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The Book That Made Me: An Animal | Public Books
"The Lives of Animals was the first book I read in college—or at least the first book I read in a strange, amazing seminar that rewired my brain in the first semester of freshman year. The course was about animals, and I signed up for it probably because it was a course my dad, who had been advising me on all things college, would have taken himself. He kept animal effigies all over the apartment: portraits of a donkey and a marmot in the bathroom; a giant poster of “The External Structure of Cock and Chicken” in the living room; dog figures of many breeds; pigs, his favorite, in all shapes and sizes, in every single nook and cranny. In the dining room he had a huge pig sculpture made of leather, which in retrospect was a strange and morbid combination: one animal skinned to make an image of another. Our cocker spaniel had chewed its face beyond recognition by the time my mom got around to throwing it out.

My dad passed away in 2016, two years after they got divorced, and I faced the monumental task of disposing of his menagerie. I kept many things, of course, but couldn’t keep them all. It was so easy to throw out or donate clothes, housewares, furniture, even books. I didn’t know what to do with the creatures, who seemed to contain his spirit more than anything else. I laughed when I found a key chain in a random drawer: a little brass effigy of one pig mounting another. That was his humor. That was his mind, his way of seeing, his culture—which was based, like all cultures, in certain ideas about nature. Frankly, he was a difficult man to know even when he was alive. The animals offered me a way in, as they probably did for him.

Anyway, he was the one who saw the listing for a course named “Zooësis” and thought I might like it. And I really did, from the moment our indefatigably brilliant professor, Una Chaudhuri, asked us to read J. M. Coetzee’s weird, hybrid book. The Lives of Animals is a novella, but Coetzee delivered it as a two-part Tanner Lecture at Princeton in 1997, and it centers, in turn, on two lectures delivered by its aging novelist protagonist, Elizabeth Costello. During her visit to an obscure liberal arts college, she speaks hard-to-swallow truths about the cruelties we visit upon animals, making a controversial analogy between industrialized farming and the Third Reich. But the content of her lectures is almost less important than the reactions they generate and the personal consequences she incurs, which Coetzee shows us by nesting the lectures within a fictional frame. People get incensed; the academic establishment rebukes her argument, her way of arguing, everything she represents. Even her family relationships buckle under the weight of a worldview that seems to reject reason.

Her first lecture is about the poverty of philosophy, both as a basis for animal ethics and as a medium for thinking one’s way into the mind of another kind of creature. But her second lecture is about the potential of poetry, and it’s captivating in its optimism about the ability of human language to imagine radically nonhuman forms of sensory experience—or, perhaps more radically, forms of sensory experience we share with other species.

As a person who has worked within the field commonly known as animal studies but has never worked with real animals (unlike so many great boundary-crossing thinkers: the late poet-philosopher-veterinarian Vicki Hearne, the philosopher-ethologist Vinciane Despret, et al.), I often find myself bummed out by the inadequacy of representation: Specifically, what good are animals in books? Are they not inevitably vessels of human meaning? In Flush, her novel about the inner life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Virginia Woolf has another way of putting the problem: “Do words say everything? Can words say anything? Do not words destroy the symbol that lies beyond the reach of words?” To which I would add: Do they not destroy, or at least ignore, the creature beyond the symbol as well?

Coetzee has a different view. Or Costello, at least, has some different ideas about what poetry can do. She celebrates poems like Ted Hughes’s “The Jaguar” and Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Panther”—“poetry that does not try to find an idea in the animal, that is not about the animal, but is instead the record of an engagement with him.” She finds value in poems that try to capture the fluid complexity of a moment of contact across species, rather than try to preserve an imagined essence of the animal in amber. She also defends the human imagination as something more powerful than we give it credit for. My favorite line from the book is her response to Thomas Nagel’s famous essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Nagel insists that it’s impossible for a human to know the answer to his titular question. Costello rebuts: “If we are capable of thinking our own death, why on earth should we not be capable of thinking our way into the life of a bat?” I think it takes an effort of heart, more than mind, to follow her train of thought.

The novella reflects her resistance to the imperious voice of human reason—and her embrace of the messiness of the subjective imagination—on many levels. She’s uneasy at the bully pulpit, as was Coetzee himself. For the longest time I thought that the narrator was omniscient—an impersonal God figure aligned with Coetzee’s own position at that Princeton lectern. But then I read the novella again, preparing to teach it in a lit class where we were also reading Jane Austen. I realized that the narrator filters everything through the perspective of John Bernard, Costello’s son, who has a strange tendency to obsess over his mother’s body (paging Dr. Freud: “Her shoulders stoop; her flesh has grown flabby”) and profoundly ambivalent feelings about her. He is torn between sympathy and repulsion, connection and alienation. He is torn, also, between her perspective, which persuades him to an extent, and the perspective of his wife, Norma, a philosophy professor who loathes her and has no patience for her anti-rationalist message.

