On The Presence of Things

IMG_1991My father died in January and his death has forced me to face a question for which I still have no answer. The issue is the relation of the psyche, or what I will call the “spirit,” to the material world. Since Plato, we’ve tended to think of human beings as defined more by their minds than by their bodies. This view is probably most pronounced among religious people, for whom the material world, including our physical bodies, are encumbrances from which we will one day be liberated. Our attachment to material things, or to physical reality more generally, is viewed as a kind of disease of which we cannot help but long to be cured.

Strive as we might, though, it appears we cannot be cured of it. When a person we love dies, we are almost never content simply to commune with their spirit, or to remember them in our thoughts. We crave relics that testify to their earlier physical reality, their tangibility.

When my father died, I took on the task of clearing out his apartment. This was not merely to help my siblings, but because I wanted to be among his things. It was comforting. In the beginning, when the apartment was just as he left it, it seemed almost as if he were still alive, as if he had just stepped out and might walk through the door any minute. I knew he wouldn’t, of course, but there was something comforting in the fact that his home was still there, just as he had arranged it. It was a physical expression of who he was and it gave him a physical presence even though he could no longer be physically present himself. As the days passed, though, and the apartment was gradually emptied as things were boxed to be shipped or given away, it became excruciatingly painful, like witnessing a wasting away of flesh.

I had difficulty parting with anything and, in fact, I kept many of my father’s things, things I know I will probably never use. Some things, such as the little metal box my sisters and I had bought him when we were children, and which he always used to store his cuff links, I have kept purely as mementos. That box sits now on my own dresser. I open it periodically and examine its contents. There’s nothing in it of any value, only a few pairs of cuff links, and some screws and safety pins, but looking at my father’s things makes me feel closer to him somehow.

My father was a writer. I also have his papers. It isn’t just the thoughts expressed in them, though, that are important to me. I’m attached to the papers themselves, to the faded and dirty typescript of his unpublished novel, to the yellowed copies of his newspaper articles. I’m scanning everything to preserve it and so I can share it with the rest of my family. If I were “prudent” I’d dispose of the originals once the process is complete. I don’t have a lot of storage space. I won’t dispose of the originals, though. I debated doing that and that debate is what prompted these reflections.

Religious people often think that contempt for the material world is supported by scripture. I suppose it is, at least to a certain extent, or in a certain respect. And yet, Genesis has God looking on physical creation and pronouncing it “good.”

Most contemporary philosophers are materialists of some sort. That is, they don’t believe in the non-material “mind” the way Plato did. And yet, the difficulties of reducing inherently subjective mental phenomena to inherently objective neurobiological phenomena, as Tom Nagel famously showed in his now classic article “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” appear intractable. The philosopher John Searle is as uncomfortable as are most contemporary philosophers with what is called “substance dualism,” or the view that reality comprises both physical and non-physical substances. To his credit, however, he is unwilling to ignore the difficulties of what is known as “mind-brain reductionism.” Even if you can map all mental phenomena, such as the joy one feels on being in the company of a loved one, onto neurobiological phenomena, you can’t actually completely “reduce” the former to the latter. Something is lost when you do that. We can all see, in principle anyway, the neurobiological phenomena, but we don’t experience the joy they represent. The experience itself is lost in the reduction.

Searle wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to acknowledge the intractability of the problems associated with mind-brain reductionism while at the same time avoiding the stigma of substance dualism. His answer is a new kind of substance monism –– not materialism, but “physicalism.” He believes that materialists operate with a very crude understanding of what it meant for something to be physical, an understanding that had remained essentially unchanged since the Enlightenment. People in the Enlightenment thought they knew what physical substance was. It was solid. It had extension, etc., etc. Searle argues, however, that since the advent of quantum theory we can no longer claim to have a good grasp of what a physical object is, that all of physical reality had become profoundly mysterious.

