Fragments of Grief, part 1

Here is the first of five fragments that I place beside each other in my experimental essay on living and grieving beside Judith:

…one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possible forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance (Undoing Gender, 18).

The idea of undergoing a transformation that one cannot know in advance is a central one for Butler and her vision of social transformation. In Undoing Gender, she discusses the value of unknowingness and of not trying to securely and definitively establish one’s plan of action prior to acting (227). For Butler, grief is central to this experience of unknowingness and the risks that we take to maintain and embrace it. Overwhelmed with sadness and exhaustion and unable to compose ourselves or deny our vulnerability to loss, we cannot pretend that we have control or that we can always know with certainty how to act or who we are. In risking unknowingness, we are transformed into individuals who don’t know, but who are willing to act anyway.

Up until the last year, when she could barely speak, my mother and I loved to talk. Frequently our conversations were inspired by my mom’s curiosity and her wonder of the world and ideas. Having been a teacher for over 20 years, she asked lots of questions and always liked to learn more about what I was reading or what I thought. Her curiosity was not motivated so much by a desire to know, but by a desire to feel and experience as many different ways of understanding as she could. She found joy in contemplating the why and how and seemed to be energized by what she didn’t and might never know. Somehow she had held onto that wonder that children seem to have, but often lose as they grow up. I inherited that wonder from her and I witness it in my daughter Rosie J everyday.

To acknowledge that we don’t know, that we are uncertain about how to proceed, doesn’t always produce anxiety and isn’t always best understood in relation to grief. To be open to undergoing a transformation of who one is in ways that one can never anticipate isn’t always to risk unknowingness. It is an invitation to wonder, to be curious and to imagine the world in new and mysterious ways. My experience of being beside my mom as she was dying and then died transformed me, to be sure. But it was more her persistence in life and how she envisioned uncertainty and unknowingness in terms of wonder and joy instead of anxiety and loss that transformed me, not her death and my grief over her loss.

More of my thoughts on this fragment: The idea of not knowing in advance, of being in a state of unknowingness and uncertainty, resonate with me and my project of staying in trouble as a virtue. They also resonate with my earlier work, in my dissertation, on Butler and radical democracy (which emphasizes the unrealizability of democracy).

In an earlier draft of the fragment I added a few more lines about another way to read risking unknowingness: as a form of faith. How does thinking about that risk as faith affect how we read the first part of Butler’s passage: “one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you…”? What are some other ways to read this acceptance?  Does Butler offer any ways (outside of psychoanalysis, that is)? The idea of rethinking unknowingness as wonder and curiosity could also be read in terms of religion and/or spirituality and faith. Did I mention that I have a BA in religion and an MA in theology, ethics and culture?

Thinking about curiosity in relation to unknowingness and staying in trouble are central to my recent work on troublemaking. I refer to them repeatedly on this blog and even structured my undergraduate class, contemporary feminist debates, around the value of feminist curiosity.

In terms of wonder and its connection to children (which I mention in my brief fragment about my mom and our conversations), I am reminded of what Cornel West has to say about it in an interview with Toni Morrison for The Nation from 2004, entitled, “Blues, Love and Politics”:

I want to come back to your point about immaturity because I want to make a distinction between “childish” and “childlike.” You see, the blues and jazz are childlike, the sense of awe and wonder and the mystery and perplexity of things. “Childish” is immature.

Structuring my essay with being beside and besides

As I indicated in my previous post, I am struggling with my essay. I got stuck thinking about how to write about Butler’s complicated and highly theoretical notion of grief and its value for politics and political and ethical projects for social transformation. Reading over the manuscript again, I feel like I am getting bogged down in the theory and losing my ability to respond and connect to Butler and grief. The section on Butler and grief seems so disconnected from my introduction of the three Judiths. Then, it came to me; I don’t want to write a straightforward academic paper in which I articulate Butler’s argument concerning grief, making sure to fully contextualize it and to properly present it, and then critically interrogate how it does/doesn’t speak to my own experiences with grief and loss. While I imagine this as a valuable project, it doesn’t fit with what I want to do right now. To write with such an overwhelming academic tone not only encourages abstraction (I am always already too prone to thinking abstractly), but it might discourage a wide range of non-academic readers from engaging with my words. This essay is not only for an academic audience. It is for anyone who reads my blog, it is for my sisters, and, most significantly, it is for the two most important Judiths in my life: my mom and my daughter.

