Those gone by choice or fate, in life or in death, shall be irrevocably and deeply intertwined with those for whom mortal, earthly existence is, was, but one dimension. The visceral is brought to life with unimaginable magnitude wheresoever the slightest provocation is permitted entry. A sight, a sound, a scent, a word like an avalanche brings him to life. It is only in that insufferable state of oppression that he dies a sure and nasty death.
Death comes to us all.
As news feeds fill with the demise of Robin Williams the realization that even the most humorous suffer the toils of life overwhelms. I cannot know the preponderance of misery that befell this man, but I know of human suffering.
Have I had a bad life?
Has Robin Williams?
Money? Fame? Success? Family?
All of this wasn’t enough?
Maybe he suffered great trauma as a child?
But perhaps not. I believe it was Charlie Chaplin who said, “to truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it,” but I could be wrong. I think his point is that life is tragically comical. We invest time trying to answer the whys and hows, as if we could arrest the twists and turns of life events.
If somehow they could be contained by human – oh, so human – understanding, I could rest…peacefully.
What a great equalizer human understanding can be. To generate a playing field so ripe in reason must be the most laughable invention known to man! Accepting that things happen, happen to me, with no rhyme, or reason; that’s simply unacceptable!
He didn’t just leave me.
I didn’t just quit my job.
She was not just tragically taken (from me).
War zones don’t just occur.
Droughts don’t just happen.
Earthquakes don’t just take millions.
There are reasons for all of this!
There is the scientific variety.
There is the religious variety.
There is the psychological variety.
Whichever paradigm one gravitates to reasons are by default the method by which human understanding explains, justifies (category mistake!) the freak of circumstance that is otherwise unfathomable.
Why is this unfathomable?
Kierkegaard, Sartre, Nietzsche et al. They knew why.
If not for reason, then for what?
The answer? For NOTHING!
Where does this leave us?
The paradox? With human understanding!
What is the meaning of this?!
Finally a good question.
Immersed in self-doubt over this narrative, self-awareness is raw with potential.
God is dead, exclaimed Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. But you suspected this all along.
If God is dead who, what, will keep everything from falling a part? Will causal events no longer be ordered by His will? Is there no agenda albeit hidden from humanity upon which we can hang our moral hat?
Don’t despair. Well actually do. For in despair there is abundance!
No longer looking outwardly for cause and reason, the journey is inwardly enveloped.
No longer enslaved by reason – for some personified as God’s will, for others as the modern God, Science and yet others it appears as Justice – the freedom felt is both frightening and exhilarating.
For now there is an infinite stream of waters to traverse. Do not worry that the wind shall be your master. Cast your sails and chart you course. And on this voyage do not endeavor to look beyond what the eyes can see.
A passage from Blindness –by Jose Saramago – (fitting, you say?) comes to mind: “If you can see, look. If can look, observe.” (Yes, yes, this is out of context!)
And what then of human suffering?
Were it not for the flood of feeds regarding the passing of the beloved Robin Williams, death, rather her contemplation, would not have reached my consciousness.
Contemplating death, the finality of life suddenly appears like a spoiled child demanding attention.
Why must she cry so?, banging her little fists against the ground. Why does the ground disappear with each sounding blow? Why does she look out onto the world demanding that her suffering be taken away?
Here lies the tragedy of human existence!
The ultimate life affirming force is in despairing over the understanding of ourselves as castaways who must conjure meaning by planting invisible roots.
Those who suffer greatly, live extra-ordinarily. They laugh laudably.
The prognosis was grim. I remember the precise moment when the truth of what was earlier known rudely pushed itself unto me. I was being dropped off at the hospital (a new tumour), irritability turned antagonistic as I fought to rejoin that blissful world of denial. Later tears met with accusations. Who greets tears with such animosity? Who harbours such disdain for “parading grief”? Strange how triggers work. That day we had our own grievances to address, and these shipwrecked any chance for ontic embrace. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Anguish, loss, death, comes to us all (the penultimate banality), but my grief is my own, viscerally experienced as if unique to me, resentful of dense propriety that arrogantly calls me to compose myself! But those moments, subtle as they were at the time, are like memories in a time capsule that ornately embellish the creative process of meaning-construct. For it is after all as I artfully engage life that the constituents of meaning find voice. Trepidation meets and enamours ruinous tranquility through life’s turnings.
