Grief Studies

Plague Poems #22

PandemicMoi

I'm in Facebook jail today for insulting white people, even though I am one and we are fucking stupid, so this is only going up here today. We'll see if it gets cross posted.  

[Edit: And the answer is ... Nope. Because I am offensive to some people. Poor little white snowflakes.]

 

The 100,000

Six full-page columns of unrelieved grief
in stark black and white for one paper,
“Second Coming” headline type for another.
Still, nothing conveys the enormity
of one hundred thousand lives
consumed
in this national dumpster fire of disbelief and inaction, not
the trenches in potters fields visible from space,
not the piles of coffins in funeral homes awaiting interment,
not the refrigerator trucks pressed into service as portable morgues
full of unclaimed and unclaimable bodies,
not the two-line obituaries of a mere one percent
of “human capital stock”
sacrificed to Mammon and Adiaphoron
stacked in neat rows of bold and Roman type
unbroken by a thousand-word picture
each one of them cries out for,
not the slap in the face
of black three-inch high numbers
heavy as a spray of blood
bludgeoning the reality
of mass death
into our thick skulls.
Nothing.

If you have a merciful god or gods
send up a sweet smoke to him or her or them
that they might turn away their wrathful faces
or at least mask them
because we won’t.

‒May 28, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #17

PandemicMoi

Classified

While we are counting and grieving the lives we have lost—
each someone loved, each life valuable, so many unnecessarily gone,
unable to even say goodbye before death, to hold funerals, to bury them,
instead filing them away in coffins in refrigerated trucks
against the time, if ever, when we can hold the proper rites and ceremonies
—our dear leaders are classifying those lives lost for us:

Not regular people: the folks who slaughter and pack your meat
(send them back to work!)

Lazy, cowardly takers: anyone afraid to go back to work
before we have treatments or vaccines

Fortuitous collateral damage: Black people and other minorities, the
majority of the deaths (Hey! Worth keeping this plague thing going for, right?

People who will make our Dear Leader or his sidekick boy wonder
 look weak to wear a mask around:
WWII Vets
factory workers making those masks
patients and health care workers at the Mayo Clinic
personal staff
Secret Service members (just another kind of a bullet!)
the entire West Wing (until it’s too late)
their own children

The minions follow suit, threatening anyone who calls them out
for standing too close, not wearing a mask, or menacing others
with guns and germs.
Anyone who disagrees with them is unAmerican.

Billionaires and shareholders and financiers agree:
Arbeit macht frei, especially when it is free
of liability, protection, or any care for your workers’ welfare.
We are just sacrifices for the growth of their portfolios.

If there is an actual war against this disease, in this country,
(and how our Dear Leader, the coward, likes that metaphor)
the front lines are hospitals and labs
and the real designated Heroes are there, toiling,
weeping, inadequately protected for the sake of our Dear Leader’s ego,
laying down their own lives for fellow citizens and other humans.
Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders flies in
from some other third world country
to lend aid to Native Americans
who are not real Americans,
and should go back where they came from, after all.

There are not enough tests for all of us, but our dear leaders
get one or more every week.

We are not worthy.

‒May 12, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Catching Up, Starting Over

Feeling My Age MoiOkay, so it's been a while. The last thing I actually wrote, as opposed to just posting some graphic, was in 2015, about a year before I lost my summer teaching job at NJCU and things started to change. I promised in the last post that there would be a catch-up about why I haven't written anything here lately, and this is it. Its a long and kinda of ugly story, about five years worth of ugly story that I'm still sorting through and—though I hate this word—processing. Where one enters a story is crucial and I don't know where to do that to explain this to you; five years is a long time to encapsulate.

Encapsulate. Huh. The image I have of that is of a sliver, a piece of shrapnel that can't be removed, enveloped and surrounded by the body, encased, so it does no more harm, so the sharp edges are blunted and infection doesn't spread. That seems apt.

As I said, it's a long, convoluted tale with numerous actors and locations and consequences, bad employers and good employers, brokeness and broken-ness, desperation and relief, good friends and bad. It involves another move, a new job, the end of a friendship, another rescue cat, and what it feels like to be starting over while pushing 60. All kinds of doors opening and closing, losses and gains. I'm not sure how important the details are and I don't want this to sound like a wailing litany of misery, because it wasn't. It was just Not Right, and Not Good For Me.

O Hindsight, You are a Cruel Bitch.

IMG_0858
In Parkchester

Let's try this: back up a bit, to June 2013, when I take in a Friend who is jobless and being evicted from her apartment. Foreshadowing: I'm the only one of her friends or family to offer to do this. I'm living in Parkchester (pic at right) and have an extra bed, though the apartment is only a one-bedroom. She has two teeny cats that my then-beastie, HRH Queen Mab the Cruel and Beautiful, loathes (and has met before since Friend had been HRH's initial rescuer). So right off the bat, we have cat fights and separate litter boxes (more foreshadowing). I think the stress of two cats in her territory made HRH sick and killed her before she should have died. She gets sick and I have to put her down not long after the Friend moves in. That breaks my heart.

