grieving giants

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Perhaps not so many were familiar with Donald Hall – no more so than most are familiar with poets in general, poets laureate of the United States or not.

But somehow, the passing of poet Donald Hall this week has stirred me… in a very different way from how I am stirred by the horror show of current events or by my daily life and its little ups and downs. No, the poetic life and its slower, more contemplative timbre force me to calm down as well, to look back over the life, the writing, the voice of Donald Hall. To reinfuse my daily life with poetry (which is something I give thought to daily but don’t slow down enough to fully appreciate). It is perhaps my own form of meditation.

“Then I had the night
to myself. No moon, no starts, no trucks, no heifers,
no friends, no stories, and no sound. Only dark fields
and darker road, black on black, and I was alive, older
than my dark-haired father ever got to be, sleepy,
not wanting to sleep, happy, startled by happiness”
-Donald Hall, from “The Night of the Day”

 

The languages we speak

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The late poet Derek Walcott wrote: “To change your language you must change your life”. I’ve thought about this statement many times over the years, and usually find that the inverse is also true – truer even: “To change your life you must change your language”. And we speak many different languages, literal and figurative, to fit our lives.

Literal language

There are the obvious ways in which this is true. For example, in the life of a migrant, you only become integrated to a limited extent without changing your language, but you can make inroads with the literal changing and adopting of another language. The more immersive it is, the more it shapes your life (so these statements work in conjunction with each other: language changes life, life changes language).

I spoke at some length with a friend about whether a language inherently contains a power structure. We were discussing that the US and UK have buckled under the weight of crumbling infrastructure and insufficient provision for managing natural disasters/bad weather. He shared that a friend in Massachusetts boasted about how her new generator switched on automatically five times that winter, leading him to ask (once again), “What is it about Americans that makes them twist the shortcomings of the place they live into things to brag about?” I always go back to the same answer: they don’t know any better. Many everyday things (for me or for him) sound futuristic to people in America (and to some extent, the UK). “Empires”, if we could call America one, crack and crumble from within. My friend wondered if the English language contains a built-in predilection for “shitty societies”. I did not agree with this statement but thought a bit about the built-in attitude of English. He posited that something in the language creates fear and anger in its speakers that is masked by arrogance.

I admit that although I have analyzed the language – and language in general – from many points of view, I had never taken it on from this angle. I have, though, thought about the imperialism and spread of language, which then gives native speakers a sense of entitlement. He posed the question: “How else to explain why both London and NYC are crappy in similar ways?” I figured it is not so much something within the language itself so much as in its ubiquity and power. (Both places driven and developed by the original British imperialist way of thinking, the dominance of English, even among large populations of immigrants who end up united by this one powerful lingua franca, contributes.) Within the language itself, though, is it a magnet for the best or most useful elements of other languages? Has it not only overtaken other languages but plundered them for its own needs? Does the dominance of English come from how and where its imperialism ended up (North America, India, other parts of Asia, Australia), in places where dominance also meant colonization and the “conquering” people staying put and taking power – as opposed to “resource grabs” like those in Africa, where French colonialism was alive and well? Could it be the result of English having such a vast and even superfluous vocabulary.. another way of dominating just by sheer volume of words? (And we can’t even say there is one “English” – its spread and ubiquity have created all kinds of variations.)

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the questions are fascinating.

The language of self-help and personal identity

Then there are increasingly less obvious languages. For example, the language of self-help: you are told to frame yourself and your issues in a new way. The frame changes perception and eventually the language used to describe that perception. That is, you are what you think. You are the language you use. This came to mind most recently when I was listening to a young colleague who is often cuttingly direct in the language she uses, and I wonder how she would respond to softer, more diplomatic language. I also note that she notices keenly when others are as direct as she is. Would she be as effective in her role if she were softer? No. But if I were as direct and abrupt as she is, it would not suit me or work for me. Each of us, thus, forms our own (kind of) language – by which we are identified and through which we craft our own identities.

The language of failure?

Similarly, in pop-self-help and some broader psychological discussion, “failure” isn’t used when something might just be a setback. Here I think of alcoholics… do we really want to say that because someone had 90 days of sobriety and then fell off the wagon that those 90 days are a loss, a waste or a step back to square one – and their attempts a “failure”? Does the language we apply imply judgment and set the groundwork or pace for the next “slip”? That is, for an alcoholic each day sober is a success, and even if they build toward longer periods of sobriety, is their success (or failure) measured cumulatively? Maybe AA or other people measure this way. But for the person dealing with it, the language needs to be more forgiving or less judgmental.

