Friday, August 20, 2010

Grief. And Grace

Sudden and sharp, grief cleaves us as if cleanly, but the wound is forever jagged.

You never get over sorrowing after a creature who once clung, closely, to your skin, who huddled in the curve of your hip, who attended your waking and sleeping and sickness and joy. "Nurse kitty," we called her, after her habit of looking after all of us, her closeness, her attentiveness, her insistence on grooming every one of us, licking the hairs of our heads into place.

All of us miss her in acute and particular ways, including her closest friend, dog Bathsheba, who fell into a profound and terrorized depression when Linus died; for days and months it seemed, Sheba sank wearily onto her bed, limbs cracking and creaking. Big sighs: nothing in the world seemed to count anymore.  We worried that she might give up too soon, herself, on living. 

But here, the end of the summer, and we do all go on, managing now joy and not (always) nightmares.  It has taken months for me to muster the courage to tell this story.

I think again and again of the last lines in Toni Morrison's Sula, when one character realizes, years later, just how much she has missed her friend.  Sorrow has dogged her, hovered just out of sight, like a little ball, off to one side of her head.  But she never turns to look at it.  And then one day dead awakens, becomes memory, words, then "not even words. Wishes, longings...A soft ball of fur [breaks] and [scatters] like dandelion spores in the breeze."  The loss of her friend Sula presses down upon Nel and she cries out.  Morrison's story ends here, with this description of uncontainable grief:  "It was a fine cry--loud and long--but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow."  Here is something I know--we know--in living with our surviving animals after the trauma of Linus's death: Rilke got it wrong.  So too did Levinas.  Not only "our eyes are turned backward..." Any animal, and not only humans, is

twisted around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away...Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops, lingers--,
so we live here, forever taking leave.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, VIII, trans. Stephen Mitchell)

We all have faces, inward looking eyes; all of us know something of our own mortality. If you doubt this, go sit in a vet's office where animals are daily put to death and watch them, even the most aged and lame, resist crossing the threshold--or else pass, head down, already resigned to the death sentence.  Look into the eyes of cattle destined for slaughter and see if you don't recognize there, that "recognition of mortality" Levinas believed was so crucial to having a "face" that could command the ethical imperative, "thou shalt not kill."  --But enough of this; already I am off topic.  These are arguments for another day.  What I wanted to talk about was grief. And grace.

Here, notes from my journal, a sequence of days.

Cats Bees Broken Hearts

12 March 2010  
Puerto Escondido, BCS, Mexico 

Something worse than the worst thing I can imagine (have ever imagined) happened yesterday morning--Linus was cornered and trapped on our porch by a neighbour's two huskies, who had escaped, and killed. Elisabeth and Sheba witnessed it--Elisabeth's hands hurt as she was trying to get Linus away from the dogs.  She kicked them, finally lifted the broken cat body above her head and got her inside.  But Linus soon died. Dante cat has disappeared.  No one knows if she too was mauled or killed or has just run away in terror.  It is cold again in Nova Scotia.

Elisabeth buried Linie with the help of neighbours John and Paulette today; she is under a pile of rocks back by the garden where Binky and Negrita and Tiger are also buried.

Here, the wind blows and we are heartsick. I feel hollow, like an empty broken thing. Fell out of the dinghy and into the water today, I was so upset.  Fully clothed in foul weather gear.  It does not float.  But the water was warm, at least.  Our friend Allister, who is visiting for ten days, jumped down into the dinghy and hauled me out of the water, for I was laughing and weeping and couldn't pull myself up.  My arms had gone rubbery and useless.

14 March 2010
Isla Carmen, Ballandra Cove

How do you address a sorrow wider than your body and range, a sorrow that rips you open, flays you, empties you of joy? Dante still not found.
We are anchored in Ballandra.  Violet flowers scent the night air; the stars come out; the sun rises and the bees come, hunting for water.  Northerlies are on the way, but for the moment we're sheltered and resting. A hard sail yesterday--surprisingly high winds on the last tack and we were over-canvassed, boat dogging in short period steep waves.  Not a very long trip but I was violently sick, hardly able to hold on, physically or emotionally.  I have to find my center, some place where I might hold onto my stomach, but I don't quite know how.  

Still waiting for Dante, calling her, calling her in the sleepless nights.  I'm exhausted, sick to my stomach.  Have to rest.  Have to push away the sorrow, develop some other project.  I think, I am in Mexico, where calaveras are treasured; I have to make some pompes funebres for my little ones, some ritual offerings, some celebration.