The question this novella raises is always that of its own construction: Why is it a novella in the first place? What does Coetzee communicate through fiction that he couldn’t have communicated through a polemic? I think the technique of focalization, which grounds everything in John’s perspective, shows us exactly what an abstract polemic about animals couldn’t: the impossibility of speaking from a position outside our embodiment, our emotions, our primordial and instinctual feelings toward kin. In other words, the impossibility of speaking about animals as though we were not animals ourselves.

Every time I read the book—definitely every time I teach it—the potentialities of its form grow in number. I find new rooms in the house of fiction that reveal how grand a mansion it is. I display it proudly, in the center of a bookshelf lined with animal books like Marian Engel’s Bear, Woolf’s Flush, J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, Kafka’s stories, and John Berger’s Pig Earth. The shelf is my own version of my father’s menagerie, brimming with all manner of complex and contradictory creatures. All of them are representations, but that doesn’t make them feel any less real, or any less alive.

I regard my father with some of the ambivalence that John, the son in Coetzee’s story, feels toward his own mother and her thoughts on animals. But I encounter the creatures he left behind with warmth, solidarity, and hope."
via:timoslimo  jmcoetzee  multispecies  morethanhuman  senses  writing  howwewrite  language  whywewrite  fiction  animals  bodies  unachaudhuri  philosophy  elizabethbarrettbrowning  virginiawoolf  vincianedespret  animalrights  vickihearne  rainermariarilke  tedhughes  narration  thomasnagel  imagination  messiness  janeausten  perspective  novellas  kafka  johnberger  marianengel  jrackerley  hope  solidarity  communication  embodiment  emotions  persuasion  mattmargini  canon  books  reading  howweread  teaching  howweteach  farming  livestock  sensory  multisensory  animalstudies  poetry  poems  complexity  grief  literature  families  2019 
10 weeks ago by robertogreco
Teju Cole, "Ethics", Lecture 3 of 3, 04.22.19 - YouTube
"The 2019 Berlin Family Lectures with Teju Cole
"Coming to Our Senses"
Lecture three: "Ethics"
April 22, 2019

How do our senses foster our moral understanding and ethical obligations to others? In the third and final lecture of the 2019 Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Family Lecture Series, acclaimed author, critic, and photographer Teju Cole thinks through how our senses can help us understand the plight of travelers and migrants. Cole implores us to recognize the mutual and unshirkable responsibilities that bind all human beings.

This is the second lecture in a three-lecture series presented in the spring of 2019 at the University of Chicago.

Named for Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin, the Berlin Family Lectures bring leading scholars, writers, and creative artists from around the world to the University of Chicago. Each visitor offers an extended series of lectures with the aim of interacting with the university community and developing a book for publication with the University of Chicago Press. Learn more at http://berlinfamilylectures.uchicago.edu.

If you experience any technical difficulties with this video or would like to make an accessibility-related request, please send a message to humanities@uchicago.edu."
2019  tejucole  ethics  senses  migrants  migration  travelers  responsibility  humanism  lauraletinsky  photography  location  situation  howwewrite  interconnectedness  interconnected  malta  caravaggio  art  painting  writing  reading  knowing  knowledge  seeing  annecarson  smell  death  grief  dying 
june 2019 by robertogreco
My Grandmother’s Shroud - The New York Times
"When my grandmother, my mother’s mother, died in late June in Nigeria, I was in Italy, at a conference. I wasn’t with her when she slipped into a coma or, three days later, when she died. When my brother told me the news, I called my mother and other members of my family to commiserate with them. She was buried the day of her death, in keeping with Muslim custom, and I couldn’t attend her funeral. My mother, visiting friends in Houston, would also miss the funeral.

I opened my computer and began to search my folders for pictures of my grandmother. On each yearly trip to Nigeria for the past several years, I went to see her in Sagamu, a town an hour northeast of Lagos, where she was born and where she lived for most of her life. On these visits, she would say: ‘‘Sit next to me. I want to feel your hands in mine. Be close to me. I want your skin touching mine.’’ I was always happy to sit with her and to hold hands with her. Afterward, I took photos. I have photos now of her alone, in selfies with me, in the company of my mother and my aunts. In these photos, she has surprisingly smooth skin, hardly any gray hair and, in most of them, a trace of amusement. In one, especially touching photo, my wife, Karen, applies polish to her nails.