In addition to wanting to ensure that this essay is accessible and compelling, I want to use it to experiment with how to think about my academic self (the one who is most often beside Judith Butler) in relation to the daughter self (the one who is most often beside my mom, Judith Puotinen) and the mother self (the one who is most often beside my daughter, Rosemary Judith Puotinen). My experiences with relating these selves is that they don’t always fit together easily. I frequently find that I can’t and don’t want to integrate them. Yet, even so, they somehow exist together, informing and responding to each other in unexpected ways. I think the idea of being beside and besides is instructive here. To be beside something is not to be the same as or even to be fully integrated/combined/connected to that something; it is to be next to it and/or in addition to it, but to still be connected and not fundamentally separate from it.

I think that my experiences of living with and beside grief exemplify the complicated and contradictory ways in which I negotiate these roles. I want those contradictions and complications to be represented in this text. I want to play with my different voices—voices that aren’t really fragmented or schizophrenic, but aren’t fully connected and integrated–and put them next to each other, but not always in direct conversation with each other. What would it look like to do this? Perhaps my last blog entry provides some clues. In that entry I put big chunks of Butler’s prose next to both my academic explanations and my italicized musing/asides about the texts. Maybe I should keep in the asides, along with a few story fragments of grief as a scholar, daughter and mother. For the purpose of this manuscript, I envision this placing of voices next to each other to be fairly uncomplicated. Maybe I will use different fonts or italics to represent the distinctions. In future versions of this project, I want to experiment even more—STA had a lot of cool suggestions on how to visually represent and place these texts beside each other. I can also imagine it as a wonderful digital storytelling video.

Randomly, I feel compelled to include this quick youtube clip. It makes me laugh, something I always look forward to in the midst of writing/thinking/experiencing grief.

This clip is just one of many; yes, dramatic animals is a youtube genre! I am particularly fond of the dramatic sloth and dramatic lizard.

Being Beside Oneself with grief, part 2

Right now I am writing about Butler, being beside oneself with grief and being/coming undone. For some reason, this section is giving me a lot of trouble. I think it is partly because it can be easy to get lost in Butler’s theorizing about the subject–I find myself struggling to determine when something is really important and compelling and when it is merely an intellectual exercise.

Here is what I have so far (note: my notes about this section are included in italics):

In Undoing Gender, Butler describes feeling so overwhelmed and overtaken by losing a loved one that we are beside ourselves with grief. Our feelings of sadness and loss become too much to contain and we cannot hold them in. We lose our composure and we can no longer easily or successfully control ourselves. Try as we might to deny it or to be in control of how we experience it, grief undoes our efforts to handle ourselves properly. Butler writes:

I don’t think, for instance, you can invoke a Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. You can’t say, “Oh, I’ll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I’ll apply myself to the task, and I’ll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me.” I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. One find oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why (18).

My use of the word “properly” is deliberate here. In keeping in line with my larger project on troublemaking, I am interested in what it might (or is supposed to mean) to grieve properly. What happens when we fail to do it in the ways that we are supposed to? What is the “proper” way? I am struck by how I feel, even as I constantly hear/read from others that “there is no one way to grieve” or that “everyone grieves differently,” that there are specific expectations–coming from whom?–about what grief should look like. It is important for me to think about the value of grieving improperly–this can be taken up in a lot of different ways, from “proper” rules of grieving etiquette to “proper” modes of caring for and loving the one who is dying/died.

There are all sorts of ways to interpret what it means to be undone and beside ourselves with grief. For example, we can read it as a temporary state, as something that exists fully outside of, or in complete contrast to, our ordinary existence. Or we can read it as evidence of how debilitating and damaging grief is. Or we can even read it as a challenge that is thrown at us in order for us to prove our worth and our strength of character. With all of these interpretations, grief is understood as something to endure, but to be gotten over, preferably as quickly as possible.

Butler’s invoking of the Protestant ethic is great here–makes me think of the idea of getting over it or just dealing with it. I just read, “Good Grief, It’s Plato,” a chapter from Elizabeth Spelman’s excellent book,Fruits of Sorrow. Spelman discusses Plato and his vision of proper grief as moving on and learning from that grief (as opposed to engaging in any excessive displays of grief–like crying or wailing–which is considered to be too womanly/feminizing).

