death: “that cottage of darkness”

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I have cited “When Death Comes” before – early last year when things were so different. Things felt fresh but it was only an intermission – like a moderately bad dream after a true nightmare… before dawn, when things truly begin again; before spring, when things truly grow and blossom again (“I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy”). And I return to this because I continue to feel its breathing, urgent life in its acceptance of death.

When Death Comes
Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world

Photo by L.W. on Unsplash

Who we are, who we have to become and are always yet to become

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“All men contain several men inside them, and most of us bounce from one self to another without ever knowing who we are.” –The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster

“He is at least three different men, and she at least three different women.” One of Us Is Sleeping, Josefine Klougart

The dead and their identities

At different moments in our lives, we are different people. With different people, we behave as different people. We are who we need to be in our circumstances. We may embody these many people all at one time; we may embody these people at very different and distant moments.

I think now of a woman whose life has now ended, but who was at one point a young, abused wife with several children to consider, who was at another point a brave abuse survivor who became a single mother when she found the strength to leave her abuser, who was at another point still young and beautiful, meeting a married man who would father her ‘accidental’ final child but never be with her or know his son, who eventually met a new husband, who eventually gave her another identity: widow; a woman who always, somehow, made ends meet, who was loved and, by some of her children, resented, who still cared about having her hair done even in the last days. At each moment or phase, she was who she needed to be.

And then she passed away, as we all do. The end was not unexpected, as death comes for all of us. And certainly sooner for the elderly and infirm, which she was. But, despite various ailments, death had not been imminent. She had not suffered, had not struggled with dismal health. Reduced mobility, increased anxiety, more dependence on her youngest child, but nothing that made her lose her will to live. No, the time just came that her body, tired from living these many different, and often quite painful, lives, went to sleep and stayed asleep. The way we all hope to go… feeling just a little unlike herself suddenly one evening, getting into bed and not getting out of it again.

She had been living her normal life right up until that last night: ordering her new prescription glasses, having some new knickknack shelves installed, expressing anticipation about watching her soaps and other shows. But in hindsight the last couple of weeks might indicate that she had known deep down that the end was coming soon – people do seem to know sometimes. She was putting different things in place; she was offering her adult children whatever little things she had that could ease their paths; her social club (where she went and socialized actively right to the end) was quite insistent the week before she died that they have a copy of her do-not-resuscitate order on file. The signs perhaps had all been there, and she had internalized her peace with it.

The one who dies isn’t the one who lives with the aftermath, though. Those who live grapple with the aftermath: the prospect of a world without the departed. Over the course of days, weeks, even years, grieving in new and unexpected ways, often coming to terms with the identities the departed inhabited about which they had never known. And now can only glimpse or never know. And no one can know if any – or all – of those identities truly were that person. Did the departed even know him/herself?

The living

“There is no evidence of the soul except in its sudden absence. A nothingness enters, taking the place where something was before.” Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

The youngest son, the one who was closest and had cared for her day in and day out, discovered her, still and peaceful, lying exactly as she always had in sleep. He knew, immediately, but still tried to shake her gently awake. Frantic wailing came only later, garbled and panicked statements that made very little sense, all uttered in shock and the kind of inconsolable grief that comes from that shock. Later, after the initial panic of not knowing what to do, once the rest of the family, the authorities, appeared, he calmed down into fearful coherence: “What am I going to do? What am I going to do without her?”

She had always been his anchor – both the kind he never wanted, weighing him down and making him stuck somewhere, but also the kind he always needed for stability and support. What happens with the loss of that anchorage? The eternal struggle of figuring out not only who he was and is – but figuring out what his identity is and will be without her in the world. How do we define ourselves once we are motherless? A strange and painful rebirth into a world empty of the person from whom we were… birthed.

RIP with love, M.

Photo by Jacob Meyer on Unsplash

Against silence: Ellen Pao versus high-fiving white guys

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Yesterday’s talk of silences and sharing was obliquely personal, but it did then make me think about an earlier moment this year when I read Ellen Pao’s book Reset, detailing the harassment and toxic culture in which she (and many other women) worked during her time as a VC at Kleiner Perkins. The timing of the book’s publication coincides with the contemporary tidal wave of public sharing/silence-breaking taking place en masse, but it seems Pao’s gender discrimination legal case came a little bit too soon (at least to deliver her a legal victory). Nevertheless her actions, as difficult and costly they were for her personally, certainly paved the way (however invisibly) for those who have finally found a voice with which to speak up.

I didn’t find the book riveting, nor Pao’s experiences shocking or surprising. In fact it took me a long time by my standards to get through the book. It’s not boring or badly written – it’s just that this is all so familiar. We (women) have seen this same story and had these experiences, all the silently slammed doors, slights, harassment, our part (as women) being cast only as ornaments or quotas to fill but who will be, as Pao asserts many times, compliant, hopeful and helpful enough to do all the grunt work, and to keep delivering ideas, progress and revenue under the radar. All the while, standing just on the edge of the action, we watch the high-fiving other people (usually men) do as they take undeserved credit or undercut or interrupt us. It sometimes feels like they do this because they are threatened; at other times it feels like they do this because we are invisible because this is the way the world is set up – mostly white men steering the ship while the women of the world are just bobbing along in the vast ocean hoping these men will benevolently deploy a liferaft.