To remain close to our dead, we cherish images of them. We’ve done so for millenniums. Think of the Fayum portraits, which show us the faces of Egyptians during the Imperial Roman era with stunning immediacy. Images — paintings, sculptures, photographs — remind us how our loved ones looked in life. But in most places and at most times, portraiture was available only to society’s elites. Photography changed that. Almost everyone is now captured in photographs — and outlived by them. Photographs are there when people pass away. They serve as reservoirs of memory and as talismans for mourning.

My grandmother was born in 1928. Her given name was Abusatu, but we called her Mama. Mama’s father, Yusuf, was a stern imam in Sagamu, and Yusuf’s father, Salako, was said to have been even more severe. But Mama herself was serene and good-natured, kind and tolerant. She was deeply consoled by her religion but not doctrinaire. Of her five daughters, two (including her firstborn, my mother) married Christians and converted to Christianity. It made no difference to Mama. The family had Muslims, Christians and some, like myself, who drifted away from religion entirely. Mama loved us all. An example of her unobtrusive kindness: While I was a college student in the United States, she sent me a white hand-woven cotton blanket. I never knew why and didn’t ask. But it is to this day the most precious piece of cloth I own.

I was leaving Rome when I received the sad news of Mama’s death. She was approaching 89. The end came swiftly, and she was surrounded by family. You could say it was a good death. But why couldn’t she have lived to 99, or to 109, or forever? Death makes us protest the fact of death. It makes us wish for the impossible. I could objectively understand that it was unusual to have had a grandmother in my 40s, and that my 67-year-old mother was equally fortunate in having had a mother so long. My father was 5 when his mother died, and he has been mourning her for longer than my mother has been alive. But the grieving heart does not care for logic, and it refuses comparisons. I mourned Mama as I left Italy for New York.

I mourned her but did not, or was not able to, weep. I arrived in New York in the late afternoon, perhaps at the very moment Mama was being interred. My mother had forwarded a couple of photos taken by my cousin Adedoyin to my wife’s WhatsApp. Karen reached for her phone and showed me the pictures. They were a shock. One was of Mama, dead on her hospital bed, wearing a flowery nightdress and draped in a second flowery cloth, the oxygen tube still taped to her nostrils. Her right arm was limp at her side, and she was not quite like someone asleep but rather like someone passed out, open and vulnerable. The other photograph, which seemed to have been cropped, showed a figure wrapped in a shroud, tied up with white twine, set out on a bed in front of a framed portrait: a white bundle in vaguely human shape where my grandmother used to be. I burst into sudden hot tears.

What did these photographs open? Imagination can be delicate, imposing a protective decorum. A photograph insists on raw fact and confronts us with what we were perhaps avoiding. There she is, my dear Mama, helpless on the hospital bed, and I cannot help her. Days later, I would find out from my mother that in this first photograph, Mama was still in a coma and not dead yet. But looking at the second photograph, the one in which she is incontrovertibly dead, my thoughts raced through a grim logic. I thought: Why have they wrapped her face up? Then I thought: It must be stifling under that thing, she won’t be able to breathe! Then I thought: She’s dead and will never breathe again. Then my tears flowed.

Mama’s life was hard. An itinerant trader of kola nut and later the owner of a small provisions shop, she was one of my late grandfather’s five wives and by no means the best treated. She never went to school, and the only word she could write was her name, sometimes with the ‘‘s’’ reversed. But when Baba died more than 20 years ago, Mama moved out of his house and lived in the two-story house that my mother built her. She was a women’s leader, a kind of deaconess, at the local mosque. She went to parties, to market and to evening prayers. She lived in the security of her own house, in the company of her widowed second daughter, my aunt. In those later years, life became easier.

‘‘She has a single obsession,’’ my mother used to say, ‘‘and that’s her burial rites.’’ Mama insisted that she be buried the same day she died. ‘‘She’ll say, ‘And I must not be buried at the house,’ ’’ my mother said, ‘‘ ‘Because what’s rotten must be thrown out. And for seven days, food must be cooked and taken to the mosque and served to the poor.’ ’’ And most important, my mother said, Mama would reiterate that in a cupboard in the room next to the meeting room in her house was her robe, the one she must be buried in. It was of utmost importance to her to meet her maker wearing the robe with which she approached the Kaaba, the holiest shrine in Islam.

The hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which she undertook in 1996, when she was 68, transfigured my grandmother. Through that journey, through her accomplishment of one of the central tenets of Islam, she sloughed off her old life and took on a new one, one that put her into a precise relationship with eternity. The year of her journey, thousands of Nigerian pilgrims were turned back, because of meningitis and cholera outbreaks. My grandmother was one of a few hundred who got through. When she returned from Mecca, many of her townspeople took to calling her ‘‘Alhaja Lucky.’’ And as though to fit the name, she wore the serene mien of someone who was under special protection.

My mother, an Anglican Christian, financed the journey, knowing what it would mean to her mother to fulfill this final pillar of the faith. But possibly, she had no idea how much it would mean. She anticipated the social satisfaction Mama would get from it but had not counted on the serious existential confirmation it provided.

In the last few years, I often thought of Mama’s pilgrimage robe. I thought about how fortunate she was to have something in her possession so sacred to her, something of such surpassing worth, that she wished to have it on when she met God. And she had her wish: Beneath the plain white shroud in which she was sheathed after she died was that simple pilgrimage robe.

I look at the various photographs from Alhaja Lucky’s last years on my computer. None of them really satisfy me. Many are blurry, most are banal. I really like only the ones of her hands: They remind me of her wish to have her hands touched by mine. But the photograph I cannot stop thinking about is the one Adedoyin took, of Mama in her funeral shroud. The image reminds me of newspaper photos of funerals in troubled zones in the Middle East: an angry crowd, a shrouded body held aloft. But Mama was not a victim of violence. She died peacefully, well past the age of 88, surrounded by family.

Nevertheless, the custom is connected. It is a reminder that the word ‘‘Muslim’’ — so much a part of current American political argument, and so often meant as a slur — is not and has never been an abstraction, not for me, and certainly not for millions of Americans for whom it is a lived reality or a fact of family. A lead headline in The New York Times just a few days after Mama’s burial read: ‘‘Travel Ban Says Grandparents Don’t Count as ‘Close Family.’ ’’ The headline was about travel restrictions on visitors from six predominantly Muslim countries. Nigeria was not on the list, but the cruelty and absurdity of the policy was vivid. It felt personal.

On the night of Mama’s burial, I lay down to sleep in my apartment in Brooklyn. I couldn’t shake the image of my cousin’s photograph. I went into the closet and took out the white cotton blanket Mama sent me all those years ago. It was a hot night, high summer. I draped the blanket over my body. In the darkness, I pulled the blanket slowly past my shoulders, past my chin, over my face, until I was entirely covered by it, until I was covered by Mama."
2017  tejucole  photography  death  memory  nigeria  aging  relationships  hajj  islam  purpose  grief  mourning  grieving  customs  objects  textiles  immigration  us  policy  connection  families  tolerance  religion  acceptance  mecca  eternity  belief  spirituality  burial  life  living  change  transformation  talismans 
july 2017 by robertogreco
Teju Cole en Instagram: “When someone dies whom we love, a relative, friend, or hero, the losses have something in common, though the intensity naturally varies. (I cannot speak to the death of a lover, which seems to be something else again—but perha
"When someone dies whom we love, a relative, friend, or hero, the losses have something in common, though the intensity naturally varies. (I cannot speak to the death of a lover, which seems to be something else again—but perhaps even there, there is this commonality.) What they have in common is this: there was this other who helped us in a particular way, and now this other is gone, and the help they gave has gone with them. To be bereaved is to be bereft. It is to be deprived. In mourning, in addition to raw grief, there is the loss of help. There used to be complicity, a task (an emotional task, for instance) that two people accomplished together. Now one, the survivor, no matter how reluctant, must do it alone. This is why one aspect of loss is a feeling of suddenly being forced to "grow up." It is not only a hollowing sadness that demarcates grief, it is the knowledge that what two used to do, whatever that was, whether or not it was even given a name, whether or not it was reciprocal (in the case of heroes it rarely is), one now must do alone. In the zone of your complicity with the one you love, this relative, friend, or hero, you are a child. Possibly you are children there together. Death compels you to put away childish things, and always too soon."

[also from Teju Cole on day of John Berger’s death: https://www.instagram.com/p/BOxl2gejlXz/ ]
tejucole  death  loss  childhood  grief  mourning  deprivation  complicity  togetherness  2017  johnberger 
january 2017 by robertogreco
— some news
"The meaning-making machinery of the mind is, like life itself, grotesquely ceaseless, operating at normal speed in times of trauma. But resisting the drive to “redeem horror by transforming it into existential wisdom” —in Kundera’s words— seems appropriate, because part of mourning is refusing to accept that a loss can be redeemed. (Although I will accept that, too, eventually)."



