A SOFT TYRANNY IN MIND

Some things you just have to do without thinking. Not a natural approach for a friend who calls from Boston. She’s successfully completed a round of cancer treatment. No more daily treks to the hospital for a dose of radiation. It’s over. She had a routine, and she stuck to it. She couldn’t think much about it. She just did it.

Now she’s thinking about it. How the person she was before is not the person she is after. How some things can’t be lived without also being thought. How her sense of self has somehow been restructured. How some division of labor between the unthinkable and possible has shifted. Some recognition that events out there can be dismissed yet persist in here. How the unseen is not necessarily unfelt.

We gnawed on politics for awhile, the queasiness of Trumpworld. I stepped on and off my soapbox, and when she tried to change the subject and I just couldn’t let it go, she asked a real question: so why do you care? It’s a good, multilayered question, especially as I look around at friends who still seem to be living in a sense of normalcy, able to try on political statements then lay them aside and get on with business as usual. Be honest — does this opinion make me look divisive?

Many of us care for many reasons, but the Trumpist mantra post-election sit down and shut up” hurts in my gut. We are now obligated to get in line, and why not? No one needs to speak (let alone think) anymore. The Dear Leader now embodies the will of us all, all voices folded into one voice. This is what Trump promised in his dark speech at the Republican National Convention. Total. Authoritarian. All we have to do is sit down and shut up.

And here’s my dirty secret: In harping at my friend I was harping at myself — shouting down a lurking fear that I would be all too happy to sit down and shut up. That being let off the hook would be a relief from all this unnerving activity. And I know better but hear my fear between the lines. I have no obvious reason to be afraid. I must be poking at a structure of mind.

~   ~   ~

A few weeks ago a drone followed me through a parking lot. It looked to my untrained eye to be armed with a camera but not, like the drones the U.S. deploys elsewhere in the world, with weapons. But what if it was weaponized? And in that paranoid moment, my brain lit up the way it does for a shock-jock news story, like the ones on Fox News that portray all protest as violent, illegal, inexcusable agitation. What if I am at risk? Better safe than sorry.

I thought about this on February 18 when I walked with thousands of people through the streets of downtown LA in a peaceful demonstration for immigrants’ rights. No arrests were made.This wasn’t even civil disobedience; the march was permitted, the police friendly and cooperative. We were simply exercising our constitutional right. And then a drone approached, hovering over an intersection as the crowd moved through. It dropped lower and lower, then moved slowly toward us, passing overhead, trailing the crowd. Who was watching? Was this citizen journalism, like Digital Smoke Signals documenting Standing Rock? Or was this the FBI capturing faces for a facial recognition program? Have I been indexed? Am I at risk? Maybe I should have stayed home…

Even when we are physically safe, threat can operate in the mind, where it works hard on the imagination. And it’s imagination that most powerfully prepares people to turn against each other. It grinds ruts in the mind that seek the paranoid certainty, freezing the ability to think. The more frightened I am, the less able I am to respond. The more overwhelmed I feel for my own safety, the less I care about yours.

Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, Muslims — all are marked as enemies in Trumpworld, making my white skin a sack of unearned privilege. What do I do with this legacy of immigrant forebears who came to workable circumstances and had some luck? What do I do with their hand-me-down patriotism, a mental military operation aimed at guarding the taboos that conserve a preferable—though lost—past (the loss itself what I learned to revel in most)? What do I do with this mind structured for loyalty to this imagined America? What do I do with this mind trained to distrust people who wield power in the distant places we see on TV? New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC—places that for many Americans exist more in distorted imagination than in any lived reality.

Growing up in this distant place marked by a Midwestern mindset, I learned to be quiet, though clutched by unruly thoughts that kept me busy disciplining myself. Every word, every impulse was checked and triple-checked in a tyranny of self-doubt. The operation was always framed by a vague notion of what it means to be correct—to be in the right. I dropped tiny thoughts that felt like teaspoons of explosive.

This is a structure of mind, comforted by certainty while seeking just enough novelty to prop up the illusion of freedom. It is not mindless, but it is secretly happy not to mind.

