Friday, December 31, 2004

WINTER IN THE HOUSE OF JOB

I-COLD WINTER

This winter has been especially cold. Sarah’s touched on it a little. I’ve been avoiding it, but it may be time to confront the grief. It is also my hope that a new year will bring better news, or at least, less of this kind of relentless bad.

I don’t deal well with tragedy, whether it’s (God forbid) mine or (God forbid) the tragedies of others. But, even as I’m not wholly comfortable personalizing the tragedies that are not authentically my own, I feel them acutely. And as deep as my pain goes, it feels insincere, like I’m glomming onto the grief of others to illuminate my own issues with my mortality. And believe me, there are issues, which I have no wish to confront, but which I acknowledge are inevitably part of any person’s future:

How best to seize the day (and the night) without rampant repercussions.
How to live life knowing that every action may pose a risk.
How to open one’s heart to love when such an opening increases vulnerability.
How to conceive of the transience of human presence.
How to understand that there’s an unknown expiration date.
How to accept that there are limitations to our impact and to the reach of our dreams.
How to grasp the brevity of a single lifespan and the emptiness created by its loss.

The assault has seemed relentless, almost epic in sweep, nearly epidemic in frequency. And the irony is striking: in a season of spiritual and physical darkness, nations turn to festivals of light to illuminate the world. And our faith in light, at every turn, like candles, is extinguished. There is grief, globally and locally.

Is there something broken? Has there been a hairline fracture within the system? Is there a cause? Because without a cause, there cannot be a cure.

In every instance, there was rage. When it’s bad, it feels like my face and brain were ablaze, not with hope’s light, but with indignation’s ire. (My English major’s brain screams: Rage! Rage! Against the dying of the light.) There has to be anger! Some of the grief-stricken are comforted by words from clergy, mostly, that God takes the people God loves most. But many others are beyond the Bible’s, or even language’s ability to comfort.

After the rage, there is something else. There is a continued resentment at the injustice of it all—youth, potential, hope—abruptly terminated. There is humility, hopelessness and helplessness. There is a bewildered bereftness, a dazed look of grief-as-disbelief, followed by realization and emotional disintegration. It is a small, still voice after the storm, but one that offers no comfort.

II-WHAT IT’S ABOUT

When it’s someone you loved, it’s about internalizing that you’ve lost their smile, their laugh and their wisdom. It’s about understanding that there’s no understanding. It’s about leaning on faith to support you, and feeling it crumble beneath your weight.

When it’s someone you don’t know, the grief is still there, but it’s about realizing that the only way that name will ever become a person to you is through the people he or she touched. It’s attending a memorial service for someone you didn’t know, because you know her husband, but not well enough to be able to offer any words of comfort. It’s about feeling that you don’t belong there, among the legitimate mourners. It’s about feeling, in the midst of your sadness, that you’re a pretender, feigning grief for someone you never knew, just because he or she was loved by others, or worse, as if your attendance will exempt you from attending a service for someone you know well. It's about feeling so stricken by vicarious grief that you worry about your ability to deal with anything less remote, more personal. It’s thinking, there but for the grace of God go I, that people are interchangeable and that no one can predict what’s coming.

It’s about feeling like there’s no reason, or logic, or reward for good behavior. It’s about the futility of human action. It’s about feeling like there’s a criminal out there, targeting potential in indiscernible patterns, and that you and yours could be next. It’s about feeling the responsibility of living every moment to its fullest, and realizing that that’s inherently impossible.

III—SHADOWS OF SIXTEEN

When I look at his picture, I see a face I haven’t seen in eighteen years. We were sixteen then. He wasn’t a close friend. But his smile, in the picture accompanying the obit, is the same. You don’t see his journey. His inner demons hide within his foundation, like emotional termites. The text tells the story of a musician, a performer, an artist. A creative kindred. (Out, out brief candle. "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more."--Macbeth.)

