Thursday, August 26, 2010

There Where You Are Not

The hardest thing about death is the way your senses are trailed by ghosts.

For a very long time, maybe forever, a dead one whispers into your surround and you think you see this one, there, over there.  Or you pick up the drift of her scent, the timbre of his voice.  The corners of your eyes, the backs of your ears, the edges of your palate, sometimes even the insides of your elbows are in haunting collusion with the dead; together they conspire to keep you on the switchback between sudden hope and crushing sorrow.  Even today, nearly 15 years after my friend died in an airplane crash, I sometimes think I see him, in a city where he'd never been, striding down the street in a lemon yellow raincoat, hair flapping over his eyes, grizzled rain on Halifax sidewalks.

Love conjures these ghosts; we look for those we miss everywhere. Unceasingly, as if in prayer.

We returned from Mexico to a house without Linus, but her shade is with us still, in every creak and crack and wail and cranny of the house, in sunbeams and on blankets, in our gestures and responses, our habits of listening, of moving; she remains sewn through the motions and spaces of our daily living.

We will learn new habits, but we will never entirely lose the spectral sense of emptiness that particularizes these places, here, there, where she was and is home no longer. 

This is how we feel the proximities of each death: again and again, our hearts rent like fabric, a patchwork of tearing that can only continue until we too, will die.

Linus spaces: chair and blanket, sunbeam and radiator, edge of the bath, food dish for raw liver, chair and bear, cat-clawed chair

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Solace of Colour

Grief. And Grace. II

After Linus died, and the bees came--and the wind, pinning us into one harbour after another--I began to dream in colour.  Marike and I would pack a lunch, bottles of water and gatorade, our swimsuits and snorkeling gear, and paper, brushes and boxes of paint, and head to shore.  We walked, swam, looked out to sea, and painted.  What mattered, to me anyway, was not so much the quality of the final product, but the fact of making something, the layering of colour, like a laying on of hands in our hearts.  Not healing exactly, but solar solace, a bouncing of light beams, a rendering of the world which rent us, at once awful and beautiful and more vast than we could tell.

Broken rocks for broken hearts.

Watercolour sketches, San Juanico, BCS, Mexico, 18 March 2010

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. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010


who can see how eye can know
I awaken.  Two large cat eyes, inches from my own, watch me, unblinking.  
I think about some lines from a poem by John L'Heureux, "The Thing About Cats:"

A cat is not a conscience; I'm not
saying that.
What I'm saying is
               why are they looking?

The cat looks at me this way for as long as I drift in and out of sleep. As soon as I've wakened and am truly conscious, she closes her eyes and relaxes, presses purring into my arms, catnaps.  I watch her for several minutes, taking undue pleasure in the dark stain on her nose, in each vari-coloured hair, in the black spots on the soles of her feet.  This much is clear: one of us must be on watch.

There is much to watch for.  The world is thick with demons, not all of them dangers.  Nor is everything that may be seen visible.

...who can see how eye can know?

"who can see how eye can know" is the tail section of John Hollander's picture poem, "Kitty and Bug."  It is printed many places, but I first saw it in Vicki Hearne's Adam's Task: Calling Animals By Name (1987), 244.

The full text of John L'Heureux's "The Thing About Cats" may be found here (and many other places):

The picture, of course, is of our cat, Dante, who knows most things important to know, even with her eyes shut.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


I dream that I've twisted the stem from a newly grown zucchini, revealing a flood of ants.  The image is too silly, too much like Dali to be taken seriously.  Yet it's horrifying.  An infestation in a place I never expected to find it.

Another definition of horror--and of happiness--an unfolding for which one could not have been prepared.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On Not Having One Without the Other

That's one pair. Here are others: no visible light without shade to frame its contours, no life worth living without the companionship of and consciousness of death, no love, as Vicki Hearne puts it in writing about animal training, "without teeth."

I am writing a poetic note here, one that would deserve philosophical elaboration. That too will come, given time enough. But soon.

For now I am musing on this line: "Horror stories are told to relieve the teller of the burden of judgment."  Also Vicki Hearne on dogs.  She seems, I'd say, utterly right.

How do you tell a hard story so as to put horror in its place, firmly, rather than running amuck in the world?
That will be my next job here.

Horror and cowardice.  They are also companion pieces.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


We slide towards the end of the summer and the days and nights are ravishing.  Hot sun. blue sea, the sea heather and wild roses and fireweed are in bloom; we pick handfuls of wild raspberries and blueberries as we walk along, and every night eat fresh lettuce plucked from the garden.

Yesterday we spent all afternoon on the water in the kayaks.  We ghosted along the rocky island shores listening to the water suck at the bladderwrack and periwinkles clinging to steep shelves in the intertidal zone.

