Thursday - November 22, 2013

Words have been building in me all day and, still, I can't seem to release them. I tell myself that silence is a legitimate response to tragedy, that there are places words cannot touch. Even so, my silence shames me. Each day that passes without something written feels like a failure. It's hard to admit that words elude me, that I am silent most of the time, that I'd rather avoid the trauma of the past than write about it even though writing about it is the only way I can really cope with it.


Vague thoughts have followed me around. There was another dream of my father, only it wasn't my father but a figure who represented him. I was using this figure, this man, to access my father. I still don't understand it. The dead become a feeling, like another sense. You know when you've encountered them even if they leave no trace, even if you're the only one who feels the pulsation. I want the dreams to stop. They devastate me too much.


There was the recent anniversary of JFK's assassination and I remember how my father used to watch documentaries about it. It fascinated him, but I'm not sure why. I never asked him. Like so many things about him, it will remain a mystery.


I've been thinking about his funeral today. It was so terrible. I try to block out my memories of that day but they are still very intense. When I learn about how other cultures deal with death, I feel a sense of deprivation. I wish I lived in a culture that valued the dead, that kept them close and celebrated them and publicly mourned them. Instead, here in America, the dead are hidden away, embalmed, laid out in funeral parlors where people gather and talk about everything but the dead person.


I am haunted by my father's viewing. I can't forget his pale corpse in the casket, how he looked nothing like my father at all. I can't forget the people all around me who never spoke a word about him, who did not share memories. It was as though nothing had happened, like this beautiful man had not died. I wanted something else. I wanted an acknowledgment of the life that was gone forever. I wanted mourning and grief and authentic emotion, not performance, not stoicism.


My father deserved better. At his funeral, the people who gave eulogies barely knew him. They spoke of a man who was not my father, and I sat there with my silence and my tears. I could not speak, and I'll always regret that. I just sat there, looking at the flowers on the casket, trying to comprehend the fact that my father was in that box and would soon be lowered into the earth, that I would never see him or speak to him or know him. It was shattering. My mother sobbed in my arms. There is no language for it. Nothing I write can place you in my body at that moment. Nothing captures it. My vocabulary is insufficient, but I still search for the words and I always will. My language is crude and ugly and rudimentary right now. Maybe that will never change. I lost not only a father.  I lost words, sounds, comprehension, the ability to make sense out of the world with my writing.


Now, writing has to be something else, not what it was, not a way to understand but a way to reconstruct a shattered self that will only ever be fragments and yet those fragments matter, they imply that a whole once existed. It's okay to not have the words. The absence of language is as important as its presence. The void matters too, the nothingness, the emptiness, the shadow. We are made of that too. Perhaps that's all we are, all that we become at some point--the absence, the hollow where something beautiful left its imprint. We write  in order to bear witness to the space the dead once occupied within us. We feel the contours of that emptiness and absence. It's the source of all creation, and all destruction.

Rose-Lynn Fisher - Topography of Tears

images and text via  Smithsonian Magazine

Tears of timeless reunion

Tears of change

Tears of ending and beginning

Tears of grief

Onion tears

In 2010, photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher published a book of remarkable images that captured the honeybee in an entirely new light. By using powerful scanning electron microscopes, she magnified a bee’s microscopic structures by hundreds or even thousands of times in size, revealing startling, abstract forms that are far too small to see with the naked eye.
Now, as part of a new project called “Topography of Tears,” she’s using microscopes to give us an unexpected view of another familiar subject: dried human tears.
“I started the project about five years ago, during a period of copious tears, amid lots of change and loss—so I had a surplus of raw material,” Fisher says. After the bee project and one in which she’d looked at a fragment of her own hip bone removed during surgery, she’d come to the realization that “everything we see in our lives is just the tip of the iceberg, visually,” she explains. “So I had this moment where I suddenly thought, ‘I wonder what a tear looks like up close?’”
When she caught one of her own tears on a slide, dried it, and then peered at it through a standard light microscope, “It was really interesting. It looked like an aerial view, almost as if I was looking down at a landscape from a plane,” she says. “Eventually, I started wondering—would a tear of grief look any different than a tear of joy? And how would they compare to, say, an onion tear?”
This idle musing ended up launching a multi-year photography project in which Fisher collected, examined and photographed more than 100 tears from both herself an a handful of other volunteers, including a newborn baby.
Scientifically, tears are divided into three different types, based on their origin. Both tears of grief and joy are psychic tears, triggered by extreme emotions, whether positive or negative. Basal tears are released continuously in tiny quantities (on average, 0.75 to 1.1 grams over a 24-hour period) to keep the cornea lubricated. Reflex tears are secreted in response to an irritant, like dust, onion vapors or tear gas.
All tears contain a variety of biological substances (including oils, antibodies and enzymes) suspended in salt water, but as Fisher saw, tears from each of the different categories include distinct molecules as well. Emotional tears, for instance, have been found to contain protein-based hormones including the neurotransmitter leucine enkephalin, a natural painkiller that is released when the body is under stress.
Additionally, because the structures seen under the microscope are largely crystallized salt, the circumstances under which the tear dries can lead to radically dissimilar shapes and formations, so two psychic tears with the exact same chemical makeup can look very different up close. “There are so many variables—there’s the chemistry, the viscosity, the setting, the evaporation rate and the settings of the microscope,” Fisher says.
As Fisher pored over the hundreds of dried tears, she began to see even more ways in which they resembled large-scale landscapes, or as she calls them, “aerial views of emotion terrain.”
“It’s amazing to me how the patterns of nature seem so similar, regardless of scale,” she says. “You can look at patterns of erosion that are etched into earth over thousands of years, and somehow they look very similar to the branched crystalline patterns of a dried tear that took less than a moment to form.”
Closely studying tears for so long has made Fisher think of them as far more than a salty liquid we discharge during difficult moments. “Tears are the medium of our most primal language in moments as unrelenting as death, as basic as hunger and as complex as a rite of passage,” she says. “It’s as though each one of our tears carries a microcosm of the collective human experience, like one drop of an ocean.”