That craving for righteousness kills expression. To clear a space for my own thoughts and words, I cast it away on a daily basis (every morning it returns). Catch and release. Perpetually on a threshold—neither in nor out. Poised. This was and is a structure of mind, comforted by certainty while seeking just enough novelty to prop up the illusion of freedom. It is not mindless, but it is secretly happy not to mind. It carefully curates what degree of thought is possible without upsetting the way things are. It sustains the belief that I’m a good person (which sometimes means being good at being bad). Above all, obedience. Above all, the discipline of being nice (this, especially, for the girls). Family first. Fairness, yes. Justice if it’s convenient (but don’t count on it). Keep yourself to yourself. Seek to do no harm, but don’t worry if you do no good.

~ ~ ~

What keeps this in place is the hovering threat of loss. Loss of love. Loss of position. Loss of support. Loss of privilege. Loss of the self I imagine myself to be. So many ways to lose, and they are all at risk where loyalty-without-question structures mind and binds thought. And while I tell myself I can’t, it continues to call—it’s got my number—the ringing in my head, the false front nodding, the chalk outline of empathy, the palpable ghost of my banished self. A grave curiosity pulls me away from my rootstock. (Something I called “trust” turns out to be blind loyalty. Something I called “love” turns out to be brittle dependence.)

Strangely, when I am able to tolerate the threat of loss, I feel lighter but never for long. Next comes the exhaustion and longing for a boa-tight embrace, a single answer, a total voice to replace my stutters, hesitations and half-formed words.

I suspect the silent majority has its fair share of people staring enthusiastically into the future, ready to take up whatever task is offered. Not because they believe in it but because, well, why not? It’s easy to choose what’s given and cash the check. When the order comes, why not seize the land? Arrest the mother? Handcuff the child in airport detention or on the playground? Interrogate a citizen because of his religion? Grab the girl ones? Rough up the brown ones? Shoot the black ones? Why not craft the press release, prepare the paychecks, run the numbers, bind the copies, proofread the report? From the violence that lays its hand on the citizen, immigrant and refugee, a web of small and large actions stretches back into and through the bureaucracy. At some point, I know it reaches me. Even at a distance, I know the metallic taste that comes right before—

In this accelerating stream of events, I struggle to live it and think it at the same time—imperfectly, overwhelmingly. I wake up each morning with complicity on my mind, with the first act of resistance being simply to open my eyes and not look away. There are no lines in the sand, just broad beaches that recede and continue under the surf. Any number of futures are possible, but a soft tyranny in mind, one that suffocates service and care under calls to authority and discipline, can only build rough castles. Cruelty is calling itself patriotism, and we’re all invited to join that party.

I hear the call. I feel its pull. Today, I choose not to go.

TRASH THOUGHT and the WORK OF NICK CAVE

In Spring 2016 I presented this at the UC Irvine Visual Arts Conference, illustrated by a rolling set of images of Nick Cave’s stunning soundsuits (see NickCaveArt.com or search online). Cave’s work has always given me courage. Today, I was reminded of it on my way to the #NoBanNoWall protests at Los Angeles Intl. Airport. From inexpressible collisions of injustice and anger—with vulnerability and courage—can come combinations of loving intention, beauty and unfailing surprise.  

* * *

Soundsuits have been at the center of Nick Cave’s artistic practice for more than 20 years. Some are purely sculptural. Others are meant to be worn and performed. Both familiar and alien, exuberant and arresting, these creaturely amalgamations begin from cast-off materials—old sweaters, rugs, mechanical toys, ceramic tchatchkes, reams of buttons—even voodoo dolls and sock monkeys. We could say that Cave is upcycling discarded materials, turning trash into something of quality—and he is. But where does that transformative potential come from, and how far does it extend? I’d like to propose that moment of transformation as trash thought. 

The type of trash I’m talking about is something that has been disconnected from its original context of use and thus lost its originally intended value. The buttons from a moth-eaten coat. The doily crocheted by a great-great-aunt whose memory today leaves no trace. Trash is a leftover, a remainder from a time, place or situation no longer relevant.

Trash is never completely without value, but that value isn’t durable or apparent, and this contingency opens it up to refusal. Usually, we just try to get rid of it. We refuse the refuse.

This means that trash doesn’t command much of a price. To be clear, “value” is not the same as “price,” though in our market-driven culture, the two are easily conflated. Value is qualitative, while price is quantitative. I’m speaking broadly, not only about artworks but also about coffee and cigarettes and rent. In practice, we constantly translate the quantitative into the qualitative. Is $20 a good price or a bad price? The number alone doesn’t tell us. But in a given context, we translate that fixed object into something that begins to sound like judgment or even belief—good, bad, wonderful, horrible. An objective number becomes laden with subjective emotion and meaning. That process of translation from quant to qual bleeds beyond economics into other realms.