Butler reads coming undone differently. She envisions it as “one of the most important resources for which we much take our bearing and find our way” (Precarious Life, 30) and argues that it reveals an important aspect of what it means to be human. Being beside ourselves with grief, in which sadness and a sense of loss, undoes us, reminds us how we are always already, by virtue of being human, “in the thrall of our relations with others that we cannot always recount or explain,” or, I might add, control, shape, or determine (19). In other words, grief reminds us that we are more than autonomous willful individuals who have complete control over ourselves–how we act, what and when we feel, and how we represent ourselves to others. It also reminds us that we are never just a self; there is always something or someone beside and besides us.

In continuing her description of how grief works, Butler speculates on that something/someone else:

Something is larger than one’s own deliberate plan or project, larger than one’s own knowing. Something takes hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside, or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable? What is it that claims us at such moments, such that we are not the masters of ourselves? In what are we tied? And by what are we seized (18)?

Butler’s language is significant here. In using tied and seized, she is interested in getting beyond the idea that we merely exist in relation to others, that we are connected to others. Right after this passage, Butler moves into her brief description of being beside ourselves and ecstasy as a better way (than relationally) for understanding how we exist in relation to others. In the interest of staying focused, I am thinking that I shouldn’t include this discussion in this essay. Still not sure…

This something or someone to whom we are tied and to whom we are seized indicates that we are vulnerable beings, always in the midst of others and always potentially undone by those others. We could, and often do, respond to this recognition of our vulnerability with varying degrees of violence: we deny that vulnerability and attempt to shore up our own sense of the invulnerable self, we lash out at those who remind us of that vulnerability, or we attempt to prove, through forceful acts, that we are not really vulnerable, or won’t ever be again. These are not the only possible responses to grief and coming undone, however. Butler wonders,

Is there something to be gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief…and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence?…If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some fear? Of are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another” (23)?

Here Butler is thinking specifically about the United States government’s response to 9/11 and their violent retribution which she mentions in her chapter in Undoing Gender but really gets into in Precarious Life. Just consider this quotation that is featured on the back cover of that book: “If we are interested in arresting cycles of violence to produce less violent outcomes, it is no doubt important to ask what, politically, might be made of grief besides a cry for war”

For Butler, recognizing our vulnerability and refusing to conceal, contain or get rid of it, is an important task of the ethical (and political) subject-self. It is central to her vision of the human and to her political and ethical projects for social transformation. And is is “one of the most important resources form which we must take our bearings and find our way” (23).

So, that’s it for now. My next section will be about why Butler’s vision/version of grief doesn’t fit with my own experiences.

By the way, I am currently writing this at Overflow Espresso Cafe–a coffee place not to far from the U of Minnesota. It’s pretty cool and relaxing, especially when school is out for the month. Check out STA’s review of the place.

Here’s one more thing I meant to add into this entry earlier. As I was writing this entry, I found myself wondering about semicolons and when and why to use them. STA directed me to this great poster. I think I want it for my office. I love these queer dinosaurs!

Being Beside Oneself with Grief

I am continuing to document and archive the writing process for my manuscript on grief, loss, and my mother’s death from pancreatic cancer. This is entry four. So far I have written about the title and posted fragments of the essay and my thoughts about it. In this entry, I want to offer up a few more fragments and describe how I will organize the essay. Before moving onto that discussion, I want to document some other details about this process:

It is a beautiful day. Mid-70s, sunny, with a slight breeze. I am listening to Regina Spektor. I began this morning, with my daily latte, writing in the backyard. I used my iPad. Now I am inside the house, in my office. I tried writing this entry on my iPad, but I am having some issues with the WordPress app (by issues I mean that I clicked out of the app briefly to refer back to my manuscript, which was in Pages, and lost my entire entry). As I type these words, I am using my MacBook. Perhaps I just need to get used to the WordPress app, but I can’t be bothered with that at this moment.

Is this more detail than you would like? Or, maybe not the right kind of detail?  I am experimenting with how to document my writing process–what to include, how to insert myself as a person-who-is-writing into this post. What do you think?