Today Olymbia passed away. Three years into her grade 4 Glioblastoma brain cancer (GBM), outliving her prognosis by 2 years. It was Christmas 2014 when I noticed (we all did) Olymbia had changed – she seemed off, not herself. All of us gathered – a party of 40 – at Ket’s home in celebratory mode, Greek-style! Marc reconstructed the bird with his usual artistry. We girls busied ourselves with cooking, and serving, with chiding laughter accompanying us as we moved through the rooms. A row of generations set the table, finding Olymbia at the further end, tucked away in a corner, quiet. Quiet!? Well that was just not Olymbia! She was always centre-stage, dishing out orders, making sure that we girls, especially us, were on top of things! But not today, not ever again.
My hair follicles knew best of my mother’s discontent. Hair tightly pulled back into a ponytail bore the markings of slightly slanting eyes. A stop on the way to school at Olymbia’s – we all walked to school together – and that menacing ponytail was to become a swinging bush hanging long across my back. Thankful was I! It remained our secret, never shared with my mother. And as secrets do, endorsed a loving connection. Our families were one family. Our moms best friends, us kids roughly the same age, grew up as cousins, siblings really. Olymbia was the driving force behind this great, expansive family. She welcomed everyone, even if she did not always appear welcoming! 🙂 She was a mother to me.
Not versed in Stoic literature, Seneca, Rufus, Epictetus were no strangers to her. “Κόρη, that’s it”. Her meaning, however elliptical, is not far off from the words of Seneca: “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing.” I can also hear these words echoing in my ear as she’d have occasion to frequent them: “᾽Αντε να γαμ… ο μαλάκας απο δω χάμω!” There’s something about the flamboyant Greek manner prone to such phraseologies that turn profanity endearing. In essence her meaning is reflected in Epictetus’ words repeatedly endorsed throughout the ages: “Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.” And later in life, she’d realized, especially after becoming ill, what she perceived to be the narrowness of her youthful endeavours. I think this is nicely expressed by Rufus: “wealth is able to buy the pleasures of eating, drinking and other sensual pursuits – yet can never afford a cheerful spirit or freedom from sorrow.” She seemed eager that I see the foulness of such ways, that I’d invest in what truly matters: family. And so it is left to us, all the kids (Pits, Ket, Andro, Nico, me, Marc, Blaine, Meagan, Kristina, Nick, Mitchell, Mason, Thomas, Kalianna, Anthony, Kris and Kim)) no matter the distance that separates us, to keep the candle burning that shall always unite us as one family.
In our month together we’d sometimes burn the night oil. She’d become reflective, mellow, and her thoughts turned to her children. Of Andro, since I can remember remained constant was her wish that he find a “good woman” to care for him…like a Greek woman knows to! 😉 “Ketty…that one…she’s the sensitive one.” But she also endearingly spoke of her as “a little chatter-box” (πολυλογού), a quality that our lovely Kristina has inherited…perhaps upgraded! 😉 “Liza…well she is like me…if we don’t fight one day I think she doesn’t me love me.” She hardly spoke of her grandkids beyond the usual logistics. But what was there to say that her eyes did not. She adored those kids: they were her life! As the weekend rolled round she worried that my partner would feel neglected (Greek women are not to neglect their men! 😉 ) Άντε κόρη, που είναι ο καλαμαράς, ο μαλάκας; Πήγαινε τώρα να του φτιάξεις κανένα φαΐ! And we’d laugh, and laugh! But that’s how she was: caring, and brutally honest, but darkness would turn light, for sentimentalities were not to have the last say. Did I mention Marc and Blaine!? She’d say: “Those girls don’t deserve such men!” And again, we’d laugh and laugh. But she meant it too. Her son-in-laws were the absolute best men. But as I’m sure they’d agree, that’s a gesture of reciprocity that began with her. My bro! Well she had much to say about him too. “Kαλό παιδί ο Νίκος μας!” She wanted confirmation that he was loved and appreciated!
