Fragments of Grief, part 4

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

…it becomes a question for ethics, I think, not only when we ask the personal question, what makes my own life bearable, but when we ask…what makes, or ought to make, the lives of others bearable (Undoing Gender, 17)?

Butler connects her theorizing of grief to the question of what makes life bearable and livable. Distinguishing the livable life from the basic material conditions that make life possible, Butler wants to think about how and when lives are and aren’t deemed recognizable and worthy of life and of being grieved (Undoing Gender, 39).

I was never afraid to lose my mom. Okay, that’s not true. Before my mom was diagnosed I couldn’t imagine how I could ever live without her. Her death was the one I feared most, even more than my own. Yet once I learned she would die soon, it wasn’t her impending death that made me come undone; it was her life and what would it mean for her (and for me) if she lived, without half of her stomach, always haunted by death, not knowing when the cancer would come back or when she would no longer be able to walk. As sad as knowing she would die soon made me, I knew I could handle her death. I wasn’t sure that I could handle her painful, yet inevitable, journey towards it.

Butler contrasts her notion of the livable/bearable life with the good life and argues that the good life is only available to people whose lives are already possible and recognizable and who don’t have to devote most of their energy to figuring out ways to survive and persist (Undoing Gender, 31-32). For her, the question of the livable life must necessarily precede the question of the good life, because to strive for a good life, one must first be recognized as having a life (Undoing Gender, 205).

My mom started falling down a lot. It wasn’t safe for her to be alone. The decision was made to begin hospice care. She was no longer living with cancer; she was dying from it. She had entered the final stage. Any thoughts about a cure or remission—that hope for a good life to be achieved again in the future—was replaced by practical discussions of how to ensure that she continued to have a comfortable life that was free of pain. The good or even livable life were no longer possible for her. The best she could hope for was the bearable life. And what she could expect (and eventually did reach) was something that seemed even less than the bare minimum requirements of life. Yet, even as I witnessed her decline and the resultant shift from good to livable to bearable to unbearable life, I can’t really make sense of her experiences of those last four years (or even the last six months) as just surviving until the inevitable. Up until those last days, years after she was supposed to die, she lived and, in moments, however fleeting, flourished. She enjoyed life, she laughed, and she loved her daughters, her grandchildren and my dad.

What makes for the livable life? How do we distinguish that life from ones that are merely bearable or others that flourish? Who gets to make this distinction and how do they do it? My mother’s living and dying with pancreatic cancer pushed at the limits of my understandings of life and how and when it is possible.

Some questions prompted by this fragment: This idea of the livable vs the good life speaks to my interest in virtue ethics. What would a virtue ethics based on the livable life as opposed to the good life look like?

I am struck by the slippage  in Butler’s text between the livable and bearable life. What are the differences between these two forms of life? How did my mom, as she attempted to balance her medications and struggled to cope with ever-decreasing mobility, slip between the livable and bearable life?

How does thinking about my experiences living and grieving beside my mom in relation to the livable life (as opposed to the grievable life) shift my perspective on the entire process? What links can I draw between the livable life and care giving and receiving? In the context of a person living and dying with pancreatic cancer, what types of care are required for the livable life?

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 2

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

The attempt to foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration, is surely also to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way (Undoing Gender, 23).

In Precarious Life, Undoing Gender, and Frames of War, Butler repeatedly emphasizes the importance of grief and vulnerability. She discusses the value of grief in relation to those who have been denied the right to grieve their loved ones and/or have had their own lives considered not worthy of grieving, and therefore not fully human. She also describes how grief, as a state of being and as a non-violent response to others, is urgently needed if we are “interested in arresting cycles of violence” (Precarious Life). Much of Butler’s discussion of grief is in the context of two specific historical, cultural, social events: the AIDS crisis and GLBTQ communities’ inability to grieve their lost loved ones and post 9/11 and the U.S. government’s quick and very violent response to the terrorist attacks in New York City. In these situations grief is the thing needed because grief has been so unjustly or unwisely denied and/or foreclosed.

But, even as Butler devotes considerable attention to specific contexts in which grief needs to be promoted, she has grander aims for how and why we should value grief. She believes that grief is a valuable state to be in and is an important part of what it means to be human. Grief, and the vulnerability and sociality of the self that it reveals, help to guide us as we struggle to develop less violent ways to exist in the midst of/beside others.

I was always so tired. I had been living with my mom’s impending death for 3 years and she was really starting to look bad. My dad warned me that it would probably get a lot worse. My daughter had just turned three and was entering a new phase, the “I hate you” phase. With no warning and for no apparent reason, she would matter-of-factly state, “I hate you.” It was really hard to hear. I wondered, how can I be a good mother when I am sad all of the time? What is it doing to my daughter to live in the shadow of this death and my grief over it? Were her repeated declarations of hate more than a phase that all 3 year olds go through? Was she trying to warn me that I was failing as a mom and remind me that I was more than a daughter losing a mom, but also a mother who needed to care for her daughter?

While I agree that being in a state of grief is valuable and can help to remind us of our vulnerability in the midst of others, it can also place unrealistic and unhealthy demands on us. It is difficult to balance the need and/or desire to grieve with the demand to care for others. Are there other resources, aside from grief, that can guide us as we navigate the difficult terrain of being a daughter losing a mother and a mother raising a daughter?

The first two years of my mom’s terminal illness weren’t too bad. Even though she had been diagnosed with a death sentence (6 months to live), she was able to qualify for surgery and undergo chemotherapy. She experienced a miracle recovery, welcomed two new grandchildren into the world, and traveled to Paris and Sydney. Then the tumor came back. Slowly she deteriorated. First one of her wrists became numb so she couldn’t do any of her artwork. Then her anxiety and the morphine she had been taking daily for two years already made it almost impossible for her to read. Then she started falling down a lot. Suddenly one day she couldn’t walk. My sisters and my dad arranged for hospice at home. We thought she was about to die, but we were wrong. She looked terrible. She couldn’t talk. She could barely eat. She slept a lot. Yet she continued to live. To me she was already gone. I wanted desperately to grieve her loss, but I couldn’t; she was still alive. I was tired of being in a state of grief, yet not able to grieve. Tired of witnessing her suffering and feeling helpless and unable to alleviate it. Four years of waiting, with uncertainty, for her death is a long time.

As someone who has spent the last four years grieving for a mother dying an excruciatingly slow and painful death, I am not interested in mining the ethical and transformative possibilities of grief. I don’t want to keep grieving; I want to stop grieving and I want to think about what other resources I have for guiding me as I attempt to recognize and live with my vulnerability. What about humor, joy or even wonder? Are there ways to think about risking uncertainty and our unknowingness that are not connected to violence and grief as something that is only negative and that always signals loss–-of control, of autonomy, of stability?

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.