Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Into the garden we need to go...

I learned this morning of the very sudden death of one of my intellectual heroes, Dr. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. She was 65, and died on 1 December while walking home from a concert with her spouse, Christine Dunbar.

So often in our lives--in all of the areas that comprise them--we identify heroes and guides of multiple sorts: musical, cultural, intellectual, philosophical, political, spiritual. We seem to require some sort of framework with which to make sense of the world beyond. Our heroes, our guides, help us make sense. While we may not agree with all that they teach and offer us, their presence somehow alleviates the general anxiety. When stuck with and in my work, I often ask myself, "what would Hannah [Arendt] do?" Consulting her work makes me think, and, after a visitation, I put "her" down and am able to pick up where I left off, my work not derivative from hers, but guided by her intellectual curiosity and her verve.

Of course some of our heroes and guides are people we actually know: present or former professors and teachers, esteemed relatives, friends. Our friends should always be our heroes, and always be our guides, though we usually do not accord them such description if not status. I am blessed with several, even if most of them live far away; their spirits, however, are always closer than geography permits.

But some of our heroes and our guides are distant others. I have a core: Susan and Hannah, Virginia and Vita, and Dag. Referred to differently, I have Sontag and Arendt, Woolf and Sackville-West, and the revered second Secretary-General of the United Nations, Hammarskjold. Those are my heroes, those are my guides, those are the ghosts with whom I live. Yes: they occupy my house, my psyche, and on Sunday, the 36th anniversary of Hannah Arendt's death, they all came to me, a cacophony of voices, their spirits not in need of reassurance that they existed corporeally at one time, but there to assure me of the certitude of my own existence.  I could not articulate the question to which I needed an answer, but somehow they did, and their spirits coalesced in a way that made apparent my own needs at the time.

Yes: we live complicated lives.

And then there are distant others who occupy other tiers. Elizabeth Young-Bruehl occupied one of those.

I write this entry in a public venue--not out of choice but of necessity as I await an appointment. But I needed to write, needed to respond to her death that makes me want to cry, that makes me want to walk into the garden at this very moment. But my garden is miles away, and I am here, trapped in a public. Elisabeth, psycho-analyst that she was (for now we must use the past tense), would no doubt find riches in that statement.

Too often when we confront a problem, a conundrum, a death, we seek to be alone. Some innate compulsion leads us at once inward to our souls, and outward into a realm that is not entirely our own, try as we humans do to make it entirely our own: nature. We seek to take a walk. To feel the air against our cheeks. To listen to the rustle of leaves. To envelope ourselves with natural sounds--sounds that no doubt amplify our inner voices, too often drowned out as they are by the din of modern life and its multiple, unrelenting demands.

Dominque Browning, former editor of House and Garden, blogger extraordinaire, former student and close friend and confidante of Elisabeth's, posted a most poignant, moving tribute to her beloved friend and mentor. The tribute appears both on Dominique's blog, Slow Love Life, and on Elisabeth's now silenced forum, Who's Afraid of Social Democracy?.

Was. Silenced. Our lives, our passings, take grammatical form. Grammar provides the certainty of our existence, just as it signals the certainty of our own exit.

And so on this Floridian, December day in Delaware, the air thick with moisture and weighted by warmth, I yearn to step into the garden with its soggy, muddied ground, its decaying leaves, its skeletal remains, to feel the air, to feel the mist, to ask, along with Elisabeth, "what would Hannah do?"

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