Commemoration, Grief, Celebration

The Lives They Loved is a series I wish I had known about before today. Still, now I can read what others have posted about those close to them that they have lost in the past year, taste these slices of life. I’ve had many conversations lately with people about how we neglect our grief in the United States…disregard it, pretend it is gone just as the body disappears, out of sight, ignore it in public while it tugs on our minds like a persistent child at our hems. I’ve not had a grief so close to me in my adult life like some people I know, but there have been some departures that make me see what’s to come. I’ve lost some colleagues, some old friends that I have not seen in years that I truly enjoyed knowing but was not very close to for long; not a parent, really (although there is the biological father I never met who died when I was about ten, the adopted father who has been out of my life since I was about thirteen; all in all, my therapist disagrees…I’ve mourned the loss of parents since I was set off  at birth, first to foster care, then to my current family).

I lost my grandfather but could not fully understand it at 18 (even if it was not my first death), when I was in my first year of college. When my mother and I arrived at his house late in the night, my uncles gathered there, my grandmother was huddled up, tucked into her sorrow on the couch. It was one of the first and only times I’ve seen her cry. My mother said, “Go see your grandmother.” Dutifully, but afraid of the open expression of sadness from the toughest woman I have ever known (who is still going, about to turn 87 in a few weeks), I whispered a meek and useless, “I’m sorry, Grandma,” through my own tightening throat, as I leaned down to kiss her cheek.

So while this series is now a closed submission, we can all still follow in its path. Write a snapshot, even a six word memoir, a haiku, a short list of jagged associations, memories, qualities or characteristics alongside a photo of someone you have lost. The genre, style, appropriateness, and grammar do not matter. All that matters is honesty. There is no one, right way to grieve, and the process is unending as we lose parents, children, close friends and beloved pets. There is little sense to death for any of us, especially if we choose not to acknowledge it and are sheltered from it in a culture where it becomes completely private, although surely many of us are enduring it each moment, in sharp or soft, but often unexpected thoughts, every day.

We need to make time and space to let our mortality enter into our lungs with breath, as it does and is doing, even when we cannot feel it, or when we choose to allow it without acknowledgement. Don’t we all, in our passing through each others lives, through this one sure life, deserve that much?

Related links (I include these authors’ works on death in one of my classes):

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation

Jessica Mitford’s “Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain”

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New Poem/Is it Still There

Is it Still There

 

The home that warmed you after that winter trip

downstate from Canadian border where Catholic charities

hoarded babies for those without to pick like flowers.

 

The small, blue house with a thin roof and windows

creaks and whistles, chilling the workroom

cabinets your father built to store memories.

 

The cherry china closet in the dining room,

where your mother’s Polish tchotchkes stand

among her finest dishes, an homage to her orderliness.

 

He, a woodworker, she, a nurse, took you and the boy

when you were just toddlers. Though you shared

no blood, you became one another’s keepers.

 

Family portrait: your brother’s dark curls

so contrast your blonde waves,

and your mother’s deep chestnut coif.

 

You are only a teenager here, posed

in a blue dress to match your eyes,

but soon you’d be kicked out of the picture.

 

But brother was the one they could not keep for long:

He fled in his twenties unexpectedly hemorrhaging

under his skull; no one anticipated aneurysm.

 

Now, in your fifties you live alone,

having survived the war of parentlessness twice,

one more thing we have in common.

 

But the burden of the house–leaks feeding foreclosure

in an IV drip, stretch marked cement steps

pregnant with ice–is too much labor.

 

When the snow comes to blanket us in its quiet,

everything is still:

Water hangs mid-air from gutters.

 

Sharp-edged and glittering winter wears woe

like some silent film star. She’s all contrasts:

Withering and convalescent.

 

What you mean to ask is not if the house

still stands to her elements, not if it can

distill life, eternally serve to memorialize.

 

For all that you’ve lost is greater than this,

one small, blue house that cannot hold

your father’s last incoherent words,

 

your mother’s latkes, alongside her advice

to offer me to those without to be picked like a flower,

the way she and your father picked you and your brother.

 

What you mean to ask but cannot is this:

Am I still here if I cannot be within those walls,

without the only ones I have known as my own.

