How We Learn to See Ongoingness
what mothering and pandemic times taught me about a difficult sisterhood
It’s March, and like many of you I’ve been thinking back to that March three years ago when so many things changed. I’ve been remembering the walks I took with my daughter Matilda, who was three when the pandemic hit. I remember how much it felt like I was trying to hide everything from her back then: the virus, how I really felt, reality itself. Being in the house reminded me that we were hiding. But when we walked, her almost incomprehensible little words would rise like bubbles toward the sky. We would collect leaves, and blossoms, and sticks, and the air felt clear.
And then one day, on our walk, we found a dead bird on the sidewalk: a baby bird. It must have hatched that day, and fallen right from the nest. The little body was bare of feathers, and the blue veins looked bright beneath its translucent flesh. It reminded me of the way that a human baby looks, when it screams. I tried to hide it from Matilda, but it was too late. It caught her eye and drew her in. We crouched down, close to the pavement, and it felt like all of the things I’d been trying to hide came pressing in on us at once. I felt so small, and out of control. The fact of death that I’d been hiding from, all of the crushing vulnerabilities I was trying not to be hyper aware of, were suddenly right there. I felt like a little baby, about to scream.
But I also remember, when Matilda looked up at me trying to figure out what to think, that I caught a glimpse of something else: a sudden shock of ongoingness. A memory of the way that bird song breaks open the spring, like an egg, again and again. This is what the sisterhood between life and death means, to me. Without this sisterhood—without a life that’s both challenged and supported by death—I would never have developed a sense of ongoingness that’s not static or cold. A sense of ongoingness that’s tactile, and earthy. One that I can feel moving through my body. A sense of ongoingness that doesn’t pretend that death is unreal, but that works with and against it, as if with an invisible force. The pandemic is one thing that’s left me raw enough to see this difficult sisterhood more clearly. But so has mothering.
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Birth Isn’t Just Biophilic
Philosophers like Hannah Arendt and Grace Jantzen once fed me a story that natality (the fact that we are born) was a new point of conceptual focus. It was a new way of thinking about who we are. Western philosophers, they argued, had all been men who focused on our mortality (the fact that we die). As Jantzen put it, the history of western thought has been “necrophilic”—obsessed with our mortality. But birth draws our attention in different directions, she promised. Natality is biophilic.
Before I went through the process myself—birth—I suppose I expected that its biophilia would leave me filled with a new joy for life. So I wasn’t prepared for how terrifying it was. I remember one early night, in particular, when we’d returned from four nights in the hospital after a difficult labor. My husband was taking his turn at an attempt to sleep. I held my tiny daughter—whose weight had dropped to just over five pounds—in the dark. I felt like all of the flesh had been torn from my life and what was left was nothing but bone: some hard, skeletal truth. I realized that in that moment, I was the only fragile thing between this little baby and death.
Maybe I would have been diagnosed with postpartum depression. I was too busy, I thought, to see someone about it. We were moving across the country with a baby who was just barely alive, so that I could start a new job. Everything was changing quickly, and slipping through my fingers. I was changing, too. I didn’t recognize myself anymore. It felt like I’d sunk into a pit filled with dry bones, and I had to figure out how to get this baby out of it. I remembering crying, and singing all of the old lullabies I could call up, and realizing for the first time why so many lullabies are so deeply mournful.
And then my daughter smiled. It was in the afternoon, the first time it happened. I was playing with a silk scarf that I was about to tie around my head. I danced the scarf around her and she focused on it with her eyes that could still barely see. She grabbed it, and smiled. I remember feeling suddenly buoyant, like I would do almost anything for another little rupture of joy like that.
She lifted me up, and showed me a reserve of strength and power I didn’t know that I had in me. She’s continued to challenge me to look outside of myself, to watch myself grow and become more and other than what I’d always thought I was. So when I started to write my book Sister Death, I knew that I had to write about birth as well. I knew that I had to talk about the way that birth, rather than distracting us from our mortality, kept life and death connected, as if along a Möbius strip. How it turns one into the other, again and again.
Mothering changed how I see death, and life. And it continues to to do. Even when it feels like the world is awash in death. This post-pandemic world looks far bleaker than anything I imagined about the future, when I was young. And it’s left me feeling mournful. But in the midst of this sense of the presence of death, I’ve also caught a glimpse of ongoingness that doesn’t feel like an empty fantasy but instead like something very real.
