My dog reminds me of this whole world

19 01 2015

Death sucks.

I mean, I don’t what, if anything, it’s like for the dead, but for those who live past the dead, it sucks.

Two and a-half weeks ago, Jon Katz announced on his blog, Bedlam Farm, that his charming and ornery mule, Simon, had died.

Shortly thereafter, he noted that Lenore, the “Love Dog”, was out of sorts; she died less than a week after Simon.

Then, this morning, I popped over to Love & Hisses and found Robyn Anderson’s obit for her beautiful 5-year-old tabby, Corbie.

I cried for each of these creatures.

Yes, these are animals, not people, and these are not my animals—I had never met nor expected to meet any of them—but they were familiar to me, a presence, and now they are absent.

Such absence, of course, puts me in mind of my own critters—Chelsea and Bean, Jazz before them, and the family pets before them—and made me sad all over again.

While Katz doesn’t believe in the Rainbow Bridge, as Robyn does, he does believe that his animals will have a life beyond this life. I have no such belief in life beyond life—tho’, as an agnostic, I can’t/won’t completely rule it out—but understand the desire to believe that those who were here are not gone forever, but simply moved on to another place.

As a general matter, I consider death simply a part of our condition as living creatures: we are born into life and leave it at death, or, more succinctly, everything living, dies. For some it may come too soon, others, too late, and for some, as a relief.

I would like to live a while longer, but not everlastingly longer, and to have some sense of my death, when it does finally come. It will be my end, and I will be no more—a closing, not a loss.

No, the loss is for the living, when others are no more.

Rose, RIP

12 12 2011

Sad news from Jon Katz: his beautiful heroic no-nonsense hardworking lovely lovely lovely dog Rose died Friday night.

Last Photo: Rose, a celebration

My sympathies to Jon, Maria, and the Bedlam Farm family.

(Photo and caption: Jon Katz)

The heaviness, the heaviness

17 04 2011

Family farms are amazing places.

You notice the barns, first (there’s always more than one barn), and, in Wisconsin, they tend toward the standard red. There’s usually a big barn, thirty or forty feet high, and then a smaller one, maybe around 20, 25 feet, and maybe another outbuilding, used for the farm equipment; there’s often a chicken coop thereabouts. If there’s not a silo, then there are a number of large cylindrical containers, and it’s not unusual to find a gas pump on the property.

The family farms I knew were dairy farms, and the milk-barn, where the cows went into their stalls twice daily for milking, tended to be low-ceilinged in the stalls area, although where the hay was kept there was, actually, a loft.

The farm house looked big from the outside, but it was usually quite cozy inside. The first floor would have the kitchen, a den, then maybe a formal living or dining room; the parents and kids’ bedrooms—and on these farms, there were usually a lot of kids—were on the second and third floors. Depending upon how large the family was, the younger kids would share rooms, and the older ones might have their own, or, they were all shared, divvied up by sex and age; maybe there were two full bathrooms.

Any trees on the property were near the house, or maybe there’d be a small stand to mark the edge of the property or on some spot where crops wouldn’t grow. Two-lane highways might cut through a property or serve as the dividing line between families; shoulders were gravel and often pitched steeply toward a ditch. If you came upon a tractor driving on the shoulder, you still had to swing wide around him, as the tractor usually trailed some equipment that spread across both lane and shoulder. It was rarely a problem; there’s not much traffic out on those country roads.

And there’s the smell. It’s almost always smelly on a farm, but it’s a clean smell, of manure and hay and dirt and animal, the kind you get used to and reminds you, simply, of country.

I’m thinking of one farm, in particular, as I write this, but it was the thought of another which prompted this post.

Jon Katz at Bedlam Farm posted on a 4-H visit to his mini-farm, for the kids to watch his farrier take care of his donkeys. Katz notes (correctly, I think) that urban and suburban parents today are over-protective of their kids, but that In farm areas, most families can’t afford to do that and don’t believe in it. In this and many other posts, he celebrates the hard and necessary independence of those farm kids.

Such hardy independence, however, has its risks.

As I read Katz’s post, all I could think of was RW. R. was in my brother’s class (two years ahead of me), and oh, was he a honey. He was popular with the guys, very popular with the girls, close to his younger sister J, who I later knew through theatre and track.

Word was she had to be sedated at his funeral.

R. was hit in the chest with a piece of farm equipment, and, being out in the country, was far from any hospital; by the time the ambulance got there—word was it got lost on its way to the farm—it was too late.

I think he was sixteen.

