In praise of Puotinen Women in this month of many Birthdays

Today, March 5th, 2012, would have been my Mom’s 70th birthday. She died on September 30th, 2009. I suppose that every year since her death, it gets a little easier to bear her birthday. That first year, I just wanted to forget it so I could deny the devastating loss. But this year, I want to remember and honor her life and the joy she brought to me and so many others. I also want to revisit some of my past memories of her, like my past reflection on her the day of her death, In memory of Judith (1942-2009), or my memories of Living (and not just grieving) beside her. I also want to watch the film about her (and some other Puotinen women) that STA and I made a few years back; I dedicated it to her:

The Farm Part II: The Puotinen Women from room34 on Vimeo.

And adding to the memories that I’ve already posted online, I want to offer up some other materials for the Judith Puotinen archive: A poem about dragonflies, written in April, 1987, shortly after her 45th birthday, and some images from her dragonfly pin collection.

Must you spoil my hours on the beach?

Just as I get my blanket straight
Wiggle my body into the accommodating sand
Comes movement like a spit-fire bomber
Zooming toward my head with the sound of a buzz saw
Swooping directly like a kamikaze pilot
And then instantly changing its course
Turning at a 90 degree angle toward the water.

Making me wonder about you dragonfly.

Sapphire blue wings of gossamer
Sprinkled with bits of glittering silver
Catching the sun like crystal mirrors
Ringing your wings like horned rimmed glasses
Around the delicate eyes of a sunbather.
Black, wormlike body directing your movements
Deliberately investigating creatures in your territory.

Pondering why your image sticks in my mind so long.

Crystalizing years after our close encounters
The intricacies of your insect nature
Finding that you are incredibly pleasing.
Recalling out of all of images of childhood
That of my beach time and your constant interruptions
Into my safe and secure world of dreams
Allowing me now the fun of investigation into your domain.

Realizing that it is indeed wonderful to be my age…

Now I actually thrill at learning about your unique jaw
And the playful nature of your buzzing and stunt pilot
Tricks which are really means of survival and territorial claims.
Not feeling ashamed but amazed by your water life
And stages of development and not least of all your
Incredible desire and instinct to eat the bane of
Minnesotan’s north wood’s life–the Mosquito!

Feeling gratitude for dragonfly antics on the beach.
Judy Puotinen
April, 1987

Wow, I love this poem and how it illustrates some of the qualities that I loved and valued most about my mom: wonder, curiosity, playfulness! How I deeply and desperately miss sitting beside her, maybe on the beach in the Keweenaw Peninsula, sharing in those qualities! This poem is especially valuable to me because it also speaks to my mom’s love of dragonflies. When my sisters and I were dividing up her stuff, I decided to take her dragonfly pin collection. I wasn’t quite sure why I picked it, but after discovering her poem in a random notebook, I know why. This poem and these pins enable me to bear witness (at least in memories) to my mom and her vibrant, joyful, creative/imaginative, always-questioning-and-wondering life. It’s nice to feel joy on her birthday, not just grief.

Part of my mom's collection

Two other important Puotinen women, both of whom share my mom’s wonderful qualities of joy, imagination and curiosity, celebrate birthdays this month. One turns the same age my mom was when she wrote her dragonfly poem, the other 6. In thinking about my mom this March, I want to also think about and celebrate these other Puotinen women (and even other Puotinen women who weren’t born in March) who carry on her legacy and embody so many of the qualities that I valued most in her.

why tumblr? here’s one answer

I love Fred Astaire (and Ginger Rogers), so when an image of him leaping, in honor of Leap Day, popped up on my Tumblr dashboard, I just had to reblog it on my “Staying in Trouble” tumblr. I tagged it with “joy”; I’m using my Tumblr blog to explore some of the more playful, fun and joyful moments of making, being in, and staying in trouble.

This image, along with 18 others, was posted on Life. Your Tumblr in Pictures. I really like their “about” description. It offers some great reasons why and how to use Tumblr in tandem with a blog or website. I like the idea of using Tumblr to provide readers with a little something extra (more content + special features). And the idea of using Tumblr to emphasize engagement and community building.

Fragments of Grief, part 3

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

I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, aproject, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. …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 (Undoing Gender, 18)?

Central to Butler’s understanding and promotion of grief is the idea that grief interrupts life as we know it or as we think we know it. Hit by waves of sadness and loss, we come undone and are forced to recognize our own dependence on others and our vulnerability in the midst of those others. This recognition is described in relation to loss: the loss of certainty, loss of autonomy, and loss of control. Butler envisions these feelings of loss as having the potential for opening us to new ways of being human and of forming connections with others.

The social worker told us 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. One of my sisters 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. Spontaneously I, sometimes with my two 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. Towards 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 our mom her dinner, forgetting all about the painful conversation we were supposed to have.