Kelli Swazey - Life That Doesn't End With Death

In Tana Toraja, weddings and births aren’t the social gatherings that knit society together. In this part of Indonesia, big, raucous funerals form the center of social life. Anthropologist Kelli Swazey takes a look at this culture, in which the bodies of dead relatives are cared for even years after they have passed. While it sounds strange to Western sensibilities, she says, this could actually be a truer reflection of the fact that relationships with loved ones don’t simply end when breathing does.

Monday - November 18, 2013

It's that time of the semester when classes are ending and so many essays are due, and after writing thousands of words, I get to the point where I don't know what I'm saying anymore or why I'm saying it or why it matters but that's okay because I'm lucky to be in college at all, to sit in classrooms with brilliant people who share their thoughts about race and gender and oppression and women's literature. Some days, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude to be here even though it hurts to be away from my mother, even though I ache for home, even though I'm so alone that I get so desperate for human contact. It's my second to last semester of college. I feel like this is already becoming a memory; it's taking on that blurry, soft focus. When I think back to these days, I'll forget all the times I was tired and overwhelmed and fearful of leaving my room. I'll romanticize it. It will become mythic and I'll miss it like I miss everything that has passed. How am I living these days without him? I don't know. I dream about him. I yearn for him to be here, to see me going to college. I'll think of him on the day I graduate even though I still think about not going to the ceremony at all because there seems no point to it because he isn't here and I'll only feel his absence. I know he'd be proud. That isn't the point. I never questioned my father's love or pride; those are not the things I want from him. I just want him. I want our life together. I want to talk to him and learn from him and hear his voice and call him "daddy" again and know that I have a father. I move through these days. I feel old because I keep asking where the time goes and why time passes me by so fast. I wonder what I am becoming. I wonder what I will do when I have my degree but no longer have any dreams or ambitions because it takes all I have to keep surviving. I don't know what I want. I want nothing. Or what I do want--him, the past, childhood, safety, an end to loss and grief--is impossible. This should be the beginning of my life. Why does it only feel like the end?

A Recurring Dream

Every few months, I have the same dream. The details always vary but the same narrative unfolds: my father appears, I am astonished, and I go about telling everyone that he is back from the dead. I call up friends and family and announce the news of his resurrection. I hold him and kiss him and talk to him and he does not understand my joy. He has no knowledge of his death. He expects everything to be the way it was before. It's as though he has not been gone, the past seven years never happened, I did not put him into the ground. But I know otherwise. So my mind is confused. How can he be alive? But he is! He is! And I must tell everyone. I believe the dream every time. It seduces me and devastates me. I always wake up to my unspeakable grief.

I had the dream last night. I remember only fragments. There was his face and all the phone calls to relatives telling them he was alive. I woke up to a dark room, a cool November day, and I carried the memory of the dream to literature classes, hallways, and  elevators. Every space I touched, the dream also touched. I held this dream inside, like another world on the verge of blossoming. I had him for a moment, there in my sleep. He was real and tangible and breathing and I was restored only to be ruined all over again. 