Language of experience

Maybe certain experiences we live through do not change the literal language – the words you use – but change the whole approach, so your set of sociolinguistic approaches and cues becomes different. Maybe experiences forge within you a different person, with different eyes, who can no longer speak the same language, with the same tone you once used before the experience. This is applicable in many cases, but I think in particular about consolation, grief and the expectation of it.

How little I understood when I recently read Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in their Eyes how prescient two takeaway quotes would be:

“…perhaps the man’s fate, a life destroyed by tragedy and grief, provided me with a chance to reflect on my own worst fears. I’ve often caught myself feeling a certain guilty joy at the disasters of others, as if the fact that horrible things happened to other people meant that my own life would be exempt from such tragedies, as if I’d get a kind of safe-conduct based on some obtuse law of probability…” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

“I believed I understood that the reason we’re sometimes moved by another’s grief has to do with our atavistic fear that this grief may get transferred to us, too.” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

These thoughts stuck with me after reading the book, which I was reading as I consoled someone through and after the death of his mother. While being supportive and compassionate to him, I turned to someone else for my own kind of consolation, and discussed at length the particular kind of grief that punctuates the loss of one’s mother. He only realized then, as if becoming prepared for grief, how very devastating his own loss would eventually be when his mother passes away. It seems especially cruel and unusual that he didn’t have to wait long to be confronted by the potential for this grief: his mother suffered a fairly catastrophic setback only a couple of weeks later, which has not resulted in her death – but has opened the floodgates and made him see that his entire approach, logically, was flawed, that he could not control or know what the loss would mean or do to him. Sacheri’s points on how we are moved by another’s grief – because it is so close to what we ourselves may soon experience – was applicable.

And yet, language cannot contain this kind of grief, the fear (or confusion) it creates and the mirror it holds up to us and how we live and feel.

Language is equally inadequate for consolation. But in such cases, it’s less a spoken language and more a listening language: giving the time, patience and love to listen.

He “…went on to assure us there’s no Devil, no Satan, no Hell. There is—(maybe)—Heaven but it isn’t anywhere far away or anything special. And we demanded to know, why isn’t Heaven anything special? (You always hear of Heaven being so special.) And Daddy said, because Heaven is just two things: human love, and human patience. And all love is, is patience. Taking time. Focusing, and taking time. That’s love. This was disappointing to us! This was not anything we wanted to hear. We were too young to have a clue how special human love and human patience were, how rare and fleeting…” –A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

 

shakedown

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hello there!
Charles Bukowski
When death comes with its last cold kiss
I’ll be ready.
(I’ve already experienced my share of
deathly
kisses.)
the mad ladies who helped me
consume my hours
my years
have readied me for the
dark.

when death comes with its last cold kiss
I’ll be ready:
just another whore
come to
shake me
down.

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

Seasoned departure

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“…I used to think we escape time by disappearing into beauty. Now I see the opposite. Beauty reveals time.” from “A Lesson from the Earth” -Anne Michaels

The last year has delivered quite a walloping in terms of death.

Most are not exactly sudden, as people in our periphery grow tired, frail, ill or some combination of these traits. None necessarily fatal on its own, together create a kind of fatigue that can trigger the onset of departure. Late last year, my mother’s brother died, which was devastating for her, and left a gaping wound in the heart of our small family. During 2017 many other people succumbed. My mother’s cousin Terry, unexpectedly. Then my father’s good friend, Larry, died, not necessarily expectedly, but his health had declined in recent years. Then my dad’s mother, about a week ago (and only a week before her own birthday). Then yesterday (on the aforementioned grandmother’s birthday), my mom’s best friend for more than 35 years, Sherry, died. I know it sounds like the set-up for a joke: Terry, Larry and Sherry walk into a bar. Well, for all I know, somewhere in this universe, they are. But that’s not the point.

Death had been so much on my mind last year, entering this year, forcing me at times to move my comfort zones and expand on my sense of space and time. That is, time is not unlimited – but at the same time, does not really exist. We float through a world in which all action is interaction. What are we – or were we – without interaction? We do or did not exist. I have let myself love and let myself get hurt and do and undo all the concomitant reactions (e.g. lashing out, crying, recomposing, moving forward, and so on). To feel – and to produce something from the feeling – is somehow all there is, and what proves we are alive, proves we still have something to give – whether to another person or to the world.