 

Dec. 2015-March 2016

 

 

Wait

It’s now about thirty minutes after the time when my class ends, but I’ve just returned to my office. Just under two hours ago, I walked into my small, boxy classroom on the third floor and attempted to talk about big things like love, death, and grief as if I have any right to do so. All this in response to two letters by two vastly different men, a physicist, Richard Feynman, contacting his dead wife, and a novelist, Henry James, encouraging his friend Grace Norton through the murky-waved depression that death and grief leave in their wake. During our discussion I could not help but think of my close friend who tried to commit suicide a few years ago, while none of us knew she was depressed, or another friend whose mother did take her own life just over a year ago during holiday time. How do we wrangle experience, come to survive these big things? By placing small things, letters… then words together, and talking to ourselves and one another. As my students said: Listening. Acknowledging: Yes, this feels impossible. No, I cannot know precisely what you are enduring or feeling but still, I care, and hear you, and want to see you through this; I will help however possible. Not that words or silence do all the work, but they offer a beginning to heal.

The thing about an English class is that the content is life, not just composition, even in a composition class. What is the rhetorical situation? Why does it matter in the way we shape information and present it to our audience? Who the fuck cares outside of the class? Okay, mean, inner-student voice…but really, I promise, you will use these skills at some point! (Guess what? One of them confessed she is writing a persuasive letter to an administrator similar to what we have been working on in recent assignments!)

Tonight, after we talked about how individual the process of grieving must be–me at the front of the room well knowing that some of my students have lost siblings and parents and friends already in their short eighteen years/more than I have in my nearly forty–we talked about their final multi-genre assignment, shifting from much more important topics that we will all eventually grapple with to the much more mundane ones related to completing the course. The assignment is a fun one, but one I wish I had not waited to do until the very end of the semester, and I admitted this to them. Still, while I know there is not enough time to do the thing justice, I am thrilled to see them invested in the social justice issues they have chosen; ready to raise hell and awareness in the process.

There is the already vocal and self-identified socialist/activist writing about comprehensive sex education, the quiet girl who is always confused about everything writing about Autism because her younger brother is Autistic, the conservationist writing about anti-fracking, the adopted kid (like me) writing about global and trans-racial adoptions! Just two hours ago I felt incredibly sick; I was suddenly nauseous and my stomach was undone. All the strange stress still lingers from a series of family health crises that have just subsided…giving way to another emerging case of a family drama that I am still processing and will be for a long time, that had me folded into my fetal self, snot-smeared and sobbing. No one had died, though. But I feel afraid, and I know that people will die, and I will have to watch them suffer and struggle and be sick, and I want to help them, those I love, but it’s fucking terrible and hard to confront. But now, sitting here, though I am still going to have to sort through the myriad emotions that come with being abandoned by most of parents for better or worse, almost losing my adopted mother this summer, the idea of my family’s disintegration at the inevitable possibility of my 86.999-year-old grandmother’s death, and now the recent case of my missing biological mother and her discovery, I somehow feel a little better.

This is the thing about teaching: It will and does consume you, but not always in a terrible way. Like the act of writing a long and thoughtful letter to your dead wife, or to your friend who is grief-stricken and suicidal, or editing obituaries for loved ones of close friends as I have recently done, it is a trade that encompasses your full attention and focused time, calling upon your intellect and emotions to strike what you hope will be a precise balance in each lesson, anecdote, word choice, etc., so that even one seemingly transitory moment of informing or inspiring epiphany may reveal a realization that is brand new, as vulnerable and quivering under the sun for the person who gestates it as is ever possible. Labor. Create. As James writes,

I don’t know why we live—the gift of life comes to us from I don’t know what source or for what purpose; but I believe we can go on living for the reason that (always of course up to a certain point) life is the most valuable thing we know anything about and it is therefore presumptively a great mistake to surrender it while there is any yet left in the cup.

Both teaching and writing help me purge and sort, feel and remember again. Both will me to create, revisit, learn, and relive. I know why Richard Feynman kept sacredly sealed the love letter he wrote to his dead wife soon after her too-soon death, admitting his unyielding devotion to her, how much he misses her making up little adventures for them, how he cannot be angry that she was not able to consummate with him as she grew ill since his love was much more than such an action. He needed to say what he could no longer physically speak to her after her departure; he needed to keep his commitments to her and dedicate himself to his love for her, all evidenced on that single piece of paper, with him, close to him, the way he still wished she was, and would always be: with him and in mind, as body, blood, and breath become ink-branded pulp, a symbolic and reverent scripture of their love and shared life.

If only we could all find a person or an idea to love that much more than ourselves. Talking with my students about this and about the mundane details of how to organize their final projects took me outside of my immediate personal concerns, distracted me at times, yet still allowed me to be immersed in the greater themes that underpin those tidal anxieties, and the great courage it takes to wait until they dissipate, to wade through them when they feel all-too powerful. As Henry James says to Grace Norton:

Don’t melt too much into the universe, but be as solid and dense and fixed as you can. We all live together, and those of us who love and know, live so most. We help each other—even unconsciously, each in our own effort, we lighten the effort of others, we contribute to the sum of success, make it possible for others to live. Sorrow comes in great waves—no one can know that better than you—but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us it leaves us on the spot and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. 