The humans living together doesn't go too badly otherwise, though we are worlds apart in ideas about neatness and cleanliness. Friend makes an effort, which I appreciate, though I fail to fathom people who have no personal concept of "cleaning up after yourself." She's getting welfare and SNAP benefits, but there's no way in hell I'm not going to share my food with someone who needs to eat, regardless of what those fuckers in the benefits office think is reasonable. Six months in, she gets a job, though the salary is minuscule and generally unlivable, and offers to split the rent. I tell her to keep it, to start getting herself back on her feet, thinking she'll use this as a launch pad to a better job.

About that time, my landlady, a friend of a sort-of former friend (there's another long story, but I have no need or desire to go there), informs me she's selling the condo I'm renting from her and offers me a very generous "buy out." Roommate and I decide we "haven't killed each other yet" (her words) and decide to keep living together to help each other out (my words). I still have to borrow money from my friends (you know who you are and I am still paying you back) to move us to a new place, smaller and four flights up, in Harlem, that Friend finds through her connections. It has the potential to be a cute apartment with decent amenities, but this is where it all goes to shit.

First of fall 2016-1
From the Dunbar, Harlem

I run out of money and can't retrieve roommate's stuff from storage after all, as I'd promised (although she's been working for three months now, she's contributed little more than half of one month's rent; I've covered the damage deposit and brokers fee, in addition to moving expenses and my half of the rent); I don't know what else to do but apologize, which I do. When it comes time to write the checks for rent after the moving is done, I get "billed" for her storage fees for the next couple months, until I reasonably ask why I'm paying for her storage. This precipitates screaming accusations of me lying to her (and reveals her failure to hear my apology), but she starts writing her checks for the full amount of rent she owes.

When I try to talk to her about splitting chores, she looks at me like I'm asking her to murder her cats and just shakes her head in apparent terror. I cannot keep up with her failure to clean up after herself. It's like living with a frat boy who never puts anything away, never takes out the garbage, never cleans a dish, never mops, wipes a counter or sweeps, never washes out the sink or tub or toilet, doesn't scoop the cat box, and tramps through the apartment with wet and dirty feet without cleaning the mud off. I never unroll my good carpet. The cats use it as a scratching post.

We argue. Loudly. Not often, but enough that I start walking on eggshells, never sure what will set her off. I am now the enemy. We stop talking to each other except when necessary. I hate this. I don't mind confrontation, but I hate unnecessary conflict. We're two adults, we should be able to have a reasonable discussion without name calling and screaming accusations. I hate the person she brings out in me; it's one I've fought all my life not to be, with the temper I have. A lot of passive aggressive shit gets done by both of us because there's no possibility of reasonable communication and I will not be screamed at. The cats shit and piss all over the apartment, ruin my furniture and belongings, kill my plants. Roommate (no longer Friend) ruins a fair number of my possessions too, out of sheer carelessness. This goes on for a total of four more years. By the last year of it, I'm only sleeping and showering in the apartment. I've quit trying to clean it. Another friend who's only here part time lets me hang out at her place when she's not there. I'm not homeless in the literal sense of the word, but I'm Home-less. And Home is deeply important to me.

Working (For) It

In the meanwhile, in June of 2016, NJCU's shithead Badmins close down the Writing Center where I've been working over the summer, without any notice, leaving me and my colleagues unemployed. Director and staff wage a hard-fought battle for its life, but we lose. I'm literally a week or so away from utter penury and considering bankruptcy. Roommate offers no help, doesn't seem to give a shit. So much for mutual aid. 

MDRCVeseyCube2
My office cube at Vesey St.

Miraculously, after sending out at least a couple of resumes every week for, like, five years, I finally get an interview with a non-profit for nearly the same job I had at AKRF, lo these many years before. It's even in the same neighborhood. But, unlike ARKF, it's full time and the pay is much better, as are the benefits. It's a nerve-wracking couple of weeks before I get hired, but get hired I do. I'm sad to leave teaching. I'm sad, to be specific, to leave the classroom and my students. I am not sad to leave the exploitation, the terror of not knowing if I'll have classes enough to live on every four months, the scramble to get by, the utter insecurity, the indifference of Badmin to both students and professors, the indifference of tenured faculty to the ruination of their profession and the living conditions of their colleagues. I haven't had a full-time job since 1990 and I'm worried about how I'll feel about it after a while. I've loved having the freedom to create art, to sit in cafes and write, to be able to take terribly paid but deeply rewarding teaching jobs in my field—but not the freedom to starve. The economy has changed too much and I'm 56. Freelancing is too precarious. Teaching doesn't pay well enough and is also too precarious. I need new glasses, good healthcare, dentistry, disability insurance, a retirement plan. A decent salary. Safety nets. Stability. I have to start taking care of myself.

Thanks to eight years of lousy academic "salary" and sudden unemployment I am up to my ass in debt: friends, credit cards, federal and state taxes. My credit rating is in the toilet. But I'm working now, in a great job with great people, and working toward getting the fuck out of this apartment. I cannot stand it any more. I start squirreling away cash in a strong box under my bed. State tax arrears come due and suck up all  my meager disposable income. This job is good, but it's not that good. Friends come to my aid—swarm to my aid—in a GoFundMe and I manage, with their financial and physical help, to get out of Harlem and into a new apartment in March of 2018. (Shout out here to Daniel Chow of Leonidas Realty, who really went to bat for me.) In a final fit of rage when I don't sign the lease again, Roommate accuses me of "always getting what I want." I'm not sure what that means. That I was supposed to keep taking care of her? There had been signs of that all along, and resentment when I haven't. She's still in the same badly paying job she was in five years ago, having made no effort to move on. Last I hear, she is in North Bergen, New Jersey, commuting to Times Square every day. 

20181021_204641
Jillybean Calico

A few months before this, I find a little hell-cat calico abandoned in her carrier on the street, with the door left open. She's scared and fiesty as hell, but I get her shots and spayed and move her into my bedroom, like I did with Taz, the tuxedo the Roommate brought back after her wee sister cats died. This calico stays nameless for a long time because I'm trying not to get attached to her, thinking it's going to be hard enough leaving Taz, who thinks she's mine. I don't have the emotional wherewithal for any more cats, or the income. But eventually, she convinces me that I'm hers now, and that her name is Miss Jillybean Calico. She's full of piss and vinegar and made of sharp edges, but a great snuggler and funny as hell. She comes with me out to Brooklyn in her carrier, in the front seat of another friend's car, and when I cut her loose after the movers have gone, she runs around the apartment in utter joy at all the space and snarls like a cougar that this is hers now. All of it. Me included.

It seemed to take a Herculean effort to move this time. It was too messy, in too many stages, and the last one involved way too much of me running up and down four flights of stairs, throwing out my possessions. I think that finally broke me, physically. Six months out, I'm just starting to feel a tad less exhausted and getting some stamina back. It's taken me that long to unpack, too. The last two boxes were just emptied this weekend, and the contents await the pleasure of the people I've offered them to, or of folks who will love them more than I do. 

This account, of course, has two sides, and many more details of everyday cruelties offset with moments of beauty. Harlem is a great neighborhood and I liked it up there. It feels like New York in a way Brooklyn or anywhere else I've lived doesn't. It's a close-knit neighborhood. I wish I could have afforded to stay, but it's just as well I couldn't. It doesn't need white people. It needs more well-paid Black folks loving it so people like me can go enjoy the great jazz spots, the restaurants, the architecture and art, and go home to elsewhere, leaving our money behind. I always felt a kind of guilt living in Harlem, and a lot like an interloper. Part of the problem, not part of the solution. So as much as I liked living in that part of Manhattan, I don't particularly miss it. 

As for the friendship that went south, well, after enduring four years of verbal abuse, false accusations, and irresponsibility, I don't miss that either. When people show you who they are, believe them.

Home Again, Home Again

20191005_132738
Fall in Bath Beach

The City of New York took a while to feel like home, but it's definitely that after 33 years. But nobody lives in the City of New York; you live in the neighborhood. In the run up to the move, I was forced to think about what I really require in a home and in a neighborhood. My previous moves have been opportunistic or of necessity. This time, I had the opportunity to find somewhere that felt like home, instead of having to wrest the idea from what I was given. I  had a cute, cheap apartment in Sunset Park, but the neighborhood was (then) pretty grungy and amenity-free. Parkchester was the closest to home that I've come, and I did love that apartment and neighborhood. But not the Bronx so much. Parkchester was an enclave, sadly, not part of a wider borough I felt at home in. Harlem was a great neighborhood that spoiled me in a lot of ways: great restaurants and bars, good grocery store, handy laundry, excellent cafes, libraries and bookstores, and a great commute. The building was seedier than it should have been, because it had clearly once been glorious, but the apartments had been chopped up and were tiny and claustrophobic, even without a roommate who, left to her own devices, would cover the floor knee-deep with her detritus. My bedroom barely held my queen-size bed, a dresser, my hope chest, and a dry sink. The closet was like a coffin. So was the room, after a while. I don't know how Jillybean survived in it for as long as she did. I'm not sure how I did, either.

