Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Entangled Grief


Perhaps this sounds odd, but I’m feeling alive this morning working on the getting-close draft of the call-out for contributions to the Transforming Grief anthology that I’m collaborating on with mia susan amir.

Dying and death, losing and loss, are inherent to the human condition — constants — yet something that most humans today, at least within Turtle Island’s dominant culture, do all they can to pretend don’t happen. This culture of control makes hegemonic the notion that the highest aspiration is “happiness” — as in unchanging stability and “settling,” as in never suffering, as in some perfect life without disruption, without challenge to one’s mind and heart, without one ever having to be undone, discomforted, or dynamic. That manifests in so much dis-ease in our sociopolitical and personal lives, from love of money for itself, to inability to love self, others, or society, to inability to truly live life, which will of necessity involve hurt, pain, suffering — loss.

Which doesn’t, in turn, mean we can’t feel all the other range of human emotions. Indeed, fully facing loss and grief is, to my mind, the ever-present journey to fully living life in the tender beauty of the range of all we can and should feel, and thus practice toward each other in empathetic, honesty, caring, and egalitarian ways.

I went to a grief workshop last fall, and one of the facilitators — who unlike me, looks through a faith-based lens — spoke of how at the base of every religion, “major” or “minor,” the key category is suffering, not happiness. Faith or religion starts from the pain of this world, and from there, grapples with how we humans can, will, and should strive to become more and more human — good, giving, socially and politically minded creatures who recognize that they are a small part of the mystery of this life that includes us and much more. That translates into similar yet distinct ethics of goodness within most faiths, and for me, plays the same role within my political “faith” of anarchism.

Our greatest aspiration, in terms of being and always becoming more fully human, is how to both alleviate suffering as much as we can — as in forms that are “unnecessary” like states and capitalism, patriarchy and heteronormativity, racism and ableism, and their manifestations in institutions like prisons or police, but also simply how we daily act toward each other — while concurrently accentuating life-affirming lives and life-affirming deaths — to make this brief life of ours as qualitative, meaningful, and dignified as possible. Only a fraction of that meaning is captured by the too-often-vacuous word happiness.

Over a year and a half ago, I took a break from caretaking my mom (at her insistence and my hesitation) and the cancer attacking her body to agree to do a talk in southern Austria, which in turn paid my airfare. The bulk of that trip involved me wandering the streets of Vienna, thanks to the generosity of a free apartment to myself, but in ghostlike form.

Vienna, for those who don’t know, like much of Europe, is one big graveyard, where one can hardly avoid markers of so much “innovative” mass misery and murder — unnecessary and cruel suffering. Hitler as a young man, for one, lived about ten minutes from where I was staying, and sipped coffee at a cafe where I, too, sat many decades later. He was shaped by fascistic mentors running the city at the time, and layers of anti-Semitism and other hatreds and histories. Freud, too, drank coffee in cafes that I got to sit in and drink coffee. His home of many decades, just before he went into exile and then killed himself from (I’d guess) grief, still stands nearly the same as when he lived there. It was covered in swastikas right after he fled Nazism — a “fuck you” from the fascists for him escaping their clutches to inflict his own self-chosen death, on his own terms. A cathedral nearby to where Freud lived housed, during the Nazi era, an antifascist priest, who is remembered now in stained glass images of him breaking swastikas. These are but a tiny fraction of the historical reminders around every corner.

On my last day in Vienna, I took a train to the edge of town, to one of Europe’s largest cemeteries — maybe the largest. It was set up some 150 years ago or more as incredibly “tolerant,” humanistic, allowing for all the faiths to be buried in the same graveyard, though in separate sections. That was, at the time, revolutionary. One can walk for several days through this huge monument to death, unfolding over various eras of domination and struggles for freedom, affording glimpses of every form of religion and every form of political ideology, all carved with architectural flair into stones — ideological too. There’s a fascist section, a Bolshevik section, an antifascist one, alongside Buddhist, Christian, Protestant, and Jewish, and so on.

The Jewish part is perhaps the largest — though the fascist section stands at the heart of the cemetery, with Jews relegated to the periphery. The Jewish section is also the only one that has transformed itself into a forest, unkempt and broken, its grief now colored green with grass, vines, and trees.

Vienna boosted an enormous, assimilated, educated, and often well-off Jewish population, pre-Shoah. Now, most lie here, in this cemetery, as compost for the rewilding of this conflictual remembrance. There’s no one left, or not enough, to tend to making this Jewish section look happy, or to fix the thousands and thousands of stones that fell to a pogrom of sorts during the Nazi era. So one sees, plainly, the layers of Jewish life and death, extermination and erasure. Some of Europe’s most avant-garde artists designed and created many of the tombstones, for instance. Later, fascists came and ransacked the stones, smashing, tipping, breaking, defiling, trying to annihilate completely. The cemetery was perhaps too big for that, so the graveyard became a graveyard times two: dead people, dead stones. Later, still, nature took its course, covering, blanketing, embracing.

I strolled through this section, alone, in sun and then pouring rain, for some 4-5 hours, feeling the tensions, fear, anxiety, beauty, and sorrow touching my skin at every moment, as if ash and ghosts were brushing against me. As Jean Améry, Jew and resistance fighter, tortured and sent to death camps during the Holocaust, who later too chose his own dignified death by suicide, and who also is buried in this Vienna cemetery, wrote, in the shadow of Shoah, one feels “the necessity and impossibility” of being a Jew. (His book At the Mind’s Limit is one of the best philosophical and personal set of essays; highly recommended for those who want to sit with the suffering and poignancy of the human condition.)

That no one has tried to renovate grief in this Viennese graveyard into some neatly manicured package allowed for the fullest spectrum for me of reflection, remembrance, tension-filled understandings of history, self, and society. It made me more human, as a godless anti-Zionist Jewish amid “my people” who, for many centuries before and up to Shoah, were disposable and unmournable, and thus why it was so key for Nazis and fascists to “worry” themselves about disappearing graveyards as well as people. The fullness of how loss and grief creates further unnecessary “needs” for loss and grief perpetrated on other bodies, of many faiths and nonfaiths, made me more human, more resolved to make this life worth living for self and others.

I let the pain be my companion, walking with and through this death-life forest. I let it follow me back to my mom, who journeyed into her own life-filled woods of death a few months later, leaving me with more material for grief as transformation and love.

I’m enthused this morning, by the work of living and grieving and growing that I’m engaging in with mia, and soon, many other voices (maybe yours!) in our anthology and its work beyond its forthcoming pages — to remake ourselves and our world as more fully who we can and should be.

And if all goes well, we will finally have our call for contributions out this weekend or by Monday at the latest for Transforming Grief: Personal and Communal Loss in the Work of Remaking the World. (If you’d like to be added to our e-announcement list, to get our “call” and updates as the anthology moves forward, send your email to me at cbmilstein@yahoo.com.)

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(Photo by Cindy Milstein, Jewish section of cemetery, Vienna, summer 2013.)




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This entry was posted on January 23, 2015 by in Dispatches from Life.
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