May we all love bravely and resolve to wait rather than to surrender ourselves to dark undercurrents.

(The above passages are excerpted from Shaun Usher’s collection, Letters of Note)

***

In other existential news, here’s one of my long-time favorite poems.

Hap by Thomas Hardy

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so.   How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

Eating our Words

A friend that is a veterinarian, and whom I greatly respect sent me this commentary piece entitled “Life in the Wild Can Be Pretty Wild”  regarding the misconceptions that animals rights activists/vegans/vegetarians have regarding the life of animals (after being released) they so fervently defend to be free. I have several friends who are vegan, and several others who are not. What struck me is the bias and disrespectful tone that undo the author’s ability to garner a wide audience. Here’s my response.

 ***
Thanks. I found some of the other articles much more informative, and am glad you shared this. I can see some of the points of the piece, but sadly this is a perfect example of the kind of snarky backlash that occurs when we reduce sides of an argument to false binaries. The tone here is dismissive and the discussion is neither supported nor developed. In fact, this is the way I teach my students not to write when trying to enter into a controversial debate.
Of course, this is an opinion piece, which seems to give free license to rant (a right I would protect, but not suggest as a primary mode of communication). Still, such a method is ineffective in persuading anyone except those who already agree with the author, or who are too afraid, or better, too lazy to try to think for themselves and actually consider multiple perspectives on the topic. I do not believe that any educated or dedicated animal rights activist is unaware of nature’s duality, or the existence of an essential predator and prey system, or the complex system of interrelated hierarchies and ecologies we are embedded in and that we rely on.
That said, I agree that there is, as with nearly all flawed and significantly biased media, false representations of both extreme sides of the issue. For example,

Animal rights groups, seizing on the unfortunate but fortunately rare cases of real animal abuse, often demand that Byzantine laws be passed that would end the occasionally real but usually vividly imagined tortures suffered by animals in agriculture.

 

They think it’s better to turn the animals loose to bask in the sun, drink from freshwater streams, procreate on public thoroughfares and do with more frequency what bears do in the woods.

 

Let’s not be concerned about predators taking down a calf. Wolves can be trusted to do it humanely. Forget about a herd of cattle wandering somewhere in the Four Corners region during the dead of winter. They can naturally forage for themselves, even in snow that can drift 8-10 ft. deep.

 

What’s lacking here is this acknowledgment (false or reductive representations of both extreme sides of the issue, and perpetuating those), and the importance of educating people how to read such images and sensational headlines as not being the absolute truth, and more importantly not representing all perspectives of even the majority of those on one far side of an issue when many, especially when they pursue some research, will land somewhere in between.

 

We do love extremism because it’s easy to diminish what we consider as polarizing views and reduce them to caricature, and even more easy to blame the opposition than to actually attempt to respectfully disagree with some illogical points therein, or identify numerous fallacies. Here, in this piece, hasty generalizations abound and hyperbolic descriptions attempt to distract.

There is nothing wrong with a natural death, albeit sometimes a violent one. There is no preventing mortality or the many intersecting circumstances that may deliver any of us at any time. What is perhaps overlooked here is the significant difference between that and being bred/born purposefully to live in unhealthy conditions en masse in order to be killed solely for another’s gain, without any choice in the matter. Certainly, if we were to do so with our own kind, which we seem to believe deserve so much better, we’d perhaps feel some concern and consider the act “evil.” I know well that we are damaging our health and our planet as a result of factory farming.
I do eat meat. I recognize the myriad ways that I could improve things by eating more local and organic products, and it is something I strive for. Regardless of my own admission of guilt and even hypocrisy in the matter, I am not against farming, or eating animals, clearly. Eating meat less often or eating local and better quality products would still shift the conversation if more people who had the means did so. The ultimate ability for us to have the environment to sustain us or our livestock depends on these very small considerations in the present.

It’s time to invite the animal rights people to the dinner table, ask them to put down their hidden cameras and have them spend a few days on the farm.

 

Too many of them show a shocking lack of knowledge about the animals they want to free.

 

 

For those who ignore the possibilities of understanding by neglecting to pursue credible research or other thoughts on the matter, by choice or because they have not been afforded the opportunity to learn how to think critically or do not know that they do not have to take at face value whatever appears in print, and I mean those on each far side of the spectrum, actually providing such knowledge to others with dissimilar views in a fair minded way would bridge the gap. There’s plenty we could all learn from one another, and from evaluating the source of our biases.

Let me know what I should bring to the dinner table.