The arctic terns have arrived and they scrap and dive; the young ospreys are learning to fly and the young gulls to fish.  They follow their parents, whining, frantic, but their parents, after delivering them to prime feeding grounds, just ignore them and fly away.  We laugh at this, but we are sympathetic to such plaintive suffering too--it is hard to grow up, to learn independence.  Life is full of risks.

Dante, for example, has found nests of mice all around; each morning she brings eviscerated headless offerings, tender mouse morsels no longer than half a thumb-length.

Mornings, butterflies and hummingbirds hover around the house, sipping nectar from the purple knapweed blooms.  A kingfisher shrieks as it crosses the cove, and three blue herons wade in the shallows.

Afternoons, the boards of the house creak in the heat, the gulls scrap and cry out, and always, everywhere, the steady rattle of bees.  Clouds stack up in the sky and move on, to the east or north; the wind rises, but only a little--enough to cause sheets on the line to snap and ripple.

Then evening.  The wind drops, the sun sets--the terns wings flash in the dropping light. An orange glow suffuses the landscape and then it is night.  Venus rises, the stars emerge; the moon, full and nearly full these last days, has been so bright that objects--the chairs on the porch say--throw moon shadows.

It is impossible to sorrow in such a time and place and yet, there it is, I feel it, a tinge of melancholy.  Already the days are shorter by 30 or 40 minutes; in just a few weeks (the blink of an eye), I'll be firmly tethered to the fixed grids and temporal frameworks of classrooms and meetings and paper grading.  These are not unpleasant really--often, on the contrary, I enjoy this purposeful school-based part of my life. But for a few more days (I'll try to stretch it into weeks) I relish how little thinking I must do for others, how few the borders round my imagination, my freedom to lose myself, as the French say, in the landscape, to dream and to enter--with skin and muscles and vision and appetite--into the breath of things.

Inland fresh water lake (Muskrat Lake)
Blown out Fireweed
Rock, driftwood, bladderwrack at island's edge, Bay of Isles
Bee sucking nectar from Tufted Vetch
Porch, chair, hot day
Sheets on the line
Sunset over the pond
Marike's brandied cherries

Early Morning Insomnia

I awaken before sunrise.

The loon calls.

Light streaks the clouds.

A young sparrow lands on the porch and hops about, curious, nervy, but not really afraid.

Juncos have eaten all of the ants that were infesting the porch beams.

Gulls cry out; the young whine.

Last night as the moon was rising, coyote pups began yipping and yowling; it sounded as if they were racing through the woods at the back of the pond.  Bathsheba was jumpy; they'd been pursuing something.  Dante, the cat, was still out, hiding out, but at around midnight she let me pluck her from her usual perch near the mailbox.  I kissed her and kissed her and kissed her and she slept at my side all night.

Here comes the sun, casting orange light into the shallows.

I wonder now if I can go back to sleep.

Grey water, pinkish light.

Monday, August 2, 2010


Jellyfish wash up on the beach every day of the month of July.  Their gelatinous bodies cover the rocks in the tidal zone in purple dressings, which dry to yellow-brown filmy crusts.  No one seems to know why, this year, there are so many, nor really, where they come from. By the time we see them, they are usually dying, drifting slowly into ground.

Many people hate them, but I find them lovely so long as I don't have to swim among them.  They drift on the currents, trailing their stinging tentacles, then suddenly--in contact with what?--contract, turn nearly inside out, change direction, push off and drift away.

Jellyfish.  It is, if descriptive, not a very beautiful name for this fantastical free-swimming current-drifting plankton-eating creature, this stinging invertebrate made mostly of water and a few layers of tissue--though worse still is the German die Qualle: gob, phlegm.  Other languages call "jellies" by "mythological names", as the French dictionary I consult describes the origin of the French word for this creature: meduse, from the Greek, medousa, a feminine form of the word medon, meaning, "one who rules over or guards," more specifically in this case, Medusa, the name of that mortal Gorgon with snakes for hair whose gaze was so awful she turned men (I choose my word carefully here) to stone.  Clearly, some cultures and languages are more adept at storytelling than others--Medusae (scientific name) are known as medusa in Italian, as medusa or sea-nettle in the UK, and, in Farsi, as aroos-e-daryai or "bride(s) of the sea".

I like to think of these names as I wade in the frigid waters off of Psyche Beach, photographing segments of a bloom of purple Medusozoa.  

My feet freeze and I stand still: stunned, fascinated.  No larger than my palm, these medusae--yet fear and the camera eye make them seem monstrous, huge, terrifying. They are wonderful; and unlike Medusa, at once, metaphorically potent and really constraining.  I hop aside to avoid a trailing tentacle

--which seems, all thing considered, a kind of justice.  I may frame them here, but they are not entirely in my power.  

Thanks to Lara Braitstein for the Farsi name for these creatures, and to Marie-Therese Blanc for reminding me that a large cluster of jellyfish is called a bloom.