Anthropologist David Graeber argues that it’s no coincidence that we use the same word—value—across economic, sociological and linguistic registers.(1) The notion of economic value conveyed by price slides into the sociological sense of value (what’s good or desirable in human life) and the sense of linguistic value (essentially the construction of meaningful difference). Value is not simply economic. And so the idea of “trash” cannot be simply material.

What do you value? How much do you value it? The answers will direct energy and attention to distinguish what’s trash from what’s not. We’re all doing this, from moment to moment, consciously and unconsciously. No one apprehends everything. We reject or let some things slip away while we grasp on to others. A thing that you decide has no value has no claim on your energy and has no hold on your attention. A thing with no value is a thing with no audience.

By responding to context, value judgments in turn create context. Where do our evaluations of trash out there begin if not from our evaluations in here? Freud dubbed the stuff of dreams “day residue,” dreams being a process of sorting the meaningful from the meaningless—working out what we need in order to construct a tolerable sense of reality and letting go of the rest. Forgetting can be a form of putting out the trash thought. How we work out meaning internally, of course, shapes our sense of our own value as human beings. Which brings me back to Nick Cave.

The Messenger

In 1992, Cave had just finished his MA at Cranbrook and moved to Chicago to teach. That was the year that four white police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King, setting off the L.A. Riots. Cave was profoundly unsettled. Sitting one day in  Millennium Park, he noticed a twig. He recalls that he saw it as something discarded, dismissed, like litter—viewed, as he put it, as less than, which connected to how he was feeling about himself as a black male in U.S. society. Was he valued? Was he more than a racial profile?

He picked up the twig, then gathered more, went into the studio and three weeks later had a sculpture. At first, he thought of that sculpture as a sort of armor. Only after completing it did he think about putting it on, and once he did, it made sound. It struck him as being something about protest—to be heard, to make a noise; to be seen while obscuring what’s most obvious about identity.

The soundsuit became a way to disrupt the audience’s evaluation. Who is it? What is it? Where does it come from? What is it trying to say? With face obscured and obvious markers of identity overwhelmed by the unexpected, a body in a soundsuit becomes a body beyond easy social evaluation.

For Cave, that was the start of an artistic ambition that touched “multiple fields of power,” weaving personal and communal identity with a broader politics. He began to think of himself differently, as an artist with a humanitarian sensibility—a “messenger.” Today, Cave often works collaboratively in community art residencies, where he says he aims “to make everyone feel relevant.”

Relevance is another word for value. Relevance is another way of saying that you are heard, seen and not forgotten. Upcycling materials isn’t simply a reclamation of stuff. Embedded in his art practice, Cave models reconstitution of value that extends beyond materials to participants and audiences. He demonstrates that finding value in what has been discarded is a skill not simply about making things but necessary to making ourselves.

I suggest that our consideration of trash begins with what we have rejected about ourselves and—by extension—others and the horizon of our possible worlds. Dreams hold clues, as do those themes that recur. The object that captivates. The idea that won’t let you go. Trash thought may lead to idioms that upcycle literal trash into art objects, but—more fundamentally—it traces how we reassess perceptions of possibility, transforming abject shadows through the investment of our own fascinations and desires.

That investment also begins to move materials and their associated ideas that had been prematurely silenced or stilled. Cave’s art moves objects relegated to a dusty secondary market of thrift shops and antique malls back into circulation in the market of ideas and experiences. Doilies become ritual medallions. Little Black Sambo dolls push us to think again about how racism is insuated in the everyday. An abacus becomes a face that speaks beyond calculation. These revalued materials bring previous lives with them—haunted with humane presence. We see that alien is not alienated.

The vector that transforms trash into something of value—something that might be associated with “quality”—is not in the material but rather in its shadow: something rejected, perhaps uncomfortable, finds representation. Trash thought upsets the very value assumptions that deemed something forgettable in the first place. Trash thought can spur new art objects and, as Graeber puts it, create new universes of value.

Trash thought is that moment when we recognize that we are missing something. It stops us to reconsider what we or others have dismissed, not simply in the material but by extension within ourselves—alone and in community, in solitude and in solidarity.

