a parenthetical life


I got up early this morning, thanks to our middle Schnauzer Lila, made the coffee and sat down to write my Morning Pages for the first time in two months. It felt good.

For those who are not familiar with them, Morning Pages are a practice I learned from The Artist’s Way by Julie Cameron. Her instructions are to get up and write three pages first thing in the morning. It doesn’t matter what you write. Just write.

I first read the book and started the pages in 2001 as I began to come to terms with my depression. To say they have saved my life is not an exaggeration. I would love to say I have written every morning over the last twenty-one years, but there have a been several gaps along the way, such that my opening sentence this morning was

It’s Monday morning and I’m back to my morning pages for the first time in a while (how many times have I written that sentence?).

The parentheses in my journal brought back a memory of editing Denial Is My Spiritual Practice and Other Failures of Faith by Rachel Hackenberg and Martha Spong–still one of my favorite projects. Both women are good writers and thinkers. I had just finished Joe Moran’s First You Write a Sentence, where he raises a red flag about the way parentheses break the flow of good writing and I took them out wherever I could find them. During one editorial round, Rachel left a comment asking, “May I have just this one?”

When I commented to authors about parentheses (I wasn’t just picking on Martha and Rachel) my rationale was that they broke the flow of the text for the reader. They were a distraction. But maybe that is not always a bad thing. Sometimes the flow needs to be broken, interrupted, both in books and in life.

Since I grew up going to school in Africa, I was first introduced to parentheses by their English name: brackets, a word that has an architectural root as a means of support or even protection. The Greek word from which parentheses grew means “a putting in beside.” The sense is that what is in the brackets could be left out and everything else would make sense, but it belongs as well; things are better with it there–or at least better understood.

Sometimes the flow needs to be broken by a related thought that syncopates what is going on in the regular rhythm of things. That statement offers grace when I think about the gaps in my rituals of life as parentheses (no Morning Pages since May 19) rather than failures or weaknesses. I have not stopped thinking or feeling or being or living, I just haven’t bracketed the time to write and life has flowed on. My Morning Pages parentheses reminded me the flow needs to be broken, much life the brackets of my blog posts give me time to breathe, to reflect, to connect, to digest at least some of what is flowing by and through and around me.

I spent some time this morning chasing parenthetical rabbits set loose by a search for “a parenthetical life.” One of the best bunnies was an article by Christopher Benfrey called “Pain and Parentheses,” which was published in The New York Review in 2014. He mentions “the most famous parenthesis in postwar literature,” which comes from Nabokov (and also provides the title for one of Billy Collins’ books of poetry:

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory.

And then Belfry says,

I found myself wondering how many other parentheses like this there were: windows in a wall of verse or prose that suddenly opened on an expanse of personal pain. Masquerading as mere asides, they might hold more punch than parentheses are usually expected to hold, more even than the surrounding sentences, and have all the more impact for their disguise as throwaways. Were such parentheses common, I wondered, and if so, why?

The answer to the first question would appear to be yes.

He goes on to weave together bracketed remarks by Elizabeth Bishop, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and others. In the middle of it all he asks,

But is it possible to imagine a life without such parentheses—not a life of unrelieved happiness, whatever that might be, but rather a life in which suffering and loss are part of our ordinary existence, not bracketed off from it, not, as we say, “compartmentalized,” but part of our mentality, momentary squalls in the ordinary weather of our shifting and evanescent moods?

His question sends me back to Rachel and Martha’s book. They wrote alternating chapters, each one telling a story of pain that was not bracketed off from existence, but was taken to be the stuff life is made of, the stuff we have to live through and live with. I have my own book that points to grief as one of life’s primary colors.

Our early understanding of the pandemic was to see it as parenthetical and it has become the heart of our global narrative over the past two years. A decade or two from now we may read these years as an insertion that has a beginning and an end, much like we look back on wars and catastrophes, but here in the middle of it all how are we to know or to feel that this is something other than real life?

Another of the search results was a haiku from Seamus Heaney:

Parenthetical Life

nothingness in store
cry not-all end in that place
you were there before

Someone called aprina.14 commented,

overall a pretty solid construction. The second line though feels a bit displaced. Like it doesn’t quite fit in, meter and meaning a year ago

and Heaney replied,

I thought a bit more about this. You’re probably too young to know the painter Bob Ross. He would have a slip of the hand and then turn a mistake into an important part of his art. He called them happy little accidents. As I thought about this haiku and your feedback (to which I agree), I thought to myself that middle line represents my life. On either side is the nothingness before death that knew no beginning and the nothingness after death that knows no end. I think that I quite agree with you about that second line…the line that between the parentheses of nothingness representing my life, it does not quite fit in. And I sure don’t know the meaning.

and added,

I agree. I forced this 5-7-5 haiku a bit. I’m going to revisit the message from a different place. Thanks for your feedback.

I started to close by saying I am a couple of weeks away on closing the parentheses on the job that allowed me the honor of being Martha and Rachel’s editor, but the six years I spent there are not something that can be left out of my story. One of the meaningful things about editing is the space to take things out and then, sometimes, put them back. Perhaps in the stories of our lives the brackets can come and go; we can use them when we need them to break the flow, to draw attention, to offer a respite, or raise a question. Then, when the time is right, we take them out and let the words fall into the flow.




  1. Keith Richards also talked about experimenting with odd tunings or playing 5 string guitar & how it helped him find more ‘happy accidents’. Brackets change the tone or volume, like dynamics in music, too: go from mf to mp as you tell some kind of aside (but maybe it needs to be noticeably softer for a reason & you’ll tell more of it later…). If all you have is words to paint your picture, use all the colors you need and so on.

  2. I like the haiku, although the first time I read it I took the hyphen as the connecter of a hyphenated word, not a sentence divider. I was confused for a moment. That’s not a bad way to be when contemplating such things.

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