Bees fill the cabin. They are seeking our washcloths. I hang them out, but Marike is made frightened by so many buzzing insects. Each one a potential death sentence.  I don't want to kill a single one, so put on gloves, shake the washcloths, drop them into a bag.  We light mosquito coils, and bit by bit the bees disperse.

What shall I collect for my precious ones; what toys would delight their souls?  I think of flowers and feathers and small shells to bat around.  But my arms are empty, my heard afraid.  It never occurred to me we could lose both cats in one swoop.
Fear is the field where courage grows. I have not to be afraid to go on living. Well.  With joy and warmth and hanging on, as Linus and Dante would do if they could.  I imagine holding a kitten, playing.  This is not a replacement, but eyes that look back and fur and joy so that I may remember how marvelous life can be.  Hope.  Fear is the field where courage grows. But where can I find hope?  I have not to close my eyes.  

The wind comes up 
and a dozen buzzards circle in the gap 
between mountains, drop; 
now ten are lined up on the beach.  
They totter along the ground, some flap 
their wings, naked red heads pointed seaward.   

What sorrow draws you thus, 
I want to ask them.
Haven't we walked enough beneath
the shadows of your wings,
dogged by death?
They wait for more
and the wind carries them.
Meanwhile I sit leaden, sorrowing,
too many absent already this year. 

The bees land on me
their feet fur soft
I know they would comfort me if I were not afraid of them.
I know they would comfort me if I were not afraid.

Dante emerges from hiding!!!

15 March Benito Juarez Day
Strong northerlies 

The bees sip water from every surface:
condensation on the side of a yoghurt container
the residue of dishwater on a cup,
but too much and they drown--
the buckets on the stern accumulate carcasses. 

16 March

Hooting northerlies, so still holed up here.  One boat left this morning early, after what seemed to be a benign weather forecast.  Within half an hour they'd radioed back: northerly winds of 25-30 knots and 5-6 foot swells, on the nose for those of us heading north.  We decided to stay put, though in the silent spaces between gusts now and then we'll call out, okay, let's go! as if anyone could get anywhere in a 40-second calm.  We sail at anchor in those 30-knot gusts and watch the spray mount at the edges of the bay.  Pelicans gather in the lee behind the boats, floating, and buzzards line the beaches, rising and falling in the thermals, then resting. 

The surf has cleared the beaches of stones, sucking them away, so for once the sand is soft enough to walk the strand barefoot.  And the bees continue to stream to the boat, but they are dying in increasing numbers, drowning themselves in coffee, yoghurt, sink drains, buckets.  I pluck them out by the dozens. 

Bees swarming the paintboxes on
the beach today,
bees drowning in yellow ochre
                           ultra marine
                           burnt sienna.

I am dreaming in colour and it is a solace, as if I am visited by Linus's soul. 

Watercolour sketches of Linus (2009) and three views of mountains and sea from Ballandra Cove (16 March 2010).

Quotations from Toni Morrison, Sula. New York: Plume/New American Library, 1973, are from pp. 171 and 174.

I've also quoted from Rainer Maria Rilke's Eighth Duino Elegy. Ed and Trans Stephen Mitchell, in the bilingual edition, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.  New York: Vintage Books, 1982, pp. 195, 197.
To be fair, I am characterizing re-readings of Levinas on animals, in particular his 1975 discussion of "Bobby," a dog that for a time visited the philosopher and his fellow Jewish prisoners of war company in the camp near Hannover, Germany where Levinas was kept from 1940 until the end of the war: 
"And then, about half way through our long captivity, for a few short
    weeks, before the sentinels chased him away, a wandering dog entered
    our lives. One day he came to meet this rabble as we returned under
    guard from work. He survived in some wild patch in the region of the
    camp. But we called him Bobby, an exotic name, as one does with a
    cherished dog. He would appear at morning assembly and was waiting
    for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight.
    For him, there was no doubt that we were men." 153) 
Levinas, Emmanuel. "The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights." Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Trans. Sean Hand. London: Athlone, 1990. 151-53.

See also John Llewelyn, "Am I Obsessed by Bobby? (Humanism of the Other Animal)," in Re-Reading Levinas.  Ed. Robert Bernasconi and Simon Crichtly.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991,

Cary Wolfe, "In the Shadow of Wittgenstein's Lion: Language, Ethics, and the Question of the Animal." In Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003, pp. 54-62 and 
Tom Herron "The dog man: becoming animal in Coetzee's disgrace". Twentieth Century Literature (Winter 2005).

Further significant reflections on these points--and engagement with these texts is to come, here and elsewhere. 

1 comment:

  1. Oh. dear, dear Karin.

    I laud you for doing this, so finely, so firmly and yes, you have told the story very, very gracefully.

    May grace now be yours.

    (I wept)