REFERENCES

Bolton, Andrew, et al. Nick Cave: Epitome. New York: Prestel USA. 2014. Print.

Cave, Nick and Marilyn Sylla. “Exotic Muses: Dancers by Robert Henri and Nick Cave.” Video. Mead Art Museum, Amherst, MA. 27 Apr. 2012. Web. 11 June 2013.

Graeber, David. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. New York: Palgrave. 2001. Print.

Juxtapoz. “Nick Cave: A Blanket Statement.” April 2016. Print.

Roffe, Jon. Abstract Market Theory. London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2015. Print.

 

 

 

WHY I DON’T ADORE YOU (and why you shouldn’t need me to)

Donald Trump seems perplexed — genuinely perplexed — by the Anti-Trump protests since November 8. He won, didn’t he? In the pageant of presidency, he got the crown and is taking his victory lap after which he reigns (not serves) for four years. It should be all applause from here on out.

But one week ago, Trump was unfit to lead. And one week later, he still is. I continue to stand with the majority who did not vote for Trump. That’s why I marched last Saturday with thousands of fellow Angelenos chanting NOT MY PRESIDENT. (And, no, I wasn’t paid.)

The prospect of a Trump presidency doesn’t make me feel like a “loser” but it does make me feel like a chump. The same feeling I had as a kid when I diligently played by the rules even after it was clear the bully was about to turn things upside down — usually by declaring new rules in the middle of the game. Even in grade school, you can see that hollow victory is still victory. So while I respect the democratic process and the peaceful transfer of power, I feel a deep absurdity, knowing Trump and his inner circle don’t. They just need me to get in line quietly.

I fear what we’ll become under Trump, not because of what he stands for but because he stands for nothing. He says whatever gets ratings. He does whatever keeps the cameras pointed in his direction. He stokes the worst in us, because it’s easy.

And get ready for that grandstanding to be a regular feature of the next four years. The New York Times reports (paywall) that Trump has “…expressed interest in continuing to hold the large rallies that were a staple of his candidacy. He likes the instant gratification and adulation that the cheering crowds provide…” There’s the clue to the daily task that’s been thrust on us — filling the bottomless well of Trump’s need to be adored. His brand will be revived, products will roll out, and those rallies will become one long, inescapable infomercial for Trumpalia.

He’ll undoubtedly get rich out of the deal, but personal adoration is something else. Even the briefest look at presidential history shows that it’s never been a platform for “instant gratification and adulation.” Being president is not like being a TV host (with your face on buses and billboards). It’s not like being a CEO (where you can just fire all the people who disagree — remember, we’re the majority of voters). It’s not even like being a beauty queen (where white teeth and super-coiffed hair really, really count). Serving the people is mostly thankless, grueling work, and winning my adoration isn’t the same as grabbing it.

****

#NOTMYPRESIDENT

BEGIN BY DEGREE

This is a shorter, revised version of my piece from in|DECISIVE|form, a collection by some of my CalArts Aesthetics & Politics colleagues. Watch the recorded presentation below (about 14 min.) or head over to Medium to read the text version (which Medium says should take you 7 min. — the mouth is half as fast as the eyes). As always, comments are most welcome.

With particular gratitude to Martín Plot, founder of the CalArts Aesthetics & Politics program and wise guide through the thesis process. 

 

 

INSIDE THE ENVELOPE

“There is only the moment as it is — the seed of whatever might come — if one can wait. The waiting is all and the waiting is together.”
— 
James Hillman

About a week before she died, my great aunt Florence said I might find among her things a large brown envelope marked “Do Not Open.” If I found it, I should destroy it. She couldn’t remember where she hid it. She may have already gotten rid of it. She didn’t want to forget what it held (thus the envelope) — and she didn’t want it remembered (thus the warning).

She had willfully made it to 100 years, 4 months, and counting. In her last weeks, she wasn’t giving up, but parts were. Bits of memory. Her balance. A heart valve. Veins.

Florence’s bodily processes were winding down. Meanwhile, a lucid dream self was making nighttime appearances that she didn’t recall in the morning. Her sense of a singular self was dispersing into separate lines, each moving toward the exit at its own pace. Would her body give out before her mind caught up to where her ineffable self was already going? Would the parts have a chance to harmonize or — as one caregiver put it — to rhyme?