Perhaps all of reality is one substance, one substance pronounced “good” by God. Perhaps that’s why we are so attached to things, to the things that have meant something to us in our lives, such as toys from childhood, awards we have won, things we’ve created with our own hands, or gifts from those we love. Perhaps that’s why we are so attached to the things that meant something to those people, even if that meaning was merely utilitarian. Perhaps it is because our things are a physical extension of our selves. Perhaps we feel diminished when we lose something because we are diminished. The artist Al Gury lost nearly everything he had in a fire recently. I can’t even imagine what that would be like. Memories cannot substitute for the actual physical presence of one’s things. Memory is important, of course. If you couldn’t remember the meaning a thing had for you, then its physical presence would be meaningless. The presence of the thing adds depth, though, to one’s experience of the memory of its significance.

Even more mysterious, I think, is the fact that it is enormously important that the thing in question is the original. A facsimile of a treasured object does not elicit the same depth of emotional response, the same feeling of connection with the past, that the original does. This isn’t a physical property of the object, of course. We can be fooled when some cherished object is broken and then surreptitiously replaced. If we find out this happened, though, we’re disappointed. We want the original. A facsimile is better than memory alone, but it is not the same as the original. Why? Perhaps Searle’s insight holds the answer. Perhaps, if he is right that all of reality is made up of one substance, then it makes a difference whether one has the right bits of it. A facsimile is less “right” than the original.

My father’s things are now spread about my house. His cuff-link box is on my dresser. His books are on my bookshelves. His pictures are on my walls, and the hutch that he made is in my kitchen. I look at these things as I move about the house, and I feel closer to him. Religion, with the exception, to a certain extent anyway, of Catholicism, has tended to discredit this feeling. That is, religion has tended to give spiritual significance to only the non-material, to our memories of those we have lost rather than to their things and the meaning those things have for us. This does a disservice I would argue, however, to human beings, because human beings are physical beings who cannot help but have a deep emotional attachment to physical reality. It does a disservice to creation as well, because physical reality, whatever it ultimately is, is a part of reality, even if, perhaps, it is not the whole of it.

I am taking careful care of my father’s things, and this act of caring for them is comforting. It is, in a strange way, almost as if I am caring for him. It isn’t just his things that have come, since his death, to command my attention. I’m so grateful for the fact that my father existed, that he was a part of physical reality, that I am trying to be a better steward of the whole of it, and that has been enormously comforting as well, though I am still uncertain concerning how best to articulate why.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the  March 7, 2018 issue of Counterpunch. I’m indebted to the editor, Jeff St. Clair, for his excellent suggestion of a title. I am indebted, as well, to a reader, Henry Galmish, for reminding me that Catholicism is better than Protestantism at recognizing the spiritual significance of material reality.)

On Grief

There are certain affectionate leanings which sometimes arise in us without the advice of our reason, which come from an unpremeditated accident that others call sympathy: the animals are as capable of it as we are.

–Michel de Montaigne (“Apology for Raymond Sebond,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, tran. Donald M. Frame [p. 346]).

I moved back to the U.S. in the fall of 1998 after having lived in Denmark for eight years. I’d assumed back then that I’d spend the rest of my life in Denmark. I hadn’t planned to stay. Things had just worked out that way. And then my relationship with the man I’d also assumed I’d spend the rest of my life with fell apart. I got a job at a university in the U.S., so I left.

I’m slow to accept change. It had taken me years to adjust my expatriate status. So my plan was to spend only a year in the U.S. and then return to Denmark. My landlady called shortly after I moved into my apartment and asked if I’d mind keeping a cat for her. She’d caught a stray that she planned to adopt as a pet but couldn’t take it until her aging dog died. I agreed because I’d a cat back in Denmark, but couldn’t get a new one because I thought I was going back. This arrangement seemed perfect. I’d have the companionship of a cat without the long-term commitment.

