Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bright side of grief: for Y

There is something lovely about cross-blog dialogue with friends...

Y, who lost her father this spring, posted recently on her blog (to which I cannot provide a link cuz she's all private and stuff. She's probably one of possibly 3 people who will read this anyway) about the "upside of grief." Something I've been thinking about--what follows is the rough draft of a stream-of-consciousness meditation. Don't expect conclusions or convictions.

Maybe there are two kinds of grief.

Every life naturally includes death and loss, even unexpected death and loss. But (as Donald Rumsfeld would have it), there are expected unexpecteds and then there are unexpected unexpecteds. We will, in the natural order of things, lose our grandparents and then our parents. Teachers. Mentors. We will outlive our pets, unless we own turtles. It doesn't hurt any less at the moment of loss to know that this is the natural order of things, but I think it means that there will be a natural arc to our grief, and it will emerge into an "upside." The upside may be nothing more than the human tendency to learn from experience. What does not kill us makes us stronger precisely because it did not kill us. We get through it, we are reflective beings, we look back on how we got through it, and thus we gain in self-knowledge and emotional depth...and hence, we are stronger.

But you never hear someone say after losing a child, or their entire family in a bombing raid, that it made them stronger. There are deaths that, because they invert the natural order of who-dies-first, or because they pile on top of each other and fresh grief interrupts past grieving, never get processed into stages of grief, or narratives that dip down into dark places and then emerge into upsides. The privilege of living away from war, away from mass urban violence, protected from disease epidemics and the immediate impact of natural disasters, is not that we will never know grief, it is that we will only get to know the grief that we will be able to make sense of.

I write this as I work on a chapter of a book dealing with the first century of Spanish colonization of Mexico. In the annual kerfluffle over Columbus Day, or when Mel Gibson made Apocalypto, it is inevitably suggested that the Spanish conquest wasn't all that different from the Mexica (the group ruled by Moctezuma, commonly referred to today as Aztecs but that's an anachronism) conquest of the ethnic groups of central Mexico in the century prior (or the Inca conquest of the Andes during the same period, or the Maya in Southern Mexico and Central America centuries before). It is true that the indigenous Mexicans practiced ritual warfare and sacrifice; the Spaniards certainly did not introduce warfare or violent death to the peninsula. But --- steel yourself, huge leap here --- these wars, which fit into a religious narrative and had set codes and calendars--made sense to the participants. Families surely grieved for lost loved ones. But it was a grief that made sense, that you worked through and processed and found an "upside". That "upside" may have been quite distinct from the personal narrative of self-discovery and inner strength that Y or I might find today from the deaths of our father or dog. But the point is, the Spanish conquest (especially because of the introduction of epidemics) was that other kind of grief--the kind that "unmade the world," that didn't fit into a "natural order of things" (in quotes because what seemed "natural" to the indigenous Mexicans might in no way seem natural to us now) and thus provided no opportunity for natural recovery, natural resilience, natural narratives. There certainly are, even today, indigenous communities in Mexico that have preserved their language and customs (and, it's worth mentioning, there are historians who challenge the unmaking-the-world narrative of the conquest). But I don't think you'd find too many that look back to the conquest and find an upside.

So the Tigers traded away Austin Jackson today for David Price. Ajax wasn't my #1 favorite player (that would be Victor Martinez, on the current roster) but he was in the top 5. Time will tell which kind of grief this is.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

RIP Dekker

Crazy crazy sad coincidences.
I was halfway through a Sancha adventure post I started yesterday about taking her to pick out my mom's fancy schmancy new puppy over Xmas (her Xmas/60th bday gift from me and her husband). The story was mostly about Sancha's adventures with said puppy's food the day after, but now it will have to wait.

We saw the litter, but they were too young to take one home  At that point we didn't know which one would be my mom's, but a few weeks later my mom went back and got Dekker. He has been doing wonderfully: happy, friendly, healthy. About a month ago my mom asked if I could take him December-March because she was going to England. So I was looking forward to having a little white floofball in my life...A few days ago, my mom texted me that he was "turning into a real dog. Less work but fewer moments of pure joy." (I responded that we had noticed the same thing about her over the last 15 years, she said to give her 15 more and the childlike wonder would return...)  This weekend my mom and her husband were flying to Cape Cod for her father's bday--it was to be Dekker's  first stay at a boarding facility.

