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Roger Rosenblatt Reflects on Love, Grief, Kayaks

February 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Author Roger Rosenblatt considers grief, solace, solitude and love in the wake of his daughter's death in his new book "Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief and Small Boats." Jeffrey Brown and Rosenblatt discuss a morning out on the water and a journey through grief.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: on grief and a morning out on the water, a conversation I had recently with author Roger Rosenblatt.

“Two-and-a-half years after our 38-year-old daughter, Amy, died of an undetected anomalous right coronary artery, I have taken up kayaking.”

That’s the first line of a new book titled “Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats.” Its author is Roger Rosenblatt, long known of course to NewsHour viewers for his essays over many years on the program and, among other books, for his memoir, “Making Toast,” about his family’s first days and weeks after the death of his daughter.

And, Roger, welcome back.

ROGER ROSENBLATT, author, “Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Making Toast,” I remember when we talked about it, was partly about the ordinary things, about what happens right away, the making toast for your grandchildren.

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This, two years later, is more of a personal meditation. What happened?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, for one thing, it was a way of getting my daughter back.

When I was writing about Amy in “Making Toast,” it was a way of keeping her alive. I could keep her alive for as long as I wrote the book. And then I felt a letdown once the book came out. And I guess I just took up kayaking because I’m a loner by nature, and it’s probably the only sport at my age I can play anyway — or take up.

So, I didn’t really go out in the kayak with thinking I was going to write a book or even organize some thoughts. But, eventually, when I was out there, I realized what a good place it was to feel secluded, solitary and in touch with something. And I needed to be in touch with something because I wanted to understand the nature of grief.

JEFFREY BROWN: The kayak, of course — because we talked about writing here, too — the kayak is a kind of metaphor that you can get in, right, and paddle about. It has its own strange rules.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Exactly right. You can stay in it like a noun. It is the thing itself.

And since I talk about writing with precision and restraint, which I believe and which I admire, you cannot go wild in a kayak. You have to paddle a kayak with precision and restraint.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, you say, when it’s tipping over, you have to act counterintuitively.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes. You go in the direction that you cannot believe will save you, and it’s the only direction in which you will be saved.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the kayak morning, you’re out on — it’s Penniman’s Creek, right, off of Long Island, groping for something. Understanding? Coming to terms with grief? What?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes.

Actually, I made it quite specific. And I developed a conversation, as you note, in the book throughout with a therapist, in which she says finally, with some slight irritation, what do you want? And I say, I want her back. And then she says, quite wisely, then you will have to find a way to get her back.

And the little voyage I take in the kayak is a way to try to get my daughter back in my terms.

JEFFREY BROWN: In your terms.

But your terms always have involved words. And there’s another line where you write here, “Old words or new, now they do not help. I had believed otherwise.”

ROGER ROSENBLATT: It’s true.

When you lead a literary life and see — you see life through a book darkly, then you begin to think that words will do everything for you. But, as many people know — and this book is not for me — it’s for everybody who grieves. There’s a line in there, “Everybody grieves.”

For those who have been felled by one instance or another in which grief is the logical consequence, then words can’t be enough. You have to figure out how to live in the world or how to paddle in the world or how to move about and be useful to people and useful to yourself. And so this tiny little voyage in this creek is an effort to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of everybody grieves, you do go back here to your own experiences, reporting experiences around the world, to some horrific things you’ve seen through the years.

And it’s not so much comparing tragedies, I guess, but looking at the impact of death and . . .

ROGER ROSENBLATT: You know, Jeff, I cannot tell you why my mind went to these places.

I think it was an idea of proportion. I had lost my daughter, yes. It brought us to our knees. And then we stood up again. In Rwanda, we saw hundreds of thousands killed, in Sudan, thousands killed, in Beirut, in Belfast and other — when I was doing reporting in those areas.

I think my mind was saying in a kind of indirect way, this is the way the world turns. There’s great sadness in it. And it’s the question of how you live in a world in which there is sadness, not just your sadness, everyone’s. I was distanced. I wanted to write a story about something. The story I wanted to write was about somebody’s grief.

Now, when it’s your own grief, you begin to understand the depth of it and, frankly, the desire for silence. One of the real great advantages of being out in a kayak is, it’s very, very quiet.

JEFFREY BROWN: You said this is in part for other people.

Are you surprised by the stages — because we started talking about “Making Toast” and what that was like, what that was about — to now? Are you surprised by the path individually that you have had to go through, and are there lessons for other people?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I hope there are lessons for other people. I hope it is a useful book for other people.

I wasn’t aware of particular stages. I think I was — there was a wonderful review in The Sunday Times. And the woman who wrote the review caught what I wanted people to catch, that I wasn’t really going anywhere. It was the journey itself, just going around, that was the issue. And I land on. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean literally the kayak isn’t going anywhere and you in your own mind, right?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Exactly. I’d go to the end where the creek empties into the canal, turn around, go back, and keep going around.

But in that going-around, which is what people do, you learn something of yourself, something where you are in the world, and the great sympathy for the world.

There is one — a quotation from Philo in this book that strikes me as useful for everyone. “Be kind,” he said, “for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.” “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a great burden.”

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief and Small Boats.”