Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Suffering and Sandwiches

Today in my poetry class, we talked about ekphrasis. That's a fancy (Greek) word for description in literature, particularly when it's a work of art being described. One of the poems we talked about was W. H. Auden's "Musee de Beaux Arts" in which he describes Bruegel's painting called Landscape and the Fall of Icarus.

this is from Wikipedia
Of course the ploughman's red shirt draws the eye to him, and then you see the shepherd behind him, looking up at the sky, but what's not as immediately obvious is the pair of legs sticking out of the ocean in the lower right corner--that's Icarus, post-wing-melting journey up to the sun. The whole idea of the poem (and the painting, I guess), is that this amazing and terrible thing has just happened--a boy with wings has fallen out of the sky!--and everybody around him just carries on with their ordinary activities.

W. H. Auden knew something of grief, as evidenced by his poem "Funeral Blues"--one of many poems I copied into a journal after Eliza died. The last stanza reads:

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

And damned if I didn't feel that way for the longest time. Stop all the clocks. This is it. Life is over.

* * *

I took the girls out for dinner tonight. David was playing a ball game and I just didn't want to fix dinner and clean it up and clean up the kitchen while being barraged by demand after demand from two tiny tyrants.

(Also, I've come to the realization that my children have extraordinarily LOUD voices. As in volume. Like, all kids can be screamy and demanding, but my kids just happen to have super loud voices, even in comparison to other kids. Coco's teacher confirmed that Coco cries SUPER LOUD and Zuzu's voice is similarly gifted in volume, plus she has no sense of lowering one's voice when someone else's ear is, say, inches away.)

In the car, we rehearsed my definition of Restaurant Manners: Quiet Voices, Listening Ears, Walking Feet.

I repeated this list of three a few times, with both girls promising they would have Restaurant Manners. As I parked and repeated the list one more time, Zuzu chirped, "AND NO RUNNING!"

I said, "Right. That's what Walking Feet means. Walking. Not running."

Zuzu replied, "AND I will be a good listener."

You can see why I had my doubts.

* * *

They were actually quite well-behaved--I think mostly because they were actually hungry. We went to McAlister's deli because kids eat for 99 cents if you eat at the restaurant. Since my kids seem to toss a coin before decided whether to wolf down a children's meal or leave us feeling like idiots for shelling out $4.99 TWICE over just to have them nibble on an apple slice, this feels like a good deal.

Zuzu ordered a PB&J, but then told me she really just wanted the bread and jelly, and could I please take off the peanutbutter. (No. And also: Whose child are you? Peanutbutter is MY LIFE and David's.)

Coco ate a few bites of her mac and cheese but was enthusiastic about her applesauce and some of Zuzu's crust. She was also enthusiastic about people-watching. As we were eating, a young woman walked past our booth on the way to the restroom. She was blond and pretty, and Coco's face lit up as she approached. She waved energetically, her little face crinkling into a smile and her fat little fist opening and closing.

The blond woman looked right past her and walked into the bathroom without acknowledging Coco at all. My heart did this kind of weird thing as Coco's face fell. It's not like it made her cry or anything--she went right back to playing with the straw in her water cup and later waved and smiled at several other people in the restaurant, who were more than enthusiastic in their responses. But her bright smile faded fast when the woman ignored her, and it physically hurt me to see it.

I had a moment of feeling angry at this woman--like can't you just acknowledge my kid, who is actually being pretty well-behaved and was politely waving at you and obviously extending a friendly greeting? Why do you have to crush her? Do we really have to let her know before she turns two that not everyone in this world is going to be nice to her, even when she tries to be nice to them? Like you're too important to freaking say HI?

And then I thought about the Auden poem we'd discussed today--not "Funeral Blues" but "Musee de Beaux Arts." The opening lines are:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

* * *

There was a time not so long ago when I would have looked right through a baby waving at me. When I would have gone out of my way to avoid eye contact. When I would have chosen the table farthest away from the mom with two little kids--and not just because children are animals and should not be taken out in public (although I still sort of subscribe to that belief, at least on some days).