Except the cat wasn’t a very good companion. My landlady hadn’t told me that the cat was feral. It wasn’t like those stray that become so accustomed to living off the largesse of urban animal lovers that they’re essentially domesticated. This thing was wild. My landlady brought it to me immediately after it had been spayed. She came with the cat in a carrier and a little carpet-covered piece of tubing that would serve as a bed and hiding place for it. She opened the door to the carrier and the cat shot out of it and into that piece of tubing so quickly that I could not have told you what color it was.

She’d named it “Precious” because, she explained, it was very small and delicate and pretty. It had actually had a litter of kittens. They were old enough, she assured me, to be taken from their mother and the ones that hadn’t died had gone to good homes.

I didn’t see the cat for weeks. It would come out at night though after I had turned off the lights. It would come out and eat and use its litter box. I lived in a tiny efficiency apartment, so I could hear it as it moved about. After it had eaten it would sit in the window. It’s never entirely dark in the city, even in the middle of the night, so I could see it silhouetted there. It would issue the most terrible, urgent, heart-rending cries. I knew what it was doing. It was calling for its kittens.

I don’t remember for how long it did that, but its effect on me was eerie. I tend to be out of touch with my emotions. I’d left everything I cared about, including the man I loved, behind and I was dimly conscious of a growing conviction that I was not going back. I didn’t think about that during the day. I was too busy adjusting to life in a new place and handling the responsibilities of a heavy teaching load.

The night was different though. But there was something about the desperate, mournful cries of that little cat that conjured forth from a deep recess of my psyche a grief so profound that I would probably always have lived in denial of it had I not been forced by that strange unpremeditated accident to confront it. I would lie there at night the first few weeks in my new home and listen to the eerily sad calls of that poor frightened little creature until I finally went to sleep.

I can’t imagine what its life must have been like. It couldn’t stretch out in that piece of tubing. It had to remain curled up in a ball all day long. Imagine what you would feel like if you were confined all day to a space about the size of your washing machine. Its little joints must have ached. I can’t imagine how terrified it must have been to do to itself what would have been torture had it been done by anyone else. My heart went out to it, but there was nothing to do but wait.

After a few weeks, I became impatient, so I hit on a plan. I could see its face finally through the circular opening in the box, so I put a little canned cat food on a spoon and extended it inside the opening. It ate the food. I took that as a good sign. I continued to feed it canned food in this way over the next few days, gradually drawing the spoon farther and farther out of the box. I was finally able to get it to come out. I couldn’t pet it though. I couldn’t reach toward it without frightening it.

Somehow, I knew it needed physical contact with another living being, so I would extend my hand, not toward it, but a little to the side, extend it and just hold it there. At first it only looked at my hand with a paradoxical combination of suspicion and longing, but after a few minutes, it came over and rubbed against it. And finally, after several days of this routine, it let me pet it.

There were many evenings that fall, or at least so it seems to me now, when I would sit on the couch and cry. I’m ordinarily very emotionally resilient, but back then I was depressed. I’d lost too much too quickly. Nothing in my life had turned out the way I had expected. I was alone, after years of living with someone else. I was alone and it felt to me then that I would always be alone.

This little cat would come over as I sat there and stare up at me with its tiny beautiful cat face and huge sad yet sympathetic eyes. It seemed to be trying to comfort me, to tell me it understood what it was like to be unhappy and that it wanted somehow to make me feel better.

It was such a comfort to me to have that little cat, a companion to whom I did not have to explain anything. A companion who understood sadness, who wanted to help, who showed me that it is possible to get over any grief, no matter how great. I didn’t have time to wonder how I would get along without it, because my landlady learned when she took care of it while I was away at Christmas that she was actually allergic to cats. So I kept it.

We’d established a relationship by that time of mutual respect. I’d thought of the cat as my charge, rather than my possession. She became used to me, even comfortable with me, but she was still so wary of other people that she would disappear if anyone else came in my apartment. Once, after a friend from Denmark visited, and I could not locate the cat even after a thorough search of my apartment, I became convinced that she must have escaped when I’d opened the door. I raced up and down the street asking everyone I found if they’d seen a small black and white cat. Only later did I find her, still hiding behind some boxes on top of the refrigerator.

