the poem she tells us that even as a little girl she was waving goodbye to someone she didn’t “know who, and how I cried after.” So she’s well-schooled in change from a very early age, especially the changes that signal loss – and its hard lesson has been repeated throughout her life like a kind of inward tolling bell, finding her again and again helpless before it regardless of how she tries to negotiate with it. Toward the end of the poem, she may be on the verge of total surrender to change, but there’s no way to know for sure.
This poem is one of the best exemplars I know of that hints at the particular arc of almost every personal essay, especially those that inhabit the tone of elegy, like E.B. White’s gold-standard “Once More To The Lake” or Joan Didion’s essays on living and coming of age in California. Perhaps Merwin’s poetical grandmother is even a kind of essayist-in-waiting, though this is no doubt pushing it a bit. Nonetheless, one thing’s abundantly clear: whether it’s the grandmother at her window or ourselves in our own lives, at some point we have to reckon with change, even if it does not result in the outcome we want – especially if it doesn’t. The personal essay as a form may have evolved for just this reason in order to meet the demands of such a reckoning so we can look at change honestly however it comes and respond with a report or meditation on how it’s affected us.
In what other kind of writing can we discover and lay bare so consistently this same dragnet and undertow concerned with change and the self who must try to make peace with it? In almost every paragraph of every personal essay the fallout of change and its shimmering aftermath are there, waiting to be considered. Even the one word “today,” for example, at the beginning of an essay signals a change: we need not even read beyond it to know the writer is going to somehow, some way describe a change she has witnessed or undergone and tell it to us after discovering it for herself. We feel the tilt and tide of change pushing in behind it, we know she would not have chosen the word today had it not somehow signified a difference from yesterday or the days and weeks and months before.
She could follow today with almost anything, “Today I went to the market” – and we’d still know that change is waiting in the wings to function as a kind of eclipse, because why else bother to tell us about this “today” rather than some other day? In the hands of a gifted prose stylist, we feel the tug of change in the one today of the essay in our own lives poignantly and pungently, putting us at a kind of ground zero in order to catch a meaningful glimpse of it for ourselves. This is why we go out of our way to call the personal essay personal: we don’t do this with the poem or play or story because in these other forms the self is often at least at a partial remove behind a scrim or screen, working out of plain sight. In the personal essay we don’t have these same subtle layers and must go with the writer into her crisis and reckoning with change: if we don’t want to accompany her, then she’s somehow failed to engage us.
In this way almost every personal essay could be distilled into the following loose paradigm: Today something changed, and I want to tell you about it after I discovered it for myself. Then we go with her – we take the brief or extended journey toward this discovery; we go back to the scene of change and its subtle or seismic fallout, we pick through the shards and rubble together out of a sense of nostalgia, remorse, or fondness. And somewhere along the way we’re slowly hijacked because it seems our only narrowing choice – like a tunnel shrinking all around us – becomes empathy as our own spool of associations unravels alongside hers, eventually to almost merge with them. Like the grandmother at her window, we sit and watch the current of change we can’t stop but can’t help loving and fearing, even as we do our best to find a way to subvert it: the personal essayist’s job then, in this utter and foremost respect, is the work of recognition and recovery toward those changes she’s helpless to alter, which also does the work of redemption and even blessing, pulling them back to where we can almost touch them at the very brink of contact.
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