Transgender Day of Remembrance

Over at The Feminist Wire, Princess Harmony writes an important essay about the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which takes place every year on November 20th and serves as a day of communal mourning for all the lives lost to anti-transgender violence. Princess Harmony reminds us of the struggles and injustices that trans people--specifically trans women of color--face on a daily basis and how their lives are seen as disposable, as not grievable. The Transgender Day of Remembrance makes a space for mourning and shows how essential it is to remember and honor the dead:

On November 20, 2013, Transgender Day of Remembrance, take a moment to remember the extraordinary lives that trans women of color live in order to survive in this hostile society. Remember that while we might not live the way you live, or share in all of your struggles, we too suffer under a patriarchy that wants to control all of us and destroy those of us who resist its’ control. If trans women aren’t killed by lovers or by clients, we are killed by the police that are supposed to protect all citizens, or we are killed by prejudiced doctors and emergency personnel that refuse to do their jobs. When a sister dies, does she get justice? Most of the time, the answer is no. If the defendants don’t give the “trans panic” defense, then some other failure of the justice system will take place. That is, if the murderers are even arrested or if the death is investigated.
If what I have written has not delivered the message, then I will say it as clearly as I can: the lives of trans women of color are often impossibly difficult, and yet, many of us are able to survive. We live on as daughters, friends, lovers, coworkers, and as humans. Remember that we are human beings just like you. We struggle with life’s challenges and we survive in spite of a patriarchy that tries to destroy us, similar to many of you. Our deaths may go unheeded by the majority, but know that trans women hurt every time each one of us dies unjustly. Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is a sacred day. It is a day to mourn those we have lost, whether we knew them or not. It should be a day for mourning and nothing else. It is a day that we mourn our dead, many of whom do not get mourned on any day other than TDOR. It is also the day that our anger boils down to us seeking justice for those who have not received it.


Harriet Brown - Shell

I found it in the wash, the orange
shell I picked up on the beach
that last time. One of my girls—
the one named after you—

must have found it in my room
and wanted it. Clean calcareous
curve, a palm open to nothing,
reeking of sunshine

and your death. For years
I didn't know what to do with it.
You would have liked
this story: how a child

slips grief into a careless pocket.
Breaks it to pieces. Lets it go.

Maya Lin on Designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth. 
I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal. The grass would grow back, but the initial cut would remain a pure flat surface in the earth with a polished, mirrored surface, much like the surface on a geode when you cut it and polish the edge. The need for the names to be on the memorial would become the memorial; there was no need to embellish the design further. The people and their names would allow everyone to respond and remember. 
It would be an interface, between our world and the quieter, darker, more peaceful world beyond. I chose black granite in order to make the surface reflective and peaceful. I never looked at the memorial as a wall, an object, but as an edge to the earth, an opened side. The mirrored effect would double the size of the park, creating two worlds, one we are a part of and one we cannot enter.
— Maya Lin, "Making The Memorial"

Judith Butler on Grief and Mourning

The question that preoccupies me in the light of recent global violence is, Who counts as human? Whose lives count as lives? And, finally, What makes for a grievable life? Despite our differences in location and history, my guess is that it is possible to appeal to a "we," for all of us have some notion of what it is to have lost somebody. Loss has made a tenuous "we" of us all.


I do not think that successful grieving implies that one has forgotten another person or that something else has come along to take its place, as if full substitutability were something for which we might strive.

Perhaps, rather, one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly forever. Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation (perhaps one should say submitting to a transformation) the full result of which one cannot know in advance. There is losing, as we know, but there is also the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned.


Freud reminded us that when we lose someone, we do not always know what it is in that person that has been lost. So when one loses, one is also faced with something enigmatic: something is hiding in the loss, something is lost within the recess of loss. If mourning involves knowing what one has lost (and melancholia originally meant, to a certain extent, not knowing), then mourning would be maintained by its enigmatic dimension, by the experience of not knowing incited by losing what we cannot fully fathom.


Many people think that grief is privatizing, that it returns us to a solitary situation and is, in that sense, depoliticizing. But I think it furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.


When grieving is something to be feared, our fears can give rise to the impulse to resolve it quickly, to banish it in the name of an action invested with the power to restore the loss or return the world to a former order, or to reinvigorate a fantasy that the world formerly was orderly.


Is there something to be gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence? Is there something to be gained in the political domain by maintaining grief as part of the framework within which we think our international ties? If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another?


Antigone, risking death herself by burying her brother against the edict of Creon, exemplified the political risks of defying the ban against public grief during times of increased national sovereign power and hegemonic national unity. What are the cultural barriers against which we struggle when we try to find out about the losses that we are asked not to mourn, when we attempt to name, and so to bring under the rubric of the "human," those whom the United States and its allies have killed?

—from "Violence, Mourning, Politics" in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence