So Long

Goodbye, Johnny Cash. You will be missed.


The Pornography of Grief

(Let me open this brief excerpt from some stuff I’ve been mulling over by saying that I’m not trying to pass judgment on anyone’s life. It’s precept I’m sure I’ll violate over and over again before I reach my conclusion. But it seems important to me from the outset to acknowledge that I’ll fail to make good on my aims. And that I don’t believe that the inevitability of failure is a good reason to abandon any undertaking. Ever.)

I have friends who have lost loved ones, and I have friends who have witnessed the disintegration of their parents’ marriage. I have friends who have done both at the same time. As the years go by, it gets harder and harder to find anyone who hasn’t experienced some kind of serious grief, and I work with seven-year-olds. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think any of this is abnormal, or even necessarily bad. I’m simply trying to establish the obvious: that loss, and the grief that attends it, are a part of living.

One of the friends I mentioned—who, through rare circumstances, lost his mother and then watched his parents’ marriage disintegrate—said to me once that we live in a culture that’s terrible at grieving, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that ever since.

I was thinking about it today when I arrived at work and stumbled upon a flag-raising ceremony accompanied by a maudlin recording of some affirmational ballad. Out of a sense of duty, rather than a desire to publicly share the sadness that I still feel over the thousands of murders many of us witnessed on the Eleventh, I stood there on the dewy grass in silence, and stared beyond the rising flag at a sky so blue I could almost imagine planes falling from it again, a sky just like the sky last Sept. 11, and the Sept. 11 before that. I felt viscerally uncomfortable, and I don’t quite know why. And though I think I risk a great deal of hubris by imagining that this discomfort is in any way important on a day when so many people are mourning fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and friends and neighbors and fellow citizens, fellow Americans, fellow Britons and Japanese, fellow humans, it’s where I think I need to start.

One of the other aforementioned friends told me once, when someone very dear to me died, that there was no right way to grieve, and no wrong way to grieve—that the only mistake you can really make is to second-guess your grief. It’s okay, he said, to feel guilty, to feel selfish, to feel numb, to feel pissed off. It’s okay to make yourself the center of the universe, or to completely efface yourself. It’s okay to stop taking baths, or to wash too often. You just have to let yourself be. It was the only advice anyone ever gave me that made me feel better. More importantly, it has, for me, the ring of truth (with all the attendant pitfalls).

It’s not the way other people have grieved for those gone on the Eleventh--people who, it bears repeating, have lost more and felt worse than I have—that makes me uncomfortable. It’s more that when so many griefs, from so many vectors, collide in that weird public space created by mass media, in the gravitational field of various political and economic agendas, a single kind of polyphonic grief emerges, distinct from the way any single person may be feeling: grief as cultural phenomenon, grief as spectacle, grief as entertainment and identity and titillation and call to arms. And it gets very hard, when you’re inundated with this kind of monolithic mass grief, to remember where your own, individual grieving ended. It’s easy to get lost out there. It’s where a political symbol, a flag, once spontaneously displayed, becomes the official reminder of how you’re supposed to be feeling: Patriotic. Proud. Pissed-Off. Prayerful. Mournful. Martial. It’s where Toby Keith has made a killing. It’s where the President has made his name. And I have to wonder whether, in a rhetorical vacuum where the discursive logo reading “America Under Attack” or “America’s New War” (months before Afghanistan, thank you, Fox News) had not superseded the visual field of what we watched happen, the first impulse of anyone affected by the cascade of concrete dust and glass shards and bodies, by the sudden uncertainty about where your sister or best friend or wife or child is right now, as buildings burn, as more planes are reported missing, would have been: Let’s put a boot up someone’s ass!

And here we come to an interesting pass. One where you’re free to diverge from me. Or not. I would imagine that on the Eleventh, both President Bush and Toby Keith were absolutely horrified. As were Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky. Ann Coulter and Al Franken. I’m sure each privately and in his or her own way mourned the sudden and visible death of so many people who deserved so much better. But neither Bush nor Keith was able to translate that private grief into any public analogue. Instead, as public figures, both failed to rise to the gravity of the event, settling instead, in each case, for clichés that made me wonder whether each was feeling anything at all. Yet, through the magic of television, and through the weight we confer on our public figures, the disconnect between the many forms the grief of that September took in private and the forms it took in the public didn’t seem to make people question the sincerity of the gestures they were seeing on TV, but rather, seemed to make people feel: Aha! So this is how it’s done. And gradually the silences in small chapels ceased. And gradually the crowds at the blood bank decreased. And gradually the flags displayed in windows were drowned out by the flags displayed on bumper stickers, on tee-shirts, and on the storebought cupcake I received today from a student, the one that proclaimed, in red-white-and-blue lettering, “Never Forget!” But aren’t we always forgetting? Isn’t it okay to forget?

And isn’t the kind of forgetting coerced by the constant bombardment of sanctioned emotion more irreverent, more negligent, than the natural forgetting that’s a part of the grieving process?

Am I wrong about all this? I suppose it’s possible. This is all highly personal.

I could write more right now. About divorces. About the monthly “grief lunch” at the school where I teach. About “dealing with it.” About “closure.” About “The Rising.” About the capacity of art to address suffering while preserving an imaginative space in which the individual can breathe. About the failure of politics and industry and shallow entertainment to do so. About the deep dysfunctionality we appear to be manifesting as a nation. Because our grieving, the mass grieving, is not healthy! Because we’re denying the very thing we think we’re acknowledging! We’re lying to ourselves, unconsciously instead of willfully. We’re being lied to! We cannot let ourselves be quiet, we cannot let ourselves be still, we cannot let ourselves be honest, we cannot let ourselves forget, we cannot let ourselves remember! I could write more about this. I could glance off truth and lose myself in error. But I couldn’t right now. I can’t right now. I’m going to unplug my computer and go and sit and feel what I feel right now. And though I’m not qualified to dispense advice, I’m going to go ahead anyway and recommend you do the same.