Marie: “Pardon me all to hell”

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Last night, my last living grandparent died. It was not unexpected when it finally happened but was somewhat sudden in that the end came about quickly. I don’t have a lot to say about it; we were not close, she lived far away, and I didn’t really know her. I didn’t/don’t really know much of that part of the family.
But this, I suppose, is sad. I feel a certain sadness for her children, as it’s difficult to lose a parent (undoubtedly). It’s hard to come up with words about a woman I didn’t really know. When the other grandparents died, it was devastating, but I was really close to them.
I was not close to this grandmother; she was virtually a stranger. What do you say about someone whom you never really knew, whose life was defined by getting married and having children when she was a child herself and whose later life was pretty much dominated by Jehovah’s Witnesses?
I have small, incomplete memories of Marie, the distant grandmother who died, from the way my late grandfather pronounced her name, a rushed “Mree” (usually sneering or yelling), to the giant pancakes or the homemade loaves of bread she used to make.
I seem to recall that she had a crush on the late James Garner, circa Rockford Files time, which came to mind not so long ago when Mr Firewall told me about an episode (“The Empty Frame”) he had caught in reruns (yes, they are still showing Rockford in some parts of the world). The best parts happen at 42:15, when Rockford exclaims, ‘Pardon me all to hell!’
Immediately thereafter (42:30) when the episodes ‘villains’ discuss their failure to adhere to their initial socialist/hippie principles:
“Hey, David, will you knock off that stale 60s rhetoric? You’re looking at the new Jag, she wants a Kenzo wardrobe, I’m sick and tired of hearing about the pigs up on Gorki Street and the storming of the Winter Palace!”
“I’m not buying a new Jag; I’m buying a paramilitary vehicle…”
“We all sold out the day she got her first 50-dollar haircut and you and I said we liked it!”
I only saw her a handful of times in my life; the most memorable was in the early 80s. I recall that she bought some candy bars one evening, and my brother and I begged for one before bed, and in her very West Virginia way of speaking, she smiled and said, “I reckon we can have one tonight…”.
And that’s about it. May she rest in peace.

grief collective

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Facebook does not often give me reason to feel grateful. Today I feel grateful because I was able to reach out, with the platform’s immediacy, to an old (but not graduated-high-school-in-1977-old) and dear friend to express my condolences after a death in her immediate family, share in her angry grief and add to the vast chorus of voices chiming in with love and respect about my own memories of the loved one my friend lost.

Though vague and hazy childhood memories, the woman my friend and her family lost is branded in my brain as a strong, hard-working, straight-talking, no-nonsense woman. I didn’t know her well, but as a part of my friend’s family, I met her many times 30 or so years ago. For me to have retained clear memories of these personality traits in her, after three decades, she must have fully and indelibly embodied these attributes and, more than that, been able to make lasting impressions on all those she met in life. Seeing all the beautiful pictures my friend posted of this woman, her family and herself, all together, I felt such sadness for them, as you do for people who have disappeared too soon, but also the bittersweet feeling of joy you feel in observing a life well and fully lived.

These things also render one a bit helpless but wanting to help, reaching out in a flailing and fumbling way but reaching out nevertheless.

Grief, perhaps unlike death, and all its forms, is tough and unpredictable. As I have written before, it is those who remain on earth and in life who struggle:

“It’s this aftermath that’s hardest to know what to do with. The people who remain: how should they move on? Should they? I mean, do you ever really move on? Are you the same person after you experience a major loss and the kind of grief it visits upon you? Of course it – death and grieving – is a part of life; do you come out the “other side” dramatically changed because, in fact, your world is changed so significantly (because of these absences/losses)? Or is grief the engine of being exactly the same person you were in a changed world (and you start to “let go” or “stop grieving” only once you start to change in facing the new reality)?”

“’Moving on, as a concept, is for stupid people, because any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.’” -from Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter

My friend and her family have the strength of their faith to help and guide them through and to offer some kind of reason for what they are going through. But more than that, more broadly, the more we can form a loving and supportive collective, no matter how long ago our friendships flourished or how distant we are – literally or figuratively – the more we can at least be witness to the human experience in all its nuance. I won’t say it will make things easier for those left in the wake of loss, but it never hurts to reach out and offer compassion and reassurance.