She is one of those people that affected many lives. So many people will have to seriously adjust to her passing. Resilient that woman was! But Stoic-like she appreciated and loved life, but was adamant not to bend to the tragedies that life had in store for her…though…she did suffer….as anyone who wants to live and has so much to lιve for does.
She would want us to be strong and live by example. For as Margaret Atwood said: “In the end, we’ll all become stories.”
I love you, Olymbia mou! Καλή αντάμωση!
Stumbling in, he falls unconscious. All around there’s scrambling commotion. Foot steps rushing urgently, scattered whispers enjoining like a choir of nymphs, the hissing lodging a hole through my ear. Strokes of regret enamour hope and the foot steps become more decisive and directed. The drawer opens, and a syringe is drawn from deep inside. Breathing resumes. From further afar I see his chest expand and deflate. The stench of relief is palpable.
We’re all breathing now.
There’s no talk of the events that transpired as the house slowly comes back to life. The household routine is resurrected. Each to their quarters and little lives. Everything is as it was. I begin to wonder if it happened at all. After all this couldn’t be happening, not to us. We did everything right.
Even amongst the more cooly deliberative, death has been a force to reckon with. Ultimately, though, it seems questions always moralize our vexed concern with life, and not death. Somehow we all accept with no great ado that we all shall die. It is with how to live that aporia turns angst-faced. I cannot speak to Foti’s appropriation except within that horizon of meaning contained within my memories spanning over near 50 years.
Our families lived only a faint walk away from each other in Pierrefonds. We on Gascon, the Marangous on Chaumont street. I was only 3 at the time, so I feel I was pretty much born into the family. The families were inseparable; our mothers best friends, we kids like siblings…weekend BBQ’s, sleep overs, hide-and-seek, music, singing, and everything Greek! Foti, always the designated barbecuer, would sneak privileged morsels to us, with words of cheer and a sparkle in his eyes. Always bright and engaging, I can hardly recall a time I’d seen him angry, or outta sorts, or raise his voice even. I’m sure he did, but it is to his disposition I speak: kind and generous. And what words can possibly describe how, when at 16 I refused to return to Athens, he and Olymbia took me in?! Just like that! Foti routinely brought the kids chocolate bars home from work; he never discriminated, always got me and my bro one…oh, did I mention we were all living there. Foti, Olymbia, Andro (“And”), Lisa (“Pits”), Cathy (“Ket”), Nico (“Neek”), and aunty Koula. But it was never just us. Friends, and partners would rally over, especially at supper-time, notably on the weekends. Needless to say it was pretty busy! It must have also been financially taxing. That’s something I only fully appreciate as a middle-aged woman with children myself.
Foti never flinched; everyone was always welcome! But he was, as my father reminded me the other day, always hard at work burning the midnight oil each and every night. Downstairs he’d sit before his elongated, white desk, nuts at hand, maybe a scotch (I might have this wrong….), and lots and lots of paperwork. His job? For us kids it was iconic cause everyday, or what seemed like every day to us kids, he’d park a different car in the driveway. And they weren’t the regular cars visible throughout the neighbourhoods. Nope these were Jags! Gorgeous, elegant, shiny Jaguars! He was proud. Foti had really made something of his life, and he was justified in his boastfulness. I think it’s easy to forget how tough things were for immigrants in the 60s who came over with essentially nothing. It is hard because they made it, life, easy for us.