So, onto the manuscript. I plan to organize the heart of my essay around two different meanings for beside: a. to be beside oneself with emotion and b. to be beside someone else, keeping vigil and taking care. Right now I am working on (and struggling a little) with the section on being beside oneself. Central to this section is Judith Butler’s ideas about being beside oneself with grief and her valuing of grief/coming undone as “one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearing and find our way” (Precarious Life, 30). Butler argues that being in a state of grief (being overcome with grief, overwhelmed by sadness, losing control, being vulnerable, coming undone) reminds us how we are always already, by virtue of being human, “in the thrall of our relations with others that we cannot always recount or explain,” or, I might add, control/shape/determine (Undoing Gender, 19). For Butler, to be undone by others is a central part of the human experience and grief is one of the primary ways in which we are aware of/experience that undoneness. To fail or refuse to acknowledge that we are undone is to miss something really important (I mention this in entry two here).

While I agree with Butler’s assessment of grief, having experienced coming undone by grief too many times in the past four years, I find it to be lacking. Grief is not the only resource we have for making sense/being reminded of our vulnerability. It is not the only way in which we are beside ourselves. While Butler agrees, and briefly mentions rage and passion in her discussion, she focuses almost exclusively on grief (read as sadness and loss). Some attention needs to be given to these other emotions and how they are not merely additional resources (ones that exist besides grief), but they are resources that exist in the midst of (beside) grief. Here’s another emotion/feeling/affect that I want to add: joy/laughter. In my experiences of being beside the Judiths, my mom and even moreso my daughter have undone me with playfulness and laughter. They have caused me to beside myself with joy as I marvel at the beauty of life instead of the sadness of death. Now, my ideas here are not necessarily in opposition to Butler’s. She has a different project and is placing her ideas of grief and being undone in a different context. Instead, I see my inclusion of joy as another example of beside–I want to place my thinking about being undone in terms of joy/laughter next to Butler’s.

I am still working through how to articulate joy. Somehow I want to connect it to the idea that vulnerability can and should be understood in relation to death. However, it should also be understood in relation to life. Our experiences of grief and joy are not in opposition to each other and don’t occur at different times. They interrupt each other in unexpected ways. Grief/death may interrupt life (and our comfortable, in-control living of it), but life can also interrupt grief/death. Here are a few narrative fragments I want to weave into this section of my essay.

First, one about joy/life unexpectedly happening:

The social worker told us–me and my sisters–that we needed to let our mom know it was okay to let go. We needed to tell her that she had our permission to die, that we were okay with it. My sister planned a big dinner for mom and the three of us readied ourselves for the painful conversation. Just before dinner I turned on some music–The Sound of Music, one of my mom’s (and my) favorite musicals. Spontaneously I, sometimes with my sisters joining in, performed the entire musical. At one point, maybe when I was singing “The Lonely Goatherd” I realized that this was one of those big moments in my life. My mom may have been dying, but she was laughing too. Well, at least her eyes were laughing. And we were all having a lot of fun. At the end of the album, when Mother Superior sings “Climb Every Mountain,” I hit the high note! I mean, I really hit the high note–vibrato and all. We laughed and laughed and then brought my mom her dinner, forgetting all about “that conversation.” Sometimes life interrupts grief, not the other way around. Our best intentions of properly grieving are undone. Our attempts at making sense of how grief is supposed to be are troubled by life’s persistent refusal to stop happening.

Second, one illustrating how life continues, and is not thwarted by, death:

My mom was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in mid-October 2005. I was around 18 weeks pregnant with Rosie. A few days before I drove to Chicago to see her, maybe for the last time, I had an ultrasound. I found out that my baby was a girl. When I arrived at my parent’s house, I told my mom that she was going to have another granddaughter named after and in honor of her: Rosemary Judith. I was fairly certain that my mom would never meet her; the doctor had indicated that she might only have six weeks left. Six months later, my mom took a break from chemotherapy to visit us and meet her new granddaughter.

As I mentioned above, I’m still not sure what to do with these fragments. In particular, I think there’s more going on in the second one that I readily convey–something more than just the juxtaposition of life with death.