She liked my husband immediately. She went over to him and lay across his feet toward the end of one of his first visits, after he’d put on his coat and was clearly preparing to leave. It was as if she were saying–Don’t leave. You make my friend happy.

My husband had a cat of his own, a neutered male cat named Hoover, not after J. Edgar, but after the vacuum because of its habit of cleaning up every scrap of food that fell on the floor. Hoover was very gregarious, almost dog-like in his outgoing nature and affection for everything and everyone. Hoover took to Precious almost immediately. It took her a long time though to accept him. She was like me in that way, distant, reserved more or less the opposite of Hoover, just as I, in that way, am the opposite of my gregarious husband.

Precious finally accepted Hoover though and then they became inseparable. They used to walk about the house as if there were hitched together by an invisible harness. Once when my husband and I were watching TV, Hoover suddenly stood up from where he’d been sleeping on the end of the couch, looked over at Precious on the floor, and issued a series of strange gurgling, yapping sounds (Hoover, who’d spent the early part of his life in an animal laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, didn’t have an ordinary meow). He then jumped to the floor and walked slowly to the center of the room where he stood and waited for Precious. The two of them then ambled into the kitchen and over to their food bowls. I’d never seen such obviously purposive communication between two animals.

Hoover was good for Precious. He brought her out of herself, got her to play. He used to lie in front of her and wag his tail erratically back and forth for her to swat at. He also taught her to purr. I hadn’t noticed until then that she’d never purred. Purring is a sign of contentment in cats and I guess for the early part of her life, she’d had very little to be content about. I also concluded, however, that she must have lost her own mother when she was very young because behavior like that, while partly instinctive is also learned. Mature members of an animal species teach the immature ones.

We had some good years, the four of us. I continued to teach in Philadelphia, but my husband had several jobs before settling finally at a school in Florida. We thus not only moved many times, but also traveled regularly, every spring and fall between Florida and Philadelphia. We got a large, soft-sided dog carrier for the cats. They slept like children in the back seat on those long drives and also, like children, would explore every corner of our motel room when we finally stopped for the evening.

We had some good years, but then Hoover, who was older than Precious, died. Precious didn’t seem to understand. She poked and prodded Hoover’s poor carcass in an obvious effort to revive it. And after my husband buried Hoover, she seemed to think that he would return at some point from wherever he’d gone.

She looked for him and called for him, but he didn’t come back and so, finally she began to mourn. Her friend was gone. She still had me, of course, and my husband, but Hoover had supplanted us in her affections and no amount of attention we gave her could compensate for his absence. In the meantime, we’d learned that she suffered from a feline respiratory virus that is wide spread among strays She had a chronic sinus infection and frequently became so ill that she lost weight.

It took us a long time to get a proper diagnosis. One vet even warned us she might have lymphoma. Once we finally learned the problem and found an antibiotic to which she responded well, we were able, more or less, to manage it. In addition to periodic courses of antibiotics, we had to give her an appetite stimulant because the sinus infection meant she could not smell her food and so sometimes would not eat. We also had to give her probiotics to counteract the effects of the antibiotics. She periodically got nose drops, though they didn’t really seem to help, and when she was really sick, subcutaneous fluids.

I know all this sounds kind of extreme, but if we gave her what she needed when she needed it, she did very well. We kept a careful eye on her, though, and discussed between us that if it ever became clear that she was no longer getting any joy from her life, we would have her put to sleep.

We decided to get her another feline companion. Our original thought was to get an older cat like Hoover, but then I saw that a couple in our apartment building in Philadelphia had a litter of kittens for which they were trying to find homes. Perhaps, we thought, Precious would like a little kitten to mother. After all, she’d lost her own kittens.

She didn’t take to the kitten right away, but she tolerated it so we kept it in the hope that her maternal instincts would eventually kick in. They never did though, even despite an apparent attachment it formed to her (it would run to her, for example, for protection when I turned on the vacuum cleaner).