During the year I spent in the Marangou home Foti must have realized, in a way that really no one else seemed to (just Pits), that I was lost and scared. I was often home on the weekends as the house slowly emptied each rushing to some planned outing. Foti was there, downstairs at his white desk. I too sat there and Foti would put some old Greek movie on with Aliki Vougiouklaki, Tzeni Karezi, Melina Mercouri, Lambros Konstantaras, Dimitri Papamichael, Rena Vlahopoulou, and others! We’d converse in Greek, laugh and joke about these Greek dramas, and share a bit of current gossip about the actors’ sorted affairs! But he made me feel at home. Home! A place of untold treasure. For what is it to be home than to feel accepted, safe, unconditionally loved and cared for!! So to me Foti was like a father; he was my 2nd dad. And who is ever lucky enough to have two great dads!
Good bye Foti mou! I love you so damn much!
She died today but no one noticed
Her airy personality like a drone hovered
They came and took her body
Bagged her, and threw her onto her transporter
But she remained the same
She died today but no one noticed
Words like bricks bruised precious egos
And ravenous retorts dug her grave
But before her final departure waved a virtual adieu
She died today but no one noticed
Listen…those who despair…
A parable exhaustively announced as if something novel and true. Yes, yes, unless you believe in the transmigration of the soul whereby identity remains in tact (I don’t know about you, but if I’m somehow assured an afterlife with a prelife I have no knowledge of, sign me up for cremation!) you only live once. Got it. Mostly people advocate (insert long heavy sigh) “you only live once” to make a point about doing their utmost to live this one life. It is one of those thoughtless motivational ploys to get people off their asses and really live! I get that. I do. But really? Is anyone ever really moved to live life to the fullest beyond a somewhat transient, flippant, arms flying in the air, “take me now’ mode of being when making such banal pronouncements? There is as much oomph, as much gumption in these words as there is in the goo goo ga ga of mothers’ first words to their (presumed idiot) offspring!
This does more to obfuscate than illumine insights into the human condition. Only the obtuse would enjoin the thoughtlessness that accompanies this prescriptive journey. The reflectiveness of the conscious, or perhaps as Sartre rightly suggests, self-conscious, more brightly sways placating anxieties to turn their wavering heads from indulgences – even those requiring some configured determination, usually of the more physical variety – to festering inner struggles wherein the Subjective looms. Living life to the fullest is not something one simply does, it is an orientation of life that is unsettling as much as it is motivating, disturbing as much as it is enlightening, defeating as much as it is empowering, painful as much as it is moving, crippling as much as it is igniting. It is not a simple task, a monochromatic way of being. It is polychromatic, strangely infused with a cacophony with harmonic hues, which fall deaf on unassuming ears. Being-towards-death is a nonrelational, hence intimately subjective, if lonely, experience, and most importantly it cannot be outstripped, for death is the “possibility of impossibility”. Do the work, if you’re going to make the talk!
Fragile Me is not clinically depressed, nor is she unhappy. Fragile Me discovers the alienating and self-annihilating experience of addressing oneself as a kind. Whenever one speaks to how anything is, one immediately speaks in terms of kinds. Elly is munificent describes Elly as the type of person that exhibits munificence; so if I wanted to know what kind of person she is, I could get a sense (since this is only a contingent claim…though, some have argued that it is a necessary one! 😉 ) of this, knowing what it is to be munificent. This is unavoidable. To evade such utterances is to end up saying nothing at all! (A case in point is the philosophy of Parmenides who deduced Esti as the only truth-preserving utterance, of which nothing can be said.) That won’t do, of course. Why is this self-annihilating and how can it be avoided?