I stopped looking for a new place in the Bronx after a while, disheartened by grunge and distance, and focused on Brooklyn. When I saw the picture of the building I'm in now, something about it just felt right. It was the third place I looked at on a really raw, rainy day and even in the dark, I knew this was it. I don't know what made it so, but I basically just told the realtor to take my money once we got inside. I gave them the down payment that night. Brooklyn feels like home and always has.

Some of my habitational requirements have been constrained by my accruing years. I'm done with non-elevator buildings unless I'm on the first floor. That's where I am now, with four steps up from the entry, and some days when I first moved in, it was all I could do to get up those. I don't know how I did four floors every day. I don't know how I dragged stuff up and down it. I want more quiet than I used to, and this is blissfully quiet. I want a neighborhood, like Parkchester, that I can walk around in and shop in, and Bath Beach is definitely that.

I'm still discovering its charms. Every workday, I stop and chat with Phyllis, my Jewish neighbor who feeds the pigeons at the end of the block. I say Ni hao! to the Chinese immigrant woman who fishes for cans and bottles in our recycling bins. Her smile is always luminous. The neighborhood is full of Chinese folks, storefronts in alphabets I can't read, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Russian, and Italian food markets. My neighbors are Polish and Russian immigrants and long-time Brooklynites. I haven't tried the restaurants yet, but there are several that look enticing. Still looking for a bar, but found a good diner and a couple of bakeries. I come home via Bay Ridge, and it half feels like an extension of my neighborhood, it's so close. I've discovered the good grocery stores (even the Key Food here has a great pasta selection; advantage of living in an Italian neighborhood): JMart, Net Cost, and the little Middle Eastern shop with barrels of turmeric and gram flour and a Halal butcher.

Being close to the water—smelling it, watching the freighters come in closer than I ever did on Lake Huron, hearing it crash against the breakwater—is heavenly. It's a low-rise neighborhood of two and three story houses and apartment buildings, tree-lined so heavily on my street that when I come home at night I have to have a flashlight in the summer. In the winter, Orion hangs in the sky over my building. I don't miss Northern Michigan, where I grew up, but I have missed being walking distance from water and seeing the stars and fireflies. On July 4th, there were 360 degree fireworks: Coney Island, Satan Island, on the bay, and behind us in the park. 

It's different out here, a bit more suburban, though still urban density without the high rises. I don't miss those either. Not quite car country like the interior of Bensonhurst or Satan Island. Enough of a commute to get some reading done again. If I had the heart for that.

Next! Next?

So here I am, back in Brooklyn, the borough where I started out in 1986, alone again in a 700 sq. foot ground-floor apartment half a block from the water, where I can see Orion in the winter sky and fireflies on the lawn (lawn!) in the summer. I have a hilarious, half-mad rescue calico whom I never meant to keep. I'm simultaneously deliriously happy, relieved, exhausted, and ... numb. I've never felt like this before, so I don't have words to describe it. I hesitate to call it PTSD because I don't feel traumatized; I might be a bit beaten up, but I'm pretty resilient. I'm not suffering anxiety, nightmares, or any of the typical symptoms of PTSD. I suspect what I'm feeling is more like exhaustion, and has more to do with staring down the barrel of 60, but also with various losses and the grief of those losses, and with the realization that I'm starting over.

I've lost half my furniture in the last two moves and what I've got left has had the shit beaten out of it by Roommate and her cats and time. I abandoned a lot of stuff out of necessity, not being able to afford to move it. Some the smaller stuff disappeared into the maw of squalor that was the Roommate's bedroom and rec (wreck) room over the course of five years. I need a new dining table and chairs (old ones were claimed somehow by Roommate, who insists I promised them to her), a new daybed (given away when it didn't fit in the new Harlem apartment), new accent chairs (one gave up the ghost in Parkchester, the other was ruined by the Roommate; neither owed me anything at their age). I've already bought a new, cheap trestle desk, where I'm writing this. But I can't yet afford internet service (work has graciously loaned me a mifi) and I need a promotion and better salary. Half my take-home goes to rent. I lost $800/month in disposable income between higher rent and paying back the tax man. Only a couple more months of the latter, thankfully. 

I've lost a lot more than possessions, though. I've lost my cooking chops, which is weird, because up until the last year when the building management ripped up our kitchen and never fixed it, I cooked a lot. Things I used to make with confidence come out tasting weird, or just wrong. Maybe it's the ingredients. I'm buying cheaper stuff than I used to. Or it's learning the quirks of a new kitchen. And not having good pans anymore. I've also lost my singing voice because once the Roommate moved in, I stopped using it. I used to sing all the time, and I'm starting to do so again, though I don't have any music equipment set up but my phone right now. I suppose that will come back too, the more I use it. In the meanwhile it's painful. I've always had a good strong voice and now I sound like a weak old lady who can't carry a tune. I'm afraid I might be one.

The worst thing is that I've lost the sense of who I am when I'm alone, and this is the thing I'm having the hardest time both explaining and dealing with. I think part of the reason is that my fantasy life has wandered off on its own somewhere. I used to have a rich and deep one, full of characters and plots that developed over weeks or months as I walked through my day. Now it's all empty up there. There's no people to "try on." The non-rent-paying boarders in my head that I used to joke about have vacated. I'm alone in my own head.

Alone, but not lonely. I do miss my cast of characters, but it's bliss having space to myself again. I just ... I don't know how to fill it. I don't mean the furniture. You should see the Pinterest boards I've got for that. I mean that I spent so much time on my laptop on FB, raising hell and instigating by way of distracting myself from my home situation that I don't know how to be in my own head, my own physical space, my own body anymore. I'm disconnected enough that I don't even know what that feels like, what emotions I have about it. Not dissociated, but not entirely present, either.  Here in body, here in intellectual capacity; maybe it's the emotions that haven't caught up yet. Disconnected, maybe. 

In that disconnection is my need and desire to hunker down on the weekends, stay indoors, and not see anybody. When I was living up in Harlem, I saw folks quite a bit, in part because it was a way of being out of Hell Apartment, and partially because, well, I like my friends. And I had more disposable income. Now that I'm alone again for the first time in five years, I kinda wanna just roll around in it. I cook, clean, do laundry, tease the cat, watch a show or two sometimes when the signal is good. I'm done unpacking and mostly with arranging, until I get more furniture to arrange, and I'm making small things. What I'm not doing is writing or reading, for various reasons.

Island&cat_sm
Jillybean contemplates the Maker Space

Until I moved, I hadn't had a work space of any kind for five years, and now have more than I quite know what to do with. It's not all set up yet. I haven't hooked up the desktop and its peripherals, or got the maker space quite the way I want it. There's not yet enough storage space to clear the island top for working. I haven't made any books in ages, but I've been doing teeny little craft projects related to the apartment since I moved in. Last night I bought two 12x12 galvanized steel tiles to make into bulletin boards and got out the washi tape to put a border around them. I've made a gazillion magnets out of my old pins and buttons. I miss the sewing machine I left behind because all of a sudden I have a bunch of things I want to sew.

But the beauty of writing is that you don't really need much of a work space for it. What you need the most of is headspace, and I've lost that, too, in my lack of privacy and retreat from my living conditions. I haven't written much in the last four years, either fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. For a while there I was churning out a lot of political pieces for the Cause. I had a frenzy of poetry after the election and that seems to have exhausted me. And fiction... pfft. I've had this next novel churning around in my head for years now and I cannot bring myself to even do the research for it. I keep looking for a way into it and everywhere it's a locked door. Even the fanfic is on hold. I've been doing mostly graphics at work, since that's my job, and even got to make a book there, but it's not the same. It's work. Sitting in front of this computer at a desk again, crafting something with words, feels good in a way that sitting at the one at work doesn't. I don't feel blocked, just empty. That's more disturbing.

I blame The Orange Dumpster Fire for some of my malaise (for everyone's). The shit show that is his regime (not administration; there is no administration. There are only cronies and sycophants.) has taken the heart out of many of us, and added to a lot of the anger I was already feeling with the Roommate. It changed and reduced what I could bear to read, changed the focus of my poetry (not for the better), stripped me of energy to do anything more than run my political action boards on FB (The League of Nasty Women, a clearinghouse for resistance actions and education and Against Trumpism, which is my personal shitposting about T-Rump), and march when I have energy.  Because I do not have that energy anymore, dammit. It's occupied too much of my headspace too, both being angry about how I'm living and being angry about the Orange Regime.

All this is a very long way to saying that I am Starting Over. I keep thinking about Lewis Thomas's essay "The Selves," which I've written about elsewhere. If I've written this long screed as a way to figuring out what the fuck is wrong with me, I think it's this: I'm between selves. I'm aging, and getting used to that. I'm alone again, and getting used to that. I'm not teaching anymore, and getting used to that. I've become far more politically active and opinionated, and getting used to that. I'm living somewhere new and working somewhere newish. I have a new cat. It's all new. The integration has not yet happened and I'm still disparate parts of a whole.

What a puzzle. Hope the pieces are all still here.


Closed Borders

Prick us
and we bleed
like all animals.|
And prick each other
we do
with guns and bombs and
fear most of all
until we see an enemy
everywhere
who does not look like us
as though our own tribe
were not capable
of the same atrocities.
Like the snailwe pull ourselves inside
our imaginary walls
and close the doors—
or think we can.
But the guns and bombs
are just tools,
the real enemy not other people.