According to the people at the facility, he had a great day...and then this morning, he didn't wake up. The vet confirmed that there was no trauma or any sign of abuse or attack. His lungs had collapsed. No idea why. 8 months old.

On my first night in Chicago, a little over a week ago, I posted about how similar everything felt to my trip here in May, when I got a call the first morning... when nothing terrible happened on morning 2, I thought I had dodged a bullet. The bullet just veered 3000 miles west.

RIP Dekker. Give Sancha my regards and keep her company.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sancha as process

While helping J transfer books from boxes to shelf in his new place (and I cannot emphasize enough how little actual help I provided, since my need for coherent organizing principles, plus my interest in reading the books themselves, impeded progress in the physical population of the shelves with books. At best, I lay the groundwork for future transference of books to the shelves. I was to the unpacking process what Marx was to the Soviet revolution...) I came upon a bunch of books about something called "process theology." I had never heard of it before, but per J's explanation (and I should emphasize here any fundamental misunderstanding I have of the movement is entirely my own fault and not J's) I get the sense that the main idea is that all life, and all reality, consists of "processes." It sounds a bit to me like Pythagoras's theory of metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, although here rather than souls moving from being to being through reincarnation, it would be the minute elements of matter and experience that migrate from being to being. (Side note: Pythagoras' philosophy, or perhaps just in Ovid's parody of it, calls for vegetarianism, on the theory that the soul of the cow you eat today might have once belonged to your grandmother. I was never clear on why it couldn't go the opposite way and legitimize cannibalism, on the theory that the soul of the grandmother you eat today probably once belonged to a cow.)

I was thinking about all this as I sat down at the library Friday because I had finally come sufficiently prepared for the subarctic temperatures of the reading room and had on socks, long pants, and a (fake) wool sweater. I don't have much occasion to wear (fake) wool sweaters in New Orleans in the summer, so I hadn't worn this one in some months, since before Sancha died. It hadn't been in the Sancha sweater box (those sweaters are beyond wearability) but no sweater in my apartment escaped Sancha's effervescent furriness. And as I sat down in the reading room and took stock of my appearance for the first time that day (yes, I should get in the habit of doing this before I leave the house. Yes, my failure to do so has led to some rather hilarious wardrobe errors), I realized that I was covered with Sancha hair.

If any living thing was a constantly evolving, mutating, transmigrating process, it was Sancha. Sancha's hair had the vitality and life cycle that would put the Amazon jungle canopy to shame. I never gave Sancha a haircut and Sancha's hair never grew. She just molted. It was not a seasonal thing--she kept up her furry regeneration all year long, and when she got nervous, she revved into molting overdrive, sometime to the point of disappearing inside a little cloud of Sancha fur. Think Pigpen from the comic strip Peanuts. I almost never had to give her a bath because any fur that got dirty on a walk would have been completely replaced by a new layer of shiny clean velvet by the time we got home.

Sancha was supposed to make this trip to Chicago with me. We would drive in my fur-carpeted car to stay in the dog-friendly Airbandb and we would explore the dog parks and sausages of Chicago together. In the end I came alone, flying in a dog-hair-free plane and only able to stand on the edge of the dog parks and stare wistfully. But as I sat in the library and stared down at the sizeable collection of dog fur on my chest and arms, I realized that in some sense, in the sense of Sancha as process, Sancha had accompanied me after all.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Deja vu

A little over a month ago, I flew to Chicago for a conference. The conference began Thursday and I arrived Wednesday afternoon, so I had time to walk along Millennium Park and the Loop, sit at a café and read a bit, and drink in a beautiful late May day. I bought a stamp at  7-11 and mailed a birthday card to Y (I can't find anywhere that sells single stamps in New Orleans). In the evening I retired to my Airbnb room and watched some of a White Sox game.

Today I flew in to Chicago to begin a month-long research stint at the Newberry. I arrived after the library was closed, but with time to walk around the River North neighborhood, admiring the architecture of the Loop, and sit and read for a bit at a café. It is a beautiful July day. I went to a 7-11 and bought a stamp to send a birthday card to my grandmother. Afterwards I popped into a bar to watch some of a White Sox game, and then retired to my Airbnb room for the evening.

At 6:30 am on the first  day of the conference, I was awakened by the phone call from the petsitter, telling me of Sancha's fall.

I close my eyes with  superstitious trepidation. Friends and loved ones: please be extra careful where you step tomorrow!