She did well, as I said, but it was clear that she still missed Hoover even after he’d been gone for over a year. One never knows, as Montaigne observes, “the secret internal stirrings of animals.” She’d resumed playing, so we’d assumed she’d forgotten Hoover. But then one spring, after a winter where I had kept the cats in Philadelphia, my husband came up with a suitcase upon which Hoover had liked to sleep. Precious started making strange noises and rushed agitatedly about the apartment. She went from room to room, issuing strange, urgent-sounding cries. That suitcase had apparently led her to believe that Hoover had come back. “I’m here. I’m here,” she seemed to call. “Where have you been!”

She never again formed an attachment to another animal, not even after we adopted another neutered male which resembled Hoover both physically and in terms of temperament.

I’ve always been an animal lover. I’ve always had pets and I’m sure I always will. I doubt though that I will ever have another pet with which I feel so deep a bond as I felt with Precious. Her powers of ratiocination were not so extensive as mine, but there was between us a profound similarity of temperament. She was, like me, silent, stoical, reclusive. Yet she was also indomitable. She came near death several times, but then recovered. She used to come every morning to receive her medicine. She didn’t like having to take it, but she took it and, according to my husband, seemed to understand that it helped her to feel better. Once, during one of these times we feared we would lose her, after a trip to the vet where she received a very powerful steroid shot, she lay on the bed next to me, breathing quietly for the first time in days, and reached out and touched me with her right foreleg. It was such a human gesture. I had an uncanny feeling that she was expressing gratitude.

And then there was the “accident” that made us close. The fact that she came to me when I was particularly alone, more alone than, God willing, it is likely I will ever be again. That she saw me more disconsolate than I had ever allowed another human being to see me, and that she attempted, in her way, to comfort me.

I knew that she did not have much time left, but she seemed to be doing well almost up to the end. It was only the last week or so, that I began really to worry about her. I had brought her up to be with me in Philadelphia in the fall. I’d spent the past several years flying every other week down to Jacksonville during the months when I was teaching in Philadelphia, but my husband, who is from the Northeast and missed it, wanted to be able to come up to visit me. The only way we could do that was if I took Precious since the intricacies of her care exceeded the limits of the ordinary cat sitter. I worried at first that she would be lonely, but my husband assured me that she didn’t really pay much attention to our other two cats.

She seemed to thrive for the first couple of months I had her. But then she started to go downhill. My has a little loft area for sleeping. Precious would accompany me up there every evening when I went to bed always bounding up the stairs in front of me. I noticed, however, that she began to spend most of the day up there as well. My landlady suggested that perhaps she was cold and that I should keep a little space heater running for her. That helped initially, but she began gradually to eat less. I worried that perhaps, finally, she was getting lonely, so I made an extra effort to pay attention to her. I played little petting games with her where I would run both my hands along the length of her body while she pretended to try to escape, but in reality would move only a foot or so away and then wait for me to “capture” her again. The game obviously delighted her, and it meant a great deal to me to see that I could still make her happy in that way.

I could see in the evening though, that it was becoming an effort for her to make it up the stairs to the loft, and one night, finally, I simply carried her up with me.

I was surprised the next morning when I woke up to see that she was not on the heating pad I had set up for her at the foot of my mattress, but already downstairs. She was sitting in a sphinx-like position, except that her head was bowed to the floor. I went down to pet her and assess how she was doing and was horrified to see a huge partly congealed drop of blood suspended from her right nostril. The carpet beneath her head was soaked with blood as well. She’d been bleeding, on and off, from her nose for several years, but nothing like this. She’d clearly lost a lot of blood.