When we look at each other
only through borders
we can’t see
what a wide and splendid world it is.

–For Beirut and Baghdad and Gaza and Paris, Nov. 14, 2015


Remembering Nick Bucci on World AIDS Day

Precipitation

That spring, a cold one, not enough
years later,
the trees bloomed on St. Mark's
like reborn, slumming angels,
petals blowing in drifts
like the snow we never had that winter,
like the year before
         and the year before
and the year you died
when I could not see them
for what they were.

Your ashes, long scattered,
carried by soles and skin and air
through the five boroughs, Times Square,
the summer fire updrafts of L.A.,
ride the high atmospheric winds
across the world on new wings
or form the core of raindrops, ice crystals, cloud.

Outside: a warm October drizzle,
the leaves
just tinged with color, impossible
to think that it would ever snow
again,
that you would ever become
just a memory,
a film of dust, rain-streaked.



© Lee Kottner 2010


Jean Courtney 1960-2010

 JeanJeannieMy friend Jean Courtney took her life yesterday and I hardly know what to say. This is the first friend I've lost to suicide, and though Jean and I had talked about it, and I knew it was an idea that she seriously entertained on her darkest days, I did not know she'd reached that point again. At left is Jean in May at my house, right before she was going to meet some old friends from high school in Parkchester. She seemed chipper then, if a little apprehensive, and determined to get the most out of her "up" mood, as if she knew it was going to disintegrate soon, as it did.

Very shortly afterwards, she moved into a new apartment, which she found very stressful but was pleased about, I think. There were some other stressful events and she let us all know that she wouldn't be visiting her Facebook account for a while. Then today, on her last post, her ex-husband (or wasband, as Jean called him) informed us that Jean had "passed peacefully from this life" at her apartment yesterday. Apparently, she left a beautiful note behind, though I have not read it.

Jean and I knew each other from our days at AKRF, when we were in what later became the Publications Department. We were somewhat less than editors, something more than mere word processors for the company's quite technical environmental impact statements. It was often high-pressure, deadline-driven work held to exacting grammatical and stylistic standards for which we were responsible, and Jean bore the pressure with more grace that the rest of us who worked there. She had a fantastic sense of humor, loved comedy and jokes, movies and celebrities, and could almost always find the humor in just about any situation. "Did you see [name of movie]?" she would say. "This is just like that scene where . . ." and it was! And the similarity would leave you chortling. Here's some of the movies she listed on her Facebook page: "Young Frankenstein," "A Clockwork Orange," "Religulous," "The Room," "My Suicide," "The Aristocrats," "Rear Window," "Borat," "Arsenic and Old Lace," "Pulp Fiction," "Lolita," "Dr. Strangelove," "North by Northwest," "All About Eve," "Bourne," "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," "Memento," "American Beauty," and "High Anxiety." You can see she had a taste not only for clever comedy, for for the darker dramas and psychological thrillers, as well as political satire. If the movies you like are some indication of what kind of person you are, Jean was clearly pretty complex.

In those days, Jean was a seeker. She was enthused about, by turns, just about every brand of New Age spirituality that came along, and some not so New Age, serially monogamous to all of them. She studied Sufism, reiki, and about a million other brands of faith and woo that I could not keep track of, all in the quest for happiness, or at least some explanation about why she was in so much pain. I tried to respect her search, but they always seem to fall short of her expectations or needs, some more than others, when the practitioners turned out to either have clay feet or be outright charlatans. Unfortunately, Jean seemed to be the type of person that the unscrupulous and predatory repeatedly take advantage of, emotionally and in other ways, something that contributed to her depression. It's not that Jean was an unthinking sucker; like all my friends, she had a quirky analytical intelligence, but I think her emotional need made her a little desperate. Once she'd seen through whatever flavor of the month religion/spiritual shenanigans she'd been involved in, she could be brutally analytical about their shortcomings.

We lost contact for a while when we both left the company but had gotten back in touch again about two years ago. Since then, I saw or spoke to Jean a couple dozen times, in various states of happiness. We ran into one another again at a Patti Smith/Television concert where we ogled David Byrne and Brian Eno hanging out in the back of the crowd with us. At some point prior to this, she had been hospitalized for deep depression and suicidal thoughts, gotten a psychiatric diagnosis and gone on disability, which actually seemed to be a relief to her. I think she felt she knew what was wrong now, and could stop searching for answers and just concentrate on being healthy and happy. She was seeing a couple of therapists and getting some good drugs, and confronting and dealing with traumas in her past, especially some of the harm done her by predators and the woo practitioners, about whom she was intending to write a memoir. From the stories she told me, it would have been a hell of an exposé.I wonder now if that might have been part of what broke her. I know she endured a lot of awful slander on some of the discussion boards she'd been on and some of the things people said about her were unconscionable, especially in people who are supposed to be following some kind of spiritual path.