Life is like a passing shadow, many say, invoking it as comforting simile. We may choose to see it as a respite, a shade from the sun. But in the aftermath of grief, the truth hits us, and we understand. Life is us, plus a passing shadow. The shadow is the dark reflection of our vitality—featureless, ever-shifting in shape, mute to all expression. When it stops, it stops. (Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.)

Whether or not we stop for Death, the journey always ends. (“Fin,” as the French film’s final frame might read.) Mortal coils are by definition meant to be shuffled off; generations pass as people and as shadows.

IV-FAITH

Many of us believe in an afterlife, not because we have any proof, but because the alternative is too frightening. We need to believe that if Life is but a passing shadow, that what comes after is not. That Life has a life beyond life, that a person’s impact can be felt beyond his or her own mortality. That we’re not just carbon-based organisms, shuffling like more complex paramecia. That we can create meaning in this world and add perspective to the lives of people we’ve never met. That we imprint our essence on every person we meet, through every moment or smile we have shared. It doesn’t always feel true. In fact, most of the time, trying to believe this feels like I’m living a huge lie. But there’s no other way to cope with the sadness.

For the living who have lost, and this includes us all, faith is a refuge. Whether we believe it entirely, or whether we reject it in toto, we run to faith or to our faith in its absence, to explain away our sadness or give our grief a cause.

My strongest faith is in my words. "Broken" was my word. It came from my gut, from a paucity of verbiage apt to describe how much things were just not working. If the aphorism holds in its inverse, if there is, out there, some sort of broken thing, we should fix it. Let's stop using aerosol products to save the ozone layer. Let's get our scientists to the lab to cure cancer. Let's get city engineers to configure a subway that goes from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side. But these fractures are sneakier than most. They are often indiscernible until they’re fatal. No way to know what’s broken—let alone, how to fix it. We go through the motions, trying to abstractly make the world a better place, when it often seems that the crevasse is too wide to be caulked.

V—THE ROAD AHEAD

This decade is supposed to be my generation’s thriving time. We produce in every definition: we number our successes in presentations, artistic performances, books and articles. If we’re lucky enough, we hook up with someone else who’s productive and produce progeny. We grieve for the lost, for those who will never have our chances in this world. But to mire ourselves in the tragic damages the future.

Maybe the solution is in sometimes allowing ourselves to be transported, away from current circumstance, “to glide out of time, and forget all the tormented present.” Perhaps by not living in the past and forgetting the torment of present, we can fix our gaze on what the future might look like. Maybe the only solution is to continue. If humor is tragedy plus time, maybe so is progress.

Our path in life is the furthest thing from smooth. There’s no magic pill to re-enable normalcy, or cement to pave the road. Instead, the only thing that is certain for humanity is our constant struggle, with our natural environment, with other people, with our conflicting senses of self in a confusing world. Faith in something can make living easier. But inevitably, any faith—whether it is in words, or war, or love, or religion—will be tested, pushed, challenged. The road ahead is our only option.

If we are not strongly rooted to friends or family, and invested in our own futures, some of us will fall. We have to wish for strong companions to hold our hands along the way, who help us when we stumble, who support us as we try to right ourselves, and who serve as our faith when faith itself falters. We have to pray that we find the strength in ourselves to continue on a brambled path.

We can conquer that road in the usual way: one step at a time.

IN MEMORY

…of the one I knew: Moshe Lifshen, 1970-2004

…and the ones whose impact I felt through my friends: C.B., Joel, Riva, and Sam

...and the ones who populated the landscape of my youth, and united our families in friendship: Ron and Ken.

Zikhronam livrakhah. May their memories be for a blessing.




11 Comments:

At 10:00 AM, December 31, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Esther, for your words. I hope you take strength in your friends and family -- your loved and loving ones -- to see you through. We're all here with you. :-) May the New Year be a happy and blessed one! Happy Jesus' Bris Day!

Peace.
Fun Joel

 
At 11:19 AM, December 31, 2004, Blogger annabel lee said...