"I spend a little while every day now on the phone with lawyers, or people at the coroner’s office, or other officials who balance their bedside manner against the need for efficient processing of such messes. Our friends have been deeply supportive, of course; everyone has, and this is very often so in periods of anguish. It’s all very moving and complicating; it changes the way the world looks and feels to be reminded intimately of the comings-and-goings of persons just like oneself, full and irreducible and now never to be understood; and all the people surrounding them, bearing grief and distracted from the rhythms of life by bereavement, fear, pain; and then all those around them, supporting them and helping, giving time and attention and so on. Anyway I know everyone knows these feelings, but right now, they partly suffuse our lives, even as our lives begin to go on and we find happiness again in the usual minutiae, are carried along like everyone else by time away from the excruciating moment."
death  mourning  millsbaker  2015  milankundera  meaningmaking  life  living  happiness  grief  bereavement  fear  pain  dying  mortality 
april 2015 by robertogreco
How Training a Wild Hawk Healed One Woman's Broken Heart
"Helen Macdonald was at home in Cambridge, England, when she got a phone call saying her father, Alisdair, had died suddenly of a heart attack on a London street. The news shattered her world, propelling her into a vortex of raw grief.

As she struggled to come to terms with her father's loss, she began to have dreams about goshawks, the wildest, most temperamental of the hawk family. An experienced falconer since childhood, she decided to buy and train one. Her memoir of that experience, H Is for Hawk, must be one of the most riveting encounters between a human being and an animal ever written. 

Talking from her home near Newmarket, England, Macdonald describes why Hermann Göring loved hawks, what links the Turkish word for penis with a hawk's ideal flying weight, and how training a goshawk took her to the edge of madness but eventually gave her peace—and a new kinship with other people."





"All my falconry books said they're very sulky and infuriating, never behave well, never do what you want them to do. They'll just ignore you and fly off. And the more I read about this, the more it seemed that the writers were talking about hormonal women. It was never the falconer's fault that the bird had flown off. It was always something indescribable inside the hawk that had made them do that.

But I started looking at very old falconry books, ones written in the 17th century, and discovered that goshawks were perceived very differently then. They were seen as creatures you had to court. You had to be very patient and treat them right to make them love you. I thought that was very interesting. It was a window onto gender relations, not just goshawks. "



"I started writing a journal after my father died. I was trying to stitch the world back together. I didn't know who I was any longer or what the world was about. Writing was a way of trying to make it come back. And then that world had a hawk in it. So I did keep a diary. I also kept a hawking notebook, which was very technical. Lists of weights and weather, and things like that. In the end, I didn't really use them very much for writing the book. I remember all that year with astonishing clarity. It's all very present still."



"Part of the reason for writing the book was to uncover that dark history and say, We use animals as excuses. We say, Hawks are powerful and prey on things weaker than themselves. But that's not an excuse for humans to do the same thing. The big lesson of the book is that the natural world is full of minds that are not like our own."
helenmacdonald  2015  interviews  books  hawks  birds  multispecies  human-animalrelations  human-animalrelationships  hermanngöring  alisdairmacdonald  falconry  goshawk  thwhite  hawking  lists  writing  howwewrite  whywewrite  grief  death  relationships 
march 2015 by robertogreco
First Sentence: Aracelis Girmay | New Writing | Granta Magazine
"Small severance, when you know it’s coming, is a specific kind of heartache. Nearly mundane, it buzzes like a fly. The heart almost buckles, seeing how everything should go on, and that this mundane everything, made up of such small and ordinary parts, is exactly what one strives to keep. Our hands are small. And the world, too, is the sum of smallness, and this is part of the surprise and part of the grief.



In Brenda Shaughnessy’s poem ‘Headlong’ she writes, ‘Be strange to yourself,/ in your love, your grief.’ I carry this quote and love it and do not know all of the reasons why.