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. To have our belief in self-mastery and autonomy be interrupted by someone or something greater than us doesn’t always just signal loss and demand that we grieve; it can also signal life and joy and invite us to laugh and to live.

My mom was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in mid-October 2005. I was about 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 her: Rosemary Judith. I was fairly certain that my mom would never meet Rosie J; 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. From the moment she was born, Rosie exuded life and joy. Her spirit and joy of life were amazing and infectious; she compelled you to engage with her and the world, whether you wanted to or not.

There is something else that resides next to (beside) and in addition to (besides) grief as we struggle to make sense of our human vulnerability and the ways in which we are done and undone by others; joy is another “one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way” (18). While Butler briefly mentions the importance of joy, in the form of pleasure, she focuses her ethical and political project almost exclusively on grief. As I found out the night I sang with my sisters and as I am repeatedly reminded as I look at Rosie J, grief and joy reside in the midst of each other and sometimes in spite of each other.

More of my thoughts on this fragment: For the past several years now I have become increasingly interested in the importance of joy/playfulness/laughter as forms of productive troublemaking, critical thinking, and resistance/transformation. I want to think about how joy functions in the midst of struggle/grief/resistance instead of thinking about it as either: a. as something that is not possible in spaces where one is merely trying to survive and b. as something that only exists to provide comfort or a respite from intense grief and/or struggle. [note: having written and read extensively about joy in relation to Luce Irigaray, and to a lesser extent Cixous and Kristeva, I am not so interested in thinking of joy as jouissance and reading it primarily as pleasure–although I do believe that that is a valuable project/set of projects].

In the case of the night I sang for my mother/with my sisters, I want to read the joy that we experienced as more than a survival tactic or something that could provide a temporary break from the harsh reality of my mom’s impending death and the conversation that we needed to have about letting go. It seems to me that something deeper was going on, something that speaks to the significance of joy as that which can and does exist in the midst and independently of grief. This joy doesn’t happen in order to lessen our grief or to cope with it, instead it just happens at the same time we are grieving.

Addendum from June 3, 2010: This summer I am fortunate enough to have two writing partners to work with/be inspired by. Yesterday I discussed this section with one of them and they (Z) had a great critical comment about the joy section. Z said that she was missing the joy in this section. Instead of showing it, I simply wrote about it. She also asked, what do you mean by joy? These were very helpful comments.

My idea of joy is somewhat akin to Audre Lorde’s vision of the erotic in “The Erotic as Power” and Maria Lugones’ notion of loving playfulness in Playfulness, World-Traveling and Loving Perception”. I see joy as being fully present in life and living. To me, joy is oriented towards life, while grief is oriented towards death. More on this later…

Z thought I wasn’t able to fully convey joy in my Sound of Music fragment. I agree and I realized why. The joy in that passage still seems to be too much about grief–that moment doesn’t really interrupt the grief; it is a part of it and the process. My vision of life interrupting grief is much more connected to my experiences with my daughter Rosie J–experiences that are completely out of the context and not in proximity to grief. And they are connected to those experiences with my mom that were not about her dying, but connected me to her and how we lived besdie each other before her diagnosis. Maybe I need to connect the singing to my mom with the singing we used to do together and the singing I do with Rosie? Maybe I also need to add in another italicized fragment about Rosie-as-full-of-life?

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.

The troublemaker as a feminist killjoy (or an unhappy queer)?

I came across this cartoon in a recent New Yorker today:

Picture 1

Here is one reason (among many others) that I love this cartoon: As someone who persistently challenges the status quo and asks a lot (and I mean a lot!) of questions to myself and others, I am sometimes criticized for “taking the fun out of everything.” Uh oh. Here comes that troublemaker again. Why does she have to ask so many questions? Does she ever stop thinking? Can’t she ever just relax and have fun?

In some of her most recent work, (here and this upcoming book here), Sara Ahmed writes about these ideas in relation to (un)happiness and the feminist killjoy. Here is what she says about the feminist killjoy in her essay, “Happiness and Queer Politics“:

Say, we are seated at the dinner table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you find problematic. You respond carefully, perhaps. You might be speaking quietly, but you are beginning to feel “wound up,”recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. Let us take seriously the figure of the feminist killjoy. Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced or negated under public signs of joy?

In her larger argument, Ahmed is interested in how happiness–read here as good feelings of contentment and pleasure–gets directed toward specific futures (like marriage and the wedding day as the happiest day of your life). For her, happiness comes at a cost. It is tenuous, restrictive and it conceals the unhappiness that it produces. The feminist killjoy kills others’ joy (takes the fun out of everything) for a reason: to remind them that unhappiness is a necessary result of certain imposed visions of happiness. Ahmed suggests that feminist killjoys (and also queers who resist hetero-happiness) are important because they stay not happy (they stay in trouble, perhaps?) by refusing to be happy on the terms that are dictated by a straight world.

Ahmed sees happiness as dangerous:

  • “The risk of promoting happy queers is that the unhappiness of the world could disappear from view” (9).
  • “The good faith in queer progression [towards happiness, acceptance, contentment] can be a form of bad faith. Those of us committed to queer life know that forms of recognition are either precariously conditional–you have to be the right kind of queer by depositing your hope for happiness in the right places–or it is simply not given” (9).
  • “…it conceals the ongoing realities of discrimination, non-recognition and violence, and requires that we approximate the straight signs of civility” (9).

She concludes that: “We must stay unhappy with this world” (9). This unhappiness does not mean being sad or miserable. Ahmed believes that resisting happiness (in the form of unhappiness) “opens up other ways of being” that are not constrained by preconceived visions of happiness and the good life. These other ways of being could allow for an increase in possibilities of what could/does/should happen. In this way, queers–and feminist killjoys too?–could put the hap (as in what happens and of being perhaps) back into happiness (16).

In this essay, which I am still working through, Ahmed only briefly mentions the feminist killjoy. How is she linking this figure with the unhappy queer? I can’t wait to read her upcoming essay in Signs about the feminist killjoy (Spring 2010). In my class on feminist and queer explorations in troublemaking I am really interested in how making trouble functions in different feminist and queer contexts. It will be helpful to see how/where Ahmed places feminism within her own queer project.

I really like what Ahmed is doing in this essay. I see many connections between unhappiness/the feminist killjoy and troublemaking. Ahmed does too; at one point in the essay, she describes unhappiness as “causing misfortune or trouble” (10) and then links it with being miserable and wretched.  While it would be easy to read the connection between unhappiness, trouble and wretchedness as an argument for the impossibility of happiness (and the fundamental disconnection between happiness and trouble), this is not what Ahmed is doing. She wants to rethink what happiness could be (to put the hap back in happiness), by “rewriting it from the point of the view of the wretch” and by exploring how to “estrange us from the happiness of the familiar” (11). Happiness becomes less about contentment or following the right path (towards hetero-happiness and the good life), and more about opening up new and uncertain possibilities (more happenings, the perhaps?). This happiness relies on making trouble (unsettling, refusing visions of happiness that constrain) for others’  happiness.

I want to return to my own experiences as a feminist killjoy and as someone who has been charged with “taking the fun out of everything.” What sort of fun is being taken away when I ask lots of questions? And who said making trouble by asking lots of questions wasn’t fun? In my own experiences being labeled/dismissed as a feminist killjoy (although admittedly I don’t think I have ever been called a killjoy, maybe a buzzkill or a debbie downer), the assumption is this: having fun means not worrying which means not thinking. For many, the fear is that thinking leads to worrying (which is another word for trouble, right?) which is never any fun. But is their direct link between worrying and thinking/troubling? This past summer I wrote an entry about trouble, worry, and not thinking and how it is linked in a Travelers Insurance Commercial:

Trouble, represented as worry, is something bad that we don’t want and that we suffer through. In this commercial, the uncertainty of the world and our inevitable exposure to others–and the danger that that exposure leads to–are implicitly linked to financial insecurity and the current economic crisis. The solution is not to learn how to deal with our vulnerability (and the inevitability of uncertainty and lack of control which is part of being human) or to develop skills/strategies for staying in trouble in productive ways. Instead, the solution is to buy more insurance, thereby shoring up the illusion that we can have complete and total control over what happens to us. This enables us to stop worrying (and stop thinking) about those things we care about and start enjoying life (because, of course, thinking and enjoying are diametrically opposed). The message in this commercial is: You want to stop being troubled by your tenuous financial situation? Don’t worry. Stop losing sleep over it. Buy more insurance and then you don’t have to think about it anymore. Or, put more simply: Don’t think. It makes you worry too much. Leave the thinking to someone else, like Travelers Insurance.

But what sort of joy and enjoyment is possible when we think and when we make others think? Is it possible to imagine the dinner table differently, where asking questions leads to intense conversations or radical shifts in world views? Could it be a place of joy, imagined as something like Audre Lorde’s notion of erotic as feeling (as opposed to the traditional definition of joy/pleasure/happiness as contentment, comfort or safety)? Now, my discussion of the feminist killjoy and happiness is a departure (I think) from Ahmed and her interest in happiness. I will write a follow-up post in 2010 once I have read her specific analysis of the killjoy within feminism. I can’t wait.

As a conclusion, I just want to add: Does anyone else immediately think of Kilroy when they hear killjoy? I can’t seem to get “Mr. Roboto” by Styx out of my head. In case you weren’t thinking about that, here it is. You’re welcome.