At first, she was waiting to recover. Then, a turn, and she was waiting to die. Once that realization landed, practical Florence wanted to know one thing: “How do I do it?”

The idea of waiting seems passive. Hear the sighs? Florence, on the other hand, would be fully occupied by the process of active dying. Beyond the rage for more time is the longing for a good death. In that, waiting itself requires effort, the way we hold ourselves through it an accomplishment all its own.

Florence’s heart attack had triggered my legal responsibility for her healthcare decisions. My face reminded her of my grandmother Grace, who died in her 20s and was permanently fixed in Florence’s memory as a beloved sister-in-law. My independence reminded her of Pauline, Florence’s mother who, as a young woman, came alone on a ship from Norway to find her future in Wisconsin. Florence and I were both single and childless. We seemed a fit for this.

Activating hospice had turned the emphasis from heroic medical intervention to respect for her natural process. What a relief to detach her 75 pound, 4-feet-and-some-inches frame from the monitors, shed the voluminous hospital gown and bring her back to the assisted living community she had called home for two decades.

For most of her 100 years, Florence had lived an organized life. Now she fought confusion: What day is it? What time of day is it? What’s happened to me? Why do I need oxygen? Why do I feel like this? She’d been healthy so much of her life, she didn’t know what to make of not feeling like herself. Her pride in self-sufficiency was battered. She needed more help than ever while, paradoxically, navigating a radically solitary experience.

Days and nights were soon punctuated by caregivers checking vital signs, delivering medications and monitoring her evolving state. But physical case history stood in sharp relief to a different enigmatic history she was making. That was more like the story of a child at the beach testing the surf’s edge, not sure about jumping over the wave, retreating or wading in.

* * *

“Tempo has three elements: rhythm, emotion and energy. … The most basic decision-making skill is adapting to the tempo of your environment, and setting your own pace within it.”
— Venkatesh Rao (Tempo, Ribbonfarm Inc. 2011)

Flying to Madison suspended my own life in L.A. The previous week I had watched surfers wait for waves, their alert patience a type of situational analysis. To catch the best waves, you have to understand how swells build into sets, how they gather force and break.

What Florence needed was nothing I had ever experienced. She seemed to be moving toward an unknown shore. How could I possibly recognize the patterns taking her there? I worked with her team of medical, hospice and assisted living staff as something like advocate, project manager, witness, and sentry. I focused on saying “yes” to her evolving needs and “no” to whatever interfered.

“Rhyme” was far from my mind. The many rhythms of the wing, hospice care, social visits and Florence’s own escalating condition became jagged and unpredictable. Mundane questions would crash in demanding immediate answers. Surreal questions would slowly materialize out of the shifting atmosphere, demanding only awe. I felt for something closer to pulse, pace or tempo to make sense of what was happening above and below the waterline.

What could be in that envelope? As I watched Florence doze, the question floated light among the weightier facts in the room. Given her quiet life and exceeding modesty, I imagined love letters, perhaps from the one she called “the love of her life.” Undoubtedly handwritten in cursive with a fountain pen. (They had not married because his mother felt Florence’s scoliosis made her unfit to have children. In the late 1920s, no doctor disagreed.)

Her skin, thin and translucent, reminded me of vellum. The term “body envelope” came to mind, how some researchers describe the skin. The skin as container for tangibles — blood, bones, brain, muscle, sinew, organs. The skin as container for intangibles — mind and emotion, intellect and self, spirit and soul. The measurable and immeasurable, multiple layers always in motion, even — perhaps most — when we seem to be still.

Conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim talks about tempo as a container for musical content. He invokes the image of a suitcase. The size of the suitcase — speed of the tempo — has to be right, so the notes won’t burst the seams (suitcase too small, tempo too fast) or sound disorganized (suitcase too big, tempo too slow). When tempo is right, no matter what its speed, the music doesn’t drag or feel rushed. The content and its expression fit.

Tempo as container. Time as structure with shape and dimension. It felt that way as the external world melted away. We left behind normalcy and entered a liminal space. The pulse of each hour became a container for more than could be measured, full of hidden movements imposing their own pace. Secrets she could not name would proliferate.

* * *

A week after her heart attack, Florence wakes up yelling, “Let me go! Let me go back!” She feels smothered by the covers. Wants her hands and feet out. Wants to “go one layer back.”

She stares at the light fixtures in the bedroom and entryway. Her brow knits up … in fear? Or worry? I remember what she told me in the hospital: that she “saw the explosion and the fire.”