And it’s a quiet, almost silent, kind of suffering – you don’t even realize you are in the shit until you are well and truly in it. Pao does a good job describing that first moment of realization – that it’s not just you on the outside. No, it’s the existence of an entire culture of discrimination that dawns on you. You might at first blame yourself, think you are overly sensitive and just not used to the way things are done. But even when you realize this is an offensive and hostile environment, and that you are not the only one to think so, what recourse do you have? You are invisible. OR you are the squeaky wheel, the bitch, the “difficult to work with” one. And it is only when you have exhausted all your options that you move to the extreme (in Pao’s case, litigation). And it’s then that all the energy and resources these men have channeled into insignificant frippery, such as paint colors on their private jets and discussions on porn stars and their ‘attributes’, are turned with full force toward discrediting any source of discord in their world.

And it’s crafty. I am first to admit that when the Kleiner Perkins PR machine churned into gear and started writing unflattering and defamatory stories about Pao (about whom I knew nothing at the time), I was inclined to believe the stories because I simply was not thinking about it critically. But when you think about it – why would well-respected, mainstream publications go on the attack against this individual woman in the vicious way they did unless there were something really big at stake underneath it all? Unless someone with deep pockets felt she had to be silenced? On the surface, it would be (and was) easy to look at her allegations in almost the same way the general public scoffs at the story of the woman who famously sued McDonald’s for being burned by hot coffee: it seemed frivolous. And why? In part because the general public has no understanding of the legal tenets of the case, the actual and physical damages (third degree burns) or the fact that McDonald’s knew their coffee could cause this level of harm – and showed during discovery that they knew and had had more than 700 similar complaints over the years – and did nothing to rectify the situation. But the other, bigger part of why the public vilified the woman for her litigious greed and to this day laugh at the case as an example of America’s sue-happy culture gone-too-far is because the PR machine was at work doing its ugly smear job.

Again. Still. As always.

Perhaps the book didn’t enlighten me in any way, but I certainly noted while reading Pao’s account that sometimes pushing the worst nightmares of your life into the light is your only recourse. Even if you get burned.

“my existence is benign”

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Fifth
Irving Feldman
To move forward with the world, to be
in time with time … is innocence.
For a thousand miles the wave keeps pace,
strokes smoothly on in phase with force,
at one with the festive crowd
and one of its joyous more and more;
it buoys itself and drives ahead,
renews in the trough the power it
expends at the crest, shape it then
surpasses and leaves to lapse behind.
I love my innocence, it chants,
see my transparence, I have nothing to hide,
therefore, I cannot ever die;
my existence is benign, the air
I breathe is borrowed from no one;
the drowning see my breath, and smile
— except the evil, whose badness starves them,
monsters, they merit their bulging eyes.
I bask and sing, am smooth and shine.

The figure in the wave, kneeling, half dazed,
half drowned, battering its head on the ground,
lifted and pushed forward inches, chokes
and blusters into the water running down…
Out of time, sea-sick, sucking
the slack scum between wave and wave, here
is when you discover in the reflux
the theme of age: the falsity of innocence
— your every breath an act of power,
you live to injure, survive by murder;
while you were lethal, you were innocent;
floundering in the raging slop,
powerless now, you grasp the fact of power.
Your lung half bitter broth, you blurt:
Existence is my enemy, my life
attacks me; my past, maimed and vengeful,
returns in a wave, is heaving inside me;
my retching rises to possess me — the dead,
large with my past power, overpower me.
Grievance is death usurping my throat,
is death already speaking out as me.
— And you struggle to spit it all out,
you struggle not to go under, struggle
to assent to indeed go under as
an equal who negotiates with death.

woe, o faithless foe

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“You could damn yourself with silence but never so effectively as by running your mouth.” –Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon

We are taught to stay quiet, so quiet, so as to remain nearly invisible. We hope that we will be noticed in some way despite the enforced, expected silence. Sharing, trusting, talking too much, revealing too much is trouble. To listen is to learn. To be quiet is to fulfill what is expected, to behave in a demure and controlled fashion.

But what if the story you have to tell is important? What if it will save your life, or at least redeem it? What if giving it voice – or life – restores your posture, finally lifting the invisible yoke of self-blame, doubt, responsibility, guilt (whatever it is) from your shoulders? What if finally speaking up frees you – finally – finally – finally?

But the consequences! How well we know and how bitterly we anticipate, and often, feel the consequences. The inevitable (?) backlash, the (un)expected wrath of hostile reactions, even if there is no hint of regret for having unclipped the tongue.

It makes no difference if the self-censorship hides your own feelings, wants, needs, experiences or shields the actions or feelings of others. It makes no difference if silence weaves its cocoon around systemic injustice. It all ends the same if it is never spoken or shared.