Thank you so much for sharing your emotion and your heart. You write so honestly. I hope that 2005 will bring you peace, comfort, and joy. Take heart, dear heart, in the knowledge that you are not alone. You have people to hold onto, people who are rooting for you and rooting you, people who are proud to call you "friend."

 
At 11:25 AM, December 31, 2004, Blogger Hilary said...

Thank you Esther for sharing your honest words with us. Beautiful. Happy New Year.

 
At 3:04 PM, December 31, 2004, Blogger Coelecanth said...

Entropy, inertia, decay, death, call it what you will everything in the universe is subject to it. Life is the only thing that fights against this, it creates, organizes, grows. Human life is the only thing (that we know of) that does this consciously, this is called Art.

It doesn't matter if your Art, be it written, spoken, sculpted or played isn't remembered through the ages, it's the act that counts. Those acts of Art include everything: growing petunias, raising a child, fixing a broken toaster, comforting the sorrowful, cooking a meal, it all counts. Art is Life, Life is Art and Art matters.

Every act of creation done consciously and with heart is a victory against entropy, indeed against death itself. This is small comfort to those confronting the death of someone close. I know, I lost my father before my 14th birthday. But it has got me through and continues to nourish and sustain me.

Perhaps it is all "A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifing nothing." If it is, so be it. We can't change that. What we can change is how we feel about it. Death is inevitable, but so is Life. It's so common we forget to value it.

Look, see, cherish, it's all around you. Act consciously, love conspicuously, be Artful in all your actions, it's all we can do.

 
At 7:57 PM, December 31, 2004, Blogger Lyss said...

Part I puts into words what I have not been able to verbalize about my father's death (3 years ago this January).
Thank you.

 
At 9:05 PM, December 31, 2004, Blogger Plantation said...

E, first of all this is so beautifully written that I can't even come up with the appropriate adjectives to give you enough credit. Walking along the not-so-steady path this year has made me ask several of the same questions. I think all of us ask ourselves the same 'how did this happen and why' questions. Most times there are no answers so we deal with these tragedies, as you say, one day or one step at a time. I lost my dad in '92 and my grandma in '99. Lost a family friend in December (http://chasingtheamericandream.blogspot.com/2004/11/reality-bites.html). It's very cliche, but life indeed *is* too short. It took a while for me to internalize this concept. I guess the end result is my transformation to 'Garden State' man. It's sorta the WTF mentality. I'm happier attacking life and going for things now. If I fall on my face, so be it. So chin up, stay positive, keep writing, and go for it in '05. Your quirky jdater, blogger, writer pal...PT

 
At 1:45 PM, January 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see you've transitioned into your "Woody Allen's Interiors" period. That was quick.

 
At 5:46 PM, January 01, 2005, Blogger Esther Kustanowitz said...

Thanks, everyone, for writing and for your support, and for sharing some of your difficult times with me here.

Can anyone explain what Anonymous meant by my "Interiors phase"?

 
At 1:36 PM, January 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My guess is that the poster is referring to Interiors because it is Woody Allen's most serious and non-comedic movie.

 
At 10:51 PM, January 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And also his worst, filled with the sort of arthouse, bargain basement angst better left to undergraduates. Or bloggers

 
At 2:07 PM, January 07, 2005, Blogger Gregory said...

I have to say that I've known some people personally who died, and their loss was almost universally less meaningful to me than the loss of people I hardly knew.

Maybe because the differences between myself and the deceased are difficult to know when you only know them through the work they do that resonates with you. If I read someone who writes like I do, and they die, it is as if I have died myself. I have lost what they would have written.

Whereas if someone I knew from high school died, well...I wrote off most people at my high school a long, long time ago. No big loss; I barely knew most of those people, and the rest have lives I know nothing about.

Of course, I know even less about these other people, the people that I became acquaintances of through their writing or geekery.

It's just that they're more like me in ways I find important, and I hate that someone else like me is gone.