I may be able to smile at strange babies now, but I still have my moments--those families with three little stair-step girls that twist my heart up. I don't know what's going on with that blond woman. Maybe she doesn't like kids. Maybe she was preoccupied and truly didn't notice Coco's friendly wave. Maybe she just got her heartbroken or failed a final exam or bombed a job interview. Maybe she just took her umpteenth negative pregnancy test. Or, you know what? Maybe her baby died and looking at my kid makes her chest seize up.

Because that's the thing that Bruegel and Auden know about suffering. It happens while someone else is eating a sandwich. Or opening a window. Or just walking dully along. It doesn't knock the entire world off its axis. It's barely a blip on the radar. A boy falls out of the sky, and the ploughman doesn't notice and the shepherd is a few seconds too late to figure out what's going on.

One of the hardest parts about living in the aftermath of your own personal suffering is figuring out how to do it when the rest of the world is carrying on as though everything is fine. It's figuring out how to make small talk with the cashier when all you can think about is the fact that your baby died. Your life falls apart and eventually you still have to call the cable company and get your oil changed and return that pair of shoes and go out and grab lunch in a world full of other people. You have to find a way to interact with a world that just kept living its ordinary life--having its babies and eating its sandwiches and opening its windows.

* * *

I said to my students today (rather dramatically), "This. THIS. Is the worst day of someone's life. Someone out there in the world has just lost the person they care about most, or experienced a level of tragedy that has shattered them completely. And here we are, sitting in class, talking about poetry, getting ready to go to lunch, and complaining about studying for finals."

I asked them if they thought the poem invites us to accept this as a fact of life, that people would always suffer unacknowledged in the midst of ordinary activity, or if the poem asks us to change, to be aware of suffering that is too often ignored.

Blessed idealists that they are, they all thought that it was a call for awareness and action--empathy, compassion, connection. Don't just walk dully along! Pay attention to the suffering of others!

I'm not so sure. Bruegel painted that landscape sometime in the 1560s, and it doesn't seem that much has really changed since then. Children fall out of the sky to their deaths (metaphorically, for the most part) and still someone has to plow the ground and tend the sheep. How could we function if every tragedy in the world drew our attention? (And yet, how do we keep going on, ignoring the suffering that's all around us?)

Despite my ambivalence about the poem's message, I watched Coco's cute, friendly gesture get ignored and after my initial moment of being offended on behalf of my adorable cherub of a child, I checked myself, and I wondered if that blond woman at McAlister's was hurting.

I wondered if something had happened to her that made it painful for her to make eye contact with a smiling, messy-faced toddler, and I wondered if I was the only person who was paying attention.

Maybe I'm reading too much into the situation (or the poem). I mean, maybe she was just preoccupied with something inconsequential, or maybe she just doesn't like adorable kids with sticky hands and messy faces.

Or maybe she was, in fact, literally suffering while I ate my sandwich.

In which case I say to her: One breath at a time. All you do is keep going. It might not get better, but YOU will get better. Better equipped to deal with this, anyway. You'll find a way. You don't have a choice in the matter, and that's terrible and unfair and I hate it for you, but you'll find a way because you have to. I know. I know it feels like your suffering will ruin you, but ruins are the beginning of something else, and that something else that you're becoming--it won't be as terrible as you think. I promise you'll find the good again.

And in the meantime? You're in good company.


  1. Thank you for writing this. I could have been that woman who looked through Coco - my husband and I are struggling to get pregnant (we are one of those couples with 'unexplained infertility'). As we grapple with this, I find that - as nonsensical as it is - I now have a hard time acknowledging, or even looking at, cute babies when I am out in public. They remind me of what I don't - and might never - have. It's not the same sort of suffering associated with baby loss, but it is a form of suffering, and I thank you for acknowledging it.