In our difficult or blissful moments, I think that strangeness is what troubles or opens us into discovery. Wanting to explore the strangeness of that mourning (when and where it would rear its head), was what pushed me backward into the poem to discover that at the heart of the difficulty, was music. And that part of what I hadn’t realized until writing the poem is that that music represented, to me, not just a severance from family but from my language, my cultural references, registers, and values. In fact, this is where much of the sorrow lived. The severance from many of the sounds I knew and loved. And so part of what this poem seeks to do – and what I seek to do in my work, in general, in my teaching, is to encourage and cultivate our specific and idiosyncratic languages, voices. As John Edgar Wideman writes it, language evolving from ‘the body’s whole expressive repertoire.’ It is easier to see this in the work of my students but it must also be true for each of us: in a sense, home and personal knowledge of one’s potential contribution, one’s worth, one’s beauty, one’s history (which is to say, shared history) are at stake."
strangeness  poetry  aracelisgirmay  brendashaughnessy  2014  johnedgarwideman  language  voice  voices  self  discovery  poems  multiplicity  self-knowledge  senseofself  beauty  personhood  unease  loss  mourning  change  memory  memories  smallness  grief  small 
march 2014 by robertogreco
Richard Lloyd Parry · Ghosts of the Tsunami · LRB 6 February 2014
[As Erin says, "This essay on Japanese ghost narratives following the tsunami is extraordinarily humane." https://twitter.com/kissane/status/430081609560518656 ]

"When opinion polls put the question, ‘How religious are you?’, the Japanese rank among the most ungodly people in the world. It took a catastrophe for me to understand how misleading this self-assessment is. It is true that the organised religions, Buddhism and Shinto, have little influence on private or national life. But over the centuries both have been pressed into the service of the true faith of Japan: the cult of the ancestors.

I knew about the ‘household altars’, or butsudan, which are still seen in most homes and on which the memorial tablets of dead ancestors – the ihai – are displayed. The butsudan are black cabinets of lacquer and gilt, with openwork carvings of lions and birds; the ihai are upright tablets of black polished wood, vertically inscribed in gold. Offerings of flowers, incense, rice, fruit and drinks are placed before them; at the summer Festival of the Dead, families light candles and lanterns to welcome home the ancestral spirits. I had assumed that these picturesque practices were matters of symbolism and custom, attended to in the same way that people in the West will participate in a Christian funeral without any literal belief in the words of the liturgy. But in Japan spiritual beliefs are regarded less as expressions of faith than as simple common sense, so lightly and casually worn that it is easy to miss them altogether. ‘The dead are not as dead there as they are in our own society,’ the religious scholar Herman Ooms writes. ‘It has always made perfect sense in Japan as far back as history goes to treat the dead as more alive than we do … even to the extent that death becomes a variant, not a negation of life.’

At the heart of ancestor worship is a contract. The food, drink, prayers and rituals offered by their descendants gratify the dead, who in turn bestow good fortune on the living. Families vary in how seriously they take these ceremonies, but even for the unobservant, the dead play a continuing part in domestic life. For much of the time, their status is something like that of beloved, deaf and slightly batty old folk who can’t expect to be at the centre of the family but who are made to feel included on important occasions. Young people who have passed important entrance examinations, got a job or made a good marriage kneel before the butsudan to report their success. Victory or defeat in an important legal case, for example, will be shared with the ancestors in the same way.

When grief is raw the presence of the deceased is overwhelming. In households that lost children in the tsunami it became routine, after half an hour of tea and chat, to be asked if I would like to ‘meet’ the dead sons and daughters. I would be led to a shrine covered with framed photographs, toys, favourite drinks and snacks, letters, drawings and school exercise books. One mother had commissioned Photoshopped portraits of her children, showing them as they would have been had they lived: a boy who died in primary school smiling proudly in high school uniform, a teenage girl as she should have looked in a kimono at her coming of age ceremony. Here, every morning, she began the day by talking to her dead children, weeping love and apology, as unselfconsciously as if she were speaking over a long-distance telephone line.

The tsunami did appalling violence to the religion of the ancestors. Along with walls, roofs and people, the water carried away household altars, memorial tablets and family photographs. Cemetery vaults were ripped open and the bones of the dead scattered. Temples were destroyed, along with memorial books listing the names of ancestors over generations. ‘The memorial tablets – it’s difficult to exaggerate their importance,’ Yozo Taniyama, a priest and friend of Reverend Kaneda, told me. ‘When there’s a fire or an earthquake, the ihai are the first thing many people will save, before money or documents. People died in the tsunami because they went home for the ihai. It’s life – like saving your late father’s life.’

When people die violently or prematurely, in anger or anguish, they are at risk of becoming gaki, ‘hungry ghosts’, who wander between worlds, propagating curses and mischief. There are rituals for placating unhappy spirits, but in the aftermath of the disaster few families were in a position to perform them. And then there were those ancestors whose descendants were entirely wiped out by the wave. Their comfort in the afterlife depended entirely on the reverence of living families, which had been permanently and irrevocably cut off: their situation was as helpless as that of orphaned children.