 

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My Urban Kvetch: WINTER IN THE HOUSE OF JOB

Friday, December 31, 2004

WINTER IN THE HOUSE OF JOB

I-COLD WINTER

This winter has been especially cold. Sarah’s touched on it a little. I’ve been avoiding it, but it may be time to confront the grief. It is also my hope that a new year will bring better news, or at least, less of this kind of relentless bad.

I don’t deal well with tragedy, whether it’s (God forbid) mine or (God forbid) the tragedies of others. But, even as I’m not wholly comfortable personalizing the tragedies that are not authentically my own, I feel them acutely. And as deep as my pain goes, it feels insincere, like I’m glomming onto the grief of others to illuminate my own issues with my mortality. And believe me, there are issues, which I have no wish to confront, but which I acknowledge are inevitably part of any person’s future:

How best to seize the day (and the night) without rampant repercussions.
How to live life knowing that every action may pose a risk.
How to open one’s heart to love when such an opening increases vulnerability.
How to conceive of the transience of human presence.
How to understand that there’s an unknown expiration date.
How to accept that there are limitations to our impact and to the reach of our dreams.
How to grasp the brevity of a single lifespan and the emptiness created by its loss.

The assault has seemed relentless, almost epic in sweep, nearly epidemic in frequency. And the irony is striking: in a season of spiritual and physical darkness, nations turn to festivals of light to illuminate the world. And our faith in light, at every turn, like candles, is extinguished. There is grief, globally and locally.

Is there something broken? Has there been a hairline fracture within the system? Is there a cause? Because without a cause, there cannot be a cure.

In every instance, there was rage. When it’s bad, it feels like my face and brain were ablaze, not with hope’s light, but with indignation’s ire. (My English major’s brain screams: Rage! Rage! Against the dying of the light.) There has to be anger! Some of the grief-stricken are comforted by words from clergy, mostly, that God takes the people God loves most. But many others are beyond the Bible’s, or even language’s ability to comfort.

After the rage, there is something else. There is a continued resentment at the injustice of it all—youth, potential, hope—abruptly terminated. There is humility, hopelessness and helplessness. There is a bewildered bereftness, a dazed look of grief-as-disbelief, followed by realization and emotional disintegration. It is a small, still voice after the storm, but one that offers no comfort.

II-WHAT IT’S ABOUT

When it’s someone you loved, it’s about internalizing that you’ve lost their smile, their laugh and their wisdom. It’s about understanding that there’s no understanding. It’s about leaning on faith to support you, and feeling it crumble beneath your weight.

When it’s someone you don’t know, the grief is still there, but it’s about realizing that the only way that name will ever become a person to you is through the people he or she touched. It’s attending a memorial service for someone you didn’t know, because you know her husband, but not well enough to be able to offer any words of comfort. It’s about feeling that you don’t belong there, among the legitimate mourners. It’s about feeling, in the midst of your sadness, that you’re a pretender, feigning grief for someone you never knew, just because he or she was loved by others, or worse, as if your attendance will exempt you from attending a service for someone you know well. It's about feeling so stricken by vicarious grief that you worry about your ability to deal with anything less remote, more personal. It’s thinking, there but for the grace of God go I, that people are interchangeable and that no one can predict what’s coming.

It’s about feeling like there’s no reason, or logic, or reward for good behavior. It’s about the futility of human action. It’s about feeling like there’s a criminal out there, targeting potential in indiscernible patterns, and that you and yours could be next. It’s about feeling the responsibility of living every moment to its fullest, and realizing that that’s inherently impossible.

III—SHADOWS OF SIXTEEN

When I look at his picture, I see a face I haven’t seen in eighteen years. We were sixteen then. He wasn’t a close friend. But his smile, in the picture accompanying the obit, is the same. You don’t see his journey. His inner demons hide within his foundation, like emotional termites. The text tells the story of a musician, a performer, an artist. A creative kindred. (Out, out brief candle. "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more."--Macbeth.)

