Carol Keeley on Fiction Containing Grief

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Carol Keeley, who’s been gracious enough to blog for our Get Behind the Plough feature, appeared in our Spring 2010 issue with her story “Cremains.” The narrator chronicles the days just before and after her husband’s estrangement and death; the story ultimately shows the reader just how strong the pull of marriage–of love–can be. An excerpt:

Now she wanders about the house feeling Nate’s presence, like warm spots in water. When she reaches the dining room, something flickers tonguely and she realizes she’s left a candle burning overnight and all day, into this murky dusk. Christ. That was dangerous. She wets her thumb and forefinger, extinguishes it. Enjoys the smoke and the slight buzz in her fingertips.

Here, Keeley discusses the inspiration for the story:

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“Cremains” was written late one night about two weeks after my dearest friend died suddenly of a cardiac aneurysm. Coleen Tracy was 34. This just a few years after losing another beloved young friend to AIDs. Each loss was concussive. This story has nothing outwardly to do with Coleen. It was just a container for my grief, an attempt to keep from shattering altogether. It is an accurate portrait of what I was feeling without using any nonfictional details, except one. I sat without any ideas or storylines or intentions. It was just raw grief. This is how fiction relates to dreaming. The process is as mysterious as alchemy to me.

At the time, I was working on a collection of linked stories based on the eight limbs of the Yoga Sutras. Most yogis and all ashtangis are familiar with these principles. The first two limbs are the yamas and niyamas, principles for conduct that approximate the Ten Commandments for Hindus. So, for example, one story in the collection draws on “ahimsa,” or the principle of non-violence, and another on “satya,” or truthfulness. These two principles were engines for Gandhi. They’re very simple, but powerful.

I was struggling with “tapas,” a rich principle that is among my personal favorites. It’s often translated as “austerity” or “self-discipline,” but the root of the word in Sanskrit, “tap,” means “to burn.” Ashtangis often think of tapas as the heat created during practice, which burns out impurities of the body, just as the intense physical and mental focus of the practice burns impurities or fluctuations of the mind. It’s also been said that tapas is the fiery discipline or ardent desire to achieve something; it’s the fire in the belly that compels despite the odds, that generates fierce, irrational commitment. It didn’t strike me consciously that marriage is a perfect example of tapas until this story was mid-birth. Marriage is the ultimate mountain. We continually meet our own shadows while trying to climb it.

“Cremains” unfolded on its own. But it has some contact with Coleen’s death, besides my anguish. After her wake, I had hoped to attend Coleen’s cremation with an honor guard of close friends known as the Lying Irish Whores. They’re a group of mostly Irish Catholic women activists from Coleen’s hometown. I was inducted the night of her wake with the following exam:

“Are you Irish?”
“Half pure Irish.”
“Are you a whore?”
“No.”
“Jaysus, what a liar. You’re in.”

Because of delays at the funeral home, a booked flight and a teaching commitment, I was unable to be there for Coleen. But nine months later, I bore lone witness at my mother’s cremation, which was an indelible experience. I was only prepared for that moment because of research I’d done for this story. The story basically came in one sitting, but I did revise after researching cremation and mountain climbing. I was stunned to learn that it takes around four hours to burn a body. I added a few more details to this story after my mother’s cremation.

The only non-fictional element in “Cremains” is Stella, Coleen’s sunny pup. That’s how we met. Our rescued pound pooches fell in love at a Thursday night SPCA dog training class.

Carol Keeley’s work has appeared in The Antioch Review, Oxford Poetry, Playboy, New American Writing, Columbia Poetry Review, Chicago Reader, and elsewhere. Her first novel, Resolution, is set in Chicago’s jazz scene.