Always Be With You
I have a theory that three is the age when children are capable of thinking the abstract thought of death, and whatever comes after. My mother’s always told a story about how, at the age of three, I became obsessed with the question of what happens after death. She gave me no clear answers, so apparently I went asking around and found the theories that all the grown-ups were feeding me to be incredible. I winced and shook my head when someone described heaven to me. But when I heard a story about a garden called paradise, I apparently declared that this was it. This is what happens when we die—paradise. A garden.
My daughter also started grappling with this—death and whatever comes after—when she was three. In the midst of pandemic. That baby bird was the beginning of a a series of conversations.
After we found the bird, we decided to move it. I scooped it up from the pavement with a thick magnolia leaf. And we used sticks to dig a little hole near the roots of the tree. We placed the bird into the shallow grave, and improvised something like a blessing. “May you live on in the new nests that are built in this tree,” we said. Or something like that.
Matilda wanted to talk, after that, about what happened to the bird. And what happens to us. I told her that I didn’t know. That only the dead know. I told her that some people think it’s possible to live forever, in some way, as yourself. That it’s possible to keep having experiences, like we’re having now. But I’d never really believed that. I told her that some people think you’re born into a new shape and form. She liked this one. She liked, especially, to imagine that she might become a rabbit. Reincarnation, when you know nothing of its history as a theory, always feels like an exciting opportunity to become differently animal.
There was one problem that reincarnation didn’t solve for her, however. And that was the problem of what she would do, if I were to die. If I became something else, would she know me when she saw it? Would I ever visit her?
Being an academic has taught me to be skeptical about everything. I once believed that studying something like theology—theories about divine things!—would allow me to better understand the shapes of inspiration. That it would make me, somehow, better at keeping spirits lively and alive. But instead it’s done the opposite. It’s awakened and rewarded what’s most skeptical and cynical, within me. It’s made me distrustful of any attempts at inspiration. It’s made me attuned to how these might be, instead, a form of manipulation. But conversations about death with a three year old are an excellent way to destroy your protective skepticism.
I reached out for something to say to her, thinking that I would have to invent it. But then I remembered a conversation with my mother, about a conversation she had with her mother about death. My grandmother had already been dead for decades, by the time I entered this conversation. But she still felt powerfully present. My family has kept her memory very much alive, and I’ve never felt distant from her. “I’ll always be with you,” is what my grandmother said to my mother. And what my mother said to me, in a way that was so sure and firm I couldn’t do anything but believe it. And what I said to my daughter. It was the most true thing I could think of.
The Shapes of Ongoingness
You might think that, because I wrote a book about it, I like to think about death. But I don’t. I write about what I don’t understand, what confuses me, or scares me, not what I like. And I hate to think or talk about death, most of the time. I hate the fact that death is real. Yet I also recognize that without this little rupture of death in the midst of our life, without this little bird, I wouldn’t have had the chance to have this conversation with my daughter: to tell her what my mother told me that her mother told her. To illuminate, and make real, a strong subterranean connection.
We talk about it, from time to time, the way that we have this invisible connection that nothing can break. She puts her hand to her heart, and tells me about how she carries me with her on the inside. It feels very much alive, this connection: a thing that would’t be alive, without these encounters we have with death.
The times when I am most afraid, when fear catches me with its tightest grip, when I sense loss and death around me: these are the moments that reveal most profoundly what carries me and lifts me up. These are the moments that show me the shapes of ongoingness. The little bird who reminds me of the way that songs break open the spring, like an egg. The way that a nest’s shape reveals a kind of eternal form of care and nurture. Pandemic, mothering, mothering during a pandemic; these have been ruptures in my diurnal rhythms that have changed the shape of everything else around them. The pandemic has reminded of the valley of death. Mothering has made me believe there’s a pathway out of that valley of bones, if we can catch a glimpse of the shapes of ongoingness.
If life and death aren’t enemies but, instead, are family—sisters—they have a difficult sisterhood. There are so many ways that life and death can betray one another. But there’s an act of weaving and connecting that happens in the wake of a death and that affirms the ongoingness of earth life. Not a static eternity outside of time. Not a fantasy of this life, continued eternally somehow. But a living form of ongoingness that plays out in the stories we tell and the soils we dig in. In the sisterhood of life and death, if we can look at it, we can see something that endures, and carries, and holds us. Whatever we want to name it.
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