Life is like a passing shadow, many say, invoking it as comforting simile. We may choose to see it as a respite, a shade from the sun. But in the aftermath of grief, the truth hits us, and we understand. Life is us, plus a passing shadow. The shadow is the dark reflection of our vitality—featureless, ever-shifting in shape, mute to all expression. When it stops, it stops. (Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me.)

Whether or not we stop for Death, the journey always ends. (“Fin,” as the French film’s final frame might read.) Mortal coils are by definition meant to be shuffled off; generations pass as people and as shadows.

IV-FAITH

Many of us believe in an afterlife, not because we have any proof, but because the alternative is too frightening. We need to believe that if Life is but a passing shadow, that what comes after is not. That Life has a life beyond life, that a person’s impact can be felt beyond his or her own mortality. That we’re not just carbon-based organisms, shuffling like more complex paramecia. That we can create meaning in this world and add perspective to the lives of people we’ve never met. That we imprint our essence on every person we meet, through every moment or smile we have shared. It doesn’t always feel true. In fact, most of the time, trying to believe this feels like I’m living a huge lie. But there’s no other way to cope with the sadness.

For the living who have lost, and this includes us all, faith is a refuge. Whether we believe it entirely, or whether we reject it in toto, we run to faith or to our faith in its absence, to explain away our sadness or give our grief a cause.

My strongest faith is in my words. "Broken" was my word. It came from my gut, from a paucity of verbiage apt to describe how much things were just not working. If the aphorism holds in its inverse, if there is, out there, some sort of broken thing, we should fix it. Let's stop using aerosol products to save the ozone layer. Let's get our scientists to the lab to cure cancer. Let's get city engineers to configure a subway that goes from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side. But these fractures are sneakier than most. They are often indiscernible until they’re fatal. No way to know what’s broken—let alone, how to fix it. We go through the motions, trying to abstractly make the world a better place, when it often seems that the crevasse is too wide to be caulked.

V—THE ROAD AHEAD

This decade is supposed to be my generation’s thriving time. We produce in every definition: we number our successes in presentations, artistic performances, books and articles. If we’re lucky enough, we hook up with someone else who’s productive and produce progeny. We grieve for the lost, for those who will never have our chances in this world. But to mire ourselves in the tragic damages the future.

Maybe the solution is in sometimes allowing ourselves to be transported, away from current circumstance, “to glide out of time, and forget all the tormented present.” Perhaps by not living in the past and forgetting the torment of present, we can fix our gaze on what the future might look like. Maybe the only solution is to continue. If humor is tragedy plus time, maybe so is progress.

Our path in life is the furthest thing from smooth. There’s no magic pill to re-enable normalcy, or cement to pave the road. Instead, the only thing that is certain for humanity is our constant struggle, with our natural environment, with other people, with our conflicting senses of self in a confusing world. Faith in something can make living easier. But inevitably, any faith—whether it is in words, or war, or love, or religion—will be tested, pushed, challenged. The road ahead is our only option.

If we are not strongly rooted to friends or family, and invested in our own futures, some of us will fall. We have to wish for strong companions to hold our hands along the way, who help us when we stumble, who support us as we try to right ourselves, and who serve as our faith when faith itself falters. We have to pray that we find the strength in ourselves to continue on a brambled path.

We can conquer that road in the usual way: one step at a time.

IN MEMORY

…of the one I knew: Moshe Lifshen, 1970-2004

…and the ones whose impact I felt through my friends: C.B., Joel, Riva, and Sam

...and the ones who populated the landscape of my youth, and united our families in friendship: Ron and Ken.

Zikhronam livrakhah. May their memories be for a blessing.




11 Comments:

At 10:00 AM, December 31, 2004, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Esther, for your words. I hope you take strength in your friends and family -- your loved and loving ones -- to see you through. We're all here with you. :-) May the New Year be a happy and blessed one! Happy Jesus' Bris Day!

Peace.
Fun Joel

 
At 11:19 AM, December 31, 2004, Blogger annabel lee said...

