C is for Catharsis

Munro is my homegirl.

Tonight at Book Club, we talked about the short stories of Alice Munro. Heather picked two stories for all of us to read–“Walker Brothers Cowboy” & “Postcard”–then asked us to add a third. Mine was “Material.” (In case any of you are dying to run out and read some excellent short stories as homework, now you know where to start.)

I haven’t really read short stories since college fiction classes, and I was surprised how much I loved them all and felt immersed in the little world of each story’s characters. I was also sad to have each one end so soon, knowing I could never know the rest of the story… Not surprisingly, I identified quite a lot with one strong theme in the three stories I read: how women reconcile themselves to past relationships that are never quite resolved.

Aha. There it is again. The R-word (and we’re only on C!)…in which I found so much inspiration during last February’s blogging binge. I certainly don’t intend to have relationships dominate this round of writing, but the more my friends keep getting married or having babies or becoming Facebook official (you know, whatever), I can’t help but think about love, and I wonder, as Alice Munro seems to, why it so easily goes wrong.

Munro’s sad stories led me to today’s word:

C is for Catharsis

On “A” day, I said that one of my favorite emotions is the feeling of surprise discovery. I also really enjoy the feeling of surprise tears, and I should clarify the difference between this and sadness. I don’t enjoy being sad, but I do enjoy the rush of surprise emotion that might accompany a sad song, movie or book (or, you know, real life situation…). Or of course it’s also good when I’m so overjoyed that I unexpectedly well up. So happy tears or sad tears, it’s the unexpected part that makes them particularly enjoyable for me. (Say, the way it feels to watch the last shot in Magnolia, or to read Oskar’s Stephen Hawking letter in Extremely Loud, or to hear Sarah Siskind sing on NPR for the first time. More to come on her, btw.)

Wikipedia tells me this about catharsis:

Catharsis or katharsis (Ancient Greek: κάθαρσις) is a Greek word meaning “cleansing” or “purging.” It is derived from the verb καθαίρειν, kathairein, “to purify, purge,” and it is related to the adjective καθαρός, katharos, “pure or clean.”

Aha, and there’s the difference between cathartic tears and regular-old-sad tears: the cleanness you feel afterwards.

Unfelt feelings build up, like residue. Like your heart is the “before” shot in a Windex commercial, and it just gets worse the more you leave it alone, but catharsis brings you toward the “after” shot, when the modestly attractive lady is smiling proudly at her squeaky clean window.

And just like you have to clean your windows more than once in a lifetime, I think you have to purge bad feelings more than once sometimes, too. I envy, but don’t entirely understand, people who break up and move on forever, never looking back. I haven’t found emotional Windex strong enough for that yet. So I turn to my catharsis toolbox. Music, movies, books that help me feel my way to clean. Today I added Alice Munro, and I reached back for an old cathartic friend, “Lovin’s for Fools” by Sarah Siskind.

Here’s a new version where she sings with Bon Iver. It’s so beautiful it hurts a little, but it also leaves my heart feeling a little bit more “after” than before:


One thought on “C is for Catharsis

  1. Tears are a language for our souls. David knew they were important when he asked God to put them in His bottle and he mentioned them already being written in His book. (Ps 56:8) C is for cleansing; I like you blogging, Sarah.

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