Oh, in case you can’t remember the high note at the end of “Climb Every Mountain,” here it is. And yes, I really did hit it:

The 3 Judiths

If you have been following my blog recently, you may know that I am currently writing about my experiences of working through/making sense of/troubling my mom’s illness and recent death from pancreatic cancer. This entry is the third in a series (here are part one and part two) in which I document my writing/thinking process. In the second part I wrote about my plan (which was developed as I was writing that entry) to expand my manuscript beyond living and grieving with J Butler to include two more Judiths–my mom, Judith Puotinen and my daughter, Rosemary Judith Puotinen. Since then I have been writing (first in word and now in Pages on my iPad) my manuscript (to be submitted for consideration in one journal’s special issue on mothering, grief and loss). Here is what I wrote yesterday afternoon and this morning:

In many ways, Judith Butler has been a part of my living with and grieving beside my mom. It is not so much that her work has comforted me (although it has), or allowed me to fully make sense of my mom’s illness and death (what could, really?), but that her work has always been a part of this process for me. When my mom was diagnosed I was reading and writing about Precarious Life. When my mom died I had just completed but was unable to give a presentation on Butler, Undoing Gender, and the virtue of staying in trouble. And for much of the time in between those years of diagnosis and death I was reading and thinking about Butler in relation to my own ideas about making and staying in trouble.

But just as Judith Butler has been a part of my living and grieving beside my mom, my mom and her terminal cancer has been a part of my living and grieving beside Judith Butler. My reading of, and subsequent teaching and writing about, Butler has been informed in many different ways by my mom, her illness and my experiences of struggling with her impending death. When I was in the waiting room as my mom’s tumor was being removed and I was writing about the livable life, I wasn’t only thinking about how Butler’s articulation of the livable life would shape my ideas about what was happening to my mom (and to me and the rest of my family); I was thinking about how what was happening to my mom would shape my ideas about Butler’s articulation of the livable life and her larger project about grief. My mom, and her experiences living with and dying from pancreatic cancer powerfully shaped how I read and think about grief and life and the ways in which loss and life undoes us.

To complicate this even further, my living and grieving beside Judith Butler and Judith Puotinen, have been shaped by my experiences as the mother to a third Judith, Rosemary Judith Puotinen. Throughout the past four years my daughter was beside me. I was pregnant with her when my mom was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and while I was writing my dissertation on Butler. I was breastfeeding and staying up with her almost every night while my mom was recovering from her first round of chemotherapy and as I was teaching about the ethical turn in Butler’s work. I struggled with her frequent (and very typical for a three-year old) “I hate yous” while my mom started falling down too much and as I taught a graduate class on grief and being undone in Butler’s Undoing Gender. And I marveled at her feisty and troublemaking spirit while my mom’s weak body revolted against her almost (but not quite) indestructible spirit and as I began writing about the virtue of troublemaking and troublestaying for an upcoming presentation and on my blog.

…And here is one more excerpt from that same manuscript:

This essay is an experimental attempt at juxtaposing my experiences of living and grieving beside three different Judiths: my mom, Judith Puotinen; my academic subject of study, Judith Butler; and my daughter, Rosemary Judith Puotinen. The purpose of this essay is not to connect these experiences or my narratives of them in any easy or seamless way, but to put them beside each other in the hopes of presenting one person’s tentative and unfinished account of grief, loss, motherhood and the livable (and not so livable) life.

I will use the notion of beside to organize my juxtaposition of these various narratives. But, what do I mean by beside and how does it speak to my own experiences with my mother’s diagnosis of and death from pancreatic cancer? Perhaps the most obvious way in which to understand my use of beside in this essay is this: Throughout the past four years (the liminal years in-between diagnosis and death), all three Judiths have been a central part of my life. They have literally been beside me, and beside each other, as I have struggled to make sense of and endure grief and impending loss. My engagements with each of these three Judiths occurred at the same time, all in the span of these four years. I was reading and writing about Butler’s notions of grief and the livable life at the same time that I was witnessing both my mom’s awe inspiring display of resistance to and persistence against death and my daughter’s insatiable (and infectious) desire for life. All three of these Judiths–Judith, the author of Undoing Gender; Judith, the mother struggling for a livable life and against death; and Rosemary Judith, the daughter filled with joy and the desire to engage with life–happened in the midst of each other and in the midst of my own engagements with them.

Beside suggests more than the literal meaning of being next to or in the midst of, however. I am currently experimenting with some other meanings of beside and how they might help me to organize my thoughts and this essay. Here are a few other ways I want to think about the beside in my title, “Living and Grieving Beside Judith”:

  • to display intense or excessive emotion, to be beside oneself with grief
  • to keep vigil or persistent watchful care over someone or something–to always be beside or along side of
  • to be next to but not the same as, to exist alongside someone or something that is in proximity to you but to whom you are not reducible
  • to be in addition to, to function as a break from, to be to the side of
  • to be at the edges of something, to be alongside of it but not fully inside or outside of it