Monday, July 07, 2014

Sancha does Madrid

Sancha story time.

My work involves research in Spanish archives, which stubbornly tend to be located in Spain. I went a couple of times during grad school and left Sancha with scrupulously vetted caretakers. I would stay in cheap hostels, work insane hours and travel around, and none of this fit with the Sancha-care lifestyle. However, when I had a semester sabbatical in fall 2011 and a big house to stay in (I was doing a sabbatical swap with a Madrid family coming to NYC), it seemed like a good time to travel accompanied. Plus, my dog is Sancha Panza. How could I not take her to her ancestral homeland?

Around 2003, Spain lifted the non-EU pet quarantine (this seems to correlate with Spain's joining along in the Iraq war experiment, although I can't figure out how. But the next time someone says we got nothing out of the Iraq war, you can bring it up.) I couldn't find any airlines to Europe that would let me bring her onboard, but she had travelled once unaccompanied to LA with Continental Airline's special pet flight program--which may not be different than any other airline's pet flight protocol, but they have identified the endless source of income that is the childless older pet owner and all the buzzwords that prompt us to turn over our credit cards--with success. It wasn't cheap, but there are some things money can't buy...and I was glad that this wasn't one of them.

Not included in the price, of course, were all the vet certificates she had to get in order to be allowed to travel. The usual shots, a certificate of good health (the vets, of course, never miss an opportunity to insist on a full examination, blood panel, stool sample et al, so poor Sancha was multiply poked, pricked, and prodded).  Plus one of the requirements for admitting her to Spain was that she have a microchip, which she did, but it turns out she didn't have the same sort of microchip they use in Spain. I didn't want to turn my dog into a cyborg by implanting her with multiple microchips, so I looked into buying one of the internationally approved microchip readers. The purchase cost was prohibitive, but some company in Texas offered a rental price that was merely ridiculous. So, a lot of hassles and a lot of money, but everything more or less worked as planned and I left her in her carrier at the Continental petsafe area, right by the baggage claim at Newark airport, with people who seemed like competent animal-lovers. And I went up the escalator to check in for my flight.

Eight hours or so later, I was in Madrid. The flight had been in partnership with Iberia  I gathered my luggage (more than I could deal with, but I had figured I'd pick up Sancha and get a cab straight to my place in Madrid. I had expected them to lose my luggage, as has happened on every other Iberia flight I've ever taken, but no such luck). Except there was nothing resembling a Petsafe area by the Iberia baggage claim. I asked around, and nobody had any idea what I was talking about.  I called the number on some of my paperwork and they informed me that she would be arriving in the cargo area of the airport, some 3 miles away from the passenger flights. So I dragged my stuff to the taxi line, waited, only to have every taxi driver refuse to take me to the cargo area (since it meant a measly fare for them and then a return to the back of the taxi line). Meanwhile the cargo people insisted that there was no other way to get there. So I had to feign an uncertain address to a driver until I was safely in the cab and we had pulled away from the terminal, at which point I revealed my true intentions and got to listen to him complain and swear the rest of the drive. But he did drop me at the cargo warehouse, between DHL and the Post Office's warehouses. I went in to a little trailer full of truckdrivers coming and going and explained that I was looking for my dog--the woman was happy to collect some more $ from me, and then she sent me on a bureaucratic journey which involved three of four different office buildings, many pieces of paper, many stamps on the various pieces of paper, and a fresh bundle of euros at each stop. She had agreed only after a great deal of negotiation and desperate pleading on my part to let me leave my luggage in her trailer--it didn't seem to be against the rules, but it wasn't in the rules, and Spanish bureaucrats will do anything short of work after 2pm to protect the rules. I may just have left the boxes and hoped for the best. Meanwhile the clock ticked away toward the hour of doom....2 pm, because God forbid an office at an international airport stay open in the afternoons. At one point I was at the offices of the Department of Agriculture, waiting behind a guy importing 300 turtles for I-don't-even-want-to-know-what. When I got to the front of the line and said I was there to pick up my single 15 lb. mutt, the guy gave me a look that seemed to suggest that he held me personally responsible for Spanish unemployment, the Iraq War, and the decline of Western civilization.  (Which is odd, because Spaniards love their pets. It's not like Madrid isn't full of spoiled, frou-frou pets and the businesses that cater to them. Apparently they just draw the line at traveling overseas with them.)  With the clock ticking down to 2, I made it back to the trailer, my belongings were still there, my stamps were stamped, my signatures were signed, and I was told to go out to the warehouse floor and await my merchandise.