Thousands of spirits had passed from life to death; countless others were cut loose from their moorings in the afterlife. How could they all be cared for? Who was to honour the compact between the living and the dead? In such circumstances, how could there fail to be a swarm of ghosts?

*

Even before the tsunami struck its coast, nowhere in Japan was closer to the world of the dead than Tohoku, the northern part of the island of Honshu. In ancient times, it was a notorious frontier realm of barbarians, goblins and bitter cold. For modern Japanese, it remains a remote, marginal, faintly melancholy place, of thick dialects and quaint conservatism, the symbol of a rural tradition that, for city dwellers, is no more than a folk memory. Tohoku has bullet trains and smartphones and all the other 21st-century conveniences, but it also has secret Buddhist cults, a lively literature of supernatural tales and a sisterhood of blind shamanesses who gather once a year at a volcano called Osore-san, or ‘Mt Fear’, the traditional entrance to the underworld.

Masashi Hijikata, the closest thing you could find to a Tohoku nationalist, understood immediately that after the disaster hauntings would follow. ‘We remembered the old ghost stories,’ he said, ‘and we told one another that there would be many new stories like that. Personally, I don’t believe in the existence of spirits, but that’s not the point. If people say they see ghosts, then that’s fine – we can leave it at that.’

Hijikata was born in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, but came to Sendai as a university student, and has the passion of the successful immigrant for his adopted home. When I met him he was running a small publishing company whose books and journals were exclusively on Tohoku subjects. Prominent among his authors was the academic Norio Akasaka, a stern critic of the policies of the central government towards the region. These had been starkly illuminated by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima: an industrial plant erected by Tokyo, supplying electricity to the capital, and now spitting radiation over people who had enjoyed none of its benefits. ‘Before the war, it used to be said that Tohoku provided men as soldiers, women as prostitutes, and rice as tribute,’ Akasaka wrote. ‘I had thought that that kind of colonial situation had changed, but after the disaster I changed my thinking.’

Hijikata explained the politics of ghosts to me, as well as the opportunity and the risk they represented for the people of Tohoku. ‘We realised that so many people were having experiences like this,’ he said, ‘but there were people taking advantage of them. Trying to sell them this and that, telling them: “This will give you relief.”’ He met a woman who had lost her son in the disaster, and who was troubled by a sense of being haunted. She went to the hospital: the doctor gave her anti-depressants. She went to the temple: the priest sold her an amulet, and told her to read the sutras. ‘But all she wanted,’ he said, ‘was to see her son again. There are so many like her. They don’t care if they are ghosts – they want to encounter ghosts.’

‘Given all that, we thought we had to do something. Of course, there are some people who are experiencing trauma, and if your mental health is suffering then you need medical treatment. Other people will rely on the power of religion, and that is their choice. What we do is to create a place where people can accept the fact that they are witnessing the supernatural. We provide an alternative for helping people through the power of literature.’

Hijikata revived a literary form which had flourished in the feudal era: the kaidan, or ‘weird tale’. Kaidankai, or ‘weird tale parties’, had been a popular summer pastime, when the delicious chill imparted by ghost stories served as a form of pre-industrial air conditioning. Hijikata’s kaidankai were held in modern community centres and public halls. They would begin with a reading by one of his authors. Then members of the audience would share experiences of their own: students, housewives, working people, retirees. He organised kaidan-writing competitions, and published the best of them in an anthology. Among the winners was Ayane Suto, whom I met one afternoon at Hijikata’s office."
japan  ghosts  belief  religion  humanism  2014  death  tsunami  richardlloydparry  kurihara  buddhism  zen  storytelling  exorcisms  stories  tohoku  masashihijikata  kaidan  kaidankai  writing  grief  mourning  supernatural  norioakasaka  reverendkaneda 
february 2014 by robertogreco
The Art of Presence - NYTimes.com
[via: https://twitter.com/ayjay/status/425658418657886210 + https://twitter.com/ayjay/status/425659290209116160 ]

"Her mother, Mary, talks about the deep organic grief that a parent feels when they have lost one child and seen another badly injured, a pain felt in bones and fiber.

But suffering is a teacher. And, among other things, the Woodiwisses drew a few lessons, which at least apply to their own experience, about how those of us outside the zone of trauma might better communicate with those inside the zone. There are no uniformly right responses, but their collective wisdom, some of it contained in Catherine’s Sojourners piece, is quite useful:

Do be there. Some people think that those who experience trauma need space to sort things through. Assume the opposite. Most people need presence. The Woodiwisses say they were awed after each tragedy by the number of people, many of whom had been mere acquaintances, who showed up and offered love, from across the nation and the continents. They were also disoriented by a number of close friends who simply weren’t there, who were afraid or too busy.

