Tragedy sparks 'sublime grief' for Great Barrington teacher

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Beth Robbins is curled up near her pellet stove, where she'll spend the rest of this snow day grading her students' papers about Dante's "Inferno."

Robbins, 58, well knows the dark woods, the lamentations, the torture of the journey, as if she had been through the nine circles of hell herself after the sudden death of her husband in 2015.

But today, she talks about her return into the light. It's akin to a resurrection, because "the missing doesn't stop."

"It's always right there — a foot in both worlds," she said. "That's a path. That's a tremendous paradox. Presence and absence. Joy and despair."

The in-between place she likes to call the "liminal."

The Berkshire Waldorf High School English and drama teacher began teaching Dante before her husband of 29 years, Steve Meyerowitz, died in a car crash at age 65. But ever since, she has found herself living into the poetry she loves and teaches — mostly the 19th-century romantics.

In her journals, she wrote to her husband. She wrote to her poets — mostly Keats. She honed all this into a story while studying literature at Oxford University the summer after he died, and four years later, a book is born: "A Grief Sublime."

A book launch, signing and reading Saturday at Shakespeare & Company will honor the community that supported her from the moment her husband died. The free event also will celebrate all that has happened since she settled on her final edits.

The former editor started her own publishing company, Keats & Co. Publishers. She already has a few new submissions from other writers, apart from her own book.

But it doesn't end there.

An Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker already has made a short film about it, starring Robbins as herself and shot entirely in the Berkshires with a local cast. The film is in postproduction, and her friend Cynthia Wade, whom she met when she started boxing after Meyerowitz died, is submitting it to film festivals.

Then came the audiobook, produced by author and voice artist Alison Larkin, and starring actors Karen Allen and James Warwick, who also is a Shakespeare & Company director. All will be on hand Saturday for a discussion and reading.

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"It continues to be a paradox," Robbins said. "There's a lot of excitement and joy and yet it comes out of Steve's death."

And through all of it, Robbins realized she has been on a hero's journey.

"In a classic sense, where I had to discover who I was — who I was by myself."

She is grateful for what came out of suffering.

"These are the gifts of tragedy," she said. "To experience gratitude as a tangible thing, as the basis to enter into this new life."

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'This cannot be my story'

Keats and the other poets helped, for Robbins had some serious transmuting to do.

"Steve is hours late. The lights flash red. I think: Don't answer the door," she writes at the beginning of the book, of the moment the news came, she still in her pajamas. "I ignore the men outside. But they do not leave ... This is not my story. This cannot be my story."

Two policemen are at her door. She finally opens it. One is young and terrified. The other is experienced, and he's the one who tells her.

But the poets kept helping.

"Keats' theory of negative capability — when you're able to rest in this place of uncertainty, without seeking the conclusive," she said. "It's a very zen state of being."

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Keats said that state also was the state of the best poets. His poem "Ode to a Nightingale" became a spiritual anchor for Robbins, and whenever she started to panic, this line from it was her mantra: "... though the dull brain perplexes and retards ..."

"It became the way I actually stopped myself from drowning," she said.

In the book, she describes falling in love with Meyerowitz all over again, and how it was death's doing. She weaves in heartbreaking and hilarious memories about a man who loved 1940s music, and performers like Laurel and Hardy, and also was one in the '40s style himself.

She recalls the moment when their love affair went deeper — while clutching each other amid desperate seasickness on a whale-watching boat. Or Meyerowitz sobbing on the phone to her after the dog died on the way to the veterinarian.

Then there was having to get married twice, since his astrologer said the best date for the actual marriage was not going to be practical for the Manhattan restaurant rooftop wedding.

The couple moved to the Berkshires from New York City in 1985. With Meyerowitz, the effervescent sprouting and juicing guru known as the "Sproutman," Robbins raised three children. Their two sons, Noah, 20, and Ari, 29, have continued their father's business, and continue to fly their father's plane. Their daughter, Gabrielle, 31, is an artist in Manhattan.

Meyerowitz's exuberance and interest in others, well-known in the Berkshires and beyond, is still with her.

"When Steve first died, I remember Noah said that he wanted to greet everyone with a smile and be joyful as a way of honoring his father," Robbins said.

Robbins said that when she saw her youngest clearing the driveway and paths with the snowblower after Monday night's storm, he was just like his father.

"He waved and smiled. Dug my car out," she said. "He was smiling."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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