R. likely wasn’t doing anything on the day he died that he hadn’t done before, and, at sixteen, was certainly old enough to be doing anything that needed doing on that farm. He was one of those kids that Katz and I would both admire.

But as much as Katz wants to thrust the sweat and peeling paint and oh yes, the smell, into his viewers’ understandings of the family farm, as often as he cautions that there’s no such thing as a “no-kill” farm, as much as he wants us to see the hardness and the beauty of these places, the admonitions themselves often serve to turn that hard beauty into its own kind of light.

There is light there; he’s not wrong to see it. But not everything hard is beautiful and not everything beautiful is light, and sometimes what matters most of all falls beneath a heavy sight.

Dead can dance

1 11 2008

Dead dead dead. Death with a scythe. Angel of death. The big sleep. The worm crawls in, the worm crawls out.

‘Tis the season of death!

I am not a spiritual person, but the time of Halloween/Samhain/All Hallow’s Eve/All Soul’s Day brings the contemplation of death into the public realm. Usually, we Americans deal with death privately—no Day of the Dead for us! No, to be an American is to be all about life. Forward! Forward! Into the future! Death rather interrupts that ride.

Death used to structure my life—well, no, it didn’t. It’s true that I was determinedly self-destructive for over twenty years, and was firm in my sense that I had to cut out my life from under me, but this sense was more about my distaste for life than it was any appreciation for death. I wanted an end, nothing more.

It was terrifically important that I not think beyond my end. I didn’t want to ‘taint’ my suicide, didn’t want it to be a gesture or a kind of weakness, thinking that somehow it would all be better after I died. Certainly, when you’re thirteen years old and trying to kill yourself, you tend to desire surcease, if only because a permanent separation from life is unimaginable. Let me die, I thought, and it will be better.

But as I aged, and more importantly, as I considered my self-destruction as a moral issue, I determined that any notion of ‘better’, any notion of ‘after’ would muddled my understanding of what I would do. I was to kill myself because that was the correct action, the only corrective to a badly disordered existence.

The argument behind this conclusion would take me too far away from where I want to go with this post; suffice it to say that the experience of failing to kill myself (and the reaction of those around me to such failures) sharpened my sense of the necessity of a morally clean (i.e., shorn of any emotional encumbrances such as a desire for comfort) exit. In any case, the issue was the break with life, not the entrance into death.

Now that I have walked away from the artifice of self-destruction, however, I need a new relationship with death. I don’t know what an ‘ordinary’ relationship would look like, not least because it is not a part of everyday conversation, but I’d like at least to begin to think about a life that will end in the same expected/unexpected way as those around me. I never, truly, had to think before about what it means to be a mortal being.

Thomas Lynch, in an essay in today’s NY Times, notes

We humans are bound to and identified with the earth, the dirt, the humus out of which our histories and architectures rise — our monuments and memorials, cairns and catacombs, our shelters and cityscapes. This “ground sense,” to borrow William Carlos Williams’s idiom, is at the core of our humanity.

To be human is to be mortal. there’s nothing particularly original in this observation; in fact, it is such a central part of our being that artists and writers—to say nothing of religion—regularly turn this upside down and inside out and stretch this notion in order to make some sense of this fundamental boundary. What does it mean to die? What would it mean if we were to live forever? While believers may be ecstatic at the thought of eternal life in the presence of a loving God, those who consider the notion of immortality on this earth tend to take a dimmer view of things.

In Jose Saramago’s latest book, Death with Interruptions, death takes a holiday. I haven’t yet read it, but from the reviews, it’s clear that, for the inhabitants of this novel, life without death lacks sense. Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, noted that natality is the founding condition of humanity; implicit is that for natality—birth—to have any meaning, the new life must eventually come to an end. For humanity to be renewed, humans must die.

While taking the larger view, Lynch also offers a more prosaic perspective:

[T]here remains something deeply human in the way we process mortality by processing mortals in the journey between life as we know it and life as we imagine it, in whatever space the dead inhabit. Wherever the dead go or don’t, it is the duty of the living to get them to the edge of that oblivion.

Since the first cave-dwelling Neanderthal awakened next to a dead kinsman and knew something would have to be done about it, we humans have looked into the tomb or grave or fire and asked ourselves the signature questions of our species: Is that all there is? Can it happen to me? What comes next? Only the dead know the answers. And the living are well and truly haunted by them.

Considering death, we are thrown back on to ourselves. How often do we take up such considerations, take up ourselves?

We prefer, as a people, to keep such hauntings limited to a day or two a year, paint it up in costumes or guide it down the hallway of a fright house. We can tame it, master it, keep it on a leash long enough to thrill us, but leashed, nonetheless. Then we scrub ourselves clean and begin our anticipations of Christmas. Lights! Presents! And, oh yes, new birth.

Enough with the cultural gloss. What does it mean not for a people, but for a person? Marjorie Williams, trying to see past her own death, felt keenly her prospective absence from her children’s lives. ‘Who will talk to my darling girl when she gets her period? Will my son sustain that sweet enthusiasm he seems to beam most often at me?’ As she witnesses, for the last time, her nine-year-old daughter’s preparations for Halloween, she dreams forward, writing that ‘I’d just seen Alice leave for her prom, or her first real date. I’d cheated time, flipping the calendar five or six years into the future. The character I’d played was the fifty-two-year-old mother I will probably never be.’ Her children will live, without her.

But in the meantime, she lived. For awhile she comforted herself with the fact that ‘I’ll never have to pay taxes, I thought, or go to the Department of Motor Vehicles.’ None of the irritations! But, as she recognized, in not having to deal ‘with all the error and loss and love and inadequacy’ of living, ‘I won’t have to be human.’

As her life lasted beyond its expected expiration date, she, too, moved beyond this sentiment. ‘The passage of time has brought me the unlikely ability to work, simultaneously, at facing my death and loving my life.’ It was often ‘lonely’ work, she noted, but it did not take her out of her life. Death, unwanted as it was, had to be taken into account if she was to have a human life, her life.

Jon Katz makes brings together the observations of both Lynch and Williams in writing about his hospice work. He writes repeatedly of people ‘on the edge of life’, knowing they are heading into death while trying to make sense of their lives. Hospice can offer them a way to a gentle reckoning, an easing through a process which is often un-easy. On their way to death, these people become alive to him, through the stories they tell him, the presence they bring to his life. To attend to someone in their final months or weeks or days is an honor, he says, and one which deepens his appreciation for their lives and his own.

And then there are the moments after death. Lynch, as an undertaker, has written quite a lot about this (go read his book, The Undertaking), but what stays with me is a story Anne Lamott told, about the death of a friend’s mother. I can’t find the exact story (so apologies for any misremembrance), but she writes how she and the friend cared for the mother in her home, how they touched her and held her and lay next to her while she lived, and then continued caring for her after she died. They washed her entire body and, although I’m sure my imagination has added this to the story, wrapped her in a clean shroud. It was a final act of love, for her and for them.

Perhaps this stays with me because I wonder who would wash and wrap me, after my death. Who will care for me? For whom will I care? I have a complicated relationship to my own solitariness, alternately protective of and resigned to it, and although I know (or think I know) that we enter death alone, I don’t know that I want to end my life alone.

Yes, Lynch had it right. To think about death is to think about life. Thrown back on to myself, I am uncertain of whether I can catch my self, by myself.

Devil was my angel

18 10 2008

Depression is a thief.

Back up a step or two: Jon Katz blogs at Bedlam Farm, the last thing I read before turning off my computer at night, and I generally find his posts calming, and, perhaps, chastening in that just-so manner. I recommend him.

That said, I’ve been catching up on his archives, and just finished the December 2007 (and am into the Jan 2008) posts. Having read an advanced reader’s copy of his book Izzy & Lenore, I knew that he fell into a hole in this period—he refers to the ‘Black Dog’ of depression—so the posts were not unfamiliar. Still, he treats this Black Dog far more generously in these posts than he does in the book: whereas in the book he rasps to his (long-estranged/newly-reconciled) sister ‘I’m in real trouble here!’, in the posts he speaks of the redemptive power of pain, of what can be gained, of the connection between madness and creativity.

I cannot believe this. I used to, and it almost killed me.

Shit. It was probably too late to start this post, given how much there is to say. But I do at least want to note that, for some us, pain cannot be harnessed to redemption, nor can depression enable art. Believing so made it easy for me to feed my disorders, and made it even harder to leave them behind.

Depression was the thief that stayed in my home, stole my things, dismantled the framing, smashed the foundations, and cooed that it was all for the best, that, really, I couldn’t live without it. I clung to this, trusting this hollowing out of my life far more than I trusted life itself. I didn’t just believe, I knew that depression would lead me to the only redemption possible for such a deracinated life. It was only a chance un-knowing which allowed me steal back my life.

I’m glad Jon Katz made his way through his troubles, and if believing that there were some point to them helped him get through, I’m not about to criticize him. I simply cannot believe it.