    1. It is such a hard place to be, where other people's joys reflect back our own sorrows. I understand and sympathize with that position. Unexplained infertility (or explained infertility, for that matter) is its own kind of heartbreak--but slower, and sometimes harder to acknowledge. xo

  2. This is a really beautifully written and thought-provoking piece. I loved the juxtaposition between real life, toddlers eating in diner, and the poem and picture. It could be published somewhere!

  3. This this this. All day long. Even seven years later.

  4. The Fall of Icarus - I believe this is probably F's favorite story in all of our weighty mythology tomes.

    How do we function in this world with so much tragedy? I have no idea. I ask myself this all the time.

  5. One of my girlfriends is pregnant, and it's a pleasant surprise kind of pregnancy. Last year she went through a molar pregnancy, and this pregnancy has gone through a threatened miscarriage situation. But right now, everything seems good, and we're happy for her and her family. Even though I haven't lost my own child, I worry so much when friends are pregnant.

    Yesterday, I was with her when she got to tell a mutual friend that she's pregnant. We were at a city rec center, getting ready to swim, in the locker room, changing, talking about all the usual stuff that comes up when you find out a friend is expecting. And I couldn't help but wonder which of the women around us was struggling to deal with the light-hearted nature of our talk. So much like what you're saying here, we're just living our lives, like nothing else is wrong, anywhere in the world, but I couldn't help but wonder if we were unintentionally barging into someone's heart and soul with our talk.

    It was in this same locker room, a couple of months ago, with one of these same girlfriends, that another lady was talking with my daughter and I. Her granddaughter was feeling a little shy, so she told me her granddaughter's name, and then told me that her grandson, the girl's baby brother had recently died. I told them how sorry I was to hear that, and asked his name - it was Cooper. I told them that my baby sister had died when I was about her age, and I know how much that hurts, and that I was glad they'd shared him with us. And then my girlfriend - an older woman, a grandma herself, in fact - told us how one of her children had had twins, and one of them had died, a few years ago. We were all talking about the babies we had lost in our lives, what their names were, why they had died, with the addition of two little girls asking the questions children ask about death. I was wondering who around us that was listening was struggling to keep it together that day, too.

    You just never know.

    1. You absolutely never know. So much hidden heartache in the world.

    2. Brooke, this was so beautiful. I have been that blonde lady in the diner, and I have also often wondered who my children might be "triggering". I never thought about this before Josie, died, and I doubt I ever would have. Most days I'm happy to have such a "well-rounded" view of the world, morbid and depressing as it may be.

      xo, Nora

  6. I loved this post. I think your message to that woman, if she was hurting, was so spot on too. Because it's so hard to realize, but the ruins definitely are the start of something else - for you, for me, for so many of us they were the start of a deeper appreciation and respect for the heartaches people endure. And acknowledging them is brave and beautiful and honorable.

    Side note: My kids are loud talkers too. Finn especially, but I fear Mary will be as well. Miles comes from a family of LOUD talkers and the females are the loudest!!

  7. So, so true. On so many levels. I still don't do the smalle talk that's expected of me- I don't particular want to engage with strangers and I worry about what they will ask and how I will answer. I am always honest about Lydie if they ask. I actually feel more uncomfortable if they don't ask and I don't say anything and I worry about the assumptions they are making, tend to be short, and probably come off as unfriendly.

    Good post.

  8. <3
    McAlister's is pretty amazing.
    And yes, I know just what you mean. I helped Maggie with Mother's day cards the other day and while we were working she had 3 patients upstairs. :( I hate that. And it is surreal how far we've come when one day not that long ago, that was us upstairs.

    And now my rainbow baby only has 3 days left of preschool and I am pretty sad about sending my BABY to kindergarten in a few months, but oh, it's so much worse to not. I have a feeling though that this kindergarten bit is going to be all kinds of triggers.

  9. What a post, Brooke. We have all been there when it just wasn't possibly to even force a smile and this was just so well-stated. How's the book coming along? Your posts like this one make me so excited to read it.