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

My trouble with mother’s day

and more reflections on writing about grief and life

About two weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry about my mom’s death, Living and Grieving Beside J Butler. That entry was the first of many as I reflect on how to account for/give an account of my experiences living and grieving beside my mother and her terminal cancer.

I don’t have much to say about my trouble with mother’s day other than this: mother’s day caused a lot of trouble for me. I felt undone by the day and its painful reminder of what was missing this year. But this painful reminder is not all bad–what would it have meant if I hadn’t felt my mom’s loss? In Undoing Gender Butler writes:

Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something (19).

To not miss my mom would be to miss something even bigger: the possibility that her loss and my grief surrounding it might re-orient my perspective, from an autonomous and in-control self, to a person who not only recognizes my connections to others but acknowledges how those others shape who I am and how I might achieve (or fail to achieve) a livable life. And in a far less abstract way, to not miss my mom would be to miss that she still matters to me and that her illness and death have transformed me in ways that I never anticipated, but that I can never (nor would I want to, even if I could) undo. Hmm…maybe that isn’t any less abstract, huh? Oh well, I am still working on ways to articulate my grief/loss and on how to weave my own stories into my theoretical work.

Wow, apparently I had more to say about mother’s day than I had expected. Now I want to move onto the intended purpose of this blog: further reflections on my manuscript about living and grieving beside Butler. This morning, as I was drinking my latte from Brewberry’s, I had a sudden realization about the title and concept of my essay. “Living and grieving beside J Butler” doesn’t quite capture what I am trying to do. Then it hit me–wait, my mom’s name is Judith too! (Should I be embarrassed to admit this obvious fact? Of course, from the time that I started to seriously reflect on Butler’s work, even before my mom got sick, I recognized that they shared the same first name.) So, I want to change the title of this piece to, “Living and Grieving Beside Judith.” This revelation doesn’t merely signal a title change; it shifts my perspective on the entire essay. I am not only interested in reflecting on how I used/am using Butler’s work to make sense of my experiences with my mom’s terminal illness and death (being beside Judith Butler). I also want to reflect on how I used/am using my experiences with my mom to make sense of Butler’s work and how it fits with my own theorizing about making and staying in trouble (being beside Judith Puotinen). But wait, there’s more. There is another very important Judith in my life–my daughter, Rosemary Judith. She is named after, and in honor of, my mom. I was pregnant with her when my mom was diagnosed and when I was writing my dissertation chapter on Butler and the livable life. Her entire life has been lived beside her nana’s illness and beside me as I experienced my mom’s illness and as I reflect on/write about/teach Butler. So, the Judith in my new title (“Living and Grieving Beside Judith”) refers to three Judiths: my mom, Judith Puotinen; the subject of my teaching/writing work, Judith Butler; and my daughter, Rosemary Judith Puotinen. Then there’s me: the daughter, the scholar, the mom.

I think that this has a lot of potential…

I wrote this entire entry on my new iPad. I am still getting used to the different feel and functionality of it (as compared to my MacBook), but I like it.

Living and Grieving beside J Butler

My mom died last year on September 30, 2009. Diagnosed with an especially nasty form of cancer, pancreatic, back in October of 2005, she had defied the odds by living for four years–that’s 3 1/2 years longer than was expected.

When she was diagnosed, I was pregnant with my second child and was frantically trying to finish up the final chapter of my dissertation. That chapter was about feminist virtue ethics and Judith Butler’s work in both Precarious Life and Undoing Gender on the livable life. I wrote part of it on my laptop at the hospital while the doctors were attempting to remove my mom’s tumor (and half of her stomach). My dissertation chapter was not on grief; it was on life and how to live.  And my reading of Butler was not motivated by my recent entry into the state of impending loss–my realization of how I was undone by my mom’s not-yet-death,  but by my urgent need to make sense of what kind of life my mom could expect to have if she lived past this risky surgery.

By the time my mom died in 2009, I had spent a lot of time living with Butler. I had read, written about, presented on, and taught Precarious Life and Undoing Gender many times. And as I had watched my mom slowly, and then rapidly, deteriorate I had thought about the livable life and how she was able to hold on to so much of it for so long even as it was being stripped away from her in many big and small ways. As she refused (or was unable) to die that last six months of her life, after the second round of chemo made her too weak to even walk, I thought about Butler and I wondered about the value and limits of grieving and staying in a state of grief for too long. I even wrote about it here on this blog.

In many ways, Judith Butler has been a part of my living with and grieving the death of 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 illnesses 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 couldn’t give) the draft of 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 and making and staying in trouble.

What, you may ask, is the significance of this confession (or story or account?)? I need to think about that question some more. And I hope to write about it throughout the summer. For right now, I feel compelled to mention this connection because I randomly came across a special cluster on grief and pedagogy in the journal, Feminist Teacher. In that cluster was a moving essay by Blaise Astra Parker entitled “Losing Jay: A Meditation on Teaching While Grieving.” At the beginning of the essay, Parker recounts her experiences reading and teaching Undoing Gender in a summer seminar, “Reading Judith Butler,” which took place right after the death of her partner. Discussing the first chapter of the book, which is about mourning, she writes:

Suddenly, strangely, I was reading Butler writing about me. My physical condition–“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 finds oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why” (18), and my emotional turmoil–“Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something…” (19).

In the midst of grieving for her loss while teaching, Parker finds in Butler a resource for describing her experiences of coming undone and losing all control over her body and her emotions. My experiences with reading, teaching and thinking about Butler are different, yet this essay speaks to me, conjuring up emotions and thoughts about my mom, grieving, teaching while grieving (I taught my feminist pedagogies class on the day my mom died). And it makes me wonder, Just how does Butler fits into all of this? How has her work, particularly her ideas about the livable life and grieving, affected how I have reacted to and dealt with the impending and then eventual loss of my mom? And what do I mean by making the title of this essay, “living and grieving beside j butler”?  More to come…