Thank you so much for sharing your emotion and your heart. You write so honestly. I hope that 2005 will bring you peace, comfort, and joy. Take heart, dear heart, in the knowledge that you are not alone. You have people to hold onto, people who are rooting for you and rooting you, people who are proud to call you "friend."

 
At 11:25 AM, December 31, 2004, Blogger Hilary said...

Thank you Esther for sharing your honest words with us. Beautiful. Happy New Year.

 
At 3:04 PM, December 31, 2004, Blogger Coelecanth said...

Entropy, inertia, decay, death, call it what you will everything in the universe is subject to it. Life is the only thing that fights against this, it creates, organizes, grows. Human life is the only thing (that we know of) that does this consciously, this is called Art.

It doesn't matter if your Art, be it written, spoken, sculpted or played isn't remembered through the ages, it's the act that counts. Those acts of Art include everything: growing petunias, raising a child, fixing a broken toaster, comforting the sorrowful, cooking a meal, it all counts. Art is Life, Life is Art and Art matters.

Every act of creation done consciously and with heart is a victory against entropy, indeed against death itself. This is small comfort to those confronting the death of someone close. I know, I lost my father before my 14th birthday. But it has got me through and continues to nourish and sustain me.

Perhaps it is all "A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifing nothing." If it is, so be it. We can't change that. What we can change is how we feel about it. Death is inevitable, but so is Life. It's so common we forget to value it.

Look, see, cherish, it's all around you. Act consciously, love conspicuously, be Artful in all your actions, it's all we can do.

 
At 7:57 PM, December 31, 2004, Blogger Lyss said...

Part I puts into words what I have not been able to verbalize about my father's death (3 years ago this January).
Thank you.

 
At 9:05 PM, December 31, 2004, Blogger Plantation said...

E, first of all this is so beautifully written that I can't even come up with the appropriate adjectives to give you enough credit. Walking along the not-so-steady path this year has made me ask several of the same questions. I think all of us ask ourselves the same 'how did this happen and why' questions. Most times there are no answers so we deal with these tragedies, as you say, one day or one step at a time. I lost my dad in '92 and my grandma in '99. Lost a family friend in December (http://chasingtheamericandream.blogspot.com/2004/11/reality-bites.html). It's very cliche, but life indeed *is* too short. It took a while for me to internalize this concept. I guess the end result is my transformation to 'Garden State' man. It's sorta the WTF mentality. I'm happier attacking life and going for things now. If I fall on my face, so be it. So chin up, stay positive, keep writing, and go for it in '05. Your quirky jdater, blogger, writer pal...PT

 
At 1:45 PM, January 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see you've transitioned into your "Woody Allen's Interiors" period. That was quick.

 
At 5:46 PM, January 01, 2005, Blogger Esther Kustanowitz said...

Thanks, everyone, for writing and for your support, and for sharing some of your difficult times with me here.

Can anyone explain what Anonymous meant by my "Interiors phase"?

 
At 1:36 PM, January 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My guess is that the poster is referring to Interiors because it is Woody Allen's most serious and non-comedic movie.

 
At 10:51 PM, January 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And also his worst, filled with the sort of arthouse, bargain basement angst better left to undergraduates. Or bloggers

 
At 2:07 PM, January 07, 2005, Blogger Gregory said...

I have to say that I've known some people personally who died, and their loss was almost universally less meaningful to me than the loss of people I hardly knew.

Maybe because the differences between myself and the deceased are difficult to know when you only know them through the work they do that resonates with you. If I read someone who writes like I do, and they die, it is as if I have died myself. I have lost what they would have written.

Whereas if someone I knew from high school died, well...I wrote off most people at my high school a long, long time ago. No big loss; I barely knew most of those people, and the rest have lives I know nothing about.

Of course, I know even less about these other people, the people that I became acquaintances of through their writing or geekery.

It's just that they're more like me in ways I find important, and I hate that someone else like me is gone.

 

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