Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book: "The Alchemy of Loss"

Title: The Alchemy of Loss - a young widow's transformation
Author: Abigail Carter
Published: Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2008, (290pp).

The Alchemy of Loss: A Young Widow's TransformationIn times of loss, magical things can happen. Using the word 'alchemy' to describe her recovery from grief, Abigail Carter details her journey of pain when she lost her husband Arron to the September 11 attacks at the World Trade Center. The author describes alchemy as 'an ancient science and form of spiritualism that combines chemistry, metallurgy, physics, and medicine' where alchemists seek to turn lead into gold. Three stages are evident in her transformation.

Firstly, there is a 'blackening' process. Like lead being stripped of its original properties, she finds her deepest fears coming true, as she loses her husband to the terrible Sep 11 terrorism. A young mother, she was about to realize that she will soon become a young widow too, after hearing the last words from her husband, trapped in the WTC. The phone call started it. Television images showed it. Official papers confirmed it. Losing Arron immediately blackens whatever future she ever had.

Secondly, there is a 'whitening' phase. She begins to be more conscious about life outside her own family. She starts to seek work.

"Since Arron's death, I had begun to be aware of other, more public 9/11 widows and was surprised at the fervour with which they threw themselves into causes in support of surviving family members..." (71)

Yet, there is no smooth sailing of emotions. The ups and downs continue to occur in this second stage. Questions beginning with 'why' continue to haunt her. While anger sometimes can sweep away the sorrow, it comes back with a vengeance during occasions like Christmas.  Whatever recovery gains she made during the Fall was lost in 'earthbound grief' at Christmas. Yet, there are upsides in this whitening phase. She notices how the grief has transformed her extended family too, where even her parents have grown closer together.

The third phase is 'reddening,' the final phase of her transformation. The author relates her own life as one that has risen from the ashes of loss, becoming 'gold, pure and awakened.' Workwise, she moved to Seattle. She found new love. Most importantly, she found a new acceptance of her state. One poem moved her.

"Time is too slow for those who wait,
Too swift for those who fear,
Too long for those who grive,
Too short for those who rejoice,
Bt for those who love, 
Time is not.' (Henry Van Dyke)

My Comments
A first-time author, Carter has done very well to share her journey to recovery. This book offers an important contribution to help people trying to recover from tragedies like September 11. It does not mince words or emotions. She tells it like it is, and readers will be riveted to her story. Her use of the alchemy process to describe her transformation is brilliant. Those suffering from loss can be comforted simply by knowing that they are not alone.

As a Christian reader, I find that she has painted a grossly negative picture of the Church. She allocates a whole chapter (the word 'Hallelujah' used rather cynically) to describe her experience with a Church, and how the Anglican Church she has contacted, failed her. I am not sure of the reasons why her pleas for help were ignored. Safe to say, she did not probe deeper. If on the other hand, she is a regular church-goer, will she have been ignored? After all, there is no perfect church. I have encountered many church situations where people are immensely comforted within a Church community setting. There are also disappointments. Her situation is most unfortunate, but it will be wise to suspend judgment until more background can be uncovered. Having said that, it is a good reminder for churches to be sensitive and to be ready to reach out to the needs of others during times like 911.

Overall, the book is essentially a life of a person struggling with loss. Her version of spirituality is rather New Age, or unorthodox. For example, she talks about her husband's 'fate' as if it is something independent of God. She talks about 'nirvana,' a Buddhist concept. She uses terms like 'spiritual serpent' to denote a negative side of spirituality. Her ideas of spirituality is thus a mixed bag of what she has heard and learnt. There is no central focus except an attempt to recover from loss.

Perhaps it is rhetoric. I appreciate her first two phases of 'blackening' and 'whitening' processes. However, when it comes to the 'reddening' part, I find it while hopeful still lacking in terms of spiritual foundations. In fact, her hope is based on something more experiential, in particular, her own experience.  That said, it is not transferable. (Contrast: A Christian's hope is in Christ.) Readers in this sense can only see from the outside and applaud from the outside. (Contrast: A Christian can share in the suffering of Christ, and be resurrected in Christ). Thus, for this reason, readers will see a serious limitation to how much their own suffering can be helped by Carter's.  While I do not share her ideas of on spirituality, or the church, I must say her honest feelings give readers a better insight into how non-Christians suffer and recover. Perhaps, Christians can become more sensitive and understanding to them. After all, suffering does not discriminate between religious affiliations.


No comments:

Latest Posts