I didn’t debate what to do. I arranged immediately for the vet to come put her to sleep. I was okay. I knew I was doing the right thing, that this time she wasn’t going to recover and I didn’t want her to suffer anymore. I was okay until she began to struggle against the vet. I offered to hold her but the vet said it was better that I didn’t hold her until after they’d given her the first of two shots which was a sedative meant, I presume, to make the second, lethal, shot less painful. I believe their thinking was that I would not want her to think that I was colluding in what was clearly a painful experience for her. I suppose they were well intentioned, but I wish I had held her, perhaps then she would have believed some good would come of it whereas now I’m tortured by the thought that she might have felt betrayed that I sat there passively while she struggled against them.

They handed her to me after the shot, which took effect so quickly that she was limp before she was fully in my arms. I held her for only a minute before they gave her the second shot. They said it would also take effect quickly. I kept holding her and petting her and waiting for some sign that she was gone. Her eyes had gone blank from the sedative shot, so they didn’t give me any clue, she seemed simply to be staring darkly ahead, her expression not changing even after the vet checked for a heartbeat and said there was none.

They kept her body at the vet’s until my husband came up and drove it back down to Florida where he buried it next to Hoover’s in our backyard.

I keep having dreams about her. In each dream I am petting a cat that I only gradually notice has her coloring. Slowly I realize it is Precious and I’m overcome with joy. I call out to my husband “Precious is back!” I don’t ask by what miracle she’s been returned to me; dreams are not like that. I’m only grateful. That last time I had that dream though, I knew she was a ghost, I knew she wasn’t really back. I didn’t care. She felt substantial, and I could pet her and hold her as I used to do.

I remember vividly still my first meeting in Denmark with my friend Dorte. It was at a party. I don’t remember anything any longer about the general conversation of the group. I assume though that it must have been about grief and that it had degenerated at some point into an argument between two factions about various sorts of losses and how they purportedly elicit varying degrees of grief. What I remember is Dorte’s indignant exclamation that the loss of “en lille puddelhund” (literally, “a little poodle dog”) could elicit a grief as profound as that elicited by the loss of a spouse. Dorte was studying psychology at the University of Copenhagen, so I assumed this view was one of what I thought then were the more bizarre theories of this notoriously bleeding-heart discipline. Still, there was something charming in Dorte’s passionate commitment. Imagine, I thought to myself, a person so caring that the idea of that degree of attachment to an animal could seem plausible. I liked her instantly.

I don’t talk about my feelings. Writing is the closest I ever come to communicating them and there is something paradoxically impersonal about even the most personal kind of self-exposure when it is done that way. It has taken me a long time to write this piece. I would write a little and become so overcome with grief that I would have to stop. Something made me keep coming back to it though. I wanted it to be kind of a memorial to Precious, whom I should confess now, I could rarely bring myself to call “Precious.” Precious was her formal name, the one we used at the vet because it was the one that had been used for her at the vet before I had goten her. At home she was known as “Poobie.” I wanted it to be a memorial to her, but I also wanted to do it for myself. I thought it would be good for me to work through this grief instead of simply ignoring it as I have done so many times before with so many other emotions that I feared would overwhelm me if I faced them.

And if I do a good enough job with this little essay, perhaps it will serve to express metaphorically larger griefs that I know will come later and that may be too great to put into words.

“You gave her a good life,” my landlady pointed out in an effort to comfort me. I know that. I gave her a good life, as good a life, I’m sure, as anyone could have given her, under the circumstances. I know that eventually this fact will be comfort me. Right now though, all I feel is a terrible emptiness. Absence can be as palpable as presence. It is there to meet me when I open the door to my apartment, carefull still to make sure she can’t accidentally escape into the street. It is there in the morning when I realize I have nothing to do but wait for the coffee as it brews where my habit was to use that time to give Precious her medicine. I put away her bowls and toys and bed the evening of the day I had her put to sleep. But these small changes make the apartment seem strange in the way a hand will feel strange that is missing a ring it has worn for years. Most conspicuous of all is her absence in the morning. She would always be there next to me when I first opened my eyes. Now there is nothing, only a smooth white sheet.

I know that in time, I will become used to these absences, that they will no longer be so conspicuous. Strangely though, that knowledge is not a comfort, but only makes me sadder.