In the night, she stares at the ceiling light fixture in the shadowed entryway and whispers, “I don’t know.” She asks the air, “So what’s my next priority?”

* * *

The next day she wants to stand up, sit down, lay down. Can’t get comfortable — why can’t she get comfortable? — wants her clothes off. Terminal restlessness, a phase of active dying, has begun.

She is agitated, her breathing distressed. Her doctor recommends beginning morphine to ease both conditions (I learn that morphine isn’t just for pain). The goal is to keep her comfortable and aware, so she can continue doing her inexplicable work. Waiting implies there is nothing to be done. But in this process of what some would call waiting to die, the largest task looms: the necessity to stay aware in the uncertainty of what comes next.

* * *

Ten days after her heart attack, Florence wakes in the middle of the night demanding to have her feet on the ground. On the ground. “The box.” She says she has to fit in the box.

It’s very small. The box is “129.” She’s the last one through, and when she’s through she has to say “129.” It’s very important to say that.

She’s afraid she will forget the number, so she asks to write it down. I help her with marker and paper to write a shaky 129, then she holds the paper tightly in her fist.

“I don’t know… I don’t know…” She’s somewhere else but looks at me for help. I remember a caregiver’s advice and suggest that she does know, deep inside. Is there anyone she can ask. Mother? Dad?

She leans forward, arms reaching down, chest on her knees. She has to get small enough to get in the box. 129 is VERY small.

She asks me what she should do to get small enough. I say I’m not sure. Maybe there’s something that has to be left behind? Or maybe the box is bigger than she thinks? Whatever the answer, she can find it.

She struggles to get small but apparently not small enough. “I don’t know… I don’t know…” She’s wearing herself out. I ask if she wants to rest — maybe the answer will come in her sleep.

She agrees, though with a tinge of defeat. She says in a small voice, “I have to get big again…” and sits upright. She pushes her shoulders back and says in her loudest voice, “I HAVE TO GET BIG AGAIN!”

She lays back in the chair and says quietly — sadly — “I have to get big again.”

* * *

In the afternoon, we look at cards from Florence’s 100th birthday and read a letter of thanks dated 1947, from the parents of one of her kindergarten students. A nurse comments on the beautiful crabapple blossoms outside. Florence’s second-story picture window is filled with exuberant puffs of white and pink. We turn her chair to face them. Until today, she has wanted to face the open door, to see people passing in the hall, but this change buoys her. At first.

She says the blossoms remind her of “Thanatopsis,” a poem that, for her, has always made sense of death. . . .When thoughts Of the last bitter hour come like a blight . . . Go forth, under the open sky, and list To Nature’s teachings. . .

I ask if she wants to hear or read it. No. She doesn’t want the poem now. I’m relieved, because I don’t want it either. No words, no art seem adequate for what’s happening.

She asks, “Am I dying?”

* * *

A tray of food comes. She wants nothing.

She sighs, worn out: “Do I have to go through this ritual every day? Do I have to do this every day? Eat and drink?”

She describes her days before the heart attack as “up” days, the ones after as “down” days. “What am I supposed to do? I don’t want to die. But I don’t want to be like this, up and down. Up and down.”

She struggles to logically close the gap between her sense of herself — young and robust, even now — and the reality of her body. It’s puzzling: Why can’t she walk on her own? Why does she need help getting to the toilet? Why can’t she live the life she used to live? Who are all these people in her apartment, and why can’t she just tell them to leave?

“This isn’t how I imagined dying. … I thought everything would just go on like it was when things were up. Not like this, when things are down.”

She had vaguely imagined that, in death, she would be the same as always, just somewhere else. But now, she doesn’t recognize herself. What does that mean for who she will be where she’s going? She can’t fathom her body not being as strong as it’s always been, let alone not being at all.

The previous year, I had helped her plan her funeral. The obituary picture she chose was her at 50. Literal midlife, at her full height, in every sense. She thinks for awhile, then gets practical: “How do I do it? Do I just go to sleep?”

* * *

The following day, strawberries and cream for breakfast. Not a last supper. A last bite. Two of her favorite nurses come to take her vital signs (still relentlessly good) and give her medication. One shows off green fingernail polish, getting Florence’s good-natured disapproval — their running joke. In the afternoon, the pastor from her church visits. I never saw her pray, and Florence never spoke to me in spiritual terms, but she trusts that he knows something about dying. She asks him how to do it. He says some people see a light, some see a doorway to walk through, some see a hand reaching out. Whatever it is, she can trust it. Nothing here is holding her from going where she needs to go.