Anna and Catherine’s father, Ashley, says he could detect no pattern to help predict who would step up and provide the ministry of presence and who would fumble. Neither age, experience nor personal belief correlated with sensitivity and love.

Don’t compare, ever. Don’t say, “I understand what it’s like to lose a child. My dog died, and that was hard, too.” Even if the comparison seems more germane, don’t make it. Each trauma should be respected in its uniqueness. Each story should be heard attentively as its own thing. “From the inside,” Catherine writes, comparisons “sting as clueless, careless, or just plain false.”

Do bring soup. The non-verbal expressions of love are as healing as eloquence. When Mary was living with Catherine during her recovery, some young friend noticed she didn’t have a bathmat. He went to Target and got a bathmat. Mary says she will never forget that.

Do not say “you’ll get over it.” “There is no such thing as ‘getting over it,’ ” Catherine writes, “A major disruption leaves a new normal in its wake. There is no ‘back to the old me.’ ”

Do be a builder. The Woodiwisses distinguish between firefighters and builders. Firefighters drop everything and arrive at the moment of crisis. Builders are there for years and years, walking alongside as the victims live out in the world. Very few people are capable of performing both roles.

Don’t say it’s all for the best or try to make sense out of what has happened. Catherine and her parents speak with astonishing gentleness and quiet thoughtfulness, but it’s pretty obvious that these tragedies have stripped away their tolerance for pretense and unrooted optimism.

Ashley also warned against those who would overinterpret, and try to make sense of the inexplicable. Even devout Christians, as the Woodiwisses are, should worry about taking theology beyond its limits. Theology is a grounding in ultimate hope, not a formula book to explain away each individual event.

I’d say that what these experiences call for is a sort of passive activism. We have a tendency, especially in an achievement-oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness — to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. But what seems to be needed here is the art of presence — to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take its course. Grant the sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct."
trauma  support  2014  howto  suffering  grief  injury  presence 
january 2014 by robertogreco
Diagnosis - Human - NYTimes.com
"I fear that being human is itself fast becoming a condition. It’s as if we are trying to contain grief, and the absolute pain of a loss like mine. We have become increasingly disassociated and estranged from the patterns of life and death, uncomfortable with the messiness of our own humanity, aging and, ultimately, mortality.

Challenge and hardship have become pathologized and monetized. Instead of enhancing our coping skills, we undermine them and seek shortcuts where there are none, eroding the resilience upon which each of us, at some point in our lives, must rely."
psychology  grief  depression  add  adhd  diagnosis  2013  tedgup  psychiatry  medicine  mortality  aging  humans  beinghuman  resilience  pharmaceuticals  pain  shortcuts  life  living  society  us  coping 
april 2013 by robertogreco
GRIEF — THE BI BLOG
"Neither love nor depression have the words “finish” or “end” or “done” in their vocabulary. Love is belief in expansiveness, of more and again and adventure, of a year that keeps unfolding, of Death Valley in summer and northern Sweden in winter and even just Venice Beach on a gloomy day in June. Depression, too, is expansive, but in a different way, a swirling vortex of shit, a downward funnel that just spins deeper.

Grief, however, is bounded. It twists and gnarls and it stifles the breath. It forgoes the linear in favor of spikes and spots and synchronicity. When you think you’ve managed to escape grief, it hoods you again, capturing you in another convolute. A knot under my sternum that sticks on every inhale, a peach pit, the bitter walnut falling out of a cracked shell. And then: the knot tires itself, giving way to all the muscles that gripped it; the walnut spit out, the peach pit tucked into a napkin, then folded in quarters."
love  depression  grief  mollywrightsteenson  fredscharmen  endings 
august 2011 by robertogreco
Chimpanzees' grief caught on camera in Cameroon - Telegraph
"More than a dozen chimps stand in silence watching from behind their wire enclosure as Dorothy, a chimp in her late 40s who died of heart failure, is wheeled past them."
animals  sadness  grief  emotions  emotion  evolution  pain  behavior 
november 2009 by robertogreco
Author of the month: Michael Rosen | By genre | guardian.co.uk Books
"When I said, 'He's dead,' you'd see kids just nodding, 'Oh, right, that's what happened, is it?' Very matter of fact." Which may be how Rosen had sense that children could handle material in his Sad Book that, quite simply, makes sense of sadness."
books  children  death  grief  sadness  parenting 
may 2008 by robertogreco

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