So there I sat, amidst multi-story piles of boxed furniture and appliances, watching a stream of greasy men come and go and get things signed and stamped (and linger around to complain about la crisis). It had probably been 11 hours since I'd left Sancha in Jersey. I waited. Forklifts motored around the warehouse floor, lifting and dropping pallets. I could not imagine how Sancha was going to arrive--inside a washing machine? Driving a forklift? I had plenty of time to imagine because she did not arrive. They started closing for the siesta. No dog. Finally, a truck driver who had come after me and had already received his merchandise took up my case and went in to demand answers. They had forgotten. Mere moments before two, a forklift came rolling in, bearing a pyramid-stacked assembly of large appliances, smaller appliances, and there at the tippy tippy top, probably 12 feet in the air, one little dog carrier. In order to get her down a guy had to go up in a forklift and because everything was tied together with steel cables, he needed a blowtorch to get her off and down from the pallet. So there was my poor little dog, 2 hours in a crate in an airport, 6 hours in the belly of a plane, 3 hours I don't even like to imagine being tossed around by men accustomed to working with refrigerators, and now perched at 12 feet circled by greasy men bearing chainsaws. They got her down. I opened the crate door. And she marched on out like, "Hey! So this is Spain? Boy do I hafta pee!"

Our saga didn't end there because if I thought it was hard to get a cab to the cargo area, it was only because I had not yet tried to get a cab from the cargo area...and don't even get me started on flying home...but while I was a nervous wreck, Sancha showed no signs that it wasn't just another day in the life of a loyal squire. Some days you ride a wave. Some days you ride a forklift. It's all good as long as you've got a bunch of sweaters to curl up with.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Saying I love you

Growing up I never said "I love you" and meant it.

I have always been stingy with love. Perhaps it is because my mother was the only constant presence in my early life (my father was away 10 months of the year until I was 5 and we moved 4 times in my first 5 years, never within a thousand miles of the rest of my family) or perhaps just because she was awesome, but I loved my mom and everyone else was just someone whose company I enjoyed or didn't. I never questioned whether my mother loved me and always knew that I loved her, but neither of us ever said the words. She just isn't that kind of mom. (This is true to this day. When I left Los Angeles for Boston and college, she started saying  "hat, coat, and mittens" at the end of every conversation. At first it meant literally, "make sure you wear a hat, coat, and mittens when you go out into that freezing Boston weather" but she still says it to me at the end of every conversation, even in the summer and with me in New Orleans, so I'm pretty sure it means "I love you." But it's as sentimental as we get.)

My father said "I love you" all the time. Mostly when I had achieved things, which tended to make me think that what he loved was my accomplishments more than any innate essence of me. But he did say it at other times, when he was in a good mood and often in tandem with an affirmation that I was his "best bud." It felt, like every one of his emotional responses  to me, like something completely arbitrary and dependent on his own unpredictable moods and needs rather than to me qua me. It felt like a burden. Him loving me was tied to him having his entire identity invested in me; he said he loved me when he felt good about himself or when he felt good about my performance re-enacting him. It seemed like if he had loved me a little less, I could have joined Girl Scouts and taken naps and read fiction books. It was a burden because every time he said it, there was an aching absence where I was supposed to say "I love you too" in response. And I have never been a good liar (or rather, I have never felt comfortable lying. I think I am reasonably decent at it when I do). I always knew there was something lacking in me, that children with far worse parents loved them unconditionally and would give anything to hear those parents praise them or express their love. But I wanted less praise, and less love, and I resented these forced displays of filial devotion. My desire not to lie conflicted with my desire not to hurt anyone's feelings or cause conflict. He would push the issue; if I didn't respond, he would ask point-blank "Do you love me?"and at that point I'd usually compromise by  nodding or saying "yeah." But I maintained by integrity, and a certain passive-aggressive rebellion, by never saying "I love you."