There was a time when I would have been judgemental about Jean's suicide, but I've come to understand how, for some people, that can seem like the only sensible solution. That that is true is the real tragedy. For all the fantastic chemicals we now have for treating various kinds of mental illness, they're not by any means a cure-all. They work for some people and not for others; they work for a time and then not at all. They only alleviate some symptoms and not others. And sometimes the side effects are so horrific that it's better to be off them than on them. And our society does not treat the "mentally interesting" as Jean called herself, very well. When they can get disability, they live on the edge of poverty, if not right down in it. Housing is scarce, often substandard, and may take forever to get into. Funds to support you while you wait are laughably (cryingly, sobbingly) inadequate, for the most part, especially in an expensive city like New York. If your family wants nothing to do with you, or is the source of your problem, that makes it even more difficult. Who do you rely on then?

One of my friends told me "it's all right to be angry with her," when I posted about Jean's death, but I don't feel angry with Jean. I feel angry with the people who contributed to her pain because they were too fucking self-absorbed or selfish or greedy to not hurt someone so vulnerable. I feel angry with a social system that does so little to support its weakest members. I feel angry at all the people who took advantage of her. And I feel deeply grateful to all the people who did help her—friends, relatives, social workers, psychiatrists, other medical and mental health professionals—even if it wasn't enough.

I understand Jean's choice, though I wish she had not made it. I wish she had called me. I wish I had called her. I'd been intending to this weekend, to see if she wanted to go to a a concert with me. Over the summer, we'd gone to see a couple of movies together—"Iron Man 2" and "The A Team, which we'd both enjoyed tremendously. We both loved Robert Downey, Jr., in t he former and Liam Neeson in the latter, and were laughing at exactly the same inside jokes in "The A-Team." We're probably the only two people on the planet who really liked it. Jean was a lot of fun to go to the movies with because she gave herself over to them whole-heartedly, in the spirit in which they're meant to be watched, the way kids do. We laughed! We cried! We had a great time! I was looking forward to seeing many more movies with her in the future, and getting to know her better. I always expect to get a lot of wear and tear out of my friends, and at 50, they're too young to be dying, especially of despair.

When I saw Jean last summer after I came back from China, she was quite depressed, but struggling valiantly to claw her way up out of that black pit. We met for coffee and I gave her a little jade pendant of Quan Yin, the Chinese Buddha of Compassion, the one that always spoke most to me, because I thought she needed it more than I did. The world is hard on gentle people like Jean, and I hope that pendant gave her a little comfort, insubstantial as it is. One of her last posts on Facebook was a link to raise money for the Muslim cabbie who'd been stabbed by a drunken, bigoted student. She had plenty of compassion of her own, for other people, but there didn't seem to be enough around for her.

I'll miss you, my friend. Whatever comes next, if anything, I hope it brings you peace and happiness. And if there's nothing, at least the pain is done. I really hope you're laughing your ass off somewhere with George Carlin.


poem a day: #6

BNFMoi I'm sort of cheating on this one because I actually wrote it last week just after Natasha Richardson's funeral. I was thinking then about how hard it is to come back to the empty house. I remember how awful it was after Dad died and Mom was already gone, and I was alone in a house that used to hold three people and snotty cat. At least Liam has his boys, which is both worse and better. Anyway, the prompt today was to write about what's missing, and this was far better than what I actually wrote. I found it in my teaching notebook when I was rewriting what I started this morning and I decided to swap them out, because this is actually a good poem, and still pretty new.

    After They’re Buried

The worst is when it’s over
and everyone else
goes home,
leaving you
with what’s
missing,
an absence, a lack:
one less
place at the table,
the vast space
in your bed.

Worse still, the superfluities—
the extra chair,
clothing you can’t wear,
books you would never read,
the hole filled in
with dirt, mounded up,
the urn heavy with ash.
And the undiminishing echo
of blood rushing
or spilled or, finally,
stopped.

© Lee Kottner, 2009


Natasha Richardson, RIP

Cry in your beer Moi  

The Accident

He crouches beside her,
the space too small for his tall frame
even were he the one tucked in blankets, like she is.
He folds himself onto the narrow seat
and holds her hand through the flight,
through the long, uncomfortable drive
to yet another hospital,
this one closer to home,
as she held his
when it was he laid out here.
When he lay there, he could feel his bones
grinding, already cracked,
and now it’s his heart, because
she feels nothing.
He caresses her face with outsized hands
(an ex-boxer’s hands, blunt, thick, rinsed
of brutality now)
as he has done
for fifteen years
and two children—boys, a year apart
—prays they won’t be motherless
so young,
and he a widower.

