Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In Memoriam

I'm moving this week, to be closer to the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Having spent so many years in different grad schools and programs over the past decade--Loyola Marymount, Purdue, Cornell--I've moved back and forth a lot. Moving my life from one community to another has become routine. But even though the movers will arrive tomorrow morning, I find myself just sitting in my place, looking around at all of my stuff, waiting for it to pack itself.

I think it's the fault of a friend who wrote to me yesterday. He said that, for him, the most difficult part of moving is realizing that, as one packs and sorts the material things, invariably there are memories that one begins to sort and unpack. Memories: their tentacles clinging to all sorts of unlikely objects.

A white embroidered tablecloth stuffed in the back of a cabinet, a small blood stain on the corner: reminds me of a dear friend who was dealing with an addiction. He stayed at my house one night many years ago, his nose bleeding right onto my tablecloth.

A framed poster advertising the inaugural North American Levinas Society conference: reminds me of the time and tears our little group put into something that would grow beyond our wildest dreams, taking on a life of its own.

A shrunken silk sweater: reminds me of the girlfriend who shrunk it because she didn't follow the washing instructions; reminds me how angry I was at her for ruining my favorite sweater; reminds me of how much I love and miss her.

But because I've moved so frequently, there aren't many things that remain to cause grief. I discard them with each move.

But, the books. I've been collecting them since before high school, and I would never let one go. I have boxes and boxes of books. I have enough to build a home. And every time I open one as I slip it into a cardboard box, I look for my notes and annotations. And I read the midrash in the margins. "*See Blanchot!" I kept seeing in the margins of one book in particular. It's amazing: I haven't yet found one marginal note that doesn't remind me of exactly who I was and where I was at the time I wrote it.

My entire life is contained in my books. I've written my entire story in the narratives and philosophical musings of others. It's all there, every last second. And only I can read it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Joy Cometh in the Mourning

Every couple of months I return to this moment. Or perhaps the truth is that I perpetually inhabit this moment. The photograph, I fear--taken in New York City--captures the essence of something very close to who I am. Samuel Beckett certainly got it right when he intimated, in Waiting for Godot, that we are all just waiting for the appearance of our own death. Life is comprised only of holding "the terrible silence at bay."

But what if we are not just waiting? What if we are also mourning, without realizing it?

I was thinking, today, about how much of our mourning is displaced. I spoke to a friend this evening. She had recently ended a 2-year relationship, and she found herself grieving the loss in ways she never would have fathomed. But as she mourned, she began to realize that her sorrow was not connected to the man she had just left. She was mourning the man who came before him--a previous relationship that had ended badly. It was his face that haunted her. It was the memory of how his body felt that caused her to crumble. She realized that it had been nearly three years since she had put spinach in her eggs, the way he had taught her. She was finally mourning him.

But, she said, perhaps I was mourning him all along and I didn't know it. Perhaps the man with whom I spent the last two years of my life was just a symptom of my mourning, its fingers closing around my throat.

Let me go.

Her speculation made me return to my own contemplation of mourning. Mourning: more than one can bear. Il y a, for Levinas--the rumbling that comes before all else, preceding creation and ontology both. A sensation that, painful and raw, makes us whole by splitting us at the root. It is revelation: a shattering that somehow preserves the wholeness, precedes the wholeness, provides the wholeness.

Our society exerts so much energy toward achieving and maintaining something we call happiness. We admire those who appear to be happy all the time. We want shadows. We have lost our ability to mourn, our desire to find joy in the mourning. But I mourn. And I wouldn't trade it for all the world.

Last night I had another night terror. I awoke and I saw a face on my wall, a burning face. There was sadness all over it. I screamed and screamed. I was afraid that the sorrow was being burned away, and that there would be no trace of it in the morning.