* * *

“the idea like a homesickness starting just to fold and pleat and knot / itself / out of the manyness…”
— Jorie Graham, “The Guardian Angel of the Private Life”

Twelve days since her heart attack. Florence’s gaze is fixed on the crabapple blossoms, then she suddenly wants to be out of her chair, pulls off all the blankets: “Let me be free! Let me be free!”

Then, “Space!” She wants the window ledge cleared. Books, plants, pictures. Gone.

She takes off the oxygen cannula and tells me to leave her alone. She says she needs to be on the ground, so I help her down, slowly, until she’s on her back staring at the ceiling, hands on her stomach. She closes her eyes. Is she rehearsing?

Later that day, she protests: “Stop holding me and let me die! … Let me be free! … Let me be. Let me be. Let me be free! Let me go. Let me go.” What started as a metaphysical protest has become a request for the body. “Let me go” means to the toilet. Biology satisfied, she says: “Lay me down in a straight line and let me die.”

A nurse and I move her to her bed. She refuses pillow, oxygen, and covers. She seems resigned, but is it an angry resignation? (Fine! You want me to let go? I’ll show you how I can let go!) Or are her threads coming together? Is she rhyming? I want to think that her body, mind, and ineffable self are finally having the same conversation, but there’s no way to know.

Because she no longer wants oxygen, I can turn off the chugging machinery and open the windows. A breeze flows in. Birdsong and voices drift up from the garden, along with a distant grind of lawnmowers.

As night approaches, I drape her favorite shawl over her. She doesn’t object. I’ve placed a picture of her parents where she will see it, if she opens her eyes. Her arms are crooked 90 degrees at the elbows and flung to the left. Her left hand droops off the edge of the bed, half open. This is where she wants it, having returned it there twice after nurses moved it onto the bed. She knows what she wants. She will die in this posture.

Her body is still, breath shallow, pulse steady. Her mind, decisive in its silence, bolsters her frailty with a deliberate weight. Her eyes, roaming behind closed eyelids, speak to some inner life in motion. A new kind of waiting begins.

* * *

Barenboim describes three “directions” tempo can take. Without changing speed, the quality of tempo can change to propel sound forward, expand outward or stabilize downward. Within what is, at one level, tempo’s steady state are different freedoms, if we listen closely. Florence was doing all three — moving forward, expanding, and going deep.

* * *

I sleep in two-hour spurts, swimming up out of sleep when a nurse brings the next round of medication. Discombobulated. A vague empathy for new parents. Florence sleeps through this.

Staff and other visitors stop by to tell me stories about Florence and their own losses. I’m exhausted. I don’t want to be a vessel for their grief. I’m busy holding my own in check; my primary responsibility is still to make decisions for her care, and clarity of mind is more difficult every day. But I listen, strangely privileged to be in the twilight where the inescapable thing we will all do is playing out.

* * *

Florence’s body spasms violently, eyes open, arms up and reaching. After a few seconds, she relaxes. My heart is in my throat, but the nurse says it’s a natural result of biochemical changes as her body dehydrates.

I comb her hair (defiantly thick and wavy), wash her face (the morphine drips blue on her cheeks), and put balm on her lips.

I offer her a sponge of water. She refuses. This is another gateway. A robust person can last up to a week without liquids. The doctor says Florence may last a day or two.

* * *

Florence’s frame is outlined by the brown, lofty shawl. She reminds me of a recurring character from my dreams, a woman who shows up still and unmoving, usually laying on the ground, sometimes outright injured but more often simply making one thing clear: she’s in so much pain she doesn’t want to be touched. She has no tears left. This deeply wounded woman asks just one thing: Don’t move me.

I’ll cry when this is over. Now it’s all I can do to breathe.

* * *

Two days later, Florence lays in the same position, pulse strong and steady. My thoughts shuffle through: What’s keeping her here? Does she need something? Something from me? She was always particular. I wonder if she’s annoyed that I haven’t gotten something right by her standards. I quietly ask her forgiveness for any lapses. She grimaces.