There is little hope.

Or so I imagine
from the news reports.
But it needs little imagining, and
the actors need no names.
Not long ago, it was my mother
and a stroke,
and my bantam dad
held her hand too,
and like Natasha,
she never knew that last caress.

© Lee Kottner 2009


The Bereavement Club

Cry_in_your_beer_moiThe mother of a friend of mine died last week, while the friend was home visiting. The death was sudden—and quick—with her mom doing much the same as my dad did: dying in someone arms, in this case, her eldest daughter's, my friend's. She's the only one to have moved away from the hometown and seems to be having the roughest time of it, which doesn't surprise me; it's always hardest when you're not there all the time. No matter what, there's a sense of guilt wrapped up in that. But because she's an observant person and analytical, she's been watching and reporting on the reactions of her siblings and father, and comparing them with her own.

It's a natural reaction, I suppose; I remember buying books to see if what I was feeling and what I was doing in reaction to my parents' deaths was "normal." It took me a long time to realize that there is no normal. As I wrote her a few days ago, it's one of the most universal of experiences and also one of the most personal. It's different for every person and different for every loss. So much affects it: circumstance, cause, age, length of illness, our own emotional make-up and baggage, the culture we grew up in, and the culture we live in now, our religious beliefs, our own spirituality—and how other people around us act.

My friend was unlucky enough to run up against the same rigidity of religious custom that I was when I was arranging my mother's memorial service. It came out nothing like I wanted and said nothing about her. My friend had a little more luck than that, but why it should be an issue at all is beyond me. The last thing a person in mourning needs is an argument over what's "proper" or "traditional." The last thing a person in mourning needs is an argument over anything, frankly, to do with showing respect for the dead.

Burial customs seem far more fraught and freighted than marriage or birth customs, I suppose because there is so much guilt wound up in death, even if we haven't aided or abetted it, or even neglected the person while they were alive. An awful lot of people seem to be very invested in "doing it right," whatever that happens to constitute in your particular culture, regardless of what the dead person might have wanted. My friend Helen has made it clear that she'd like Van Morrison blasting at her memorial service and an open bar. When one of her cousins heard this, her response was "Not if I have anything to say about it!"

But why should she? It's Helen's choice. That's like planning someone else's wedding for them (which is certainly done, and far too often I might add). When my dad died, there was no memorial service, no funeral, no nothing, because that's what he wanted. I sent him off with a toast to the Old Soldier from Mike and Brian, and scattered his ashes in the woods by myself. I'm sure that was viewed as extremely cold by the rest of his family, but that was what he wanted, and he'd made that clear for years. And when Mom died and he didn't want to go to the memorial service I had for her (such as it was) I didn't insist that he go. I knew it wasn't because he didn't love her; it was because social situations of any kind make him extremely nervous and because he was really broken up and didn't want to cry in public. What purpose would it serve to torture him about it? He was already miserable enough.

The idea that funerals are for the living seems just an excuse to make them another occasion for reinforcing social norms. No ceremony is going to make that person any less "gone" in your life or make the pain of losing them go away. What it often does instead is provide a lot of hard feelings and rancor among the living. Death seems to bring out the worst in us, probably because we're all so damn scared of it. I think what they really do, especially Western funeral customs, is tidy the dead away so we don't have to deal with them. They remove us from the process and the reality and turn it into a sanitized monetary transaction that can just about bankrupt the survivors at the hands of the unscrupulous.

But this is the kind of conclusion you come to only after you've gone through the actual mourning process itself, during which even the best and most level-headed of us will generally lose at least parts of our mind. It's a release for some, a relief for many, the most painful thing they'll ever experience in their lives for most of us. It makes us stupid, impulsive, angry, depressed, and somewhat crazy. You can't really hold people responsible for much of what they say and do when they're grieving, you can only support and love them and hope they come back to themselves eventually.

I'd originally written "get over it" but that's nuts: you never get over it, no matter how reconciled you are to the idea. There's a point at which people's patience with you tends to run thin, so I think many people "act as if" but really, you're never over it. It crops up in the middle of the night, or at odd moments and the next thing you know you're weeping. That's a lesson I learned the hard way, too. My family has obviously always been pretty pragmatic about death and I was pretty much ready for both my folks to go when they did. By that I mean I could see it coming, knew it was inevitable, but didn't realize what a shock it would still be. It's been nearly four years since Mom died, and my friend's mother's death brought it all back to me in a kind of sickening rush, blind-siding me. Losing one or both of your parents is an initiation into a club that nobody wants to belong to.

This is really why we send flowers and cards, I think: to welcome the living into the Bereavement Club. The dues are harsh, but the company is good.