It is self-annihilating because it asks that I turn in unto self (Sartre, of course, has argued that all consciousness is self-consciousness, but that complicated philosophical story for another day – unless you venture to read my Between Shock and Awe) adopting a spectatorial view as a disengaged rational subject as championed by science, but in this scenario I am both onlooker and specimen. I literally become an object unto self (a Cartesian problem which Sartre aimed to address and resolve), so that in an attempt to better understand myself, I think of myself in terms of ‘a human being in x, y, z circumstance’, and thereby circumvent all internal and external inhibitions blocking my ability to properly assess myself in my situation. In effect, I consider myself as anyone who could befall the selfsame predicament and offer consult to oneself as anyone might. So, Fragile Me argued that,
an objective onlooker could identify causes of both the extrinsic and intrinsic variety; a trained scientist of the human condition – a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, neuroscientist, even psychologist, take your pick – could tell you all sorts of objective facts about your suffering. A psychiatrist, along with the neuroscientist, may tell you that there is a chemical imbalance in your brain – something about the neurotransmitters found in depressed people. A psychotherapist may tell you that certain cognitive and emotional (in the case that the emotions are not considered cognitive states) states are the cause. And all of these objective assignments may accurately illustrate your state of being. But none of them, I repeat none of them, can capture what it is to be uniquely in the throws of despair. These facts mean absolutely nothing to one in despair. None of these facts address me; fragile me. Looking upon this state of being, or any other, as one who suffers despair, is literally to supersede and cast as irrelevant the experiencing subject!!!! When invited to look upon my own anguish objectively, scientifically, if you like, and dispassionately, I can not be aware of myself as an existing individual. Indeed, I am asked to be an object unto self, and in effect, to forget myself.
The psychiatrist is no more in error regarding neurotransmitters (well maybe since no one is infallible, right?! 🙂 ) than the physician is regarding death, or even the psychologist might be with regards to the human experience of death. But nothing the psychiatrist or the psychologist has to say captures the existential relevance of despair or death for me. These are interesting assessments of kinds, namely kinds of experiences and probable causes (insofar as this causal framework adheres to accepted laws of movement and human understanding thereof). Indeed, as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross writes in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, humankind can be described as negotiating death in 5 stages of mourning. I may even find myself somewhere amidst these stages. This too, speaks to death – my death, your death, John, Mary, and Jane’s deaths, indeed anyone’s death – as something that we all experience similarly or in common. But can we experience death by proxy? Isn’t it always quite distinctly my death which washes over me with utter confoundment and surprise! Do I lack rational understanding of death? Did I not know of my own mortality? Rhetorical questions to be sure! “How could this be happening? Why now? “, we ask. We look for reasons, but none are forthcoming! There is no reason that we should die, and that we should die when we do. There are causal events that lead up to this ultimate event, as with all others, but there is no ultimate reason for it – for any of it! It is in this primordial state of abandonment, and self-doubt that I comport myself to self in an existentially meaningful way. And it is thus that I may find myself in the throws of despair as described by Fragile Me. But though this despair is an inescapable mode of being towards authenticity, it is not without great reward.
In another blog It’s the Little Things, Fragile Me, says:
It’s the little things. A penetrating glance. A stream of light. Preparing a meal. Writing a blog. A child’s smile. The joy experienced is owed not to the glance, the streaming light, the meal or the child’s smile. For just as words can fall on deaf ears, so too can sights fall out of focus. Everything that is anything is something because we make it so. You see beauty in the creases of the rose-pedal, are mesmerized by the droplets that like a suspended bubble sit indifferent to the raging wind on a leaf, watch as a child’s hand slowly fastens the outreaching arm of his mother. The world suddenly slows down and grows quiet. It is as with the reverence spoken in silent humility upon entry into the House of the Lord.
Beauty, joy, happiness don’t belong to the world for they can not be discerned by the spectator’s lens. I do not stand and face the world. I am always in-the-world. Here I become intermingled with the being of the “objectively present” not related as two separate and distinct entities, but affectively I take in the world with caring attention and personal investedness and I see everything that’s anything!
These little things are sensory data to which I am causally related; but they are only merely sensory data to which I am causally related when all that comprises my world is existentially irrelevant. Poetry, any art form really, may communicate the incommunicable individuality of that concretely individual experience that was my own, not science.
Fragile Me is a troubled being, but for all her trouble, she is finely attuned, and fully immersed in her world with others. Or more colloquially: all is good in her world! 🙂
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.