And then I got a dog. And suddenly love was immediate, easy, uncomplicated, absolute, and unconditional. Perhaps I loved my dog with all the pent-up love that I had never felt inclined to give to family or friends; at one point a therapist suggested that there was some displacement going on. But I don't know, I think if you took an MRI of my brain when I saw my dog (or worse, when I didn't see my dog and missed him terribly) and another when I saw any other member of my family, things would light up in entirely different hemispheres. Dog love is easy because you never have to worry about reciprocity. Your dog loves you. Your dog shows you his love every time you come home, every time you feed him, every time you get the leash, and he would do it whether you loved him or not, whether you treated him well or poorly. Also, a dog is totally indifferent to the words "I love you" (unlike "walk" or "leash"), and Sancha and Sola doubly so, as they both went deaf. Dogs are like Jews rather than Christians--it's about practice, not faith. My dogs have shown their love in slightly different ways; MacBeth loved everyone and as a puppy had been known to escape from the front door and join the neighbors in their house, as happy to be a part of their family as ours, but the promiscuity of his affections in no way tempered their genuineness. Sola had been abused and had to be taught to love, she was the least demonstrative of my dogs but if she loved anyone, it was me, and I confess (back to that "dark side of love" post I keep promising) that I valued this love even more, since it was singly bestowed upon me. Sancha was somewhere in between. But I loved them all and could say I love you as much or as little as I pleased--  I don't think I said "I love you" very much, but I never once doubted that I did.
     (Anecdotal interlude: the last words I said to Sancha before she fell were "I love you." I only know this because I was leaving her with her petsitter and as I walked to my car I said "I love you" and the petsitter, who must be well-conditioned by his wife, started to respond reflexively "I love y..." and then he caught himself and we laughed and I said "Not you, Jason. I mean I like you a lot but I meant Sancha." Knowing this makes me happy.)

    Many only children grow up longing for siblings, but I never did. I only babysat occasionally, and I didn't enjoy it. I much preferred earning $ explaining algebra to my peers to playing wallaby for hours (this was the preferred pastime of my only regular babysittee). So it was to my great surprise when a fellow graduate student had a child and simultaneously had her marriage fall apart, and of all our friends, I was the one who feel deeply, unconditionally, inexplicably in love with her daughter (soon my goddaughter). I said I love you to her all the time although the reasons changed over time. At first, it was a simple outpouring of how much I loved her, I loved her so much that it built up pressure in my brain and the only way to relieve that pressure was to say it. Later, when she was old enough to understand what I was saying, I said it because I wanted her to hear it over and over and over and know that it was true, and that she was the loveliest thing not just in my world but in the world. She loved me and was not shy about showing it, but this was icing on the cake. I never expected her to say anything back or would have been hurt it she didn't. I knew that when she was older it would become burdensome or embarrassing to say, and there would be times she did not love me at all, and that was fine with me. Parents and godparents have an obligation to love without expecting love in return. But it never felt like an obligation. It just was, like a mathematical fact.

With human partners on the other hand, I never got over the insecurity of not being loved/loving equally. Romantic relationships, unlike relationships with dogs or children, don't start from a point of love, which means someone has to say it first. I never wanted to be the one to say it too early and not hear it returned. I never wanted to say it and feel like I was asking to hear it in return. If I said it and heard it in return, I never knew whether it had been offered freely or out of a sense of obligation. I never knew how long it lasted, how long one should go before it was acceptable to request re-affirmation. And often I didn't know if I did love the person; I didn't want to exaggerate affections that might have been crushes, or diminishing. I spent the last 6 months of my last serious relationship trying to get out of it, and every "I love you" felt like it might be held against me at the end as deliberate misrepresentation. And above and beyond all of these considerations, the words just didn't come easily to me. It didn't occur to me to say them and when I tried to, they knotted up in my mouth. I felt about saying "I love you" the way most white people feel about saying the N-word, if those white people felt equally uncomfortable saying "the N word."

And now. I truly love someone. I have a new feeling, not so much the pressure-valve need to say it but a sense that there is no other way to express what I feel. Or that there are other ways but they would require lengthy explanations and it would be like saying "I perceive a ray of light on the visible spectrum between 620 and 680 nanometers" when I could just say "that is red." It feels like we invented terms like "red" and "love" for precisely this experience and that's why I should use them.

The anxiety about reciprocity  is still there. I wonder how long you have to be with someone before you don't fear that anything you do or say could cause the loss of their love. Or worse, that one day they'll just wake up in a slightly more lucid frame of mind and their love will be gone. But I feel like I have, for the first time in my life with a human being, got the saying side of the equation down. Baby steps. Puppy steps.