Is she still attached to her routine? Back to her idea about what afterlife would be — more of the same. Wake up. Read the paper. Comb her hair. Eat breakfast. Take a walk. Not an exciting routine by many standards, but her routine. Her life.

I wonder if she considers death a failure to live? Like an eternal laziness, the long morning when she didn’t have the will to get out of bed? Unacceptable.

* * *

By afternoon, her palms are dusky (blood pools as circulation slows). Her face is soft, a blue cast around her mouth. Visitors comment on her hair — bright, thick, and alive. There’s something elegantly casual about the drape of her wrist off the bed’s edge. She would like the “elegant” part.

Several caregivers note how unusual it is for someone to be so lucid through the process of active dying. She is still (even through the morphine) finding ways to let us know what she does and doesn’t want. One observes that, approaching death, the personality doesn’t dissipate. It magnifies. People sputter through during the day to say hello, meaning goodbye. Time spirals while her body gets smaller, her intangibility larger.

* * *

I think of that envelope marked “Do Not Open.” I decide that, if I find it, I’ll open it. I’m not proud of this idea, but I keep wondering if, in some backhanded way, Florence wants me to look for it. In the doublespeak of the unconscious self, has she pointed me to the envelope hoping curiosity will get the better of me?

A sealed envelope can impose silence. It can also be a deliverance. Does some part of her want to be known, even if it violates her more modest self? Am I her way out of a certain secret? Am I here to account for what she can’t forget?

Life rarely has the sense of urgency we relish in stories, the concentrated emotional stakes that hold our attention. But death in the room changes that. We had entered a liminal passage “between the waning of one important life story and the waxing of another,” as Rao describes. “Between liminal passages, we live through a special kind of enactment … a deep story. Unlike ordinary enactments, a deep story is an episode of creative destruction that is significant enough to transform you. … Liminal passages chop up our lives into deep stories, creating the fundamental tempo of life.”

* * *

The following day, Florence’s pulse is still strong, her breathing more shallow and rapid. My own life has been suspended for two weeks now, and I’m aware of a gnawing thought: I’m trapped. I worry that we’ve passed from the danger of leaving a liminal space too soon to the danger of staying too long. Stuck in betweenness a form of trauma, an endless repetition rather than a moving through.

“Terminal restlessness” struck me as a perfect term for my own years of going without ever really getting anywhere. Was it time for us both to shed what was no longer working and move through to the next deep story?

And the mirror of this: If I feel trapped by her process, does Florence feel trapped by me? Am I holding her here? I ask Florence’s closest friend, and she agrees it’s possible. Florence is always so happy when I visit, she may just not want it to end. Or maybe it’s etiquette: The good hostess doesn’t leave ahead of the guest.

So I whisper back to her the words she said to me days ago: “Let me go.” It’s time to let each other go. Our next lives are waiting for us.

I notice Florence’s one bare nail, cardinal red polish stripped so the oxygen sensor could read properly. I ask her beautician to paint it in. Ten red nails, fully dressed.

* * *

People stop by but don’t stay long. We stay in the living room, peeking into the bedroom or watching her around the corner in a strategically placed mirror.

It feels like we could do this forever. I can’t anticipate how this liquid tempo will abruptly rise into a tide of to-dos: undertaker, flights home and back, driving her ashes north, burying them at the foot of her mother’s grave, sorting out her apartment, mementoes to relatives, memorial service, thank you’s… a list of trivia compared with this ocean we’re treading now. But not trivial at all, since that is the stuff that testifies to remembrance and survival.

It’s Friday, and as the afternoon wanes, weekday staff stop to say goodbye. No one expects her to be here when they return Monday. The head nurse lingers. We talk quietly. Then she grabs my arm and pulls me into the room: “She’s passed.”

6:25 p.m. That quiet. That simple. That quick. That long.

* * *

I didn’t find the envelope. I gave up the search after the last piece of furniture in her small apartment was accounted for, all her belongings boxed and distributed. Was it there to be found? Did I miss it? Or had she already destroyed its body, if not its memory?

Still, the envelope found me. First: an urgency to find. Then: frustration at not finding. Frustration fading into disappointment. Then the letting go, shifting expectation from “might have been” to “never will be.” And then the silent grief for the idea of a secret so urgent that it cannot be forgotten and yet must not be remembered. And out of that, the hum of new curiosity and fuller fascination. Not the envelope she hid but the one she willed me.